DoHa Nguyen, Founder and Executive Director of GAEE, tells us about managing an UN-recognized NGO that promotes economics literacy.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
DoHa Nguyen: Thank you for asking! Fortunately, thanks to my country Vietnam’s relatively effective handling of the pandemic, we are doing fine. It is obviously a challenging time for everyone around the world, and I am deeply grateful that my family is healthy.
For me, as I am still a college student, the pandemic has confined me to online learning from my childhood bedroom in Vietnam. There are actually some silver linings to this. After years of studying in the US, I can finally spend some—quite a lot, actually—quality time with my loved ones. I was also able to reconnect with my hometown and childhood friends—albeit socially distanced—by working for a local COVID foodbank serving fellow townspeople economically crippled by the pandemic.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded the Global Association of Economics Education (GAEE).
DoHa Nguyen: I was born and raised in Quang Ngai, a small coastal town in Central Vietnam. After living in my hometown for fifteen years, I received a full-ride scholarship to study high school in Boston before pursuing my economics degree at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. During my time in the US, I was able to connect with other passionate students across the world who shared my passion for economics and a desire to make this amazing subject more accessible for our communities back home. Did you know that two-thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have access to economics education? That’s why I founded GAEE. Knowing what opportunity cost is about and how to read your balance sheet—we want every student finishing high school or college to be capable of that.
How does the Global Association of Economics Education evolve and innovate?
DoHa Nguyen: The initiative began in early 2017 as a small network of young people—mostly AP Economics and A-Level students—providing free economic tutorials and mini lessons for our peers whose school’s curriculum did not include economics literacy and personal finance or did not address them sufficiently enough. The movement began to gain momentum the later year and quickly spread worldwide, leading to our incorporation in Boston and recognition as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Today, GAEE is an UN-recognized NGO with over fifteen hundred members in ten countries working to democratize access to economics education, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship incubation for our peers in underprivileged and marginalized communities.
What makes GAEE unique is its flexibility—and I think its student-led nature plays a critical role in amplifying this. As young students, we are not afraid to mix and match, to constantly change, to be experimental. In the past, we actually did completely throw away a curriculum—which we developed and perfected for over a year but later deemed fundamentally ineffective—and rewrote a new one from scratch! This characteristic is also necessary for an organization whose chapters span across multiple timezones—quite literally actually, from GMT-8 in GAEE Mexicali to GMT+8 in GAEE Seoul—and whose needs and circumstances are inherently diverse. Our pedagogical approaches reflect this: we combine and alternate between in-person learning and discussion—which have since turned into virtual Zoom sessions—at our local chapters, inter-chapter essay and business case competitions, training-of-trainers workshops for our chapter leaders, academic conferences in partnership with academic institutions, panel discussions and webinars with diverse views from world-class experts to local policymakers, and a mobile app based on our curriculum that makes economic education interactive and available right from your palm, among others.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect the Global Association of Economics Education, especially in terms of human resources and expansion plan?
DoHa Nguyen: When the pandemic emerged last year, we were devastated that the inter-chapter summer gathering that we planned to host in Los Angeles had to be canceled. What we initially envisioned as an idle year for GAEE, however, proved to our most successful one.
In response to all in-person outreach efforts being canceled due to the lockdown and socially distanced rules, we turned to online recruitment platforms and social media to capitalize on the unexpected vacuum of student activities amidst COVID. Much to our surprise, the interest was overwhelming. In Northern India alone, for instance, we have received applications to establish GAEE chapters from students across 57 colleges and universities so far. But online recruitment does not mean less selectivity at all. In fact, because much of our strength has come from the chapter student leaders who are the backbone of our global network, we always emphasized quality over quantity in our hiring process: on average, less than 7% of applicants were actually accepted to be a GAEE chapter founder last year.
With a significantly enlarged base in 2020, GAEE spearheaded multiple economic literacy promotion initiatives, particularly the #GAEEforAsia campaign that was recognized by the United Nations as a SMART initiative and an SDG Action last September. As part of these initiatives, we have hosted a bunch of webinars, essay competitions, case contests, workshops, and other academic initiatives for students—featuring prominent and diverse speakers and judges that worked in the Prime Minister cabinet, World Bank, OECD, national chambers of commerce, US Department of State and NGOs as well as scholars from the universities of Oxford, Princeton, Chicago, Cambridge, Brown, Delhi, etc.
Do you think the Global Association of Economics Education will play a greater role in the post-pandemic world?
DoHa Nguyen: The COVID crisis has shown us the important role of economic and financial literacy. A NEFE survey last year reported 9 in 10 Americans experienced financial stress. While unemployment and economic uncertainty are obviously the root causes of this sense of helplessness, I believe the lack of personal finance and economics education is an important factor, especially given that nearly half the US population is financially illiterate. This is quite intuitive, actually: if you have learned the basic survival skills, you are less likely to be frightened if you are lost in the woods. The same analogy is at play here, and I am confident that in our post-pandemic world, people—particularly the youth—will be more interested in studying these important subjects. We hope to serve this demand by making world-class economics and financial education more accessible, relatable, and enjoyable for everyone—not just those pursuing membership in the priesthood of economics.