JVN Day celebrates life of John ‘Vietnam’ Nguyen

August 25, 2016 By Käri Knutson

MADISON — The memory and passion of John “Vietnam” Nguyen will live on Aug. 27-28 in the JVN Day 2016 festival, which features music, movies, service initiatives and more.

It’s been four years since the 19-year-old University of Wisconsin–Madison student drowned while trying to save a friend on Lake Mendota. The JVN Project was first organized on campus in October 2012 as a way for his friends to honor his life as well as mourn.

The two-day festival will begin with a sunrise open mic from 8 to 11 a.m. Aug. 27 at the Memorial Union Terrace and will conclude with a concert by The Goldmine from 9 to 11 p.m. Aug. 28, also at the Terrace.

A memorial to former UW–Madison student John "Vietnam" Nguyen is pictured as the morning sun shines on Lake Mendota near the University of Wisconsin–Madison shoreline during summer on July 14, 2016. Nguyen, a member of the fifth cohort of the First Wave Spoken Word and Hip-Hop Arts Learning Community, lost his life while saving a friend from drowning on Aug. 30, 2012. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

A memorial to former UW–Madison student John “Vietnam” Nguyen is pictured as the morning sun shines on Lake Mendota near the University of Wisconsin–Madison shoreline during summer on July 14, 2016. Nguyen, a member of the fifth cohort of the First Wave Spoken Word and Hip-Hop Arts Learning Community, lost his life while saving a friend from drowning on Aug. 30, 2012. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison) Photo: Jeff Miller

“After we lost him, we knew we wanted to create something. We didn’t know what it would be, but we knew good would come out of it,” says Zhalarina Sanders, executive director of the JVN Project.

The nonprofit group seeks to use hip-hop as a tool for social change, community uplift and youth development, using Nguyen’s life as an example.

A star of the First Wave Spoken Word and Hip Hop Learning Community, Nguyen, widely known as John Vietnam, was an enormously talented sophomore. The youngest son of a Vietnamese refugee, he was involved in numerous organizations around campus since he came to UW–Madison from his hometown of Chicago.

The mission of this festival is to inspire innovation by facilitating connections between communities that would not normally interface. Through this festival, organizers hope to effect change by providing participants opportunities to engage the tenets of hip-hop culture and understand that creativity is how we best generate solutions.

Sanders met Nguyen through the First Wave program.

“There was so much joy in him. He was always cracking jokes — everyone wanted to be around him,” Sanders says. “He was a perfect balance between being very goofy and very loving, very serious and very inspiring.”

“He cared for people and felt as though they could do anything, and he’d hold them accountable to doing that thing they said they were passionate about. He believed in doing what you’re passionate about and not allowing for anything to deter you.”

Zhalarina Sanders

That meant that if you talked about your passion being making music, he’d give you a hard time if you spent a lot of time playing Angry Birds, Sanders says.

“He cared for people and felt as though they could do anything, and he’d hold them accountable to doing that thing they said they were passionate about. He believed in doing what you’re passionate about and not allowing for anything to deter you,” Sanders says. “If you’re an artist, do that. It you’re a mathematician, do that. Look for opportunities to be able to be creative. He was always in a mode of ‘We don’t have time to waste.’”

Sanders received her undergraduate in psychology from UW–Madison and is now a graduate student studying counseling psychology. For her, the experience of organizing JVN Day has helped her cope with the loss of her friend.

“He was here and he meant a lot to a lot of people,” Sanders says. “We’ve turned this into a bigger celebration of what hip-hop really is and that John represented that with his life.”

To watch a video about the event, visit https://youtu.be/jWswLlQXgCc.