Overcoming oceans for opportunity: Alumnus looks back on family’s journey

For centuries, the United States has been known as “the land of opportunity,” a title that has resulted in millions of immigrants leaving their home countries in search of something that may not be readily available there: a chance to grow and succeed.

Son Nguyen, ME ‘92 and an energy engineer for Guilford County School System, and his family sought this type of success in educational and career pursuits. To get to this point, the Nguyen family had come a long way — more than 10,000 miles over the course of five months to be more exact.

Son Nguyen at 7 or 8 years old.

Nguyen was one of more than 125,000 boat refugees who fled Vietnam through the South China Sea in 1975 as fear of North Vietnam marching into Saigon and the capital falling became rampant, along with rumors of executions, forced labor and re-education camps.

Nguyen’s parents had previously been farmers in North Vietnam before immigrating down South where they registered their land and built a home with their own hands. But with the threat, Nguyen’s father made the decision that their family would leave the nation on April 30, 1975, hoping to reach U.S. soil. Nguyen was 8 years old.

“Even before the war there was this dream to pursue a better life, it’s what my dad always preached about: getting the opportunity to come to the land of opportunity,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen’s parents prepared the family for the long journey ahead of them.

“My parents barely had a third grade education, but they were smarter than me,” said Nguyen. “They laid out a plan to escape by boat for the day that Vietnam would fall, and stockpiled supplies for the occasion.”

Nguyen and 25 other refugees crowded into his brother-in-law’s father’s fishing boat while his father stayed behind to protect their home in case those on the boat were caught and sent back to Vietnam’s shore.

The journey would prove an uneasy one as the tide initially worked against the voyagers trying to leave the shore. Once in the South China Sea, harsh waves resulting from the region’s typhoon season threatened the boat every inch of the way.

Sailing out into an ocean approximately half the size of the U.S., the group hoped to be rescued by a larger ship as the U.S. government asked shipping vessels to show mercy toward the refugees. Fortunately, the boat came across an anchored barge in the South China Sea.

Nguyen and those on his boat shared the barge with other refugee groups, hunkering down for several days and rationing food in wait for a large shipping vessel to come to their aid. No one knew when one would arrive.

After a couple of days, a cargo ship came to the barge and released nets to let the refugees climb on board. The cargo ship arrived in the Philippines where Nguyen and his family stayed at a military installation to wait for news of his father. In the meantime, Nguyen attended a Western-style school where young refugees learned English and American history amongst other skills to better assist in their transition to living in the U.S.

One day while Nguyen’s mother, brother and sister were down at the ports, they found out Nguyen’s father was able to escape. He secured his position on a small vessel using gold and other material valuables, but almost missed the boat after a relative unaware of his fleeing stopped him in the streets to talk. Days later, he arrived at the ports and the family was reunited.

Son Nguyen at 10 years old after his family arrived in the U.S.

The family continued their journey to the U.S. and travelled to Guam where they completed their alien registration and received Green Cards. Afterwards, they traveled to Wake Island before making it to the mainland U.S.

Nguyen and his family arrived at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas in August 1975. Once a closed military base, it reopened to serve as a temporary staging ground for the release of refugees to American sponsors who would help refugees settle in the U.S.

After a sponsorship trial, Nguyen and his family relocated to a trailer refugee encampment in Arkansas where a local chicken processing plant offered work to Vietnamese refugees. Though, due to encounters with discrimination, the family decided to relocate to Charlotte, NC where they had other family connections. A sponsor there, who would ultimately become a lifelong friend of the Nguyens, welcomed them in.

After months of saving and with the backing of their sponsor, the Nguyens bought a home and settled down.

AN OBVIOUS CHOICE

Growing up in Charlotte, Nguyen developed an interest in machines, wanting to understand what made them tick. He went on to join an Engineers Explorer Club where he met Bob Eble, a Duke Nuclear Energy employee now science educator, who further inspired him to pursue engineering.

By the time Nguyen was submitting college applications, the choice to pursue a future in mechanical engineering was clear.

“Education was important to my family and I knew I was going to college,” he said. “It was a choice between being a doctor or an engineer for my parents. I couldn’t stand blood, but I liked tearing things apart and seeing how they worked so the choice was a bit obvious.”

Nguyen found himself at NC State after weighing the pros and cons of different schools including Clemson, Georgia Tech, Duke and MIT. He chose to enroll at NC State because of opportunity and accessibility while still being able to experience a new environment away from home.

Nguyen made the most of his time in college by involving himself in NC State’s American Society of Mechanical Engineers student chapter and serving as chair his senior year.

After graduation, he continued to be involved with ASME by serving as the chairman of the Charlotte ASME professional chapter for some years.

While the economy at the time of Nguyen’s graduation proved a difficult circumstance, he did a co-op at Duke Nuclear Energy before launching into careers over the next few decades as a plant manager in the textile industry, a math and science teacher and a design engineer.

“With the trends in the industry, things go up and then go down, and sometimes it gets stressful or boring,” said Nguyen. “If things got old or boring after a while, I wanted to try something else.”

Despite some of the ups and downs in the industry, though, Nguyen felt fortunate having the opportunity to switch careers when he thought the time was right. If he had stayed in Vietnam, Nguyen believes his opportunities would have been hard to anticipate.

“What it comes down to is that as immigrants, we do what we can do to take care of our families,” said Nguyen. “That was what my parents thought of when we made the journey here and found a home for ourselves.”

In the spirit of taking care of his loved ones, including now his wife and two children, Nguyen continues to live by the lessons his father taught him in enriching himself while never taking for granted the sacrifices his family had made to get to this point.

“My dad emphasized the importance of setting your mind to something and setting up a roadmap to achieve your goal, that is what has pushed me,” said Nguyen. “Always continue to learn and to enrich yourself.”