Featured photo: Cap Nguyen, Chattanooga ’80
By Shawn Ryan | Photos by Jerrod Niles
When Cap Nguyen arrived in the United States in 1975, his English was not great.
“I studied English in high school, and I could write and read fairly well for my schoolwork, but I had great difficulty in listening and in conversation,” he explains.
It’s not surprising that his language skills were wobbly. He had fled South Vietnam a few months earlier to escape the deadly chaos during the communist takeover at the end of the Vietnam War. At 18 years old and one month shy of high school graduation, Nguyen boarded a fishing boat with eight members of his family, including his parents, and about 40 other refugees.
“Everybody left if they could,” says Nguyen.
Finding a safe haven added another layer of difficulty for the family. Singapore wouldn’t let them stay. Neither would the Philippines. Six months after setting off from Vietnam, they finally were welcomed in Guam, a U.S. territory.
Sponsored by the Church World Service chapter at Red Bank Baptist Church, Nguyen and his family eventually were brought to Chattanooga, where he enrolled at UT Chattanooga in 1976 and graduated in 1980 with a degree in electrical engineering.
“My story is about American generosity and opportunity,” says Nguyen, who was an honors student and an active member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers while at UTC.
“I believe that UTC took a chance on me and gave me a great opportunity,” he says. “It provided me the skill set that changed my life outlook drastically.”
To pay the generosity forward, Nguyen 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 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,” he says. “UTC was my love and is my love.”
Kim White, UTC vice chancellor of advancement, says Nguyen’s life story is “inspiring, and it really does show how education and opportunity change 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, now a project manager for NASA in Houston, works 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 the project’s software.
“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 says. “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 years old and U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and Nguyen heard Armstrong say, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
“That statement gave me such a good impression at a young age,” Nguyen says.
When he fled Vietnam in 1975, he was proficient in math but not in English, which was a problem after arriving in the U.S. with his family. 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.
As the lone breadwinner in his family, he landed a job at Swope Equipment and Supply Co. as a janitor while attending UTC.
“I cleaned up the shop, and I cleaned the warehouse,” Nguyen says. “Unfortunately, I cleaned diligently, and it was so clean, so sparkly clean, I ran out of a job.”
But his work ethic caught the eye of owner Sam Swope, who also was a member of Red Bank Baptist. Swope gave him a new job unloading parts from 18-wheelers at the company’s warehouse, Nguyen says, so he took classes during the day and worked at night.
Even though higher-ups usually weren’t in the warehouse when he was, Nguyen’s performance was noticed.
“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 hired his father, “So now we have two incomes, and I don’t have to work so much overtime. I have more time for school.”
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.
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 says, and he’s now been at NASA for 14 years.
By funding his new scholarship at UTC, he hopes to help other students achieve their goals like he was helped when he was a student.
“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.”