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Thursday, March 23, 2023

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Sabrina Laut from "SWAP Shop," a project developed through the leadership minor at SDSU Sabrina Laut from "SWAP Shop," a project developed through the leadership minor at SDSU

A Challenge to Lead by Example

The refugee experience of two Vietnamese “boat people” has spurred the creation of a new award for students who can execute solutions to problems.
By Jeff Ristine

“The way we give a second chance is by providing education to underserved children and building compassionate leaders.”

San Diego State University students who exemplify leadership by identifying solid solutions to societal problems will be eligible for grants to carry out their ideas.

The new SDSU Leadership Challenge, funded by a gift from two Aztec parents who are former refugees from Vietnam, will support awards to execute worthy community-service projects. Open to all students and organizations, the program begins this fall.

“In everything we do, we believe in a second chance,” Jimmy Thai said last week in an email exchange from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where he and his wife, Lily (’94), were celebrating a grand opening in their ongoing Build a School Foundation program. Their daughter, Faith, is a junior studying communication at SDSU. 

“The way we give a second chance is by providing education to underserved children and building compassionate leaders,” Jimmy Thai also said. 

Global philanthropy

The Thais' gift will support grants of $10,000, $5,000 and $2,500 to be awarded to the best Leadership Challenge proposals, beginning this academic year and continuing for at least five years. Additional support comes from a separate leadership endowment.

“We will assist students through the entire process by mentoring them and guiding them to accomplishing their proposal goals,” said Christy Samarkos, associate vice president for Student Affairs.

The Thais are not newcomers to philanthropy. Their Build a School Foundation, started two years ago, aims to establish 100 new schools globally by 2025. Initially focusing on poverty-stricken villages in Vietnam; they also hope to spread the concept to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines.

The couple’s connection to Southeast Asia runs deep. Jimmy and Lily Thai were among the nearly 800,000 refugees who fled Vietnam by boat in the repressive aftermath of the Vietnam War. Lily Thai’s family settled in East San Diego, and she ultimately enrolled in Hoover High School, learning English from a special tutor. After graduating, she was accepted into SDSU and graduated with a degree in public administration. 

“My education helped me achieve the American Dream,” Lily Thai said.

The Thais serve on the Leadership Advisory Board and will help select the annual winning proposals, expected before the end of the fall semester.

Finding solutions to societal problems

Some of the proposals are expected to come from recognized student organizations and others from the 15-unit leadership minor program offered through SDSU’s Department of Administration, Rehabilitation, and Postsecondary Education and Student Life and Leadership.

While all students are welcome to submit projects, Dean of Students Randy Timm noted that the minor and the capstone course “fits quite nicely with the Leadership Challenge” and other types of leadership education at SDSU.

Originally launched in 2008, the minor gives students the chance to study leadership theories and also research and practice skills through internships, service or on-campus positions. Also, the leadership minor has proven increasingly popular, growing from 15 students at its reinstatement in 2015 to 200 enrolled in the introductory course for next fall. 

Among the projects developed by students in the leadership minor since 2008 are:
  • “SWAP Shop,” a clothing drive to help students who need business attire for a professional job interview, using donations from SDSU faculty, staff and students.
  • “Go Fresh: Health and Wellness for the Newly Arrived,” which distributed bags of donated dental hygiene products and information to refugee families and other newly arrived residents of San Diego.
  • A donated book drive for a public library and schools impacted by the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Northern California.
“We have students who are very oriented to make a difference,” Samarkos said. “Leadership, social change and providing service to others is who our students are.”