Senior Spotlight: Bottra Thach, Smith High

June 10, 2024 - Bottra Thach tried not to be nervous.

Jacqueline Mingo, his mentor at Smith High, had already worked with him for three weeks preparing his application for Guilford Apprenticeship Partners, the program known as GAP.

If he scored an apprenticeship, Bottra knew it would be like winning the lottery.

He could learn more about the type of engineering he wants to go into and get an associate degree at GTCC. And maybe the best part. The local company that picks him would pay for the whole thing, to help him get his bachelor’s degree.

That one perk meant everything to Bottra. It would take the financial pressure of paying for college off him, his mom, and his grandparents, and he could start his career right after graduating from Smith High in June.

So, he knew his video introduction for the GAP program needed to be good.

“You’re going to do great!” Mingo told him before filming him with her iPhone.

Bottra stood in a conference room beside the principal’s office. He picked out his red collar shirt to wear for the video shoot because it made him feel confident wearing one of his favorite colors.

But after two takes and even with Mingo helping him with his words, he still felt awkward.

“Oh, you got this!” Mingo told him.

Now, to the third take. Bottra crossed his wrists at his waist and began.

In 49 seconds, he talked about how he wants to become an engineer, how he volunteer’s to be an interpreter for a nonprofit organization, Cambodian Association Of North Carolina, and how he sees his strengths in leadership, problem solving and time management.

“Others will say about me is that I am a hard-working young man,” he said while looking at Mingo and her iPhone. “I never give up in anything I do, and I best believe I will achieve everything I set out to do.”

He gave a slight smile.  Thirteen seconds later, Bottra ended his video introduction this way: “If you choose me to be in your GAP program, you will not regret it at all.”

The next day, while on a break from his job as a cashier at Country BBQ, he got a text. At first, Bottra thought it was spam. He clicked it open and saw that it was from Kevin Nabors with Endura Products, a local company in the GAP program.

Nabors wrote he wanted to talk to Bottra and offered him a private tour of the company. Bottra could barely contain his excitement. He immediately said yes and sent a screenshot of Endura’s offer to Mingo, who is also the college and career manager for Smith High’s Career Academy of Advanced Manufacturing & Engineering.

“I got this text from Endura products, Ms. Mingo!!” Bottra wrote.

Mingo responded with an emoji of her doing a fist bump.

“Yaaaaassssss,” she wrote.

Bottra, Mingo knew, was on his way.


GAP: A Huge Steppingstone

Bottra graduated Friday afternoon from Smith High, and on June 17, he will start taking classes at GTCC and begin working at Endura, a Colfax company that makes exterior door components. 

For four years every weekday, Bottra will bounce from classes at GTCC to his job at Endura. He will be paid for his time both in class and on the job, and all his college expenses will be covered by Endura.

What does that mean? Bottra has received the equivalent of a $125,000 scholarship.

So, no more working five days a week at Country BBQ. No more stressing about obtaining the scholarships or the loans he needed to go to college. No more worrying about if he’ll have the chance to specialize in mechatronic engineering.

He now knows he can do that at Endura. He will learn about a specialized field that combines electronics and mechanical engineering and has become one most sought-after jobs in engineering whose pay scale ranges from $55,000 to $166,000 a year.

 “Oh, it feels very good,” Bottra says of the opportunity at Endura. “But at the same time, it has given me more motivation. I know someone out there is paying for my college, and I have to work even harder to accomplish this.

“I’m just very thankful for Endura and the GAP program,” he says. “This takes a lot of stress off me, my mom and my grandparents. I don’t want them to worry and stress about my college tuition.”

Bottra sees the opportunity with GAP as a steppingstone to working as a mechatronics engineer. After graduating from GTCC with an associate degree, Bottra plans to transfer to a university to major in mechatronics.

What this opportunity from GAP means to Bottra is big.  To understand how big, simply ask Bottra about his family and his own life.

Their story and Bottra’s story reveal how far they’ve all come.


The Safety Net of Family

Bottra and his mother had relocated from Portland Maine, to Greensboro, North Carolina, where her parents and her siblings lived. When she arrived in Greensboro, Bottra was just three months old.

Bottra and his mom lived with her parents. She worked two or three jobs in area restaurants to make ends meet while Bottra stayed with his grandparents. By the time he was a second grader at Murphey Elementary School, Bottra’s mom had remarried and moved out.

Faced with what to do next, Bottra chose to stay with his grandparents to take care of them.

