Alumna Builds Her Alma Mater

| April 4, 2023

Nhu Nguyen returns to USC to lead the construction of Ginsburg Hall.

Nhu Nguyen at the Ginsburg Hall construction site (Photo/Courtesy of Nhu Nguyen

Nhu Nguyen at the Ginsburg Hall construction site (Photo/Courtesy of Nhu Nguyen)

Nearly every building on the USC campus holds the story of a donor, engineer, and construction manager who contributed to its creation.

The newest addition to the USC campus, the Ginsburg Human-Centered Computation Hall, which is set to open its doors in March, is no exception. However, the person overseeing Ginsburg’s construction has a personal connection to USC Viterbi: She graduated from it.

For Nhu Nguyen, B.S. CE ’16, the ambitious project is both an exhilarating new step and a sentimental full-circle moment.

“When I first stepped onto USC, I never thought that I would even be able to graduate,” said Nguyen, who works for Turner Construction, the builder of Ginsburg Hall.  “It’s beautiful to think that I can come back to the campus that made me the person I am today and to be able to build something that I can always come back to.”

And what Nguyen is helping to construct will become one of USC Viterbi’s most important new buildings: a beautiful, glass, five-story home to the Department of Computer Science that will become the first USC building to achieve the LEED-Platinum certification.

An Unexpected Path

Becoming a construction engineer was not a childhood dream for Nguyen. In fact, when she came to America from a small village in Vietnam at just 17, she wasn’t even planning on going to college. She could barely speak English and started off by taking ESL classes at Norwalk High School, working multiple jobs as a kitchen assistant at Lee’s Sandwich, a waitress at a local restaurant, and as a math tutor at Cerritos College throughout high school and community college to support her family.

It wasn’t until her best friend—a student at USC at the time—took her on a tour of the campus that she realized she wanted to pursue higher education.

“I didn’t want to make $10 an hour for the rest of my life,” Nguyen said. “I did well in high school, and I knew I had potential.”

She came to USC as a civil engineering major in 2013. However, her construction engineering (CE460) class with Professor Henry Koffman changed the trajectory of her time at USC and introduced her to a lifelong passion in construction.

“To me, construction was more rewarding because I get out there and build something physical that I can go back to. That was why I chose to do this,” Nguyen said.

Start in Construction

Nhu Nguyen as an alumni coach, with her CMAA team (Photo/Courtesy of Nhu Nguyen)

Nhu Nguyen as an alumni coach, with her CMAA team (Photo/Courtesy of Nhu Nguyen)

Initially, she had a hard time fitting in at USC—her English was not very good, and she was very shy. So, she stayed after classes to talk to Professor Koffman. He encouraged her to venture out of her comfort zone and get involved in campus organizations.

“She succeeded in a very tough civil engineering – construction management curriculum that has always been a very male macho dominated industry,” he said. “I predict she will continue to succeed and rise to an upper management position.”

Nguyen spent her years at USC with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA).

Nguyen was the only Asian person in SHPE at the time, but her best friend—whom she had met at Cerritos College—welcomed her into the organization that would become like family to her. At SHPE, she helped coordinate various community events such as an annual Discover Engineering Day to guide middle school and high school students through the college engineering environment, along with workshops for networking with industry professionals.

At CMAA, she competed at the annual Associated Schools of Construction Student Competition and won various awards.

Since graduating in 2016, Nguyen has remained on the team as an alumni coach, leading information sessions to prepare students for the competition. In the five years that she has coached, the USC-CMAA team has won “best team player” for preconstruction problem, and third place in the preconstruction problem.  She only left this year to prepare for her wedding but hopes to continue supporting CMAA in any way she can.

“I try to give back as much as I can,” Nguyen said. “I know I received that help before, so I want to be able to give back and help the people that came after me.”

Return to her Alma Mater

Nguyen has worked at Turner Construction since her graduation in 2016. At Turner, she’s been involved in engineering and estimating, and even got to work on SoFi stadium for four years, home of football’s Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers. For her next project, she came back to the USC campus—this time, as a field superintendent at Ginsburg. Her responsibilities include managing workers on the field, communicating with engineers in the office, and making the paper plan come to life.

Nhu Nguyen at a construction site (Photo/Courtesy of Nhu Nguyen)

Nhu Nguyen at a construction site (Photo/Courtesy of Nhu Nguyen)

“It’s a very good feeling, but I’m also nervous,” Nguyen said. “I want to make sure I’m doing everything right. I set a higher expectation for myself to do a good job especially since this is for the school that I went to. It’s quite important.”

Sponsored by Dr. Allen and Charlotte Ginsburg, this state-of-the-art space will have two lower levels, five floors, and a glass curtain wall for maximum natural lighting.

This project is exciting for many reasons: not only is it Nguyen’s first time taking charge of a project from the ground up, it will also be USC’s first LEED-Platinum certified building, the highest level of sustainable high-performance buildings in the US.

The construction for Ginsburg Hall started with the ground-breaking ceremony on March 6, 2021. Nguyen worked as an engineer to help estimate the budget for the project before her promotion to field superintendent. In her new position, she manages the entire process of physically building the building, from digging the hole, the raising the frame.

“Sometimes, what’s on paper doesn’t work in real life,” Nguyen said. “So, I have to work with trade partners in the field and engineers in the office to come up with solutions to make the plan work.”

Coming up in April is the topping out ceremony, a construction tradition celebrating the last structural steel beam being raised into place. As part of the celebration, everyone involved in the project up to this point—the steel workers, the USC construction team, and the Turner construction team—will sign the last beam. This milestone signifies the halfway point of the construction process.

Once Ginsburg Hall opens its doors, Nguyen will have experience as an engineer, estimation team, and field superintendent under her belt. She hopes to be well-rounded enough to take on her own project next.

Ultimately, though, Nguyen hopes her experience can open new doors for women in construction.

“You don’t see many women, let alone Asian women, in the construction field,” said Nguyen. “I asked to be in this position because I like to challenge myself and I want to increase the number of women in construction.”

Published on April 4th, 2023

Last updated on September 26th, 2023

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