Mother's courage paves way for son's success
(Phi L. Nguyen, BS 88, MS 90, Vice President of Technology and Manufacturing at Intel Corp., has recently created within Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering the Nguyen Thi Cuong Fellowship to honor his mother. In the following story, Nguyen recalls his mother, a truly remarkable woman, and their incredible journey together.)
As a child, Nguyen Thi Cuong and her family were forced to move from North to South Vietnam because of the civil war. Three decades later, she coordinated with undaunted courage what her son, Phi L. Nguyen, still thinks was a miracle: She was solely responsible for her family’s and her sister’s family’s escape to the United States – with no money and not knowing a single word of English. This is the story of Nguyen Thi Cuong, an amazing woman for whom Phi has named a Fellowship in NPRE.
Phi, his younger brother, his mom and his dad were what history later labeled the “Boat People” – they were among the 2 million South Vietnamese who fled the country by any means possible between 1975 to 1995. More than half those refugees died, facing dangers from pirates, over-crowded boats, and storms. Phi and his family were lucky – they survived.
Though suffering hardships including hunger at that time, Phi was a young boy and didn’t remember being frightened. To him, it was an adventure. But his mother realized the perils that faced them – she had lived them before. When she was just 10, her family escaped from North to South Vietnam as the French lost control of the North and the Communists took over. Twenty-nine years later, as their capital of Saigon was under siege, Thi Cuong, the wife of a South Vietnamese soldier, feared what was coming. “They both knew that if (my dad) were to stay he would have been executed. And we would have been sent to an ‘educational’ facility,” Phi said. Many people endured torture, starvation, and disease while being forced to perform hard labor at those facilities.
So Thi Cuong orchestrated the family’s getaway. She arranged for passage on a wharf for her own family and that of her sister, her sister’s husband, and their six children. Phi’s family left behind almost everything, taking with them only one army duffel bag filled with clothing. They joined about half a dozen other families on the “floating box,” with its walls of mesh fence filled with sandbags, and left shore on April 29, 1975, the day before the official Fall of Saigon.
But the captain of the tugboat pulling their wharf had second thoughts about wasting his fuel to save just a few families. He cut the rope pulling them, and they drifted back towards Vietnam. As they returned, the vast exodus – a sea of ships exiting and thousands of panicked people clamoring at the shoreline for rescue – imprinted on Phi’s memory. “Within hours our wharf was jam-packed,” he recalled. One of those who came on board was a priest carrying a shortwave radio and enough gold to convince another tugboat to pull their craft out to sea, towards the Philippines.
Realizing not enough food or water was on board to sustain all the refugees, the U.S. sent cargo ships on mercy missions to intercept boats like the one carrying Phi’s family. A cargo ship arrived at their wharf about a week after they left shore. As the wharf’s passengers attempted to board the cargo ship, they collapsed the wharf’s walls. Many people died as the two vessels banged together, Phi remembered.
The cargo ship couldn’t carry all the passengers, so Phi, his brother and his mom were boarded but separated from his dad and his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Phi and his mom and brother were processed in the Philippines then were sent on to a military camp on Wake Island for about three weeks.
“Every day my mom would go to the American office to see the names of the people processed,” Phi recalled. “On Wake, one of my jobs was to get food from the Army. Every day, the food was being handed out and I would bring it back. One of the times, I was standing in line and I saw my little cousin. I asked her, ‘Where’s your family?’ She was there by herself. She was 8. I asked her, ‘What happened?’ She said her mom had given her to somebody, to one of the families that was going on the cargo ship.
“Everything you’ve seen in the movies, I saw it there with my family,” Phi continued. “Parents would literally hand over their children to strangers in hopes of giving their children a chance to be alive and living in the US.”
A week later, he found another cousin who had gone through the same experience in getting to Wake. She was just 7. Phi took both the girls back to his mother.
While caring for now four children, Thi Cuong watched the Army’s processing of refugees anxiously. “One day, she came home so excited – smiling and crying. She had found my dad’s name,” Phi recalled. Thi Cuong then got to work convincing the Americans to send herself and the children to Guam. There they reunited with Phi’s dad and aunt and uncle and the other children, who had been rescued by a second cargo ship. “I remember them hugging, and remember my aunt totally freaking out. Here were her two daughters that she thought she’d never see again,” Phi recalled.
After about a week in Guam, the family was transferred to Fort Chaffe, Arkansas, until they could gain an American sponsor. The Skrogstad family and the Catholic Church helped find a home for them in Rock Falls, Illinois. Although she knew no English, Thi Cuong found a way to communicate with her sponsors and those in the community to gain jobs. Having served as a village doctor in South Vietnam, Thi Cuong found work in a nursing home. Phi’s dad gained work as a janitor in a steel mill. Phi and his brother were placed in Catholic schools.
In South Vietnamese culture, a woman was expected to be submissive. Thi Cuong frequently stepped outside that role for the sake of her family’s survival. In their new country, she continued to do so, with an eye toward seeing them thrive.
Without knowing the language, she convinced another American family to sponsor Phi’s aunt’s family. Thi Cuong enrolled in a Sauk Valley Community College migrant program to learn English, which she accomplished in two years. She left the nursing home for a higher-paying factory job, working there until Phi graduated from college. And instead of moving to a larger city where whole communities of Vietnamese refugees had settled, Thi Cuong insisted the family stay in their small town and immerse themselves in their environment. She realized that, in order to be successful in a new country, the family must become a part of it.
“Most refugees go to a big city, we didn’t … we immersed,” Phi said. “We also had a great balance of Vietnamese culture, as well. Looking back, it was definitely a huge sacrificial thing for my mother to do, because it’s lonely in the middle of the corn field when there’s only yours and your sister’s family.
“We could have easily gone to Chicago, but we didn’t because my mom knew that I would have the Vietnamese culture at home from her and my father,” Phi explained. “For some reason, my mom had this foresight – we had to know what homecoming was, we had to know what football was, we had to know what hot dogs and baseball meant. She forced me to play basketball.”
And, with a combined salary of just $30,000 annually at the top of their earning years, Phi’s parents managed to put both their sons through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Phi gained a Pell grant, and worked 20-25 hours a week in a work-study program to help meet costs.
Now, as Vice President at Intel Corporation, Phi heads the research and development work of about 400 Intel engineers, many of them PhDs. And he continues to say “thank you” to the one who most influenced his success: the new fellowship fund he has created in NPRE bears the name Nguyen Thi Cuong.
“No matter what life threw at her, she found a way,” Phi remarked, in appreciation. “And so when I have a hard day at Intel, it’s a no-brainer.
“My mother has always put family and helping others above herself. This fellowship will help financially disadvantaged students for as long as the University will be around – just as she would like it to be.”
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