January Extraordinary Leader: Future Politician, Cancer Survivor

To professors, he’s known as Frantha Phonesavanh. But around campus, he’s known by one name – Fez.

“You can’t mess up Fez,” he says, laughing.

People mispronounce Phonesavanh’s name all the time so he’ll break down his last name for everyone who asks. It’s Pon-SEE-vaughn, he’ll say slowly, because he knows the volley of vowels and consonants in his last name are often hard to understand.

But it’s not hard to understand why Phonesavanh, a sophomore political science major and a first-generation American, has been selected as HPU’s Extraordinary Leader for the month of January.

And it’s not because he can walk across campus and know everyone he sees.

Not quite.

 

The Many Hats Of Fez

Phonesavanh first met presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a rally in Charleston, S.C.

Phonesavanh is a member of much at HPU: College Democrats, Title IX Student Committee, Students For Life organization, Club Tennis and Beta Theta Pi fraternity.

He’s a regional organizer for It’sOnUs, an organization combatting sexual assault on campus; a recent basketball coach for a local YMCA; a former camp counselor for a YMCA summer camp and the founder of the Green Flame Project, a non-profit that pairs mentors with children with mental health issues.

In 2016, he also was a regional organizer for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign.

 Meanwhile, he led the effort for HPU’s College Democrats to host the organization’s North Carolina convention on campus and spearheaded his fraternity’s move to help combat childhood cancer.

Beta Theta Pi raised $25,000 – and Phonesavanh got his head shaved to help.

Then, there is his latest accomplishment.

Later this year, he will receive the Congressional Youth Gold Medal. To receive it, Phonesavanh had to complete various requirements over 27 months.

That included training for a half marathon, mentoring 20 teenagers he still calls “my kids” and pedaling to 172 boroughs and towns in his home state of Connecticut.

Phonesavanh did it on a mountain bike that he bought for $150.

But that’s not Phonesavanh’s only extraordinary journey.

He’s fighting brain cancer. And right now, he’s winning.

 

 

‘The Privilege of Opportunity”

It was the summer of 2016 at YMCA Camp Woodstock in Connecticut. Phonesavanh worked there as the director of the LITs, or Leader In Training, and for two months, he mentored and helped train 100 LITs.

During his job as director, he started getting headaches and feeling groggy all the time. He chalked it up for simply being sick. He went to see a doctor, and that’s when he got the news.

Phonesavanh heard he had astrocytoma, a cancer that attacks the connective tissue of the brain. To kill his cancer, he went through three surgeries and nine months of chemotherapy and radiation. His first surgery was in September 2016.

Two months ago, at Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Cancer Research, one of the country’s top cancer care providers, doctors performed an experimental surgery on Phonesavanh and separated the tumor from his brain.

The LITs Phonesavanh worked with at Camp Woodstock in Connecticut gave him a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton, which is in the left corner of this photo. That cutout is still in Phonesavanh’s HPU dorm room.

Phonesavanh is one of the first 100 patients in the country to undergo Mass General’s experimental cancer surgery.

A couple of weeks ago, Phonesavanh went in for tests, and doctors told him everything looks good, and he’s healing correctly. But his cancer is still a constant remember.

Phonesavanh talks with a slight lisp, and he has a hard time sometimes standing upright. So, he has to watch wherever he goes, walking heal to toe, to make sure he doesn’t fall.

But his gait is getting better. He’s better, too.

“I can quote off the top of my head some of Barack Obama’s speeches, and in one of his speeches, he talks about the privilege of opportunity,” he says. “The chance to wake up is such a privilege.

“I think about where my dad came from, and my brother, he didn’t have the opportunity for a good life. That is one of the reasons why I love politics. You can help people with these problems.”

 

Heartache & Hope

The brother Phonesavanh refers to is Aydan, his half brother. He died when he was 5 in 2013.

As for Phonesavanh’s father, Ken, Phonesavanh doesn’t know where his dad came from. His father never talked about it. But what Phonesavanh does know is this: His dad was a refugee who came by himself to the United States at age 10 and met up with his family.

In October, Phonesavanh spoke at the state convention for College Democrats and told fellow students how HPU and its president, Dr. Nido Qubein, illustrate how anyone can still reach their dreams in the United States.

His dad, who couldn’t speak hardly any English when he arrived, faced discrimination growing up. But he hardly ever told his oldest son about his hardships. Ken Phonesavanh concentrated on the positive and the future with his family.

Phonesavanh’s parents divorced when he was 2, and his dad managed an organic food company. He worked all the time, and Phonesavanh became the surrogate father for his siblings at home.

Phonesavanh went to school, bought the groceries for the family, cooked and took care of his younger twin sisters, Emily and Lauren, both of whom will be HPU freshmen next fall.

When Phonesavanh received his cancer diagnosis, his father received one as well. But he wasn’t as fortunate as his son.

Ken Phonesavanh succumbed to stomach cancer last month. He was 55.

Before his dad’s death, Phonesavanh made the 12-hour drive every weekend to his home in Guilford, Connecticut, to see his dad. It was hard. But what helped?

His friends at HPU. They were his second family.

 

The Lasting Impact of Small Gestures

During Phonesavanh’s long drives back to North Carolina, his HPU friends would call, and they’d talk on his Bluetooth for hours.

Once back on campus, his professors checked in on him. HPU staff did, too. Meanwhile, his fraternity brothers took him to lunch, took over his fraternity duties and offered to pay his fraternity dues.

Phonesavanh and his fraternity brothers from Beta Theta Pi raised $25,000 for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the world’s largest volunteer-powered, donor-centered fundraising program for childhood cancer research. Their campaign’s “honorary kid” is a 5-year-old boy named Kyler. In this photo, he is sitting on the front row in the lap of his dad.

 “If you need anything,’’ they’d say, “come see me.”

All that helped. And all that showed him why he came to HPU.

He found a supportive community, a place that looked after one another. He also found a place where people with different political viewpoints could find common ground and work together. Phonesavanh helped make that happen.

Those experiences have helped him grow. The constant support has helped him cope.

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