Blog

Word-Perfect

In 4-, maybe even 5-inch stiletto heels, the petite Betty Nguyen marched into the Alumni Center. Clad in a burnt-orange, one-shoulder dress accented by a thick brown belt, the Outstanding Young Texas Ex had finally arrived for her interview. She claimed her wardrobe wasn’t inspired by the afternoon’s main event, where she would be honored along with the other three recipients of the Texas Exes’ award for under-40 alumni showing success in their field and dedication to the University, but how could it not be? As she says, “No matter where you go in the world, when you see someone with a Longhorn T-shirt or a Longhorn hat, you just have that sense of home.”

Also waiting were two reporters from Waco’s KWTX, where Nguyen landed her first job out of college. They, too, joined KWTX as their gateway into broadcast journalism and were eager to capture the words of the legendary Betty Nguyen, BJ ’95, Life Member. “You’re one of the people we hear about on our first day of work,” they told her.

With perfect posture, she sat poised for her Q&A, and as the first words came out of her mouth, there was no doubt — this is a news anchor. The intellect, tone, and flow of words are unmistakable even off camera. The woman knows words: what to say, what not to say, and how to do it all with sophistication.

As morning anchor of CNN Newsroom’s weekend edition and a regular correspondent for other programs on the network, Nguyen has had plenty of practice in using words to form stories. It’s something she first picked up in drama and debate during her k-12 schooling.

Nguyen was born in Saigon in 1974, just before the Communist take-over. Her parents, an American serviceman and a Vietnamese woman who played out the heartwarming story of love and marriage in a time of war, knew they had to leave the country. Holding on by a thread of faith, her mother left her family behind for the unknown ahead.

After some time in refugee camps, the new American family settled in Fort Worth. Nguyen remembers always being aware and proud of her heritage. She learned Vietnamese listening to her mother, aunt, and cousins speak it, and worked hard to earn an education that would lead to a stable, respected career. Her parents, like in many Asian families, gently pushed her toward medicine, engineering, or law.

Nguyen set her sights on law. But during a summer job at a law firm, she became less than thrilled about her chosen line of work. “I just really didn’t have any passion for it, and I knew if I didn’t have any passion for it, then I wouldn’t love it. And if you don’t love it, then why do it?” she says. That’s when her heart led her to the news. “I was really good at debate, I loved drama — there’s a whole lot of drama in what we do in TV journalism, and so I just thought this would be a good field to go into,” she says.

She remembers telling her parents that things weren’t working out exactly as planned. “You just have to say, ‘You know what, this is one of my dreams. We have sacrificed so much to come to this country, and if I don’t chase that dream, what is it all for?’” Though surprised, they were won over by her passion and have supported her to the fullest, she says.

Luckily for UT, Texas Christian University, where she had already been accepted and was planning to pursue pre-law, didn’t boast the reputed journalism program The University of Texas did. Plus, she says, “[UT] was far enough from home that my parents wouldn’t be here every weekend.”

Nguyen (then known as Betty Wallace) excelled in Austin, both academically and socially. She joined Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, held several internships (“I was an internship crazy person”), and worked at the campus radio program UT Week in Review, all while managing to make the grades to graduate with high honors. “I wanted to experience it all; I wanted to live it up; I wanted to soak it up; I wanted to wallow in it. And I did,” she says. “I partied a lot. I made a lot of good friends. Probably did a lot of stupid things — but none illegal — and at the same time, it enriched me. It made me who I am today.”

Back on campus for the first time in years, Nguyen had the opportunity to reminisce a little during the Outstanding Young Texas Exes ceremony. “I still remember my first day here on campus and my first week,” she said during her acceptance speech. “I lived at Jester, and I remember there was a resident assistant whose name was Plymouth Rock. Seriously, that was his real name. And my roommate, come to find out, she was into role-playing and Dungeons and Dragons. This was UT, and it was definitely an eye opener.”

Nguyen adapted well, and finished in three-and-a-half years, something she doesn’t recommend. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I really don’t,” she says. Less than a month after Nguyen walked across the stage, her father passed away unexpectedly. “My father got to see me graduate, and so maybe there wzs some divine intervention in that,” she says. More encouraged to be close to her family in Dallas, Nguyen eventually accepted a job at KWTX in nearby Waco.

