Millions of Americans were stunned to see the images on their TV screen on the morning of 9/11; one of them was a young student from Visalia.
Kounthida Phadoungxath was only 16 years old that day, but the images never left her memory. Never in her wildest dreams did she ever think that she would ever visit New York, let alone land a dream job with one of the world’s largest cosmetic firms, Estee Lauder, headquartered on Fifth Avenue in the metropolis.
Phadoungxath, who is nicknamed Teda for short, graduated from Fresno State in 2009 with a B.A. in public relations. She was one of professor Betsy Hays’ brightest stars, and when she visited the Fresno State campus on Monday, she spoke to Hays’ PR158 writing class and shared her experiences.
“If you students don’t think an internship works, then think again,” Phadoungxath said. “If you follow your heart and your gut, amazing things will happen.”
Hays told students of the great opportunities available to them through internships. She also had high praise for Phadoungxath and her accolades.
“Teda is an inspiration to us all. She approached her internships with her own practical and unassuming way,” Hays said. “After she graduated in ’09, she just packed up and flew to New York, following her gut instinct. Boy, did that pay off!”
Phadoungxath was born in Thailand, and her family moved to California when she was only 3 years old. Moving from Visalia to New York City is an abrupt change, with the hustle and bustle of the big city life taking over her small town ways.
“It’s a huge difference from the Central Valley, but I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said. “I am so fortunate to be blessed with the opportunities that were afforded to me from Fresno State and, in particular, professor Hays.”
Phadoungxath, who came to Fresno only after Hurricane Sandy effectively shut down the east coast, recalled the eerie feeling she and her roommate experienced Monday night.
“Monday afternoon, we went out and bought some stuff to eat to weather the storm out, like everybody else did. You know, popcorn and pizza, sodas and coffee,” she said. “We got settled in, and then the power went out all over the city. We looked out and saw the fury of the storm, but it wasn’t until the next day or so that it really sunk in.”
Phadoungxath was amazed at the number of people walking around in the Chelsea district in a daze. Some walked nearly 20 blocks just to get a cup of coffee. Flashlights and candles were the only source of light.
“Finally, we stumbled onto a section of the city that had full power,” she said. “We camped out in the Verizon retailer with dozens of other folks, and it took five hours to charge our cell phones and cameras. It was the first time I met some of my neighbors.”
Phadoungxath works at the Estee Lauder building in the SoHo District of Lower Manhattan. The main building had power restored last Wednesday, but everyone took the week off anyway.
“I figured I better come home and see my family once before the holidays,” she said. “I always figured I would end up in (San Francisco), not New York. This is a whirlwind city, and I can’t believe I am living and working in the most exciting city in the world while I am still single and in my 20s.”
As a public relations staff writer for the subsidiary company La Mer, Phadoungxath starts the day by reading all the daily newspapers like the New York Times as well as the trade that focus on world beauty news. She then prepares press releases, fulfilling editorial requests and product samples.
Some of her projects are top secret, and she is working on two major launches that will be unveiled soon. Right now she is putting together press outreach guidelines.
When she realized the irony of her move from the Valley to the Big Apple, she remembered that morning 11 years ago, when she first watched those images. It seemed like a dream, but being there in person was overwhelming.
“Last year, I visited the 9/11 memorial when it opened,” Phadoungxath said. “I was moved deeply by seeing all the names etched on the walls around the fountains.”
It didn’t take her long to get to work after arriving in New York. After a one-year internship with Tiffany’s and working as a team player for a PR agency representing many clientele, she kept her eyes open for an in-house opportunity with one major client.
When an opening at Estee Lauder popped up, she jumped at the chance.
“I just knew in my gut that I had to go for it,” she said. “I can still see the big smile that professor Hays had for me when I told her about the job. She is so genuinely happy when her students succeed. She will do whatever it takes to make it happen for her students. She is such a professional with everything she does.”
Phadoungxath says she is in the right place at the right time and is definitely living in a career-oriented city.
“The first thing people ask you here is what do you do for a living,” she said. “Working long crazy hours leaves no time for a relationship, and that’s why all the girls in New York are single, like me.”