Phong Ly is one of engineering’s rising stars. With an impressive resume that includes such prestigious honors as being named a New Face of Civil Engineering by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), induction into Mississippi State University’s James Worth Bagley College of Engineering Student Hall of Fame, and a coveted merit-based scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, to name just a few, he’s joined an elite group of students.
Equipped with an infectious laugh and a can-do attitude, Phong’s ready to tackle whatever the future may hold for him. Right now that means moving from Starkville, Mississippi to Berkeley, California to pursue his Master’s in Energy, Civil Infrastructure and Climate Engineering. But before that, he’s headed to Ecuador where he and his EWB-USA colleagues are working to bring clean water to the village of Santa Teresita located in the foothills of the Andes mountains (about 7500 ft above sea level).
Cathy Leslie, EWB-USA’s executive director caught up with Phong by phone and the two discussed graduation, life lessons, dreams, and commiserated about 3am flights.
Below is an excerpt from that conversation.
Cathy: Congratulations Phong! What a remarkable year you’ve had. I understand that you’re leaving for Ecuador tomorrow. What are you hoping to accomplish there?
Phong: The goal is to establish a water distribution system. This is our first assessment trip and our goal is to listen to the stakeholders and make sure we’re addressing their priorities. Being a part of EWB-USA has taught me to be open to all solutions and really listen to our partner community because nine times out of ten they know a lot more than you do about their community.
Cathy: Absolutely! That’s exciting. Speaking of exciting, I hear you are one of the new faces of engineering through ASCE. That’s quite an accomplishment—only ten students a year are awarded this honor. What’s that done for you?
Phong: It’s been great. And, it is quite an honor. I’m proud to share my story as a first generation student and a person of color.
Cathy: It’s great to see the diversity of perspective and thinking that is coming from a new generation of students. As you move forward, coming out of school, what are your hopes and dreams?
Phong: There are definitely some big changes in my future with my move to Berkeley. As far as dreams, right now I’d like to work to better design infrastructure that is resilient to climate change and work on projects promoting social equity. After my first EWB-USA trip to Zambia, I thought about social inequity within my city.
I’m from Jackson, MS, a place that is sort of infamous for its water quality violations and bad road infrastructure and how it disproportionately affects communities of color and I just want to be able to use my experience as a professional engineer to help solve those issues. That’s a little bit idealistic and broad but hopefully I’ll get it narrowed down after grad school. I love that EWB-USA is also working in markets in the US and I think it is important to recognize the issues that are going on with a lot of communities right here at home.
Cathy: Exactly. There are underserved communities everywhere and there are good engineers everywhere so if we can pair those together we’ll be able to have the impact we want to see in the world. I think your plans are very cool. Are you going to stick with EWB-USA as you do this?
Phong: Yes. After I move out to Berkeley, I’m hoping to get involved with the San Francisco Professional chapter of EWB-USA.
Cathy: Excellent. We can definitely help you make that connection. As you move forward, what questions do you have moving into your career?
Phong: I’m wondering what life lessons being the President of EWB-USA has taught you? I’m wondering what advice you might have for graduates?
Cathy: Well, I have a long career so I think, just in general, if I was coming out again I wish someone would have told me five things.
Phong: This is great. I’m listening.
- Interview who you are going to work with and work for as much as they interview you.
- There are two sides to every story and before you try to fix something figure out what those two sides are because the solution will be much different.
- As you move forward, never burn your bridges. If you feel like you’re coming to a burning your bridges point leave whatever you are doing before relationships get broken because you never know when that’s going to come back to haunt you.
- Keep your options open and fluid. I think a lot of young folks pigeonhole themselves very early. I describe myself as an expert generalist—I know a lot about a lot of different topics but I also know when to go get the expert and I think we’re going to lose that kind of person over the years because people are siloing their careers. Through EWB-USA we provide a really high level view of what it takes to get a program from a community expressed desire all the way through monitoring and evaluation and that’s really rare these days.
- Keep your eyes open all the time because there are opportunities popping up that never existed before and you might be able to define a role for yourself. When I graduated there was no EWB-USA. This job literally did not exist when I came out of school and the organization did not exist until 2002. Just think about that. Think about what we’ve done in the last 17 years and the opportunities we’ve provided for folks like you, and for me and for our partner communities.
Phong: Those are really good life lessons. That’s great advice!
Cathy (laughing): Well it came from 30 to 40 years of experience so there you go! I had to at least learn about five things during that time!
Phong: EWB-USA is such a great organization. I’m so lucky to have found out about it while I was in high school so that I could start when I was a freshman, get involved, and have the mentors I have today. For me, EWB-USA reinforced my career goals and helped me realize how important sustainability is while allowing me to help out a community in need.
I am really grateful for the organization and I’m really excited about the trip.
Cathy: Speaking of which, don’t you have a flight tonight?
Phong: Yes, in the middle of the night. We’re leaving at 3 a.m.
Cathy: Oh, those are the worst. Well, I’d better let you go. Last words Phong, keep being an engineer, keep building value. You will not only make a difference, but you will have the kind of satisfaction that can only come from doing truly valuable work. And you will find that this kind of satisfaction will far outweigh any of the other benefits that may come from your career. I’m really looking forward to seeing what good you do. Good luck!