“I’m all about loyalty and love, and they taught me a lot of things, and I wanted to give back to them,” he says today. “I am very grateful to my grandparents because without them, my mom and I would have struggled very bad.”

His grandparents’ home became his learning lab. His grandfather taught him how to do yard work, and his grandmother taught him how to be a young gentleman. Both of them taught him how to be respectful, how to be kind, and why it’s important to help others.

In return, Bottra became their interpreter for everything.

Whether his grandparents were buying groceries or seeing their doctor, Bottra was there. His aunts and his uncles along with more than two dozen first cousins were there, too. Bottra became part of their family.

“I grew up without a father, and they taught me everything I know about life,” Bottra says of his family. “Every time they went out, they included me. They’d take me out to eat or even on vacations to Myrtle Beach and Disney World, and they even paid for everything.”

As he became closer with his grandparents and his family, Bottra heard about his family’s own history in Cambodia.

For Bottra, their history –– his history –– was inspirational.


‘I Am That Next Generation’

In the late 1970s, during a three-year period, the radical communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge killed up to 3 million Cambodians and forced millions to move out of the cities because they were seen as “impure,” tainted by the West.

Bottra’s grandfather was one of those targeted people. He fought alongside American soldiers during the Vietnam War, acting as their guide.

In 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown. But their reign crippled the country, and Bottra grandparents struggled. They were poor, and with three sons and four daughters, they did everything they could to survive.

In the 1980s, their oldest son Sonny was in his early teens when fled to a refugee camp in Thailand. Years later, the workers there helped Sonny reach America, and he eventually resettled in New York.

When he was older, he relocated to Greensboro and began looking for his family in Cambodia. When he found them, he began sending money to help them come to America –– one by one.

Bottra’s grandparents arrived in Greensboro nearly 25 years ago. Their home became a safe haven for their children, their grandchildren and other relatives who left Cambodia for a better life.

Today, Sonny is a electrical engineer. Bottra’s other uncle, Seyha, is president of the Cambodian Association of North Carolina and the founder of Cambodian Cultural Center of North Carolina, a nonprofit organization known as CCC of NC.

 The nonprofit helps Cambodians become American citizens, feel welcome, and understand their new country. Bottra has volunteered as an interpreter with the CCC of NC since he was a student at Jackson Middle School.

At the nonprofit, he has formed friendships. He’s also heard countless stories of struggle. The stories he’s heard has kept Bottra motivated, especially stories he’s heard from his family.

“They came from nothing and built a foundation for the next generation,” Bottra says of his family’s past. “I am that next generation, and I want to build on what they have built for my family and the next generation of the world.”


A Mentor’s Impact

Sonny Thach, Bottra’s uncle who is an electrical engineer, told Bottra about mechatronics and got him interested in engineering. Afterward, Bottra enrolled in the Signature Career Academy of Advanced Manufacturing & Engineering at Smith.

He also took advantage of the Career and College Promise, a tuition-free program that allows high school students to earn college credits at GTCC that can be transferred to a four-year university in North Carolina.

Bottra envisioned his future, and his future included college. But he knew he needed money. And like his family, he knew he had to sacrifice. So, he gave up a sport he first started as a fifth grader playing flag football with the Bills at Leonard Recreation Center.

For three years, Bottra wore No. 9 and played wide receiver for Smith’s Golden Eagles for three years. And he was fast, like 4.4 seconds in a 40-yard dash fast.

But Bottra knew he needed money if he wanted to go to college. And to begin making money, he had to say goodbye to football. About a year ago, Bottra began working as a cashier at Country BBQ in High Point.

Then came the GAP program.

With the help of his video application, he caught the interest of Endura. Soon afterward, in a three-day tryout in March, Bottra took part in exercises that tested his skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork and leadership. He passed.

This month, he will begin taking classes at GTCC and start his job at Endura. He credits Smith’s Jacqueline Mingo for making it all happen.

“She’s the one who explained what GAP is all about, and she basically got me in the program and guided me all the way,” he says. “There were times that were very stressful, doing a lot of things at once, but she was always there to comfort me and say, ‘You got it!’”

As for what he wants to do as a mechatronics engineer, Bottra has an idea.

“AI is becoming a real thing, and I want to be one of those special people helping upgrade that kind of technology year after year,” he says. “And I feel like the world needs people like that, people who can help upgrade technology that can make America and the world a better place.”