“Kohm brung” in Cambodian means “stay strong” — two powerful words Fresno State Lyles College of Engineering alumna Linda Lim lives by. 

“These were the two words my mother would always iterate to me in Khmer growing up,” Lim said. “She usually does not say much, but it was enough to remind me of the perils she had to endure during her time in the Cambodian genocide, the Khmer Rouge.”

The Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. As a calculated totalitarian regime created by political leader Pol Pot, the Rouge was responsible for the mass genocide of over 1 million Cambodians, including many of the country’s intellectuals like engineers, doctors, lawyers, politicians and anyone the regime felt threatened by. 

Pol Pot transformed Cambodia into an agrarian society; a society whose economy was based on producing and maintaining crops, Lim said. 

“Most, like my mom, ended up leaving the country to find a better future for themselves and their family,” she said. “As a daughter of Khmer Refugees, I take pride in being the minority female. As a Cambodian woman, I want to push cultural boundaries to relinquish the status quo of women in my culture. I am choosing to kohm brung.”

Those who immigrated into Cambodia were also heavily persecuted. Her mother is Cambodian, but her father, an immigrant from China, and his family were particularly vulnerable. He had eight siblings and his parents, but he and his sister were the only ones who survived. 

Many Cambodians sought refuge in other countries, such as Thailand, the Philippines and the United States, where Lim’s parents found solace in 1979. They met in Kansas City, Missouri, would marry and eventually move to Fresno where they raised three children and began a new life in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Lim’s grandmother also lived with the family.

“Although my siblings and I were born and raised here, our parents did not speak English, so we took a lot of English as a second language classes,” she said. “As we worked to learn the language, my mother always said ‘kohm brung.’ We would often translate for our parents and still do till this day. That’s when I really knew I wanted to rebuild our heritage and support their struggle through positive change.” 

Lim graduated from Edison High School and went on to Fresno City College where she earned her associate’s degree in architecture. Then, she transferred to Fresno State where she completed her bachelor’s in civil engineering with a focus on transportation in 2018.

“As a first-generation college student, I financially support my parents and I wanted to be close to them. I chose Fresno State because they have a good engineering program, and the tuition is affordable,” Lim said.

At the University, Lim joined Dr. Aly Tawfik, director of the Fresno State Transportation Institute and associate professor of transportation systems for the Department of Civil and Geomatics Engineering, as a research assistant. She worked on two research projects investigating the impacts of autonomous and shared autonomous vehicles and served on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ California 2019 Infrastructure Report Card – Roads Committee, where she helped in the assessment and grading of the state’s roads infrastructure.

“Her work ethic, research and literature contributions about road infrastructures were outstanding,” Tawfik said. “Linda also assisted the committee in writing narratives based on the data collected – leading to the determination of how and what score would be assigned. Through kindness, responsibility, reliability and determination, Linda leads by example, showing our students that the sky’s the limit.” 

When not attending class or conducting research, Lim worked part time for STRUCTCON, a structural engineering consulting firm in Fresno, where she collaborated with the company president, Kimihiro Sera, for three years on the $100 million Fresno County West Annex Jail project. 

Lim also immersed herself in the culture at Fresno State while pursuing her degree. She performed and competed in the Fresno State Color and Winter Guards and was an active member in student clubs. She served as president of the Fresno State Institute of Transportation Engineers and was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and American Council of Engineering Companies. 

“These opportunities enabled me to travel, attend and present my work at conferences in California, Hawaii and Pennsylvania,” Lim said. “I connected with peers and networked with industry members and graduate colleges I might not otherwise have been able to do.”

Thanks to donor support, faculty grants and funding from Associated Students, Inc., students like Lim, from the Lyles College, are able to attend conferences throughout the nation every year where they acquire internships, entry level jobs and explore doctoral programs. 

Through these opportunities, Lim acquired a dean’s fellowship to the University of Virginia where she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in civil engineering and environmental systems. She also serves as co-chair of the Graduate Student Council of International Student Liaisons and is Secretary for the University of Virginia’s chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers. 

Like many students, Lim continues to persevere in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and is working and taking classes remotely from Fresno. “This pandemic has given me the opportunity to continue to care for my parents while pursuing my research,” she said. 

In 2020, Lim completed a publication with Associate Principal Research Scientist of the Virginia Transportation Research Council, Dr. Michael Fontaine, titled “Development of Road Diet Segment and Intersection Crash Modification Factors” where she analyzed crash data in Virginia to determine the safety effects of road diets. She presented this research at the Transportation Research Board Conference in January — the largest annual transportation engineering conference in the world, usually held annually in Washington D.C. but was held virtually in 2021.

Lim’s most recent accomplishment was winning the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which is given to the top 2,000 applicants in the nation pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in the natural, social and engineering sciences. Her research proposal is to investigate how technological shifts in autonomous vehicle systems affect transport accessibility among the underserved population in order to develop an equity framework that can be applied to all forms of disruptions within a system. 

(Story by Lucca Lorenzi)