Located over 3,000 miles north of Philadelphia, Brandon Nguyen (C, W '21) spent the summer after his sophomore year learning that the worst part about working as an organic potato farmer is weeding. After every long day of farming nothing but potatoes, he would enjoy a hot meal of more potatoes and fish freshly caught from the cold depths of the Arctic Ocean, before doing further work on the research project that had initially brought him to the Arctic Circle.
Growing up in Canada, Brandon had long been aware of how issues like sustainability, youth employment, and health inequities are exacerbated in the isolated, resource–scarce regions of the Arctic. After writing a final paper on the Arctic Council—an intergovernmental forum promoting collaboration on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic—for one of his environmental management and policy classes in Wharton, the Toronto native felt inspired to dig deeper into the issue of environmental governance in this region. Soon enough, he would make the last–minute decision to travel to Norway and experience the Arctic in person.
After a quick Google search revealed the exorbitantly high prices of Norwegian Arctic hotels, Brandon got creative and found a program that allowed him to live in the Arctic by working part–time as a farmhand. Thus, he spent his summer days pulling weeds and planting potatoes in order to have evenings and weekends where he could take the bus down to the city of Tromsø, Norway, to go through library archives and interview people at the Arctic headquarters.
“Now, I think nothing would make me happier when I’m old and retired than owning my own little potato farm,” he jokes. “There’s something so cathartic and grounding about being so close to the earth.”
This independent research project, carried out through the Wharton Social Impact Research Experience (SIRE), is only one of the impressive projects and works of research that the environmentalist has completed over the course of his education.
In high school, Brandon founded the Toronto Coalition of EcoSchools, an organization promoting environmental literacy in high schools. He’s been named a Top 25 Environmentalist Under 25 in Canada, a 30 Under 30 Sustainability Leader, and a Global 30 Under 30 in Environmental Education, on top of countless other fellowships and awards. He represented Canada at the United Nations Youth Climate Summit in 2019 and currently sits on the board of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation.
With a humble, friendly demeanor and the subtle twinges of a Canadian accent, Brandon is able to eloquently discuss the complex, interdisciplinary nature of sustainability, revealing exactly why he’s been recognized at so many conferences and competitions around the world.
“Environmental policy is becoming increasingly intertwined between the public and private sector, so many of the biggest policy issues moving forward are how we can use policy to regulate private companies,” he explains. “I went to Wharton believing that business can be used for social change, and fell in love with the idea of the power of policy in championing solutions.” For these reasons, the avid researcher decided to double major in environmental policy in Wharton and political science in the College of Arts and Sciences.
One of the added perks of Brandon’s environmental advocacy is that it grants him the ability to travel around the world. When he was still in high school, the climate finance and clean energy researcher went to Copenhagen, Denmark, for an Innovation Lab on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Through that experience, he fell in love with the idea of seeing and learning about as much of the world as possible.
Considering that he came to Penn having only been to three countries—Canada, the United States, and Vietnam—the Penn Sustainability Eco–Rep has pursued his love of travel to considerable success: “I don’t remember where exactly I’m at, but I think I’ve now been to about 24 or 25 countries,” he reveals. “[It] sounds crazy to say out loud, but it’s been truly incredible.”
Many of Brandon’s international experiences have been possible due to his participation in Penn International Impact Consulting (PIIC)—a student group that provides consulting services to NGOs and social entrepreneurs. For instance, during his first year, the College and Wharton senior had the opportunity to travel to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, as an associate consultant for the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS).
The memory reminds the former president of PIIC how much he has changed and been forced outside of his comfort zone during his time at Penn. “We ended up staying in their field house,” he recalls. “It wasn’t even a complete house. There were walls and windows, and you could just look outside and see the stars at night. And we slept under these little mosquito nets.”
When he isn't traveling around the world to conduct meaningful consultancy work or present at different conferences, Brandon can be found on campus enjoying Penn’s green spaces or getting work done within the hustle and bustle of Penn Law School's building. Still, nothing in Penn or the rest of Philadelphia can ever compare to the Toronto Reference Library, his favorite study spot in his favorite city in the world. In fact, the Wharton research scholar is confident that he will one day return to Toronto to live and work.
Meanwhile, in the near future, Brandon plans to go to the London School of Economics for a one–year Master of Science in Environmental Policy program as a rotary global scholar. Regardless of what specific opportunities are awaiting him in the future, Brandon is committed to making a difference in the realm of sustainability.
When asked how he stays motivated to achieve all that he has, Brandon talks about how he has spent a lot of time thinking about his personal theory of change. The most important puzzle of his life is to find the perfect intersection of the answers to the following questions: What am I good at? What brings me joy? And what does the world need?