Engineering faith: BYU grad from Thailand shares journey of conversion

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Boongkey in Thailand. She attended high school in the U.S as an exchange student and has lived here ever since. (Photo courtesy of Boongkey Kittiyopas Freeze)

Boongkey Kittiyopas Freeze is a mother, valedictorian, mechanical engineer, medical device researcher and convert to The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Boongkey as a child. She attended high school in the U.S. as an exchange student, and has lived here ever since. (Photo courtesy of Boongkey Kittiyopas Freeze)

Boongkey moved from Thailand to the United States as a teenager and has lived in the U.S. ever since. She currently lives in Arkansas with her husband and their young daughter, Raya, and works as a biomechanical engineer. Her story is one of optimism, faith and resilience.

Her story began in Bangkok, Thailand, where she was born and raised. 

Beginning in seventh grade, she attended an international school in Bangkok, where she was immersed in both English and American culture.

Boongkey said this immersion influenced her decision to attend high school in America as a foreign exchange student.

“It got me more interested in seeing what’s out there, outside of Thailand,” she said.

Boongkey as a child. She attended high school in the U.S. as an exchange student, and has lived here ever since. (Photo courtesy of Boongkey Kittiyopas Freeze)

When she arrived in America, Boongkey said she knew English the way people in America “know” Spanish.

“You kind of know it, but you don’t,” Boongkey said.

Boongkey first lived in Panaca, Nevada — population 1,000. Compared to the bustling city of Bangkok, with a population over 10 million, anyone could reasonably expect to struggle with culture shock, but not Boongkey.

“I think the fact that I knew I was going to a different country and I knew things were going to be different, it wasn’t much of a shock to me. There were things that were different, but I think I was expecting it so it didn’t come as a shock,” she said.

After a year in Panaca, she returned home to Thailand. There, Boongkey unexpectedly experienced reverse culture shock in her own home country. 

“When I went back to Thailand, it was just different. I had kind of expected it to be the same. Even though I was gone for a year, I didn’t expect things to change … that was a big part of why I wanted to come back here. I had changed,” Boongkey said. “I didn’t want to stay.”

Boongkey hoped to return to the U.S., but she needed to find a private school, because foreign exchange students can only attend public school in the U.S. for a year.

In an effort to stay near her original host family, Boongkey, a Buddhist, ended up attending a Christian private school in Las Vegas.

“I really enjoyed the school,” Boongkey said. “I was in my comfort zone. It was small, everybody knew everybody and it gave me the chance to do lots of extracurricular stuff.”

In high school, she played volleyball, basketball, ran cross country and participated in speech and debate.

“I liked that I didn’t have to choose between different extracurriculars,” she said.

Boongkey graduated high school as her class’s valedictorian and gave the customary graduation speech.

Extracurriculars weren’t the only thing occupying her mind. Over time, Boongkey said she began to consider religion. Although she grew up Buddhist, Boongkey had been influenced by Christianity long before attending a Christian private school, she said.

Boongkey’s first host family had introduced her to their church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her second host family also belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was struck by the impressions both host families made on her faith.

Boongkey with missionaries and her host family. She attended high school in the U.S. as an exchange student and has lived here ever since. (Photo courtesy of Boongkey Kittiyopas Freeze)

“I think I knew, deep down, that it was true,” Boongkey said. She already held many of the values of the Church but felt hesitant nonetheless. Despite her apprehension, Boongkey approached her host family and asked to receive the Church’s missionary lessons.

During the lessons, one scripture specifically stood out to her, she said.

Boongkey on her baptism day. She attended high school in the U.S. as an exchange student and has lived here ever since. (Photo courtesy of Boongkey Kittiyopas Freeze)

“To this day, I still cry when I read it. It’s Alma 32 — faith is like a seed, and you must plant it to see if it is a good seed,” Boongkey said.

She decided to take a leap of faith and was baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ and has never looked back.

Mike Bennion, a BYU graduate himself, was Boongkey’s high school history teacher. He shared his thoughts on both her conversion to the Church and her performance in high school.

“I think she joined the Church for all the right reasons,” Bennion said. “It’s wonderful to see things progress for her.”

He recalled her diligent nature in school and her excellent perception in writing, even in her second language.

Her English literature teacher, Carmen Pendleton, is also a graduate of BYU.

“She was super positive,” Pendleton said of Boongkey as a student. “She takes on any challenge and is always dressed with a smile.” 

Pendleton described how, while Boongkey was choosing her BYU class schedule, she opted to take an upper-level Thai class to challenge herself rather than grab an easy A in her first language.

“She doesn’t take the easy way out,” Pendleton said.

Boongkey hugs her mother at her high school graduation. She attended high school in the U.S. as an exchange student and has lived here ever since. (AHA LV Facebook)

Academics and professional achievements aside, Boongkey’s personality is what really shines through. She is often being described as smiley, enthusiastic and friendly by those who knew her in both high school and college.

One of Boongkey’s college professors, Anton Bowden said, “She brought life into the lab … her enthusiasm is contagious and she approaches things with fun and excitement.” 

Boongkey worked under Bowden as a researcher in his bioengineering lab. He noted that not only was her research meticulous but, above all, her passion for the research showed and was contagious in the lab.

While in the mechanical engineering program at BYU, Boongkey interned at a company focused on bioengineering, where she still works today.

After graduating from BYU’s mechanical engineering program cum laude, she spent three semesters earning her master’s degree from Purdue online, rushing to finish before the birth of her daughter.

Above all, Boongkey said maintaining a mindset of lifelong learning has helped her stay motivated to work hard and achieve her goals. Those who know her unfailingly note her enthusiasm, passion for learning and deep desire to “get it right.”

Today, Boongkey works part-time while she raises her daughter alongside her husband, Zach Freeze, who is an engineer himself.

Boongkey and her husband, Zach Freeze. She attended high school in the U.S. as an exchange student and has lived here ever since. (Photo courtesy of Boongkey Kittiyopas Freeze)
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