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Huy Nguyen

Systems and humanitarian engineer

Huy Nguyen is using his skills and qualifications to improve lives and wellbeing.

Huy Nguyen strongly believes engineering equips you with the skills to make the world a better, more inclusive and accessible place.

He hopes more young people take up the challenge to use engineering for social impact and that there are great career opportunities for those who do.

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Born in Vietnam, Huy contracted a virus called polio when he was 18 months old, which left him with permanent paralysis in his legs. He moved to Australia when he was six years old and during high school had an operation for severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Huy says this set him back a year – but also made him really focus on his studies and what he wanted to do next.

Not (just) my problem

Huy didn’t immediately land on his ideal degree at university but he eventually graduated from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, with a degree in systems engineering.

“During my degree I was having these personal challenges around having a disability, so I decided to do something about it,” Huy recalls. For his Honours year thesis, Huy looked at the social challenges faced by people with disabilities through an engineering lens.

RELATED: The importance of keeping science inclusive

“One of the key takeaways was an approach I’ve adopted called the ‘social model of disability’,” Huy explains. “It means the problem doesn’t lie with the person with the disability or impairment, it lies with the barriers around them.”

Applying this philosophy, Huy founded an organisation called Enable Development which delivers workshops to organisations to help them improve their inclusivity and accessibility to people with disabilities. For example, Enable Development runs an annual program for RMIT and ANU engineering students to help them deeply understand disability and ageing so they can apply it in their careers. Huy’s work in disability advocacy saw him awarded ACT Young Australian of the Year in 2014.

Huy is now working on a new venture called Enabler Interactive – a high-tech platform that uses simulations, virtual reality and augmented reality to improve training for workers in disability and aged-care services.

Huy says entrepreneurship – starting up his own businesses – was a great path for him and while it has its challenges, recommends it for any grads who find they’re struggling to “fit the mould” after uni.

“If you can’t fit into the mould, you don’t have to force yourself to fit,” says Huy. “Maybe instead you should be out there creating better solutions.”

Huy’s top tips for aspiring engineers

1. Travel! “Travel extensively and get to know people and communities,” says Huy. “That informs and enriches our view of the world and challenges our status quo. “But when travelling, remember we are not there to solve people’s problems, we’re there to learn, listen and share stories. It’s important to be open minded.”

2. Humanitarian careers are for everyone! “It may sound like the people working in this space are a special group, but we’re just people, some with slightly different needs. We need everyone’s input. There aren’t enough young professionals in social impact engineering,” says Huy

3. This career is legit! “There’s a misconception that doing good means you’re going to be poor forever,” says Huy. On the contrary, Huy reckons there are loads of opportunities for engineers in this space – particularly in disability and aged care in Australia – thanks to the $22 billion NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme). “If you look at the disability sector in Australia, it’s a massive growth area.”

Huy’s study and career pathway

This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Engineering 2020.

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