It takes some enticing to convince Ricky Ly ’08 to talk about himself. Ly been called “one of the most powerful people in Orlando,” but humility is woven into his DNA. It’s so genuine that when the following biographical statements are mentioned to Ly, he can hardly believe they refer to him:

  • Among the Orlando Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 leaders for innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • A project manager for Jacobs, the engineering company with people in its workforce.
  • An Orlando-area food critic influential enough to make an upcoming appearance on Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil.
  • Co-founder of the AAPI civic engagement organization, Asian American Pacific Islanders Coming Together (ACT).
  • A recent invitee to a special “Building Back Florida” community summit at the White House.
  • One of the 50 most powerful people in Orlando, according to Orlando Magazine.
Ricky Ly ’08 at the White House (Photo courtesy of Ricky Ly ’08)

That last one makes the soft-spoken Ly laugh out loud.

“I don’t take it too seriously,” he says, “but I do take seriously my responsibility to make the world a better place. It’s a value passed down from my parents.”

Ly doesn’t consider himself anything more than a husband, father, son and UCF Knight. Once you gain a few peeks into the mind of this award-winning civil engineer, however, you begin to see how everything above ties together.

His invitation to the White House.
A group of us were walking through the West Wing when I saw all these cellphones stashed in cubbies. It hit me that I’d never seen such a level of security, and — wow, we’re in the White House. I was invited to participate in a summit with mayors, federal officials and leaders of community organizations to discuss the administration’s investments in better roadways, airports, affordable housing and resiliency to storms. They included me mostly because of my volunteer work with ACT, but a lot of my civil engineering experience intertwined with the topics. It’s all part of improving civilization.

His biggest takeaway from the summit.
People in high positions at the White House were asking us questions and taking notes about our experiences in our communities. Our voices were being heard, which aligns with what America is all about. This is an important theme in my life: Connecting people and communities. I think that comes from my immigrant background — strangers on a strange shore, seeking connection.

His parents coming to America as refugees from Vietnam.
After the war in Vietnam ended in 1975, the struggles continued for years. My mom was an orphan and managed to escape with her cousins on a fishing boat. They were at sea for two weeks before landing in Malaysia. My dad was of Chinese descent and had a difficult time growing up in Vietnam. Mom and dad were sponsored to come to the U.S., and eventually they met in West Palm Beach, Florida. Dad opened an Asian market there, which provided hard-to-find Asian goods and a place to gather and talk about life in the new world.

His decision to enroll at UCF as the first in his family to attend college.
When I was growing up, my family would come to Orlando from south Florida to visit the theme parks and shop and eat in the Mills 50 district. For my parents, the Vietnamese food gave them a taste of home. So, there was the cultural appeal for me. I also knew UCF had a great engineering program where I could apply my love for math and science.

His attraction to civil engineering.
I remember taking a trip to Vietnam when I was in 9th grade. This was 1999 and a lot of the roads there were still unpaved. There were few bridges and it took hours to get from place to place by ferry. I remember thinking, “I wish I could do something to help.” A few years later, in my Introduction to Engineering class at UCF our instructor taught us about the different types of engineering. I learned that civil engineering — also known as the mother of all engineering — included the design of roadways and infrastructure. I thought back to my trip to Vietnam and knew this is exactly what I want to do.

His life-altering first day at UCF.
A group of friends wanted to grab lunch somewhere, and we ended up at Anh Hong in Orlando’s Mills 50 District, affectionately known as Viet Town at the time. The grilled pork and rice platter is still among the best in town. Some of those people I met on that first day are still among my best friends. One was May Wong ’07 ’08MSA, who is now my wife.

His recognition as one of Orlando Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful People.
That’s mostly because of my food blog, TastyChomps. During my time at UCF, I wrote a food column for the student paper and decided to turn it into a blog after graduation. It’s grown over the years and I authored a book called a Food Lovers’ Guide to Orlando. In fact, I just filmed a Netflix episode of Somebody Feed Phil. The show and TastyChomps have a similar mission: discover mom-and-pop places and share good food with friends. Through their food, these families who run these restaurants form a community. That was the purpose of my dad’s market, too. And again, it’s at the heart of my passion for civil engineering.

His pride to be a Knight.
I owe my White House experience, my career, and my personal life to my time at UCF. Of course, none of it would have been possible without my parents who sacrificed so I could eventually have this opportunity to become an engineer, a food blogger, a husband and a father, and to live the story of America. It’s a privilege to do whatever I can to give back.