From the Lions’ Den

He survived the Khmer Rouge. Came to the U.S. penniless. Went to Reed on a scholarship. Now Puon Penn ’92 is giving back

By Randall S. Barton | June 1, 2012

The monsoon season is nearly over, Puon Penn ’92 thinks as he travels south on Highway 1 from Phnom Penh, looking out at the swollen Mekong. But with the rains beginning to subside, the river probably won’t breach its banks.

It is Sunday, and Puon, an executive at Wells Fargo, is taking a day off from the work he has come to oversee in the crowded Cambodian capital. About 20 kilometers away is Kien Svay, a serene village where picturesque shacks rise out of the river, supported on stilts. In one of these is a restaurant where just the memory of the rotisserie chicken makes his mouth water.

Puon enters the restaurant and takes a seat on a mat at the edge of the deck. He orders his meal and, reaching over the deck, trails his hand through the river. Boat merchants move steadily past, offering homemade gifts, snack foods, and flowers. A small boat approaches with an old woman in the bow cradling a woven basket. As Puon looks into the basket, he recoils. It is filled with fried grasshoppers. The wake from the boat laps against the deck, and Puon is transported back to a time when you could be shot for eating locusts.

Puon was four years old in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. At first, people in his village of Don Noy were overjoyed that the long civil war—during which his father and two siblings died—was finally at an end. But the nightmare was just beginning. Newspapers, radio, and television stations were shut down. Money, private ownership, and religion were banned. City dwellers were forced to become agricultural laborers. You could be punished for wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language.

Droves of urban refugees began pouring into Don Noy with no idea of how to survive in the countryside, what to eat, or how to farm. 

Angka (“The Organization”) controlled what people wore, what they ate, how they spent their waking hours. Puon was placed in a camp designed to transform children into fanatic communists. He silently watched other children being rewarded for revealing that their parents were only posing as peasants and were thus enemies of the state.

As the Cambodian economy collapsed, food became scarce. Sustenance was limited to a daily bowl of rice gruel. Soon people were dying from starvation. Although foraging for food was a capital offense, Puon and his family hunted for anything they could eat—even grasshoppers.

“At some point,” Puon says, “your hunger takes over any fear of consequences.”

In December 1978, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and steamrolled across the country. Within months it reached one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds, the province of Banteay Meanchey, where the Penn family lived. As the Khmer army retreated, people fled into the jungle. One night Puon’s uncle, who lived in Thailand, sneaked across the border and told Mrs. Penn that the chaos was making it difficult for the Khmer Rouge to control movements. This was her opportunity to get out of Cambodia.

“My mother had to make a difficult decision,” Puon remembers. Her elderly father was too frail to make the journey and might not survive for long without her. But her children had no future in Cambodia. “It was heartrending,” he says. “But she made the decision to leave.”

Fighting back tears and taking care to avoid land mines and Khmer Rouge patrols, the family crossed the border under cover of darkness. They were immediately picked up by Thai border guards, who held them for weeks in an open field without shelter until a refugee camp could be staged. They were transferred to a camp in Bangkok for six months, where Puon first touched a book, probably an illustrated Bible. Years later, he realized that the illustration he used to gaze at depicted Daniel in the lion’s den.

The Penns were selected for a lottery that placed refugees in a variety of countries, and by luck of the draw were chosen to go to Linden, Michigan (population 2,861), about a half hour from Flint, where a local church sponsored them. On a freezing October day, well-meaning Christians in thick quilted jackets met them at the airport. The Penns didn’t speak English, and the Americans in their down-filled coats seemed like aliens. But Puon says his family received their new blessings “like manna from heaven.”

Puon’s elder siblings worked to support themselves from the time they arrived in the United States. To support her two younger children, his mother depended on welfare and food stamps. “In spite of the fact that my mother never had a chance to go to school, she is probably the wisest person I know,” he says. “She is an excellent leader with a killer instinct to survive. I learned all of that from her.”

