Love at First Smile: A UCF Love Story
By Ashley Cullins
It was fall of 1993, and Phuoc Nguyen ’97 ’10MS was waiting in the Health and Physics Building (now the Mathematical Sciences Building) for his very first college class.
As students from the previous class filed out, he saw something that would change his life: a smile from Ly Huong Luu ’97, directed at him.
Asked if it was love at first sight, Phuoc says, “For me, yes. I felt a connection with her the first time I saw her. I still remember it vividly, as if it were yesterday.”
And for Ly? “No, I don’t remember that,” she confesses, as she and Phuoc laugh.
But she does remember the first time she saw Phuoc walk by in the library, as they were both heading to a Vietnamese American Student Association (VASA) meeting.
He remembers that time, too. “As I was walking to the first VASA meeting, I saw the girl with the beautiful smile. What were the chances that she would be there too? My name means ‘lucky’ in Vietnamese, and luck was on my side that day!”
Falling in Love
Between spending time at the library and serving as VASA officers, Ly and Phuoc crossed paths often.
Shy “hi’s” and “hello’s” soon led to shared study sessions at the library, then a double date to the movies. “It wasn’t really a romantic movie,” Phuoc notes. “It was Demolition Man.”
But even cryogenically frozen crime lords couldn’t cool their growing romance. Ly and Phuoc were soon inseparable.
They shared $1.25 minestrone soup at Fazoli’s while waiting for free breadsticks, split 99-cent Whoppers at Burger King, and hung out at Wild Pizza and the library. “We were two poor college students in love,” says Phuoc.
Both Ly and Phuoc were also first-generation college students. Phuoc’s family immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in the mid-80s. The family of seven lived in a two bedroom, 1.5 bathroom trailer that his aunt owned in the Florida Keys.
“My parents worked hard with multiple jobs,” says Phuoc. “That motivated me to do well, seeing how hard they worked just to provide for my sisters and me.”
Ly says, “My parents never made education an option. It was a necessity. They always put education first, and it was a given that I was going to college, even though they weren’t able to finish college themselves because of different circumstances.”
Her mother dropped out of high school in response to severe corporal punishment. Her father left college at the onset of the Vietnam War to train as a fighter pilot in the United States.
After the war, Ly’s father was stationed at the American embassy in Thailand. When he retired in 1992, the family moved to Florida.
The move brought Ly to UCF and to shared meals, study sessions and not-exactly-romantic movies with Phuoc.
Making It Official
On November 4, 1993, Phuoc asked Ly to be his girlfriend. They were on the fifth floor of the library, sitting on a bench by the elevators.
It’s a day they both remember.
Just two months later, in the same spot, Ly said yes to marrying Phuoc.
“I gave her my high school class ring as a promise ring because I couldn’t afford anything else,” says Phuoc.
Both from traditional families, Ly and Phuoc knew a more formal engagement would come later, and that they would finish school before getting married.
“It was an engagement between the two of us, but not official,” Ly says. “But we already knew that we were meant for each other.”
For Ly, it was Phuoc’s kindness that made her fall so fast. “I noticed that he was a very kind person…always sweet, never angry,” she says. “I fell in love with his kindness.”
Phuoc adds, “She was a very beautiful girl. Then I got to know her, and I noticed how smart she was and what a good person she was, beautiful inside and out.”
After the happy couple finished their undergraduate degrees—Ly in chemistry and Phuoc in computer engineering—they dated long distance as Ly pursued her doctorate in pharmacy at the University of Florida.
For more than three years, Phuoc drove up to Gainesville every Wednesday, and Ly drove home to Orlando every weekend.
On June 2, 2001, Ly and Phuoc were married at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Orlando.
Today, their son Vinh is a sophomore in high school, and Phuoc coaches him in soccer, football and basketball. Their daughter Mai Ly is a freshman in the Burnett Honors College at UCF. She’s majoring in biomedical sciences.
“Our daughter had the option to go pretty much anywhere she wanted,” says Phuoc. “We’re very excited that she chose UCF.”
Forever Black and Gold
Raised by two enthusiastic UCF Knights, it’s no wonder Mai Ly chose to follow in her parents’ footsteps.
“What I love about UCF is that it’s a young school, so everything we do is a first,” Phuoc says. “We get to be part of building the foundation. One of my favorite moments was being a part of the very first College GameDay at UCF. I even got my sign on TV showing my love for Ly and UCF!”
“UCF offers so much opportunity in so many ways,” Ly adds. “And it’s changed so drastically, even since our time there.”
Ly and Phuoc proudly display customized UCF license plates and attend every UCF home game as a family. They always stay to the end. “Even during our winless season, we sat through every single minute of every single game,” says Phuoc.
This year, Phuoc was thrilled to catch his very first Spirit Splash duck—and his second. He had told Ly for years that the accomplishment was high on his bucket list.
“She would always say I’m too old for that and I can’t compete against the younger, faster and stronger college kids,” says Phuoc. “But our daughter’s a UCF freshman this year, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to try. Boy, was it fun! Best of all, I got not only one, but two Spirit Splash ducks!”
Ly and Phuoc hope to see their children graduate from UCF and build upon the foundation they established there—if it’s what Mai Ly and Vinh want.
The couple has a brick at the UCF FAIRWINDS Alumni Center commemorating their time at UCF, and they hope their kids will have their own bricks one day, too, continuing a Nguyen-Luu UCF legacy.
In the future, Phuoc wants to set up a scholarship under their family’s name for legacy students. “I know there might be families with stories like ours,” he explains, “who wouldn’t qualify for first-generation scholarships.”
A Lasting Love
Since that day on the bench by the elevators, on the fifth floor of the library, Ly and Phuoc have been together for 29 years and married for 21.
What’s the secret to their lasting love?
Having a foundation of friendship and spending quality family time together.
And, Phuoc jokes, “Remembering that Ly is always one step ahead. I graduated high school as salutatorian; she graduated as valedictorian. I graduated UCF magna cum laude; she graduated summa cum laude. I have a master’s degree; she has a doctorate. I speak two languages; she speaks three.”
“That spark of love we felt at the beginning is still there,” says Ly. “When I drive home from work, I feel that same sense of excitement I’ve always had when I’m about to see him. It’s like the novelty of being in love has never faded.”
Phuoc adds, “Of course, like all couples, we have moments where we bicker or disagree. But that feeling of love and excitement about being together remains.
“Even though we get older and life throws challenges our way, the little things never change. It makes us feel incredibly blessed to have something so special, and we have UCF to thank for this.”