Her first beat took her to the small Army town of Killeen. While a good start, she quickly was ready to move up. “I went into the news director’s office one day and said, ‘Virgil, you have a morning show here, and you don’t have a female anchor on that. How about you give me a try at it?’” she says. “It took some convincing, but eventually he agreed.” Just six months after starting, Nguyen became an anchor and led the morning news with her first “TV husband.” (Her current cohort, CNN’s TJ Holmes, says reading the news next to Nguyen “is like working with my best friend and my sister every Saturday and Sunday.”)

Just like in college, Nguyen excelled, even winning an Associated Press award for breaking-news reporting. A year-and-a-half later, she started to consider new opportunities. Her dream was Dallas, then the seventh largest market in the country, now No. 5. Why not send a tape, suggested her mother. “Mom, I work in market 95,” she recalls telling her. “I’m going to have to make several jumps in between.” But her mother simply encouraged her more. She sent some tapes out and, sure enough, landed the gig. “Always trust your mother,” she says now, laughing.

It’s not the only time her mother’s advice has played a role in her career. After five-and-a-half years delivering the news in Dallas, including two anchoring the noon newscast, for which she won a 2003 regional Emmy, Nguyen was ready to shake things up again. She was set to move to Los Angeles and do entertainment news, she says. She freelanced as a reporter for E! during the 2003 gubernatorial election in California and had a few other options lined up when she attended a conference in Southern California. At the end of the weekend as she walked out the door, she ran into the talent director at CNN, whom she’d previously met. “Hey Betty, do you have a tape?” he asked her. “I didn’t think I did,” she says. “I looked in my bag. I had one tape left, so I handed it to him. Didn’t think anything of it.” A few months later, Nguyen called her mom with the news that CNN wanted her for an audition in Atlanta. But, she says, she still wanted to merge into entertainment journalism. With a little maternal encouragement, she boarded a plane and headed east. Once she stepped into CNN Center, not even her mother could have convinced her not to stay. “It was tremendous. To sit at that desk, where so much history has been made . . .” After being put through the ringer in the audition, she says she knew in the cab ride away she wanted Atlanta to be her next destination. Her mother’s response on learning her choice: “Oh, thank God!”

Less than 10 years out of college, Nguyen had made the big time, and in doing so became the first Vietnamese-American national news anchor. In 2007, the Smithsonian Institute honored this designation with a life-sized cardboard cutout of her likeness in an exhibit exploring Vietnamese-Americans since 1975. The exhibit also served as an opportunity to bring attention to Nguyen’s nonprofit, Help the Hungry.

After a trip to her homeland with her mother in 1998, Nguyen couldn’t help but be touched and driven to help. “I grew up hearing the story of how poor many of the people in Vietnam lived and of situations my mother had to endure. It’s one thing to hear and another to see it with your own eyes,” she says. Her first trip was strictly personal, though. “I could have easily documented it, but I didn’t want to. I wanted it to be personal and special. I didn’t know the kind of emotions I would have had. It was an important point in my life,” she says. “Especially from my standpoint, I can’t help but think that that could have been me.” She and her mother formed the charity after that first trip and have sent aid yearly in the form of food, clothing, and hygienic supplies. She has traveled back to the country several times since, including on CNN assignment covering the monsoon season’s deadly flooding.

Reporting from around the globe is one of the opportunities CNN has afforded her, but those trips often present her with the most difficult stories to cover. Last July, she spent a month in Myanmar providing viewers a more in-depth look at the devastation and lack of aid that persisted two months after May’s cyclone left the dictator-ruled country in ruins. Under the cover of darkness and with the assistance of locals risking their safety to aid her, Nguyen, a cameraman, and a photographer sneaked into the Irrawaddy Delta and spent 21 hours traveling to the affected area by truck and several boats to avoid government checkpoints. That trip would have taken just four hours by car. She risked deportation or prison time, and worse for those who helped her, but it was important to get the story out, she says.

