With Staff Appreciation Week and the UCLA All-Staff Picnic packed up for another year, Walen Ngo is looking ahead to what he hopes will be a year of fun and meaningful professional development opportunities for UCLA’s roughly 35,000 staff members.

“It was definitely a fun first step into the presidency,” said Ngo, who began his year-long term as UCLA Staff Assembly president on July 1. He served as host and emcee for the 13th annual All-Staff Picnic, which drew packed about 5,000 UCLA employees on Dickson Plaza. “It’s the first big event Staff Assembly does each year, and it’s basically trial by fire.”

Ngo, 38, joined UCLA in 2013 as UCLA Extension’s program manager for business and management programs, following seven years working in various roles at the United Way of Los Angeles. He said he was attracted to the position because of UCLA’s strong reputation and UCLA Extension’s mandate to make continuing education accessible to everyone from recent college graduates and working professionals to non-traditional students and underserved communities.

“I came from a non-profit background and really enjoy helping people, and Extension seemed like a great opportunity to translate my skills and help people in a different way,” Ngo said. “Whatever I do in my career it has to include that passion to help others. Staff Assembly has been a nice marriage of that. It allows me to use my professional skills and also has a service element.”

A pathway to service

As the youngest of three children born to parents who came to the United States in 1979 as refugees from Vietnam, Ngo said giving back is important because he is grateful for the opportunities he has been afforded in his life.

“My parents raised three kids who all graduated from college and who came from very meager beginnings.” said Ngo, who was born two months after his family arrived in this country and was raised in Alhambra, about 11 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. “We have a lot to be grateful for, and it’s all about paying it forward.”

After graduating from UC Irvine with a bachelor’s degree in economics and international studies, Ngo planned for a career in international business with an emphasis on the Pacific Rim. After just a few years, he discovered the business world was not as personally satisfying as he hoped it would be and began to reassess his priorities and goals.

“I began gravitating to the community service sector and realizing that I could make a real difference locally,” Ngo said.

Ngo’s work with the United Way of Los Angeles included coordinating a tax preparation program for more than 40,000 low-income families each year and managing the deployment of volunteers to about 150 free tax-filing sites throughout the area. He still maintains a connection with that program, and gets recertified each year so he can continue to help people who need assistance filing their taxes.

Ngo said his willingness to get involved on campus and accept new challenges and opportunities is an extension of his commitment to community. 

Ngo became involved with community service at UCLA during his first year on campus through the annual UCLA Volunteer Day. He wanted to find ways to help out and give back, and contacted the UCLA Volunteer Center to find out how he could get involved. That year he served as a project leader at the Veterans Home of Los Angeles in West Los Angeles and recruited about a dozen task captains — all from UCLA Extension — to work alongside him.

The following year he reached out to his colleagues at UCLA Extension and recruited a project leader and task captains to volunteer at Nora Starry School. This year’s brigade is ready to go for the 9th annual Volunteer Day on Oct. 7.

“It’s a nice tradition we’ve started,” Ngo said. “It’s a chance for us to get to know each other as people in a casual setting where our guards are down.”

Gearing up for a great year

It was this connection to the Volunteer Center that led him to learn more about Staff Assembly and the ways he could volunteer for that organization. This volunteerism inspired him to get involved at the leadership level. He first served as vice president for programs before being named president-elect in 2016. Ngo is also the UCLA delegate for the Council of University of California Staff Assemblies.

“As vice president of programs, Walen brought many interesting topics to the Learn-at-Lunch program that were all very beneficial to staff,” said Michelle Chen, who preceded Ngo as president. “He was very organized and planned ahead, developing a schedule for the year early on. As a fellow board member, when I was vice president of events, he was always willing to pitch in and help out when needed even beyond his own area of responsibility, so I knew I had someone who I could count on.”

Chen said that when Ngo was president-elect, his biggest task right off the bat was to organize the volunteers for the All Staff Picnic.

“He was always here for me to bounce ideas off of and to provide another perspective when dealing with issues that arose,” Chen said. “He is considerate, thoughtful and a genuinely nice guy. He really does care for the staff at UCLA, and is not afraid to speak up for something that he feels is right.”

With planning for 2017–2018 year underway, Ngo is excited for the possibilities and is eager to get more employees involved with everything from the learn-at-lunch programs and annual 5K Move and Groove run, which supports Staff Assembly’s staff recognition and staff scholarships program. He is also hoping to further grow the group’s online presence and emphasize two-way communication through Facebook and Instagram.

“I’m so grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had at UCLA Staff Assembly,” said Ngo, noting that getting involved on campus is a great way to meet people, develop new skills and network with people that you might typically never have a chance to.

“For me, Staff Assembly has really broken open the doors for a lot of great things … I also have Staff Assembly to thank for the life-long friendships I have made and the work family I now have at UCLA.”