Saturday, May 18

Bruin to Bruin: Mary Nguyen

Photo credit: Helen Quach

Mary Nguyen is a UCLA alumnus, Emmy-nominated reporter and lawyer. She sits down with Podcasts contributor Ava Johnson to discuss her career in journalism and law and advice she has for UCLA students.

Ava Johnson: This is Bruin to Bruin, and my name is Ava Johnson. Today’s interview is with Mary Nguyen, class of ‘99, UCLA graduate, an investigative journalist and Emmy-nominated reporter who only recently decided to go back to school and become an attorney. She’s best known for her internship and article on the OJ Simpson trial and has covered other high profile cases, such as the Trayvon Martin case and the Tiger Woods case. Nguyen joins us today to discuss how she made a name for herself in the news world, what UCLA did for her to make her successful, and some advice on how to utilize the alumni network here at UCLA.

For our first question, before you even got to UCLA, you already had an idea that you liked journalism, right? You’ve already had your own column with Teen Magazine. Is there anything about UCLA specifically, that really helped you solidify this career choice? Or anything that maybe challenged you to consider another career?

Mary Nguyen: Well, yes, first of all, I knew that I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to be a reporter, I loved writing, I loved current events. And then I grew up in Orange County, California. And I went to UCLA, because there – and I still got into USC, and they have like a broadcast journalism program versus UCLA is communications. I liked UCLA because it was a very broad major. So you’re learning about all these different things. And it’s really important when you’re a reporter, or a lawyer, just to know a lot of different aspects of culture and people and how things work. So even though it was more of a theoretical background, I really felt like it helped me think in terms of the journalist and, and so I went in as undeclared, because that was what you had to do. And then after my first year at UCLA, taking some of the classes that are required, in order for them to see if you can make it into comm, I was able to get into communications. But the biggest thing too is UCLA helped solidify my time to becoming a reporter, or my goal of becoming a reporter, because I went to Washington, DC, and I became an intern at Nightline with the Public Policy Center. And I met a lot of people at UCLA that were also executives, they were creative. So I think I just got a big mix of things. And what I did was, even though the classes I took – I think it took maybe one class that had some editing involved and what have you – my internships experience, like going to the TV stations, all around the way, getting my feet wet. Networking, that is the key of how I became a journalist, and how I was able to get a good tape. Because I could have gone to USC just to, you know, make a tape. But I wanted to have a broad background and learn a lot about ethics, politics, everything. And so I think that is really how I became more successful by choosing to go to UCLA.

AJ: Interesting, do you feel like that later impacted your want to be a lawyer as well, having that really broad scope?

MN: Absolutely, I think that I probably wouldn’t have been as well prepared to change careers. And I will say, I never thought I was going to become an attorney, ever. But I somehow ended up covering the OJ Simpson trial at Deloitte. And that was very interesting. I just, it was kind of odd, a friend helped me get the internship and, and then, prior to that, I was a columnist for Teen Magazine. And they were like, why don’t we do a story like behind the scenes? And I said, Okay, so I got to do both. For the print side and the broadcast side. The internship was broadcast, I wrote a story with print. And that was probably my introduction to law. And in that sense, it just kind of pushed me into it, I was fascinated. I love journalism. I love the stories. I love the people, but understanding the legal proceedings, and being able to explain it to an audience or to people is really important. And so that’s why I started to gear towards law.

AJ: That’s really interesting. Do you have an example of how being on the OJ Simpson case really impacted your view of the justice system and wanting to go on and become a lawyer?

MN: Well, the OJ Simpson trial, you know, it was really interesting, because first of all, it was a circus. I don’t think we ever really saw anything like this before everybody was glued to the TVs watching the Bronco. I was interning with a TV reporter. Somebody sent her a Barbie with the news and it was pretty scary. But you saw the amount of attention to how people were thinking he was innocent or guilty. People were very, very sure that they had strong opinions. And at the end of the day, do you have enough to convict a person, you have to know the elements of the crime. And I think what happened was Johnnie Cochran was great. If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit. He was, that was fabulous. And that really stuck with the jurors. And I think that it really shows our criminal justice system that you do have to prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt. I think that it really showed the public how our law, justice, and journalism, all kind of mesh together.

