Realizing the American Dream | Trinity University
Apply Now Visit Trinity

Realizing the American Dream

Friday, September 28, 2018
florence with her family

Daughter of refugees paves career path that encompasses the worlds of journalism and architectural design

Florence Nguyen Tang '01, B.A. Communication

by Mary Denny

florence headshotBorn in the U.S and raised in Houston by Indo-Vietnamese parents who had fled communism “under cover of darkness,” Florence Nguyen Tang was imbued early with a deep love for democracy. Well aware of the sacrifices her family had made to give their children a better life, she has not squandered her opportunity to make the American dream a reality.

Her first opportunity came at age 16. Faced with deciding between two simultaneous summer programs —the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., or the Houston Chronicle program for aspiring journalists—Florence opted to try her luck at the latter. Winning a citywide prize for high school journalists led to a four-year scholarship from the Chronicle. That, coupled with a Presidential Scholarship from Trinity, work-study at Coates Library, and financial aid, enabled her to become the first in her family to attend college. “This fortuitous propulsion changed the roads taken and not taken for me,” she says. “I credit much of who I am today to my education, especially the magical thinking years I spent at Trinity.” She also credits her mother’s “grit and tenacity for doing all she could to gift [her] this incredible experience.” Tang’s younger sisters followed her lead and also attended Trinity: Karen Nguyen Cortez ’03 (married to Joe Cortez ’04) and Crystal Nguyen ’11.

florence with professors

At Trinity, Florence excelled academically, worked for the Mirage, the Trinitonian, and the Looking Glass, was active in numerous organizations, and studied abroad in Milan. She loved all her courses, especially those with professors Coleen Grissom, Harry Haines, Don Van Eynde, Rob Huesca, Bill Christ, Michael Ward, Trish Simonite, and Moya Ball, and she was undeterred by professor Sammye Johnson’s infamous /F policy. (Slash F means your work could earn up to an A, but if you misspelled an important word you got a /F.) “I’m relieved to say I never got one because I learned to triple check all names and places before turning in assignments,” Florence recalls.

Another summer opportunity occurred serendipitously. Florence noticed a flyer in the art building about a summer program in architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Her essay on San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre, inspired by a night at the symphony, earned her an acceptance, “but it was really the Trinity campus and the architecture of O’Neil Ford that sparked my interest in architecture,” she admits.

Despite that interest, Florence began her career in two newsrooms—The Facts in Brazoria County and the Houston Chronicle —where her first week was a “baptism by fire.” The terrorist attacks of 9/11 immediately immersed her in “the gravitas of covering the impact of a world changing event at the local level.” Not surprisingly, she holds ardent beliefs on the role of a free press in American society. “Through journalistic storytelling and multimedia, we can incite change, shine light on dark corners, and improve this condition called humanity,” she says.

In 2005, Florence entered the master’s program at Rice University’s School of Architecture and subsequently worked at several large and small design firms. Currently, she is a project manager at Kendall/Heaton Associates, Inc., a design and planning firm in Houston. She had a part in refresh and renovation projects at the Menil Collection and Williams Tower, which houses the headquarters of the global real estate investment firm Hines, where, coincidentally, fellow Trinitonian Jesse Carrillo ’88 is senior vice president and chief information officer. One of her favorite past projects is the Brooklyn Studio in New York for artist Sean Kenney, whose art with Lego bricks will be exhibited this fall at San Antonio’s Botanical Garden. When she took her family to visit the project, she says, “my kids were amazed that you can grow up to build sculptures with Lego bricks.”

High profile design projects haven’t kept Florence from using her daily newsroom skills to “translate spatial infrastructure into lay speak.” She also makes time to write “deeper dive” articles about urban planning, landmark projects, and interesting people in the realms of urban politics and architecture. One article, written while under mandatory evacuation after Hurricane Harvey, will be presented at the state architecture convention in Fort Worth, Texas, in November. “The training and work I have been doing since Trinity has afforded me double vision lenses to see contemporary issues through the eyes of both a journalist and an architectural designer,” she says.

San Antonio's new Frost Tower

During her career, Florence, who speaks five languages, has traveled the world to experience, observe, and research various cities and natural conditions, and was struck by the similarity between the Mekong River Delta in South Vietnam and Houston’s delicate bayou system. Passionate about youth education, especially providing opportunities for girls, she helped build schools in the Mekong Delta with Sunflower Mission. She also volunteers at her children’s schools and has taught ESL at St. Thomas University and Vietnamese language and culture to kindergarteners at Khai Tri Academy. Active in her profession, she is an associate member of the American Institute of Architects and involved with Women in Architecture, a vitalizing group that mentors women as they encounter various choke points in their careers. She currently serves on the executive board of Rice Design Alliance (RDA), a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of architecture and urban design in the built environment. She led RDA’s inaugural road trip to San Antonio in late September to visit such architectural gems as the Trinity campus, the new Frost Tower, Ruby City (founded by late art patron Linda Pace), as well as the River Walk and the Pearl. Florence will return to Trinity this Alumni Weekend, where she will be recognized among the Tower 5, an inaugural award that recognizes five young alumni who exemplify what it means to be a Trinity graduate.

florence with construction crew

Florence met her husband Hans, an electrical engineer, when they both served on the board of Youth Leadership Council. Thinking ahead to their three children’s futures, she says, “Although he bleeds burnt orange (University of Texas), I would be over the moon if our children would want to study at Trinity some day. Statistically, I figure I have a one-in-three chance of success.”

You can contact Florence at florence.k.tang [at] gmail.com.