Chandler Thai: Class of 2012
Major: Finance, real estate and law
From: Los Angeles
Why did you join the Navy after high school in 1999?
There were so many good reasons why I wanted to join, but mainly it was because I wasn't satisfied with my life after high school. My family was poor: We emigrated from Cambodia, and just like most typical first-generation immigrants, we were disadvantaged right from the start. We didn't have any money and we didn't speak any English when we arrived. The culture here is so much different and it's a tough learning curve. I felt I was always behind in learning. After graduating from high school, the smart kids went to college, but I tried looking for work. I applied at Burger King, Circuit City and The Goods Guys, but nobody hired me.
I later enrolled at Los Angeles City College, but trying to go to school with no money or car can be very difficult. I remember ordering a 99-cent Jumbo Jack from Jack in the Box and asking for a free cup of water because that was all I could afford. Then I spent two hours trying to catch the bus home. It was tough and I felt really trapped and bad for myself because it was so hard to get anything going.
One day, I met a Navy recruiter on campus at LACC. He told me all about the Navy and how the Navy could help accelerate my life. Everything I wanted, I could get from the Navy: technical training, traveling the world, money for college and the opportunity to earn a living. I also felt that I owed this country for all the times it took care of my family when we received welfare.
How was your Navy experience?
The first year was really tough. You have to be able to adapt to the military culture and experience more training after the initial training. In the beginning, I felt that I didn't know as much as everyone else, but I learned so much and continued to learn and improve as a person for the next three years. I was stationed at Camp Pendleton and worked as a hovercraft mechanic.
The best time was during a deployment. I was able to go to Hawaii, Canada, Thailand, Singapore, Jakarta, Bali, Brunei, Malaysia, Lamut, the Philippines, and Okinawa, Japan. I had a blast traveling all over the world. My Navy experience was really great and I got everything that I wanted out of the Navy.
Why did you want a college degree?
I was reminded that I wouldn't have had the same opportunity for a better life and a good education if I were living in Cambodia. It would be a shame if I didn't take advantage of a great opportunity to get my degree. Also, a teacher from my junior high school once told me, "You could be something great if you had the proper education." That always stuck in my mind.
What was your Cal Poly Pomona experience like?
The workload at Cal Poly Pomona was twice as difficult as the workload at the community college. At community college, you can get by without studying. At Cal Poly Pomona, you can't get by without putting time into your work.
Why didn't you give up?
Getting this degree wasn't easy. I've always been a terrible student as far back as I can remember. I've flunked classes and been put on academic probation so many times and attended five different community colleges before I transferred to Cal Poly Pomona. I was beat up emotionally and financially, but I told myself, "If I quit now, it would just be a total disaster." I spent years trying to get this degree and I would end it all by failing. I was in too deep to give up, so I really forced myself to concentrate and finish my degree.
What are your plans after commencement?
I plan to get a job, make some money and eventually start my own real estate investment company. Right now, I work in property management on the side and it has been working out really well.
One day, I would like to be a developer and make millions of dollars by designing houses and communities for low-income families. People don't realize how hard it is to have a really nice place to live as a low-income family. Ultimately, I want to make my mark on this world by making people's lives better. Because of all of the tough experiences I went through, I want to make the same experiences easier for someone else.