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UW-Madison mourns the loss of First Wave Scholar John “Vietnam” Nguyen

August 30, 2012 By Dennis Chaptman

The University of Wisconsin–Madison community is mourning the loss of John “Vietnam” Nguyen, who died in an apparent drowning in Lake Mendota on Thursday, Aug. 30.

Photo: John "Vietnam" Nguyen


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

View a video of his audition for First Wave:

Damon Williams, vice provost and the university’s chief diversity officer, says Nguyen’s artistry was widely recognized.

“He was an outstanding student artist and leader; Easily one of the most talented ever admitted to the university,” Williams says. “But what probably made him even more special was the smile and grace in how he led on campus, serving as a friend and peer mentor for others.  Although I only knew him briefly, you could tell in your first interaction what he was all about.”

Emily Lawsin, a teacher of Asian American Studies at the University of Michigan, also composed this compelling tribute to Nguyen, which includes videos of his work.

An excerpt from Lawsin’s poem reads:

everyone asks why, on this eve of a blue moon,
why did you leave us too soon,
leaving us drowning in lakes of our tears?

today, we wear purple (your favorite color and mine),
we weave a wreath of your warrior wisdom,
remembering your voice in the wind,

no doubt, rapping in the heavens with the elder angel poets,
as you quietly skip your usual encore cue:
“one love, stay up, and peace…”

A more complete rememberance of Nguyen’s time on campus will be posted in the coming days.

The Madison Fire Department’s Lake Rescue Team was called to an area near the Limnology Laboratory early Thursday in response to the incident. Divers performed a search of the water surrounding the pier and located the man within about 15 minutes, the department reported.

“We’re deeply saddened by this tragic loss, which comes just before the beginning of a new semester,” says Dean of Students Lori Berquam.

If you are a student in need of counseling or crisis support as a result of this incident or any other situation, call University Health Services Counseling and Consultation Services at (608) 265-5600 or drop-in between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

If you need immediate assistance after hours or on weekends, please call the UHS Crisis Line at (608) 265-5600, option 9. For more information, click here.

The university recognizes this type of information can be distressing. Learn more about these reactions and coping strategies.

If you are a faculty/staff member and would like to talk to someone about your reactions, call the Employee Assistance Office at (608) 263-2987 or visit