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Laotian immigrant, Iraqi war veteran graduates through BYU’s BGS program

For Utah National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Sisaliao Vongphakdy, 35, of Eagle Mountain, Utah, the journey to a college degree has been a long one, stretching from Laos to California, from Utah to Iraq and from 1999 to 2013.

Vongphakdy, who goes by Leo, will be at the Marriott Center this week to receive his BYU diploma, a Bachelor of General Studies degree with a management emphasis. There to cheer for him will be his parents, his wife Julia and their three children, Jordan, Joshua and Jasmin.

Born in war-torn Laos, Leo was only six years old when his family, his uncle and another family dodged border guards and floated canoes across the Mekong River into Thailand in search of a better, more stable life. There they were put into one refugee camp, then another.

“In the first camp, there was just a dirt floor and mosquito netting. They would give us one bowl of soup to feed six to 12 people,” Leo said. “We were there for just a few weeks. The second camp was better. We were lucky because my Dad’s family in Canada sent money to us after they found out we were in the camp.”

In less than two years the Vongphakdy family was allowed to come to the United States.

“Dad was in the Laotian military and they were allies with the U.S. during the Vietnam War, so that might have helped us. My aunt was already here too. I don’t know if she helped sponsor us,” he said.

The family went to Pittsburg, Calif., and stayed with their aunt, who had joined The  Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Within three months Leo’s family also had converted to the Church.

“Lots of Buddhist refugees were sponsored by churches in the U.S., and they joined the religion of their sponsors as a mark of respect,” he said.

However, for Leo, the conversion was real. “My family was never very active, but I had good Church leaders and friends, which influenced me to remain active in the Church,” he said.

He participated in Boy Scouts, then went on a mission at age 19, serving first in the Laotian-speaking Texas Dallas-Fort Worth Mission, and then in a Laotian-speaking mission in Philadelphia.

When he returned in 1999 he came to BYU, where he spent a few years trying to figure out what he wanted to study.

“I didn’t quite know what degree I wanted to major in,” he said. “I went from an international business major to construction management and then changed to sociology, criminal justice. I was working as an MTC teacher, teaching Laotian, and then I was hired on by the Utah National Guard as a linguist.”

Meanwhile, he met Julia, a returned missionary studying psychology at BYU. They wanted to get married, and Leo felt the responsibility to provide for his family.

“In December 2001 I decided to join the National Guard to take a full-time position as a linguist, right before I was to be wed to Julia,” he explained. They were married in 2002, and Leo quickly found that it was very difficult to have a family and a demanding full-time job and still go to school.

“I tried one more semester, but I couldn’t keep my grades up. I did the research, though, and learned about the Bachelor of General Studies program.”

The BGS program lets qualifying former students complete their BYU degree online by taking BYU Independent Study classes. They must have completed at least 30 credits as day students at BYU, be in good academic and financial standing with the university, and receive an endorsement from their LDS bishop or other clergy.

Leo was a junior at BYU when he stopped going to school, so he had a year’s worth of credits still to complete. He commuted to the BYU Salt Lake Center, taking one course at a time that he knew would be required for a BGS degree even though he had not yet been admitted to the program.

Meanwhile, the Iraq War had begun. Leo was deployed there in 2002 to work as a signal intelligence analyst. During that first deployment, he tried to work on a financial marketing class, but with constant interruptions and transfers, he ended up having to retake the class.

When he returned to Utah, he only needed 21 more credits for graduation.

“I was debating whether to do the degree online through Excelsior, the military’s online college,” he said. But he ultimately decided to finish his BYU degree. He applied to the BGS program and was accepted.

In the BGSprogram, students choose an emphasis from seven areas of study. Leo chose a management emphasis.

“When I was at BYU I had been looking at construction management, but then they changed the program so it was harder to get into. But I really enjoyed my organizational behavior classes,” which he found useful on his second deployment to Iraq from 2010 to 2011.

“On my second deployment I was in charge of a small multifunctional team responsible for training the Iraqi Army on basic intelligence gathering techniques,” he said. “One of my soldiers was always disregarding his duties and being disrespectful to others. All the other guys felt that he was not being a team player and resented having to pick up his slack.

"As his direct supervisor it was my responsibility to discipline and train him but I wasn’t sure how to best approach the situation. I remembered a lesson from an organizational behavior class which talked about Situational Leadership Theory. It basically states that there is no single ‘best’ style of leadership — the most successful leaders are those that adapt their leadership style to the maturity of the individual or group they are attempting to lead or influence," Leo said.

"I decided to get to know him better first, learn more about his background, education and current family situation. This helped me develop a relationship of trust with him, and I was able to design a training suited to his specific strengths. Once he received this training, he was able to perform his duties effectively and that made him feel good about being there.

"From that point on I was a much more effective leader for him because he knew I had his best interest in mind and was willing to work with him to assure not only the mission’s success but his personal well-being as well,” Leo said.

During that deployment, Leo also did coursework. “The Internet was really slow. I downloaded my assignments to work on them and then submitted them online. A lot of my fellow soldiers were in the same boat, working on schooling in their spare time. Most of them were LDS, too. We were really supportive of each other, always helping out by looking over each other’s papers. Most of them were U students.”

He’s the first person in his family to earn a college degree. “My brother tried, my sister tried. But they got married and had kids. They had to work to take care of them,” he said.

What made the difference for him? “My biggest motivation in doing the BGS program was to get finished. In 2010 the military shut down my program and they had to let me go. Then I was in Iraq until 2011. When I came back I was able to get hired on with a new program, but it’s based on a grant that has to be renewed annually, so it’s not that stable. I have 12 years in active service and would like to retire from the Guard,” which requires a 20-year commitment.

With his degree, Leo will have more options, such as becoming a warrant officer. He recently applied for a higher position in the National Guard.

“Most likely I can retire from it,” he said. “But if I don’t get this job, there’s something better out there. With a degree, I have a lot more to offer.”

Hard as it was at times to keep working on his degree, he’s glad he stuck it out.

“It’s hard to have done so much and then just give it up,” he said. “I didn’t quit.”

For more information on BYU's Bachelor of General Studies program, visit












Writer: Cyndy Moorhead

Photo by Bella Torgerson/BYU Photo

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