Neng Thao, high school valedictorian, intended UC Berkeley student, dies at 18

Neng Thao, an Edison High School magna cum laude valedictorian, member of the City of Fresno Youth Leadership Commission and intended UC Berkeley student for the upcoming fall semester, died Saturday afternoon after a drowning accident. Thao was 18.

Thao intended on joining the campus as a freshman this upcoming fall. Chia Thao, Neng’s sister, said Thao hoped to both take courses in pre-med fields and pursue his passion for politics with an intent to run for student government.

Thao’s long-term goal was to eventually return to Fresno and run for office to “become a person that can actually make a change,” according to Cheng Yang, a foreign language teacher at Edison High School.

“He wanted to come to Berkeley because he felt he wanted to make a difference,” Chia Thao said. “This is somebody that could become anybody that he wanted to be. He had such big goals and dreams for himself.”

According to Chia Thao, Thao and several of his relatives had traveled up to a lake near the San Joaquin River to celebrate Thao’s and his brother’s high school and college graduations, respectively, before the drowning occurred.

Fresno County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Tony Botti said the Fresno Fire Department responded to the scene early Saturday afternoon. Botti added it was “not uncommon” for two or three accidents to occur in a summer season around the area.

“Every death is heart breaking, but Neng was never in the shadows. He had emotionally touched everyone of the people he knew,” Sunshine Thor, Neng’s cousin, wrote in an email. “He was a friend, brother, and acquaintance to many who would never forget his kindness.”

Thao’s family, originally from Laos, escaped to Thailand as political refugees of the Vietnam War, eventually resettling in the United States. Thao was later born in Fresno as the youngest of seven brothers and 10 total siblings.

Chia Thao said Thao’s understanding of his family’s struggle motivated an interest in civic engagement. Thao advocated for refugee rights and policies related to inequality issues for communities of color.

Edison High School Principal Lindsay Sanders said Thao was an “active but humble” leader at his school who was well known by most of his classmates — someone who “stretched the boundaries of diversity.”

Thao also dedicated time to mentoring other — often younger — students at Edison High School, a practice born out of Thao’s desire to see his peers be able to follow his path to success, according to Yang.

During his time at Edison High School, Thao was part of a group of students that petitioned and advocated for the creation of a Hmong foreign language course at Edison High School to better serve the school’s large Hmong population. Thao’s sister said the school’s decision to create a Hmong course was an example of how “assertive (Thao) was about passions.”

Thao also served on City of Fresno Youth Leadership Commission, having been reappointed to the commission by Fresno Mayor Lee Brand last Thursday. Thao reported to the local mayor and city council once every six months to discuss issues of importance for residents 18 years or younger, according to Fresno city spokesperson Mark Standriff.

Yang, who selected Thao to be recognized with Edison High School’s Foreign Language Department Award, said Thao will be remembered by his selflessness and called Thao “irreplaceable.”

“He told me one day, ‘Mr. Yang, honestly I want you to stay here and wait for me. I’m going to come back and run for mayor. I’ve been talking about making a change for so long. … It’s about time I become a person that can actually make a change,’ ” Yang said. “And when I go to the classroom, that’s the person that I miss.”

Bobby Lee is an assistant news editor. Contact Bobby Lee at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @bobbylee_dc.