Becoming a ‘Student in Life’

When Vansana Nolintha applied to NC State, he was certain he would become a chemical engineer. But the doors opened by his experience as a Caldwell Fellow led him down an entirely different path, and today Nolintha owns one of Raleigh’s most successful restaurants.

A Laotian immigrant whose parents sent him and his sister to the U.S. in search of a better life when he was 12, Nolintha grew up with a sponsor family in Greensboro. As a freshman in NC State’s College of Engineering, he applied and was accepted into the Caldwell Fellows program. It’s a prestigious, donor-supported program dedicated to student development as individuals and as servant-leaders through leadership training, service-learning activities and mentoring by faculty, alumni and community partners.

“The Caldwell community challenges and empowers students to engage with life’s important and meaningful questions — questions that led me to a journey of critical thinking, self-awareness and passion.”

The soul-searching helped Nolintha realize that his passion was neither with engineering, nor medicine (he had also been pre-med) — but rather with design. “My junior year I visited a Caldwell friend’s design studio and I fell in love with the whole creative process,” he said. He transferred to the College of Design, graduating in 2009 with dual degrees in chemistry and art and design.

But Nolintha’s journey was far from over. Inspired by experiences on service-learning trips through the Caldwell Fellows program; NC State’s Center for Student Leadership, Ethics and Public Service; and the University Scholars Program, he spent the next few years earning a master’s degree in international peace and conflict studies at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

Nolintha returned to the U.S. at the peak of the recession. Unable to find a job, he traveled to Laos to reconnect with his parents and family. There, he regained a sense of gratitude for his native culture and his family’s sacrifices. He decided that whatever he did next “would bridge my own narrative as a Laotian immigrant with the world in which I live today.”

The result was Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant and bar Nolintha opened with his sister in 2012 to celebrate the diverse food traditions and culture of their homeland and to honor their parents. Their parents recently visited the U.S. for the first time in 16 years, and were featured in an article in the Raleigh Agenda.

How do Nolintha’s studies at NC State apply to his work in the restaurant industry?

“So much of what we do at Bida Manda is creative problem-solving, nurturing relationships and building a community around something that we truly believe in. Food just happens to be the medium for us to communicate our deep affection and gratitude for our family and for this community that has given us so much. And all of that, I credit to my time at NC State. This university has taught me to be a student of life,” he said, noting that he still relies on many of the relationships he formed in the Caldwell program.

“As an immigrant on financial aid, what is on your mind is making sure you have the highest GPA possible. You don’t necessarily have the luxury to think about service-learning and experiential learning opportunities like engaging with the indigenous communities in Guatemala or working with children in conflict areas in Bosnia. Yet those kinds of experiences impact us so fundamentally that they forever change our perspectives and our place in the world.

“In providing these opportunities, the Caldwell Fellows program transformed my education at NC State into a holistic one. The Caldwell program gave me the experiences, the relationships and the skill sets to engage with the changing world in meaningful, responsible and authentic ways. Instead of just being a scholar, NC State prepared me to be a citizen of a community. It started my lifelong journey of exploration, curiosity and discovery, both of the world and of myself.”

Today, Nolintha aims to pay forward NC State’s profound impact on his life. He remains involved with the Caldwell Fellows community, serving on the selection committee and mentoring today’s students. He is also a Design Guild Board member for the Design School and was part of the search committee for the new dean.

Nolintha is especially grateful to the donors who made the NC State experience possible for him and other Caldwell Fellows.

“I am constantly reminded that it takes a lot of courage and vision for our donors to invest in young people, not only in our academic pursuit but our entire development as leaders. I am forever grateful for those who raised their hands and said, ‘Yes, I am going to make sure that our students get the experiences and resources they need to become problem-solvers and global leaders, the kind of creative leaders our world needs so desperately right now,’” he said.