Fawn Ngo wasn’t supposed to attend college. Today, she is an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus.
Ngo’s family came to the United States from Vietnam as refugees following the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. They settled in Orange County, Calif., where they owned and operated a small business.
“I have five siblings,” said Ngo. “For the boys, college was expected. But my father did not believe girls should pursue higher education. So, when I told him and my mom I wanted to go to college, he looked at me and said, ‘What are you going to do with a college degree?’”
When Ngo finally convinced her parents to let her enroll at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), she wasn’t allowed to live on campus. “They made me commute, of course,” Ngo said. “But I’m glad I did it because, when it came time for my younger sister to graduate high school, she was able to say, ‘Dad, I’m going to go to college like Fawn.'"
Ngo, the first in her family to attend college, majored in Criminology, Law & Society – the closest thing UCI had to a pre-law program. “I speak Vietnamese. I speak a little French and Cantonese. And I was studying Japanese. So, I thought I was going to pursue international law,” Ngo said. “But, in my final year at UCI, I interned at a law firm and every single lawyer at the firm talked me out of it. They said I didn’t have the personality to be an attorney. I’m not sure what that means,” Ngo added. “I think they thought I was too ethical and too nice.”
By chance, Ngo soon discovered a love for research as a research associate in the Westminster Police Department’s Office of Research and Planning. “At the time,” Ngo said, “community policing was a part of everyday policing parlance. So, when the chief of police suggested implementing a community-oriented policing project to address crime and disorder at a shopping center, I jumped at the opportunity to help him design the project,” she said. “I implemented the program, collected data and wrote up the final report.” Ngo and her colleagues later published the results in Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management. It was then that Ngo decided to pursue a master’s degree in criminal justice at California State University, Long Beach.
It wasn't long after Ngo completed her master’s program that her thesis chair called her into his office to urge her to pursue a doctorate. “I had guest lectured in his statistics course," Ngo said. “A lot of students struggle with that subject, but my chair told me I had a way of explaining the concepts and motivating the students. He said, ‘You’re going to be a really good professor.’”
Ngo moved to the East Coast to pursue a doctorate in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland. Shortly before the semester began, her father was diagnosed with cancer. In the hospital, Ngo’s father expressed regret for giving her a hard time about wanting to go to college. “He said, ‘I want you to know I’m very proud of you,’” Ngo recalled. The week before her classes began, Ngo’s father passed away.
Today, Ngo's research interests and pedagogy are both foregrounded by a desire to promote racial equity and justice for crime victims. One such research interest – cybercrime victimization – has her focused on the lack of resources available to internet users with limited English proficiency (LEP). “Right now, the data on cybercrime victimization are flawed. And I think that’s because we’re excluding a good number of internet users. We’re not giving them the access to report victimization, and we’re not offering them the resources they need.”
Since 2000, the FBI has hosted the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a webpage where victims of cyberattacks can report incidents and access preventative information about hacking and identity theft. The problem, Ngo said, is that the information is available only in English.
In an effort to address the issue, Ngo has begun conducting workshops with Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking internet users. Following a recent workshop at a local community center, a young, Spanish-speaking women approached Ngo and explained that, prior to the workshop, she had routinely saved her login credentials on public computers. “This is a critical topic,” Ngo said. “We need to make sure that everyone, regardless of their language ability, has the knowledge to protect themselves online.”
Ngo’s research also has her working with USF’s Trafficking in Persons – Risk to Resilience Research (TiP) Lab and Sarasota-based nonprofit Selah Freedom to help survivors of sex-trafficking and victims of the sex industry turn their lives around through a court program that offers housing, job training and counseling, among other services. Selah Freedom and court officials in Sarasota and Manatee counties have granted Ngo’s team special access to the Turn Your Life Around (TYLA) court diversion program, enabling them to view the court’s diversionary proceedings live and interview the program’s participants to understand how they became entrapped in the commercial sex industry, often for years.
“When you explore the issue, you see that sex-trafficking victims often have underlying problems,” said Ngo. “Many were exploited at a young age – some by family members, some repeatedly – and they’ve suffered deep psychological trauma as a result.” Ngo hopes the team’s research efforts will lay the groundwork for the program’s expansion in addition to creating a blueprint for other agencies to follow.
Recently, Ngo has entered into talks with the Buyer Rehabilitation Project, a local non-profit that seeks to tackle the issue from the other side of the equation by providing group therapy, individual counseling and recovery programs to so-called buyers. “We often focus on supply and ignore demand,” Ngo said. “But it’s important that we understand the demand side of the equation, too.”
In the classroom, Ngo goes out of her way to make sure her students have the support they need. “Most of our students in the master’s program are working professionals, some with long hours,” Ngo said. “So, I’ll meet with them anytime, anywhere, to go over the course material.” Ngo is also aware of the value of providing multiple engagement options. “It’s important to recognize that people learn differently,” she said. When she teaches online, Ngo posts video lectures and announcements in addition to written communications, a practice which has garnered positive feedback from her students.
One of Ngo’s favorite students, Gary Ernneus, is a former corrections officer who became visually impaired when an inmate detonated a homemade bomb. “I am someone who is willing to sit with students and go over the material again and again until they get it,” said Ngo. “But Gary was in my graduate statistics course, and I didn’t know how I was going to explain the materials without the use of visuals and graphs.”
It was Ngo’s daughter who provided the inspiration Ngo needed to develop an innovative teaching strategy. “I was driving home,” Ngo said. “And my daughter was asking about going to the beach that weekend. She wanted to build a sandcastle. At that moment, a light bulb turned on in my head.”
Ngo brought a large tray to her office and filled it with table salt. “When Gary came into my office each week, I would take his finger and trace the different symbols and graphs. Like, ‘This is the summation symbol. Whenever you see this symbol, it means to sum up everything in the parentheses.’ Then we drew a normal distribution, and I showed him where the mean and the standard deviations were on the graph. I said, ‘When you have a normal distribution graph, 50 percent of the cases fall to the right of the mean and the remaining 50 percent fall to the left of the mean.’" The whole time, Ngo never let go of Gary’s hand.
Today, Ernneus speaks fondly about the time he spent on the Sarasota-Manatee campus. “Dr. Ngo’s statistics course taught me that there are certain things only another human being can help you with,” said Ernneus. “Without Dr. Ngo’s help – without the help of the university and my other professors – there’s no way I would have made it.”
“Gary was determined,” Ngo said. “It was all him. He said, ‘I’m going to get a master’s degree in criminology.’ And he did it. He showed great perseverance. I just admire him so much.”
As a criminologist and professor, Ngo sees it as her responsibility to prepare her students for careers in the criminal justice system as it exists today. As part of her coursework at UC-Irvine, Ngo visited a local prison. “I grew up in a predominantly white Orange County neighborhood,” Ngo said. “During my visit to the prison, I was shocked to see that so many of the men behind bars were Black or Hispanic. I wasn’t an expert in statistics at the time, but even I could see that something was wrong.”
“My job is to help my students understand the pervasive racism and inequity that exists in the criminal justice system,” said Ngo. “We treat poor individuals and minorities differently than we treat wealthy, white individuals. That’s something I want my students to recognize. It is my hope that my students will take what they learn, here, at the University of South Florida, and go forth and help transform the criminal justice system so that we can have a just and fair system for everyone.”