Graduate Spotlight: Lesly Chittavong

Posted on May 21, 2018

In her audition speech for the student commencement speaker selection panel, Lesly Chittavong channeled her inner Fresh Prince by saying, “Let me tell you all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down.”

As she entered her last semester at Rock Valley College in January, everything seemed to be coming together for Lesly. Her grades were excellent, she had made a number of new friends and connections through her involvement in student organizations like the Campus Activities Board (CAB), Association of Latin American Students (ALAS), and Phi Theta Kappa (PTK), and was preparing for a career in nursing.

Here’s where things got flipped upside down. One night while studying, Lesly began to have trouble breathing. She eventually became alarmed enough to go to the emergency room for some tests. When four people entered the room shortly after the tests were performed, Lesly knew something was up.

Her lung had collapsed. Lesly remained very calm as they explained this to her. In fact, her sense of humor was still quite intact.

“They were explaining to me that this type of thing is common in tall, skinny, white men,” says Lesly. “I was like, ‘Okay, I am not any of those things. I am skinny, but I am short and Asian,’” she quips.

She remained equally calm when the doctors inserted a chest tube to help her breathing and drain the fluid from her lung. But within a week, the lung collapsed again. This time she went to UW-Madison Hospital for more procedures, tests, and the insertion of another chest tube. But her saga wouldn’t end there. When all was said and done, over the course of three months, her lung collapsed three times and she endured five chest tube procedures.

“I spent my spring break in the hospital.”

Despite the hospital stints (she estimates she missed at least a month’s worth of class time over four months of the semester, January through April), Lesly kept plugging away on her classes and did homework from her hospital bed.

“I spent my spring break in the hospital,” says Lesly.

Her friends often came up to join her as she did her classwork, and Lesly frequently sent her professors “health update” messages through the college’s learning management system. Lesly recalls a specific time when she contacted one of her professors to say she was coming in at 7:30 a.m. the next day to take an exam because she needed to be back at the hospital by 9.

“All of my professors were understanding, supportive, and encouraging, throughout all of this,” says Lesly.

Lesly Chittavong graduated with honors from RVC on May 11, 2018.

“I was motivated to keep going because I am blessed to go to school and blessed to afford it, and I didn’t want to drop out. I am also fortunate to have such a good support system around me.”

Her friends called her “crazy” and even her professors marveled at her determination, often telling her most students would have dropped out under similar circumstances. As Lesly expected, her parents were 100 percent behind her.

“My parents said ‘If you want to and you think you can, you should just go for it.’”

Even her surgeon was impressed. He told Lesly she was a “different patient” and also said to her, “You will do great in nursing or whatever you want to be.”

As an aspiring nurse, Lesly took advantage of all the time in the hospital to network with her nurses and ask them lots of questions. She also learned a valuable lesson that will help her in her nursing career.

“I appreciate what it’s like to be a patient now,” says Lesly.

She plans to stay on the RVC campus and keep working toward her bachelor’s in nursing with the Saint Anthony College of Nursing in the RVC’s new Health Sciences Center.

Lesly Chittavong (right) proudly displays a creative work that was part of PTK’s Honors in Action project.

Lesly also recently received word that she was selected for the All-Illinois Academic Team because of her outstanding grades and because she is an active student-leader on campus, including serving as the Public Relations Officer in the Omicron Eta Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa.

“Lesly was the heart of our chapter this year,” says Tim Spielman, the college’s Phi Theta Kappa advisor. “Her outgoing personality made new students feel welcome, and she played a key role in developing and implementing our Honors in Action and College Projects.”

On May 11, Lesly joined her peers in walking the stage at the college’s commencement ceremony, graduating with honors, and a clean bill of health.

“We all go through something,” says Lesly. “We all have our personal battles. In the end we all did what we had to do to get our degree.”

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