Written by Sara Hinds
Photos courtesy of Ivan Ortega-Nguyen
Ivan Ortega-Nguyen ’21 is writing his own chapter on finding success as a first-generation college graduate.
His story includes familiar characters and themes to those of any new graduate. A curious main character who struggles to merge their passions into a decent job. Parents with high expectations.
First-generation students face these challenges to an nth degree. You have to graduate with honors. You have to be the best at what you do.
“As a first-generation student, my parents were extremely hard on me to be successful, to be all of this stuff, [to] be a doctor, [an] engineer, [all] the stereotypes that my parents gave me as a kid,” he said.
Ivan’s mom emigrated from Vietnam, his dad from Mexico. Their expectations for Ivan weren’t projections as much as they were protection.
“They have a lot of dreams that they wanted to achieve growing up, but they couldn't because of circumstance,” Ivan said.
Even so, upsetting his parents for a short time was worth it to pursue his ultimate passion: professional gaming.
A New Reality
Video games started as an “avenue” for Ivan to experience a world outside Crete, Nebraska, the rural city he grew up in.
In college, they became a new reality.
Ivan placed fifth in his first national tournament and won a cash prize. With each subsequent tournament, Ivan found more success, prize money and friends.
His engineering-trained brain started to do the math. Gaming could be the answer to everything from a paycheck to the question “what are you going to do after graduation?”
He broached the subject with his parents his freshman year, and to his surprise they listened.
“I’m very, extremely grateful that my parents had something in them that just listened to me that day,” Ivan remembered. “And really understood where I was coming from and try to understand. Even if they may have not agreed with it at that time, they were there to listen to me.”
The universe had other plans, though. The pandemic halted in-person gaming events and tournaments, and served as a reality check to Ivan. He couldn’t solely rely on gaming to bring in a paycheck. Not yet, anyway.
Main Character Energy
Flash forward a few years later, and Ivan radiates a calm, professional demeanor as he explains the logistics of Colonly, an app he developed alongside Brian Ortega. The pair received money to create the app from a Nebraska Innovation Fund Prototype Grant in 2022.
Ivan flexes the computer science degree and liberal arts skills he learned at Doane (i.e., collaboration, creativity, entrepreneurial spirit) in the all-hands-on-deck approach to launching the app. Aside from building the back end of the app, he executes marketing, applies for grants and is well-versed in LLCs.
The app will connect individuals who want extra cash with individuals who need help with chores like lawn care, babysitting, grocery runs and pet sitting. Existing apps and websites like Rover and DoorDash offer these services, but rarely focus on communities with lesser populations. Colonly will prioritize small towns, starting with Crete.
In everything Ivan does, he wants to give back. To his community through the app, to his family through his gaming success, “or doing something cool that no one in my community expects.”
“That’s always been my goal, to be the best version of myself and to really show others that no matter what, if you have a dream, you can achieve it,” he said.
Oh, have we not given an update on Ivan’s gaming successes? Plural. It’s time we do that.
While the pandemic slowed his roll, Ivan never stopped gaming. He practices 3-5 times a week with teammates. In October 2023, he traveled — with his dad! — to Seattle for the Halo World Championships and placed third.
Where Ivan is cool and collected playing in front of crowds the size you’d see at a football game, you can tell how important his dad’s physical support in Seattle meant.
The main character never forgets where they came from, though. The struggles that dictate their moves. Every so often, Ivan remembers the pressure to perform as a first-generation student and son of immigrant parents, and realizes his story doesn’t align with what was written for him. But he snaps back to reality.
“It's okay to be okay at things, right? You're human, you make mistakes, you have your time. It's alright. Head up. In the gaming world, we call it ‘regain,’” Ivan said.
“The regain,” he nods. “It's like you refill your gas tank… You lose a match? Hit the regain — you’re good.”
And he continues writing his story, playing the main character.