In 1983 they moved to Stockton, California. In high school, Puon showed an aptitude for biology and chemistry. He got a summer job at the University of the Pacific as a research assistant to Michael Minch, a chemistry professor who suggested he apply to Reed College because it had one of the strongest undergraduate biology and chemistry departments in the country.

Puon could barely afford the application fee and wondered how he would pay for an education at Reed. But Minch’s encouragement helped overcome his reluctance, and he applied.

“After submitting my application I was overcome with fear, more of getting in than not,” Puon says. “I had the sinking feeling that Dr. Minch or any of the great teachers I had in high school would do something foolish like raid their family savings to help a completely unproven nobody.”

He was dumbfounded to receive both an acceptance letter and a full scholarship to Reed. 

He almost didn’t make it past the first quarter of his freshman year. Listening to his classmates talk abstractly about the problems of the world, Puon felt like a fish out of water. Some of his friends transferred after the first semester, and he considered doing the same. He had no money to go home during winter break. By the time Paideia commenced, he had come to the realization that it was up to him to take a stance and make each day better.

Like many Reedies before and after, Puon found solace in his studies. At Reed he honed his analytical skills and learned how to ask the hard questions. “I wasn’t the smartest, the strongest, or anything,” he says. “But I knew that if I could find really great people and learn from them, that over a period of time with hard work, the lessons I learned from those folks would eventually translate to success. You can’t control the conditions you are given, only the effort you put into things.”

He was influenced by Peter Steinberger [political science 1973–] and eventually switched his major to economics, which allowed him to zero in on his passion: ecology. Economics, the study of how people create economic systems and survive within them, is human ecology, Puon says. Unless people can sustain themselves, it is not possible to safeguard the environment. In his junior year at Reed, he was awarded the Mintz Scholarship, created by Walter Mintz ’50 [trustee 1969–2002] to provide critical support for economics majors. After writing his thesis, The Economics of Institutions: Policy Implications for America’s Schools, Puon attended the University of Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree in business administration and finance.

Puon is now a senior vice president with Wells Fargo Bank in Palo Alto, where he heads up a clean technology group. His team works with companies that manufacture, market, or develop clean technology products and services, including 8 of the top 10 Chinese solar companies.

Puon and his wife, Annie, live in Los Altos, California, with their four children. They are involved with a number of Cambodian charities, including a children’s hospital, and have adopted an orphaned girl who lives in Cambodia. “I don’t think opportunities came to me just so I could make a bunch of money and own a lot of toys,” he says. “I wanted to figure out ways to engage with the world.”

Given that his mother was illiterate and he didn’t start school until he was 10 years old, the probabilities were low for his attending a college like Reed. Having benefited from many opportunities, Puon feels it is his duty to give back.

He was the first person to pledge to fund a Reed Centennial Scholarship, which offers Annual Fund donors the option of making a multiyear commitment to a scholarship that will carry their name. The scholarships are flexible and immediately expendable, allowing the college to allocate funds to meet students’ immediate financial needs.

“Somebody provided the resources for me to go to Reed and get a great education, and now it’s my turn to pass on that opportunity,” he says. “I’m very much middle class in the way I live, but it’s about budgeting. I’d rather give a little bit at a time than wait until I become a millionaire to give back.”

Success has many factors, he tells the young people he mentors: among them is hard work and help from people who care about us and want us to succeed. And while there are always people who are better connected, with more resources, he has discovered that these people usually welcome someone who brings rigorous thought to the conversation. 

From the deck of the Kien Svay restaurant, Puon nods to the woman in the boat. He will take an order of the fried grasshoppers. She fills a paper cone, and when he takes it, he notices they are still warm from the hot oil. It is ironic, he thinks, that the taste of hardship has become a delicacy. The fried crunch gives way to notes of salt and sugar, and he is filled with memories bitter and sweet.

Go Further!

Read more about Walter Mintz ’50.

Read more about the Centennial Scholarship.

Tags: Giving Back to Reed, Alumni, Financial Aid