AJ: Do you think that journalism played a really big part in that case of why people were so agitated or invested in it?

MN: Absolutely. I think that the ratings went through the roof, the Bronco people are glued, and true crime, the genre is so big. And I think, you know, OJ Simpson was such an important aspect of beginning how the media was going to start covering so many different criminal cases. And then from that point on, I just think that it just, that was ratings gold, basically, it was ratings, you know, people wanted to watch it. They were going to keep it on 20%. Yeah. And it’s interesting, because when you watch the media, you’ll see a lot of evidence come out in the media, but it won’t get into the trial. So I think that’s frustrating. I don’t think people always understand why. And I think now, especially with the politics, that Donald Trump, with Biden, with everybody else, people are starting to learn that things are coming in, things are coming out. And it’s kind of interesting, how we have to kind of teach the average person how the law works.

AJ: Switching gears a little bit, to more general sense of switching careers. Obviously, you mentioned that it really helped that you had a kind of interdisciplinary education at UCLA to switch between the two careers. But can you talk a little bit more about maybe some hesitation that came from taking that kind of drastic change, and maybe what helped you decide that you really wanted to do that.

MN: Um, so when I started in journalism, way to do it was to start small markets, and then work your way up. So I had gone did lots of internships in LA and in Palm Springs. And then I went well, I was an assignment editor. And when I was at UCLA, I wanted to experience every type of position, I did everything. And then I also went to a lot of networking events and Ryan’s classes. So by the time I got to Orlando, in 2003, I ended up covering the Casey Anthony case. And I cover the case, Anthony, from the very beginning, from the day that she was reported missing to the very end of the trial. And I loved it. I mean, I love reporting on the discovery. I love digging, I love breaking stories. I was an investigative reporter, but I cover courts and government and law enforcement. So then I covered Trayvon Martin. And all of that was so interesting to me, because it all dealt with the legal system stand your ground criminal. And I think that is how it kind of changed. I wanted to go to law school while I was a journalist, but I couldn’t because there was, you know, it just there wasn’t enough time. And then after I left with Lamdo, I went over to Arizona, and I had talked to a lot of attorneys, because I love to learn. I love to talk to people, I’m just a sponge. And I love listening to attorneys telling me, you know how things work, I’ve listened to jury consultants, it was so fascinating. When I got to Arizona, it was a kind of a time where I said, You know what? I think I want to go to law school. And that’s what I decided to do and I clerked for the judge over the Jodi Arias case, which is very interesting. And then I decided I wanted to go back to Florida because I had spent my main career in journalism here in Florida, and I knew the system very well.

AJ: So you’re saying that you knew the system very well, because of your time as a reporter there?

MN: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. I passed the bar because I worked with law enforcement and attorneys and looked at discovery and read pleadings and followed the court cases here in Florida.

AJ: You mentioned over email that you’re working on something new. I’m not exactly sure how much you’re allowed to tell me, but do you want to kind of give us maybe a teaser of what that is?

MN: Yes. Okay, an opportunity came up. I was just talking to a couple of different news agencies about going back to journalism. However, I received a call from some, some people I knew. And they asked me to become a state attorney, to be a prosecutor in Orlando, with the same people that I worked with, during Casey Anthony and I had been a public defender for five years and to go from being a public defender and to be able to go to an being an assistant state attorney, at an A level felony, which is first degree felonies, that was just an excellent opportunity. And I couldn’t say no, because it was just, I didn’t really know when I would ever get a chance like that to be able to jump and be in work with the people who taught me when I was was a reporter.

AJ: I was wondering if you have any advice for UCLA students, possibly even UCLA grads, that are considering a career change?

