2016 Mela Nguyen

Mela Nguyen

Great River School, St. Paul, MN

For much of Mela Nguyen’s life, safety has been an infrequent amenity. While poverty, drugs, and violence made her childhood neighborhood in North Minneapolis unsafe, domestic abuse made her home dangerous. Her mother believed they had no escape from her abusive relationship. In this environment, the future often seemed hopeless. Mela struggled with depression and the weight of the responsibility to protect her mother and little brother.

“I wanted to be that change in my family,” Mela recalls, “especially to make my mom proud. I wanted to help her get out of her abusive relationship.” Fearing for her family members’ lives, Mela refused to live with her mother until she removed herself from the situation. After eight years of abuse, Mela, her younger brother, and her mother finally moved into a shelter, and acquired a restraining order against their abuser.

However, her mother suffered from such severe physical abuse that she sustained a traumatic brain injury, and was soon fired from her job due to this disability. With her mother unable to work, Mela had to balance working a full-time job, helping raise her younger brother, and completing her schoolwork.

Mela refuses to allow her continually adverse living situation to inhibit her academic and extracurricular achievement. She has managed to make the honor roll all four years of high school, and will be graduating at the top of her class. In addition to leading in the classroom, Mela is a recognized leader in her community. Through her participation with organizations such as the National Youth Leadership Forum in Los Angeles, the Nobel  Conference as a student delegate, and Youth Farm (which she co-founded), Mela has already established herself as a driving force in the non-profit world. Her role as president of the Peer Mediation team at her high school, in which she assists and inspires her peers to work through conflicts, further reflects her commitment to helping others.

Despite her traumatic past, Mela considers herself lucky. She finds solace in knowing that her mother is alive, her brother is safe, and that she attends a high school that motivates her to push herself. Ever humble, Mela is quick to credit her family, friends, and teachers for supporting her along the way.

Mela knows she will change the world and is committed to finishing college. Mela plans for a career in graphic design. Though she thinks she has already beaten the odds, Mela says she will continue to do so by believing in herself.