Widener “resonates in my life every day”
When Leth Oun enrolled at Widener University in fall of 1996 at the age of 30, he’d had a hard road behind him.
Born in Cambodia, his father, a lieutenant in the Cambodian Army, had been executed in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government and evacuated the cities, forcing millions into slave labor in what became known as the Killing Fields. Oun, who was nine at the time, and his mother and older sister lived under fake names and barely survived almost four years of hard labor and starvation. (Almost two million Cambodians, a quarter of the nation’s population, died during that period.) In 1979, when the Khmer Rouge fell, he and his family were homeless for a year before being taken in by refugee camps in Thailand.
“Although I was a student at Widener for only two years, it was a transformative time, allowing me to become a criminal justice professional and fulfill my dreams.... The kindness, encouragement, and support shown to me there resonates in my life every day.”
After living in a series of refugee camps in Thailand and one in the Philippines for more than three years, Leth and his mother and older sister immigrated to the United States, arriving in Maryland in 1983. After eleven years of working numerous jobs and starting community college, he and his family moved to Philadelphia where he graduated from Community College of Philadelphia and enrolled at Widener. A sociology major and criminal justice minor, he found tremendous support from sociology professors William F. Phillips, Barbara Ryan, and Vernon Smith as he went on to graduate as the Outstanding Sociology Graduate of the Class of 1998. Smith helped Oun land an internship that launched his career, and later Smith’s daughter became Oun’s goddaughter. Oun also remained close to Ryan, who years later helped edit drafts of his book. “Although I was a student at Widener for only two years, it was a transformative time, allowing me to become a criminal justice professional and fulfill my dreams,” Oun writes. “The kindness, encouragement, and support shown to me there resonates in my life every day.”
A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service, which was published by Temple University Press, was coauthored by former Widener Magazine editor Sam Starnes, who met Oun at Widener and wrote an article about him in 2011. The book was published by Temple University Press in February 2023, and it has received rave reviews, including Kirkus Reviews, which called it “A truly heartening story of sheer determination and the will to survive and thrive.” The Philadelphia Inquirer featured it on a full page and described his life as “an incredible journey by anyone’s standards.”
Proceeds from the sale of the book go toward helping Cambodians in need. For more information about Oun, Starnes, and this riveting book, visit lethounbook.com.