Starting Over – The Pha Mouavangsou Story

At one time in life, Pha Mouavangsou was a high school drop-out, divorced single dad, and often got into trouble hanging out with the wrong crowd.

But his exceptional journey to get to where he is today breaks the mold, reaffirms that you can still reach your full potential as an adult later in life. He refused to let his past and hardships define who he is. He once was afraid to tell people his life story and experiences because of the challenges he had to overcome in life. He identifies himself and others who share these experiences as “sleepers,” or people who never reach their full potential because no one has awaken them up. He attributes this to a number of factors, such as the lack of parental supervision, mentors, and support from schools. Today, Pha Mouavangsou is Dean at ITT Technical Institute in Clovis, California.

Growing up Mouavangsou was the middle child of a family of nine children and as a result was often overlooked. He felt he belonged to that forgotten, lost generation of middle children whose parents were struggling with adjusting to a new life in America. He did not have much parental supervision and too much free time. During most of his teenage years he lived with an older married brother more so than with his parents, even though they all lived at the same apartment complex. He recalls “I was always shifting around not in one stable location as a middle child and was often forgotten in
the family.”

He recalls the years of his youth fondly; especially how fun it was to hang out with friends who also provided protection from other ethnic groups of gangs and bullies. He goes on to explain how back then, even if he or his peers had wanted to avoid that kind of lifestyle, getting pulled into it and getting into trouble was too often the only option. Not all of them were gangbangers, shared Mouavangsou, but some of his older friends were true gangsters and knew what they were doing. He attended McLane High School and felt not much was expected from students labeled as failures. Mouavangsou shared that “my ex-wife’s brother-in-law started a gang and I use to hang out with them. We got in trouble, did crazy stuff, and fought with other gangs.”

For Mouavangsou, the reality check that forced him to reassess his life occurred when someone drove up next to his parked car and fired two shots point blank into his car. He states, “I was right between the bullets; both missed me by inches.” Despite his having been shot at, the compassion in him led to his wondering, “What would happen to my child if I had died?” After this incident his parents decided to send him to live with a cousin in Arlington, Texas. At the time he was only 17, but had already dropped out of high school during his senior year and was married with one child. While in Texas, Mouavangsou and his wife had marital problems and decided to go their separate ways. After two years in Texas, he returned home to Fresno with his son but he was quickly drawn back to the cycle of feeling lost and hanging out with his old friends.

A second wake-up call for Mouavangsou took place when his son had a school assignment that asked the students to write about a hero in their life. Although at the time Mouavangsou was a high school dropout, had no job, and hung out with friends who were equally as directionless in life, his son chose him as his hero. Mouavangsou realized then that if he was encouraging his son to go to school, he had to do so himself. Mouavangsou decided to go back to school and attended Fresno’s Caesar Chavez Adult School in 1997 and completed his GED in approximately 5 months. He was very determined and finished quickly. After completing his GED, Mouavangsou attended Fresno City College. While taking classes there he was also a member of the Hmong Student Club. However, Fresno City College still didn’t have many services that provided him with much direction. The best thing that happened to him at Fresno City College was meeting his current wife, Amie Vang. After a year of school he did not feel he was going anywhere so he withdrew and chose instead to work.

Mouavangsou believes that the turning point in his education career was when he attended Heald College in 1998. For the first time in his life he saw success – he actually got decent grades and the staff there was supportive. His experience there helped him to prove he wasn’t the failure people had labeled him as and provided him the opportunity to improve his life. To this day he tells his students, “When you tasted some success, you like it, because it’s better than failure.” Mouavangsou graduated with his Associate Degree in 2002 and reentered the workforce but still felt that without a higher degree he would not be able to get any good jobs. He found work in sales but even then the jobs he found were ones where he wasn’t able to make decisions.

These circumstances pushed him to continue bettering his life, so he decided to pursue more schooling. Mouavangsou made this critical decision in 2005, the year DeVry University opened a campus in Fresno. He returned to school and earned both a BA in Business Management and a Masters of Business Administration at DeVry University. His decision to major in Business was inspired by his insight into the success of corporate America and his belief in the opportunities that this degree would provide a competitive edge for himself. He also wanted to better his public speaking skills and to work towards improving himself. So he extensively read, listened to, watched and studied various motivational speakers. After telling his story to the Dean at Institute of Technology, he was given an opportunity to teach a course. He taught a professional development course on motivation and worked with students who shared a similar background as his.

Although education allowed Mouavangsou to get jobs that enabled him to support his family, he realized his true calling was teaching and mentoring so he decided to pursue a job that would allow him to achieve his passion. Mouavangsou describes, “I was working two jobs and I couldn’t wait to get off my full time job in sales to go work in my part-time teaching job.” He soon found himself burning out working both jobs and had to make a decision. Fortunately when the opportunity opened up for a Program Director at Institute of Technology, Mouavangsou applied for and was given the position. This new job allowed him to do what he enjoyed doing and also provided him with professional growth. “This opportunity allowed me to change my life completely because as you are mentoring others you are bettering yourself as well,” said Mouavangsou.

