Following Frederick Douglass

During a summer fellowship, student-activists learn from the abolitionist’s legacy.

Photograph of the 2022 Frederick Douglass Fellows together with Nettie Washington Douglass and James Pellow.

Ryan Doan-Nguyen ’25 always felt a particular affinity for the work and activism of Frederick Douglass, the prominent nineteenth-century abolitionist. So when Doan-Nguyen, a resident of Mather House, along with Nicholas Carrero ’23 [’25], of Dunster House—and 14 other students from universities across the country—were selected as 2022 Frederick Douglass Global Fellows, he was thrilled. Chosen from a pool of more than 800 applicants after a rigorous interview process, the 16 students spent four weeks this summer in Dublin, Ireland to study peace, social justice, intercultural communication, and conflict resolution.

U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Claire Cronin (seated, front row) and representatives of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs welcome the 16 fellows at the Deerfield Residence, the official residence of the U.S. ambassador.
Photograph courtesy of Ryan Doan-Nguyen

The Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship is part of an initiative to increase study abroad opportunities for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Launched in 2017, the program is co-sponsored by the Government of Ireland and the Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE), a leading non-profit promoting global education opportunities. This summer, students traced Douglass’s travels in Ireland (where he famously journeyed in 1845 to advocate for anti-slavery efforts in the United States)—visiting historic sites and learning about those he encountered along the way. By honoring Douglass’s time spent in Dublin while studying conflict resolution in the classroom, the students gained academic and cultural experience to help them build peace and justice in their own communities. While many Harvard students may envision themselves studying in the storied Colleges of Oxford or Cambridge after graduation, on academically oriented Rhodes or Marshall scholarships, the Douglass Fellowship takes a different approach to personal development and cultivation, using history to harness the passion of undergraduates for creating an equitable world.

Stopping Asian Hate

Doan-Nguyen, who helped organize the “Stop Asian Hate” movement in Boston in 2021, heard about the fellowship through a Harvard upperclassman, and says he applied because he “takes inspiration from Douglass’s “commitment to abolition, despite all of the institutions holding him back.” Born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Vietnamese refugee parents, he values “thinking across borders to enact real and positive change.”

Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a descendant of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, leads a class on the legacies of his ancestors, and shares his own life story with the fellows.
Photograph courtesy of Ryan Doan-Nguyen

In their summer class, Doan-Nguyen and Carrero studied “Comparative Leadership and Conflict Resolution,” taught jointly by CIEE staff and Irish Department of Foreign Affairs representatives. The course explored the intersection of leadership and communication through the lens of historic conflicts in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the Middle East. By reviewing the work of leaders who successfully integrated peace or reconciliation in their native countries, including Nelson Mandela, for instance, students collaborated to develop a peace-building-strategy document for a specific real-world political conflict. The fellows also visited museums and historic sites, tracing the legacy of Douglass and Daniel O’Connell, a nineteenth-century Irish Catholic abolitionist known as “the Liberator.” They even met Nettie Douglass, the great-great-granddaughter of Frederick Douglass and great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington.

The trip encouraged Doan-Nguyen to think more deeply as an activist. Now back in the United States and preparing for his sophomore year, he plans to approach social-justice work from a more holistic, historical perspective. “The fellowship cemented my mission to advocate for anti-racism efforts, but beyond a surface-level comprehension,” he says. “Hate, prejudice, discrimination stem from somewhere, from a root. I want to work toward that root.”

“Justice Takes a Long Time”

Carrero, who was born in Colombia and raised principally in Dallas, Texas, appreciated the sense of community he found among the other fellows. “It was a little bubble of how we want to see the world,” he says. “We were all looking to make a change and help each other learn.” 

Like Doan-Nguyen, he learned during his time in Dublin that social justice work is not always about quick solutions. “Justice takes a long time,” he says, “but it’s about having patience to grapple and engage in difficult things.”

Both fellows are excited and rejuvenated to return to Harvard this fall. For Carrero, it will be a change of pace: he took two gap years to travel and work in the United States and abroad after the pandemic upended his freshman year in 2020. (Most recently, he worked as a research assistant for the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity.) Doan-Nguyen will be interning for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders this fall, and is working on a study at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy on the origins and effects of the antiracism uprisings after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. 

Doan-Nguyen says he will take inspiration from Douglass’s personal narrative as he continues his work as an activist. “By learning from the lives and insights of others,” he says, “we can find the voice within ourselves to speak out against injustice.”



Read more articles by: Isabel Mehta
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