Defying the Odds

Date Published: 
April 30, 2014

Chains of events can lead many directions. For one Lee College of Engineering student graduating this May, his chain of events went from bad decisions, to substance abuse, to living in a shipping container, to accepting the help of others, to again believing in himself and to ultimately defying the odds.

Phetvyseth (Phet) Xaysombath is a senior in Mechanical Engineering. At the college’s recent Student Achievement Awards, he was one of the winners of the Anna M. Johnson Hats Off Awards, which are given to students who initially struggle in their academic career, but persevere and triumph. The announcement of Phet as the Mechanical Engineering recipient brought the awards ceremony to a near standstill, as Department Chair Scott Smith told the audience all that Phet had endured.

“Phet started in the engineering program back in 1999,” Dr. Smith said. “He dropped out and during subsequent years ended up homeless. Normally you would think that would be unrecoverable. But through sheer force of will he was able to complete a stunning transformation. Fifteen years after he began, he is graduating. His story is one of the most powerful I can remember.”

Phet’s UNC Charlotte story began when he was right out of high school. He started his studies in engineering, but after the first semester decided it was too difficult and transferred to economics.

“Everything went well for almost four years,” Phet said, “and I was within a semester of graduating. Then I had some family problems, and reacted by making some dumb decisions. I stated drinking and doing drugs. Then I dropped out and moved to California. For the next five years I battled addictions with cocaine and crystal meth.”

It was 2009 when Phet finally accepted the help of his Mother and his church pastor in California. They convinced him it was not too late and he could still turn his life around.

“I realized this is not how I was raised,” Phet said. “I felt guilty and hated what I had become. So I took a leap of faith and got away from my life in California.”

His family had helped arrange a job for him in Minnesota working at a small auto repair shop. “I wasn’t paid, but did live with the family in a small place a few miles from the shop. The important part was that I was away from my lifestyle of substance abuse. After awhile I decided it was too cold, though, and I found out about a person in Hawaii looking for farming help, so I went.”

The job in Hawaii was by no means paradise, as the woman who owned the farm was having financial problems. There was no money for machinery, so Phet did the planting by hand. He was living in a shack at the bottom of the mountain and was again not getting paid.

He left that job and went to work at a purple sweet potato farm, while living in a shipping container. He made 50 cents more an hour than the other laborers, because he could speak Thai and Laotian and do translating.

“After the harvest my Dad called and said a friend of his was opening a restaurant in Concord and needed a sushi chef,” Phet said. “I had learned to make sushi in California, so I went. I did that for a year, but knew I could do more. I realized getting my education was now the key. I thought of finishing my economics degree, but decided if I was going to do this I was going to challenge myself with something hard, which was engineering.”

The engineering work was hard, but after a few semesters Phet got back into the rhythm of academics. “I wanted a perfect GPA,” he said. “I wanted to show my family I had really turned my life around. I’m graduating with at 3.34, which wasn’t quite my goal, but is still pretty good. It has been tough but rewarding experience.”

The Mechanical Engineering faculty members were great in their instruction and support, Phet said. “I also have to recognize my advisor, Ms. Tracy Beauregard, who was my go-to person. She always had time for me and helped me throughout my entire academic journey”.

Ms. Beauregard said working with Phet was one of the most rewarding experiences of her career. “I had no idea of his background story, except what I could see from his academic records,” she said. “He gave 100 percent attention to his academics and his goals. He was one of the most driven and conscientious students I’ve ever seen. Beyond the classroom, he got involved in a number of student organizations and in the community. He has been a great student to work with.”

Following his May 10 graduation, Phet will be going to work as an engineer for Schaeffler Group in Cheraw, SC. He will also be getting married, to Emma Borel, who is a UNC Charlotte accounting graduate.

“I feel like the things I have gone through can be an inspiration to others,” Phet said. “It’s never too late to do anything and you should never give up. Life isn’t easy and you have to fight. But a little faith can go a long way.”