Mouavangsou has found that education provides the opportunity to get involved in the community and to give back. He realized how important education was to his life and wanted to help others change their lives too. Education changed his life because it helped him to look at his community as a whole and to understand his role in the greater scheme of things. Mouavangsou has since served on several committees, such as the Children’s Services Network and Fresno County Social Services Advisory Board. He was aware that networking would help pull himself to the next level. He joined Leadership Fresno and was part of Fresno Leading Young Professionals (FLYP). He encourages others to partake of these opportunities. During this time Mouavangsou became Associate Dean at Heald College for a brief period. Mouavangsou was recently selected by Fresno Business Street Online as an individual for the 40 under 40 Program, which spotlights 40 individuals who are successful and under the age of 40. He believes these are all good experiences and that he has learned much from meeting new people and networking.

The past several years Mouavangsou has also been involved with the Mayor’s Learn 2 Earn program as well as the Adult Education Taskforce. The program has featured Mouavangsouls life story as a motivational tool to inspire others. Mouavangsou is able to identify with how many adults feel when they can’t go back to school or donlt have the opportunity to change their circumstances to better their future. He understands a lot of their needs because he had gone through much of the same things. Mouavangsou firmly believes education opens peoples’ eyes and can help the next generation to do better.

This success has allowed him to revisit burdens of the past.

“For some young professionals, it is difficult to get involved with the community because of their past,” Mouavangsou explains, “some may feel they are persecuted and pushed away from the community for doing something deem bad or unacceptable in the past.” Mouavangsou shares growing up he was the often the first to do many things that his own immediate and extended family labels as not acceptable. Mouavangsou acknowledges, “I was one of the first in my family to drop out of high school, the first to be shot at, the first to be divorced, and the first to be a single parent.”

Mouavangsou reflects back on how identity or culture clashes shaped some of his own experiences. He feels Hmong parents don’t understand the idea of the individual, nor do they understand the need for individual freedom not taught in schools. Hmong parents are too often strict and harsh on rules and responsibilities, which is usually the cause of some youth to rebel against parental controls. This lack of parental realization of individual freedoms often leads to many youth’s reliance on their friends for social and emotional support. These friends often become family, especially because these youth’s parents are not able to understand what their kids may be going through.

One challenge Mouavangsou sees in the elders, or the first generation, is their inability to recognize change. For good or bad people can change and be different. He stressed for change in the community in the need to recognize second chances and to accept people’s past. He understands elders find it harder to change but feels to be able to move beyond this, people have to move on and accept past mistakes. He notices the shift in the mentality of the younger generations, how they are more accepting of the idea of moving on. When he began the journey that has led him to where he is today, he was scared to tell others his life story and experience due to perceptions people had of him as a former high school dropout, troublemaker, and “sleeper.” He describes one of his best friends and himself as “sleepers.” Today his best friend is currently a medical doctor in Seattle and Mouavangsou is Dean of ITT Institute of Technology.

He often cites a popular Native American proverb that guides his life. “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in a manner so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.” Mouavangsou believes one cannot let the past and it’s hardships define who they are. He goes on to say we can define ourselves by the actions you start today. Mouavangsou’s advice is for people to challenge themselves to reach their full potential and to let them know it’s never too late to want to change our lives. His personal life story exemplifies that it is never too late to start your life. If anything, he wants the readers of this article to know that everyone has the potential to change their life if they so choose to.

In the closing of our conversation, I asked Pha, “What was the most inspiring moment in your life that has allowed you to push yourself to find so much success?” Pha recounted with this short story: I had a conversation a few years ago with my father. My father told me that he was sad. When I asked him why, he stated that out of all his peers, he is the only one that does not have a son with a doctorate degree. He stresses that he had four sons and each of us are able individuals.

He tells me that of the four sons my eldest brother was much older and would not be able to pursue this dream of his. My second oldest brother was a mute and my father didn’t expect him to reach this dream. My youngest brother is still lost and unsure of what he wanted to do in life yet. He concluded that this means, if I did not accomplish this for him, then he would never see his dream come true.

I was in shock that after all we have been through, my father would entrust his dream in my hands. I was the one who fought with my father the most out of all my siblings. I was the one that brought so much shame to his name and embarrassed him through my actions. Throughout my whole life, my father and I never spoke much. We never really had a relationship.

At this moment I realized that it doesn’t matter how you start life, but rather who you become at the end of your life. Up to that point, I have never done anything that my father could be proud of. This conversation motivated me to do something my father can be proud of. This moment pushed me to start the Bachelor’s Degree program at Devry.

My father never got to enjoy my accomplishments or see me succeed. In the fall of 2006, a few months after we had this conversation, my father passed away. This point was just the very beginning of my educational career. I never got my chance to make him proud and to allow him to enjoy and celebrate in my success. I regret that moment every day and every day I wish my father could see what I’ve accomplished. This is the motivation that keeps me striving to be better, motivating me to become better. I stress to everyone, live in the moment, because when the moment passes, you can never get it back. Strive every day to be the best that you can be, because we never know what tomorrow will bring. Regardless of your circumstance in life, it’s never too late to strive to become someone better. Never too late to pursue your education! Never too late to become the person that everyone wants and needs you to be.