From dawn until dusk, Phet Xaysombath’s hands searched the churned-up soil for purple sweet potatoes on the Hawaiian farm where he toiled as a laborer.
To protect his skin from the baking sun, he wore long sleeves and pants and covered his head with a T-shirt so that only his eyes showed.
At night, he returned to his home, an abandoned shipping container with a mosquito net for a door and an old mattress on the floor.
He lived that way for three months. Five years later, he still considers it the best time in his life.
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“It was roughing it, but I needed it to grow,” said Xaysombath, now 33 and living in Concord. “Sometimes you have to be broken down completely to be built up again.”
This month, Xaysombath graduated from UNC Charlotte with the bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering he had begun 15 years earlier, before being led off that path by a powdery white line of cocaine.
He said he hopes his story serves as both a cautionary tale and testament to perseverance.
Xaysombath grew up in Salisbury. Raised by his grandparents, he went to church faithfully and earned nearly all straight A’s in high school, where he lettered in three sports.
After high school graduation in 1999, he enrolled at UNCC. Looking back, Xaysombath said, he doesn’t think he was prepared for the freedom of university life.
“You know, first time away from home,” he said. “I was staying up drinking and partying all night. My life just got out of control. It’s easy to get out of control.”
The night his roommate offered him cocaine, Xaysombath turned a dark corner that led eventually to him dropping out, moving to California to work in his mother’s Thai restaurant and becoming addicted to crystal methamphetamine.
“I quit praying. I quit going to church,” he said. “I was ashamed of what I had become.”
After years of working just enough to get money for drugs, Xaysombath said, it wasn’t any specific rock-bottom incident that turned him around.
“I was low for a long time,” he said. “One day I started praying again. I said, ‘God, this is not the man that I want to be, and I’m going to listen now. I want to turn my life around now.’ ”
Simplified his life
To distance himself from the drug scene surrounding him in California, he caught a cheap flight to Hawaii, where he took work on the sweet potato farm.
“Life was really simple. There was nothing to distract me,” he said. “It was like learning how to relive life from the beginning. Everything got stripped away.”
After months of sobriety, Xaysombath left the farm and decided to pick up where he had left off with his education. His life since has been on an upward swing.
On May 10, he graduated from UNC Charlotte with a well-paying job already lined up. Recognized for defying the odds, Xaysombath was presented the university’s Anna M. Johnson Hats Off Award, given to students who overcome struggles to find success.
His girlfriend said “yes” to his marriage proposal after a four-year courtship. He has a home, a career, love and a hopeful future, none of which he had five years earlier.
“My biggest lesson is, ‘Don’t ever lose hope. Let go and move on,’ ” he said. “Amazing things can happen if you keep your eye on the prize.”