From mentorship to friendship

From mentorship to friendship
Connolly tutored Nguyen in this room as she prepared for the U.S. Citizenship exam. Photo/Olivia Anderson

By Olivia Anderson |

Sandy Connolly and Ngoc Nguyen have built an unbreakable bond throughout the years, and it began in the most unorthodox of places: the nail salon at Goodwin House Alexandria. Nguyen was Connolly’s nail technician at the beauty salon in the senior living community, and Connolly a resident at the facility. The two would strike up a conversation every time Connolly went in to receive a fresh coat of polish.

Those friendly chats altered in nature when Connolly heard by word of mouth that Nguyen had applied for United States citizenship. Having recently joined the Goodwin Living Citizenship Program, which supports Goodwin employees on their path to U.S. citizenship, Connolly asked Nguyen if she could tutor her in preparation for the exam. Nguyen said yes.

Fast forward several years, and Nguyen has gained both U.S. citizenship and a friend in Connolly. The pair was recently chosen as one of four stories of impact throughout the country to be honored by the Ad Council, a nonprofit organization that works to promote and champion social good, at its 68th annual public service awards gala.

But the journey to get there was hard-won. Connolly was born and raised in a small town 25 miles south of Boston, Massachusetts and attended Cambridge City School of Nursing. She met her husband, Jim, while in school – he was a Boston College graduate student at the time – and graduated from nursing school in 1960.

They subsequently married, had three children and moved to Alexandria. Once the couple’s youngest daughter was in kindergarten, Connolly worked in intensive cardiovascular and respiratory care at the Duke Street Hospital on King Street.

Realizing in the late 1970s that she wanted to work in administration, Connolly later took business classes at George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College. She became an office administrator for a large pediatric practice and worked there for 38 years.

Connolly and Nguyen shared their story at the 68th annual Ad Council gala. Photo/Goodwin House Alexandria

Connolly also served as a eucharistic minister at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, where every other Sunday for six years she would perform a eucharist service on the 12th floor of Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads. It was at that point that Connolly learned more about the facility, and because she had a long history of breast cancer and Jim had a heart condition, the couple decided to make preparations so their children wouldn’t have to worry about them.

After looking up and down the east coast, they decided on Goodwin House Alexandria, where they’ve lived for the past few years. Connolly, who has always been interested in outreach, joined the Goodwin Living Citizenship Program in order to give back to a community that she said “felt like home.”

“This [program] is giving you the opportunity [to learn],” Connolly said. “A lot of people here have probably had a very cerebral and incredible career, but they are reluctant to get out of their comfort level as we become senior citizens. It’s to our advantage to look at something like that.”

Connolly and Nguyen had known each other for about a year at the point of Connolly joining the program as a mentor. At the same time, Nguyen had received an email stating that as a green card holder who had been living and working in the U.S. for five years, she was eligible to apply for citizenship.

Originally from Vietnam, Nguyen and her family immigrated to the U.S. in 2016. Her husband worked at the United States Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam for 20 years and was therefore eligible to apply for a special immigration visa. He applied and subsequently received a green card.

“We didn’t think to come to the United States, because even thinking to travel to the United States is expensive,” Nguyen said. “So, it was a special opportunity.”

After consulting with her friends, Nguyen and her family made the big decision to move. Although she spoke little English, Nguyen was able to secure a job as a cashier at Safeway, where she worked for several years until she became a nail technician at Goodwin House three years ago.

Nguyen said that everything from parking meters to grocery stores are different in the United States.

“Everything is different – even rice. Our main dish is rice. You have at least 20 kinds of rice, we have only three or four,” Nguyen said. “… Every day when I get out, I learn something new.”

Nguyen, her husband and three children have now been in the U.S. for six-and-a-half years. When she saw the email that she could apply for U.S. citizenship, Nguyen said she felt a wave of nervousness but also knew that “it was time.”

After Connolly offered to mentor Nguyen and Nguyen enthusiastically agreed, the pair began meeting every Tuesday at 4 p.m. for six months. Initially, Connolly said she had to dust off and brush up on her own history knowledge.

“When I looked at the brochure, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. I’m going to have to do a review of my own history that’s taught in the fifth grade,’ and I had to review all of the history. And when I looked at the test, I probably would not have passed it the first time,” Connolly said.

So, she enlisted fellow resident Sue Cook for some extra help. At the beginning of every session, Connolly and Cook would place an American flag on the table and they would recite the Pledge of Allegiance. They covered topics like the early pilgrims, 13 colonies, and the states and their capitals.

Nguyen would often apply lessons learned in the classroom to the outside world. From Washington, D.C. to Baltimore to New York City, Nguyen took trips to better understand what she was learning about in textbooks.

“This woman is a teacher’s dream. She’s so bright and so determined and so [full of] courage that we became the students sometimes. She went on adventures,” Connolly said. “… She would come back to us and say, ‘Do you know this?’ and we would say, ‘Well, no.’”

According to Nguyen, this sense of ambition comes from a cultural, deep-rooted desire to learn the lay of the land wherever she is visiting.

Ngoc Nguyen became a U.S. citizen in December 2021. Photo/Goodwin House Alexandria

“There’s a saying in Vietnamese that when you stay in a house, accommodate yourself by learning the house rooms. How can you learn the house rooms if you don’t know about the country or traditions?” Nguyen said. “… America is so beautiful and has so many things to see, to learn, to look at and to study.”

Within a month of finishing test prep, Nguyen was appointed a testing slot. Nguyen took the test in December 2021 and passed. Immediately after she found out, Nguyen called Connolly to share the news.

“I was so excited. I knew she would pass because she was so prepared. But so many do not pass, and I think it’s a matter of language, understanding, confidence,” Connolly added. “But I think we had reviewed so much with Ngoc that she aced. And I was just so proud of her. I cried.”

Since passing the test, Nguyen said that not while too much has changed, she did vote in an election and the rest of her family has become citizens as well.

“It’s a big deal. Such a big deal because something might happen, and if you are a citizen you are protected,” Nguyen said. “So that is an extremely important rule when you come to the United States and you decide to live here.”

Just last month, Nguyen and Connolly were invited by the Ad Council to share their story at its annual award dinner. On a stage in front of more than 1,500 leaders in the advertising fields, the pair shared Nguyen’s journey to becoming a U.S. citizen and how Connolly supported that effort through her mentorship. The Ad Council produced a video on their story that was shown at the gala.

Nguyen said that while attending the gala was somewhat overwhelming, it wasn’t more nerve wracking than any other new experience she’s had since coming to the United States.

“Someone asked me, ‘Are you nervous, for your first time with the Ad Council?’ I [said], ‘Anything I did in the United States is [the] first time,’” Nguyen said with a laugh.

For Connolly, the partnership with the Goodwin Living Citizenship Program – which is funded by the donors of the Goodwin Living Foundation – is just beginning, as she aims to tutor many more immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens.

“It’s just that when you put yourself out there to help somebody, we’re the ones who receive. Ngoc is a blessing in my life, and I’ve learned so much from her and about her courage,” Connolly said. “I would never have known her other than having my nails done, [and] I just feel like part of her family at this point.”