Cap Nguyen was 18 years old when he spent a month on a boat on the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t a joy ride.
As the Vietnam War came to an end in 1975 with the communist regime in North Vietnam overrunning South Vietnam, Nguyen and eight members of his family, including his parents, boarded a fishing boat to escape the deadly chaos. About 40 other people joined them.
“Everybody left if they could,” said Nguyen.
They first sailed to Singapore, which gave them food and water but wouldn’t let them stay. The same thing happened in the Philippines. They were finally welcomed to Guam, a U.S. territory.
Sponsored by the Church World Service chapter at Red Bank Baptist Church, Nguyen and his family were brought to Chattanooga, where he enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1976 and graduated in 1980 with a degree in electrical engineering.
“My story is about American generosity and opportunity,” said Nguyen, an honors student and an active Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers member while at UTC. “I believe that UTC took a chance on me and gave me a great opportunity.
“It provided me the skill set that changed my life outlook drastically.”
To pay the generosity forward, Nguyen has started a $25,000 scholarship for students in the College of Engineering and Computer Science who have demonstrated successful academic performance and may need financial aid to attend college.
“I hope this small investment will make a real difference in someone’s life in a similar way that other people helped me when I was in need.
“I want to put a nice bow on my career and transfer my experience to the next generation. That’s how I think that paying forward is a good way. UTC was my love and is my love.”
Kim White, vice chancellor of advancement at UTC, said Nguyen’s life story is “inspiring and it really does show how education and opportunity changes lives.”
“His story’s all about determination and opportunity, and I think that’s really how students succeed, coming here wanting to have a better life and wanting to grow and excel.”
Nguyen is now a project manager for NASA in Houston and working on Artemis II, the project that plans to launch a manned fly-by mission to the moon and back in November 2024.
In March 2023, Nguyen won the Johnson Space Center Director’s Innovation Group Achievement Award from NASA for the work he and his team did on software for the project.
“NASA has many talents with much higher academic credentials than me. They also have many other skills and knowledge that I do not have,” he said. “I am so grateful that I have an opportunity of working on something that I really love. I hope my work here will contribute to the future space exploration.”
Nguyen’s interest in space exploration began in 1969 when he was 13 and heard U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and say, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
“That statement gave me such a good impression at a young age,” Nguyen said.
When he fled Vietnam in 1975, he was one month shy of graduating from high school. He was proficient in math, but his English was not, which was a problem after arriving in the U.S.
“I studied English in high school, and I could write and read fairly well for my school work, but I had great difficulty in listening and in conversation,” he explained.
Members of Red Bank Baptist and administrators from UTC helped him take the required tests and improve his English to the level required for acceptance as an engineering student at UTC.
He excelled in his studies. As a member of the Honors program, he was chosen as the best freshman engineering student in 1976 and was awarded scholarships from the Chattanooga Engineers Club. He graduated in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
“UTC had offered me a lifetime opportunity. It provided me the skill set that changed my life outlook drastically,” he said.
As the lone breadwinner in his family, he had to work while going to school. He landed a job at Swope Equipment and Supply Co. as a janitor.
“I cleaned up the shop, and I cleaned the warehouse,” Nguyen said. “Unfortunately, I cleaned diligently and it was so clean, so sparkly clean, I ran out of a job.”
But his obvious work ethic caught the eye of Sam Swope, a member of Red Bank Baptist. Nguyen said Swope gave him a new job unloading parts from 18-wheelers at the warehouse. So Nguyen took classes during the day and worked at night.
“One night, for some reason, Mr. Swope came back to the warehouse, and he saw me working. Later on, he opened up a gas station, so he asked me, ‘You want to take care of my gas station?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I would love to.’”
As manager, Nguyen was able to hire his father, “So now we have two incomes, and I don’t have to work so much overtime. I have more time for school.”
After graduating from UTC, he worked in private industry for several years, then started his own engineering company, which he ran for 12 years. He retired but got bored, he said, and he’s now been at NASA for 14 years.
With his scholarship, he hopes to help other students achieve their goals like he was helped when he was a student at UTC.
“I hope this small investment will make a real difference in someone’s life in a similar way that other people helped me when I was in need.”