By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
PLANO — The announcement of Khoa Nguyen’s more than 850 Christian service hours startled some of his friends and teachers during a senior awards ceremony for John Paul II High School’s class of 2016.
Nguyen’s great heart for service was widely recognized, but even his close friends found his number of service hours staggering.
“It wasn’t surprising that he did so much, but that he kept it to himself,” said Ryan Atkinson, a friend who graduated with Nguyen on May 22. “He’s a great guy. He’s really friendly and helpful. I don’t think there was a day when he wasn’t positive.
“He went above and beyond.”
But Nguyen said that his parents and grandparents set examples of faith and perseverance that inspired him to find joy in spreading hope.
Nguyen said that he felt overwhelmed with awe each time his father spoke of his treacherous 16-month journey from his native Vietnam to Houston, where he and his younger brother arrived in 1983.
“He came to America as one of the ‘Boat People,’ ” said Nguyen, a Houston native who lives in Frisco. “He worked cutting up fish and at McDonald’s to put himself through Texas A&M University and become an engineer. When I think of his story, I think, ‘Wow—that’s crazy.’ ”
A better life
Nguyen’s father, Francis, who was 20 when he fled Vietnam, said that his parents agonized about whether to send their sons toward a new and potentially better life.
“We thought we had no future there,” said Francis, who belongs with his family to Mother of Perpetual Help Vietnamese Catholic Church in Garland. “Our parents were worried, but they wanted us to have a future.”
But their future almost vanished when pirates attacked their boat shortly after Francis, his brother and 23 others set off for Malaysia.
Faith saved their lives, Francis said.
“We were lucky that the pirates didn’t kill anybody,” Francis said. “They took all our valuables and everything we had. But a deacon in our boat had a Bible, and I think that the leader of the pirates saw that and they decided to let us go.”
Francis said that he spent time in Pulau Bidong Island refugee camp in Malaysia in 1982 before his transfer to the Philippines, where he spent six months learning English and USA culture and conventions before landing in Houston in August 1983.
“We never forgot the day when the U.S. Embassy told us we were accepted,” Francis said. “I had an uncle who had lived in Houston since 1975, and he sponsored us.”
Francis found work cutting fish for a market.
“It was in a rough neighborhood, but we had no money,” he said. “I went to community college when I wasn’t working.”
He said he left that job after the store owner was killed in a robbery.
A job at McDonald’s helped him as he worked his way to an engineering degree from Texas A&M, Francis said.
He married his wife, Mary, on a visit to Vietnam, where Minh—the first of their two sons—was born. Minh is a senior at Texas Christian University.
The family lived in Houston when Nguyen was born.
When Francis accepted an engineering job in Denton in 2011, the family moved to North Texas.
A servant’s heart
Nguyen spent the winter break of his freshman year at JPII serving in Vietnamese shelters that cared for orphaned and abandoned children with disabilities in the Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
He said that his maternal grandparents long had devoted themselves to serving their parish and focusing on the orphaned children.
“They needed a bigger shelter,” said Nguyen, who is an altar server at Mother of Perpetual Help. “Many of the children were blind. We wanted them to have a better environment. My grandparents were active in service, which influenced my parents and influenced me.”
He spent the two weeks in Vietnam assisting in the building of a larger shelter. When it was time to leave, Nguyen found it hard.
“There were so many children,” he said. “It was really cute because they’d all surround me all the time. It was so fun.
“It was hard when I got back because it was going from waking up to go and help people every day to getting back to the business of my regular life.”
Nguyen, who volunteers at several area hospitals, said that he aims to have a medical career. He will attend UT-Dallas to study biology this fall, and possibly pursue a nursing degree at TCU.
“I really enjoy the hospital environment,” he said. “I really do enjoy chatting with patients and giving them hope.”
A class act
Nguyen, a talented violinist who played in JPII’s orchestra, impressed his teachers with his work ethic.
JPII calculus teacher Pamela Arthur said that Nguyen set a great example for his classmates.
“In class, he was always focused on the lesson and his work,” she said. “I often called on him to share his work with the class. Khoa does not let anything distract him even when his peers are very off task.”
Michael Browning, the school’s band and orchestra director, said that Nguyen provided leadership on campus.
“Khoa is truly an outstanding student who exemplifies everything we do here at John Paul II High School,” Browning said. “He is an excellent violinist in the orchestra, altar server in Mass, and an excellent leader who is very involved around campus.”
Francis said that watching his son graduate from JPII filled the family with gratitude.
“I was so happy and so proud of him,” Francis said. “I told Khoa that there’s a lot of opportunity, but you have to work for it.”
Find more coverage of the graduating Class of 2016 in the June 17 print edition of The Texas Catholic.