MN: I can tell you this. I’ve met a lot of people who have made career changes. There are people who’ve made a lot of changes. And I would just say that if you’re going to make a career change, I would definitely, if you’re going to go into law, obviously you have to like, think about LSAT and everything. Um, if you’re going to go into news, you should just do like an internship and do something part time. But honestly, right now, I think it’s much easier to, to move up in news or law, and actually, I’ve also had people when I was mentoring, some of the UCLA students, a lot of people want to go into political reporting. And I think I would go to internships, the main thing is just to network, go to different internships, get your tape together, talk to people. And you’d be surprised, it could be pretty easy to learn.

AJ: I would be curious, you’ve mentioned obviously, like, networking is a really important part of really any job at this point in time, what were some of the ways that you networked at UCLA?

MN: So I was a president of the Society of Professional Journalists at UCLA, the Daily Bruin supervisor was actually in charge of SPJ. And so she was a great person. I mean, she was so vested in UCLA students, and she helped me meet other people. My agent also went to UCLA. So she made sure that I went to Associated Press events, I learned how to become a better writer. So I think that our UCLA alumni is very strong. And they are – I think that I was successful, because all these people wanted to help me to succeed. And UCLA has an excellent reputation, communications is very hard. And I think that it is journalism and law, I think go hand in hand. And I think that if people want to become a journalist, or they want to become a lawyer, or a political reporter, or a politician, it all goes together, because the final truth of justice

AJ: Did you find your agent through UCLA? Or was that after the fact?

MN: I kind of met her through Teen Magazine. And she kind of, she actually pushed me to go towards UCLA too, she went to UCLA, and she thought it was an excellent education. And then I went to UCLA, and she was there for me. So she kind of pushed me towards that. And I met her there, but I also met some other people. So it was a it was actually kind of interesting for us.

AJ: Yeah. Do you have anything else that you think would be kind of important to share about your career, maybe your college experience?

MN: I think that you just need to ask, or you need to research I – you should go through alumni and just email someone, you will be surprised and say, “Hey, can I work for you? Or can I intern for you?” You would be surprised at how many people are open to helping. And I just think that before, when I first started, it would have been very hard to be a political reporter in a year or two. But I think that’s all changed now with the technology. And especially you know what, also knowing how to social media, like TikTok doing all those different things, to help get yourself out there and have a following also helps.

AJ: Just ask is a really great way to think about it because I think it’s hard to tell how strong the alumni network is until you’re one of the alumni or you’re asking for a job. So I think that that’s a really helpful piece of advice.

MN: And my sister also went to UCLA. She’s an investment banker, but and she actually got hired by UCLA people. Like, I mean, they came in brought her along. I mean, she is – they’re all UCLA, but I did not really see the huge push of alumni and the support until maybe a couple of years later. And then as you’re looking back like, Wow, I can’t believe they did that for me. That’s how I feel about that.

AJ: Yeah. Well, thank you. Thanks. I think that the biggest things that I was hoping to touch on was kind of that transition. Because I think that that’s something that a lot of people are experiencing, as a college student, as well as like the idea of in the future, I think that jobs have become much less sort of confining and as they continue to change throughout the world, we are kind of seeing people want to switch jobs, switch majors,

MN: I think that it is very important to be diverse in your experiences. And I think it’s much more acceptable, I think, to change careers, like it is not even – you will be surprised – I have so many people I’ve met at the State Attorney’s Office who have all changed careers. Like we’re older.

AJ: I think it is really interesting to see fluidity in that, especially because it makes it a lot less daunting to graduate.

MN: And I really think that if you don’t like what you’re doing, when you first think you do, then there’s no harm in changing careers. And especially, you want to be happy, and you want to have work life balance, and that’s so important. So I really do believe that this is a time where people are really focused on people’s health and mental well being.

AJ: I think so too. Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, thank you so much for meeting with us. Well, it was nice to meet you.

MN: Nice to meet you too. Good luck.

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