This article originally appeared in the summer 2019 issue of Harker Magazine.
When Tiffany Duong ’02 signed up on a whim for a scuba diving trip to the Galapagos Islands, she didn’t know it would transform her life. At the time, she was working endless hours at a law firm in Los Angeles and thought the trip would be a distraction from her work-hard, play-hard life.
It was among the wild blue ocean currents that she literally took the plunge and committed to changing her life. She worked up the courage to quit her job as a lawyer and set out to follow her passion to protect the planet. And she’s never been happier.
“I’m three years into my one-year sabbatical, and it’s just turned into my life because I keep ‘failing better’ and being OK with it,” said Duong with a bright smile on her face. “I am choosing more what is right for me (path B, C, D) vs. what I ‘should’ be doing (path A). So, even when I fail, I learn something or meet someone that pushes me forward, so I still feel like I’m moving in the right direction. And I’m having so much more fun doing it.”
From fieldwork at a biodiversity research camp in the Peruvian Amazon to tagging sharks by scuba diving at Cocos Island in Costa Rica, Duong is fearless about pursuing a life with purpose.
“It honestly doesn’t surprise me that Tiffany chose to leave the legal profession to throw herself into an environmental cause, given her independence and integrity,” said Spanish teacher Abel Olivas, who helped Duong fall in love with the language. “I’ll never forget the strength she demonstrated when, as salutatorian, she spoke at baccalaureate her senior year. She included a reference to the recent death of her father. Her raw but very eloquent comments made us cry and shook us on a very deep, human level. She turned her loss into urgent poetry, reminding us not to take the people we love for granted.”
Duong started at Harker in first grade and graduated with the inaugural upper school class. She played volleyball, ran track and field, served as ASB president and was editor-in-chief of the yearbook.
She remembers in elementary school when Mrs. Peterson, the art teacher, encouraged them to use anything and do anything because “there are no rules in art,” which gave her permission to try anything. This early lesson has guided Duong around the globe.
“I remember I came back to Harker after I graduated and was walking down the hall and seeing flyers for trips to Costa Rica on one side and for the Green Team on the other, and I realized in that moment that I am who I am because of Harker. I’m an international tree hugger because of Harker,” laughed Duong. “I always knew Harker prepared me academically, but I didn’t realize how much it has shaped my passions and goals.”
After Duong graduated from Harker, she attended UCLA, where she studied international development and Italian. While she struggled to crystallize her career path, protecting the planet was a priority to her, so decided to go to law school to establish some force behind her passion. And that she did, becoming an associate with law firms specializing in renewable energy. Although this work was intellectually challenging, she didn’t feel like she was making enough of an impact, which led to the scuba trip and a complete change of course.
She recently started her own media production company, Ocean Rebels, to help create awareness about how we can move forward together and not plunder the planet.
“Harker has sown so many seeds within me, but I choose which ones I want to water,” reflects Duong. “The strongest voice of Harker is, ‘here is the path to make you successful’ but after I left that path to pursue many different trials, failures and experiments, I realized that Harker also prepared me for plan B, C and D. Now, as I’m forging my own path through life, I know that I’m prepared for anything but that I get to choose where I go. It’s been an awesome ride, and I’m excited for what’s next.”
Vikki Bowes-Mok is also the executive director of the community nonprofit Compass Collective.