In 1982, at age 31, Walter Nguyen made his fifth and final attempt to escape Vietnam. Prior attempts had landed him in jail, but he did not have a choice. Food was scarce, and, because he had worked as a press officer for U.S.-backed South Vietnamese forces, the communist government had a target on his back. “I was constantly being spied on,” says Nguyen. “So I looked for a way to escape, and find freedom, and rebuild my life.”
America gave him that opportunity. In Wisconsin, where he first settled, Nguyen became a bilingual social worker and earned a master’s degree in social work. He later received a PhD, as well as a distinguished alumni award, from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Nguyen had moved to Texas in 1989 to be close to his fiancé and brother. He got a job as a program manager at the East Dallas Counseling Center, and in 1993 was promoted to executive director. During his tenure, he launched an ambitious expansion in which he started a refugee health and emergency services program; added a 30-bed shelter for domestic violence victims; formed an anti-human trafficking initiative; and created a counseling department and a legal unit to guide people through family and immigration court. Today, the organization is called Mosaic Family Services and serves over 15,000 north Texans, a quarter of whom were born in the United States.
“I consider what I do social entrepreneurship,” he says. “I apply a business model toward social services, promoting results, effectiveness, and efficiency. But our bottom line is people, not money.”
Nguyen attributes the organization’s success to his background as a refugee. “Services are most effective when the provider understands the culture and the language of the client,” he says. “They instantly gain trust if they know you’ve shared their experience.” His background as a refugee also taught him perseverance. “If you can overcome the initial adjustment and lack of resources to obtain an education—that’s powerful. The American dream is always there,” he says. “As long as you work hard and are helpful to others.”