The stories of human struggles seem to have a strong impact on her — speaking with a teary-eyed woman who clutched the photo of her daughter killed in the Myanmar storm just weeks before graduating from high school or holding a lost child in Houston after Hurricane Katrina and watching her arms reach out to every woman that walked by. “As journalists, we know that we have a job to do no matter what the situation is or how difficult. The key is to get the story and tell it in the most genuine way,” she says.

 

It all comes down to the storytelling she seems so good at. Perhaps it is because she uses her emotions to tell those stories that viewers so easily latch onto her words. Whether covering breaking stories, investigating in-depth, or reading the morning news, Nguyen does it all with a touch of compassion and personality. She says she approaches anchoring like she’s having a conversation with people in their living rooms. Co-host TJ Holmes attributes it to the “it” factor. “She is one of those rare people who possess those intangibles that can’t be taught,” he says. “Yes, she’s intelligent. Yes, she’s talented. But Betty has a little extra something that sets her apart.”

College roommate Kasey Kelso wasn’t surprised to see her friend rise to the top of her industry. “She knew what she wanted, and she never let anyone tell her she couldn’t do it,” Kelso says. At UT, the girls shared an apartment, a major, classes, even a graduation trip to Europe. While their lives didn’t end up quite as similiar (Kelso decided not to pursue journalism and now is a flight attendent living in Houston with her husband and two young children.), monthly phone calls and occasional visits, have kept Kelso and Nguyen’s friendship just like old times. And as well-known and well-traveled as Nguyen’s become, Kelso doesn’t think her friend has changed a bit.

As much as Nguyen is driven to succeed, she takes pride in her work. “If I’m reporting a particular story, I will write every bit of it,” she says. And when she’s anchoring the morning shows, she sacrifices sleeping in and a weekend social life to prepare for the day. “I wake up at 4 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays to do the newscast. At UT, 4 a.m. — that’s when I was pretty much coming home,” she admits.

Saturday and Sunday mornings she heads into the CNN Center before daybreak for a meeting with producers about what the top stories of the day are. She then sits through hair and makeup, “where the metamorphosis occurs,” and settles at her desk, reviewing the script and tweaking it to her own voice and personality. And then it’s show time. “Hello, everybody, from the CNN Center in Atlanta. It is Sunday morning. Good morning, I’m Betty Nguyen. So glad you could be with us.”

As with all morning TV, some of the show’s segments are planned, but the news always fluctuates. “When breaking news comes, I literally see it off the wire or I hear my producer telling it to me in the ear piece, and it goes from my brain out my mouth. And there’s a little filter in there that I use to make sure what I’m reading is accurate and not crazy,” she says.

No worries of a Will Ferrell Anchorman slip-up on her shift. Nguyen is quick to roll with the punches. She remembers one incident after a bombing in India when Delhi’s chief minister, Shelia Dikshit, called in for an interview. With 30 seconds before airing, Nguyen’s panic meter was rising. “I really need a pronunciation,” she says she was frantically asking the International Desk. (Even retelling the story she doesn’t say the name as she feared it was, simply spelling it instead.) A reprieve with 20 seconds to go: “OK, we’ve got a pronunciation,” they told her. “It’s D-I-P-S-H-I-T.” With flashes of her face showing up on Comedy Central under the headline “Dipshit Reporter,” Nguyen avoided the mishap. “So Minister, tell me all about the bombing. . .” Chief Minister Dikshit (pronounced Deek-sheet) was never the wiser.

The next move in Betty Nguyen’s career, she doesn’t know, yet. “I’m really happy where I am. CNN has resources all around the world. The ability to anchor a show and cover world events on the ground in these countries is really remarkable to me. It’s important to highlight the atrocities and the hope as well. Few networks give you that opportunity.”

When a new opportunity does present itself to Nguyen, one can bet she won’t let it pass by no matter what the obstacles, because she’s always chasing her dreams — a dream, she says, that was nourished at the ever-close-to-her-heart University of Texas. “Graduating from UT, given my history and my background, was more than just beating the odds,” she says. “It was a dream come true because it gave me the foundation I needed to go on and achieve another dream.”

 

 
 
 

1 Comment

Post a Comment


 

 
November | December 2018
McCombs School of Business-Blockchain
LifeSpan
Antone’s Blues Brunch Banner Driskill_300x250
LBJ
Changing Your World
 
 
Menu