Ph.D. student is Navajo Nation’s vice president pick
When he applied to USC, Buu Van Nygren wanted to convey his desire to effect change through leadership to admissions officers. A doctoral student studying education and organizational leadership at the Rossier School of Education, Nygren was selected by the 70-year-old 2018 Navajo Nation presidential candidate Joe Shirley Jr. to run as his vice president.
Nygren was exposed to politics in 2010 as an undergraduate student and counselor volunteer at Arizona State University. He became involved with Shirley’s presidential campaign in 2014, when Shirley lost the bid in the general election. Despite the loss, Nygren kept in contact with Shirley and his campaign manager to help the campaign trail over the summer for this year’s election.
“We helped rallies, we helped meet and greets, we went to flea markets where they sold things, we gave out cards, we gave out information,” Nygren said. “We helped with social media efforts, making sure that [we were] taking photos and keeping things updated on social media.”
During the campaign, Nygren found it difficult to engage with certain voter groups. According to him, Shirley’s original vice president choice, Peter Deswood III, who became ineligible to hold a Navajo Nation office, represented the Arizona side of the reservation. Traditionally, the vice president selected would be from New Mexico to help engage with a larger voting population. However, because Nygren is from Utah, he is unable to mobilize as big of a supporter base.
“That was one of my biggest struggles overcoming to make the number one contender was that I wasn’t from New Mexico,” Nygren said.
People have also expressed concern for Nygren’s qualifications by questioning whether he is “Navajo enough” for the vice president position.
“One of the big things was people not knowing my name,” Nygren said. “It seems foreign because of my Vietnamese lineage on my dad’s side. The good thing is that in Navajo culture you are who you are through your mother … that’s how I identify myself.”
Despite his mixed racial background, Nygren is deeply connected with his Navajo heritage. Nygren’s fluency in Navajo allows him to effectively communicate with older voters. At 31, he believes in the importance of representing the voices and interests of younger Navajos in tribal politics. One of Nygren’s goals is to create a mutual respect between the young and old generations of the Navajo people.
Nygren hopes to continue balancing his campaign work and academics. While studying at USC, the politician will travel between California and the Navajo Reservation to keep up with the demands of being a student and vice presidential candidate.
Nygren says he hopes to apply the skills he learns at USC to improve tribal politics.
“It’s going to really test my organizational skills, but I think it kind of balances out,” Nygren said. “It’s super exciting. I feel like there’s a big movement for young people to be in political offices … I think it’s cool to kind of be a part of that movement even thinking about being the vice president of the largest tribe in the country.”