The Motorcycle Diaries
A UVU alumna overcomes obstacles on her highway to success
By Mike Rigert
UVU Magazine, Fall 2011
(Click here to view this story in its original magazine format)
Erin Chuon ’05 didn’t always know where life’s journeys would take her, but she knew she would never settle for anything but her best. The San Antonio, Texas, native with a “live-and-let-live” attitude believes in herself and doesn’t let anything, or anyone, get in her way.
After relocating to Utah to attend Utah Valley University — initially to study fine arts — Chuon seized several personal successes, including marrying her best friend, Chu Chuon. That corresponded with academic success, after identifying a UVU program that was a natural fit, and ultimately professional success, upon launching a career at Timpanogos Harley-Davidson in Lindon, Utah.
But what really defines Chuon is her inner strength. Through her moxie and unquenchable spirit, she overcame a series of monkey wrenches thrown into her life, including stereotypes of women in a male-dominated field. That fortitude enabled her to flourish in UVU’s automotive technology and technology management programs in which 95 percent of the students are men. A testament to her personal gumption and excellent preparation, Chuon is thriving in what has traditionally been a man’s world.
Getting into gear
Even in her youth, Chuon was never much of a glamour girl, eschewing her grandmother’s gifts of dolls for toy cars, motorcycles and boats. She wasn’t a total gear-head but tinkering with dirt bikes was part of her repertoire. In high school, she concentrated her efforts on visual arts, and though she was proficient from a technical standpoint, an imaginative muse eluded her.
“I could copy stuff but not create new works,” she says.
After scouting out several colleges in Utah during a spring break, Chuon walked away impressed with what UVU had to offer. Initially, she enrolled in the University’s bachelor of fine arts program. But everything changed when, just for kicks, she signed up for Bob Campbells’s introduction to automotive repairs to satisfy an elective requirement.
Finding her way
Mastering the gamut — from learning how combustion engines operate to working on anything that runs on gasoline — Chuon felt she had found something special. Under the guidance of automotive technology faculty including Campbell and Paul Bean, she earned an associate degree and put her sights on a career in the automotive industry.
But rather than turning wrenches, she wanted to be the one at the controls. Despite being a young wife and mother to the couple’s two little children, Chuon went full throttle in her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in technology management.
“The students I teach are here because they like cars. But you have to look to your future,” Bean says. “Any chance that I get, I push the fact that students need a four-year degree” to put themselves on a management pathway in the industry.
Chuon juggled her many responsibilities while tackling a full plate of applied science and technology management courses. But just as in her automotive classes, she didn’t tolerate any special treatment from her male classmates. Bean remembers two instances in which male students attempted either to playfully tease Chuon, or to lend her a hand, and she would have none of it.
“She was focused and wasn’t going to let anything get in her way,” Bean says.
Chuon revered her instructors, partly because they were professional and knowledgeable, but also because she didn’t feel favored or singled out because she was a woman. Moreover, many of the professors had worked previously in the industry and stressed real-life applications in the shop.
“They really got one-on-one with you, helped you network and taught you through their life experiences,” she says. “The faculty were what made the program so great.”
Bumps in the road
In 2005, near the end of her undergraduate studies, Chuon’s father had connected her with a friend at General Motors who had played a role in designing the Hummer SUV line. The industry insider secured a one-year paid project management internship in Detroit for her that would utilize her business management skills.
Instead, disaster struck.
Her mother-in-law suffered an aneurism the day before her last final exam. Thoughts of “I’m almost done” were interrupted a mere 30 minutes later by an ambulance ride whisking her husband’s mother to the hospital. Shaken, Chuon went straight from the operating room to take the final.
For the next two years, Chuon was the primary caregiver for her mother-in-law. In essence, it was like caring for three children, she says. It was “Adios, internship,” and her career went into an indefinite holding pattern.
“I felt overwhelmed,” Chuon says. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I could have never done it without my husband.”
In 2006, when she began her job search, she encountered another hurdle — prejudiced employers. Several car dealerships liked her resume, but when she sat down with hiring managers for interviews, they noted her diminutive size and asserted she wasn’t the type to get her hands dirty.
Frustrated but unwilling to hoist the white flag, Chuon recalled her dream of working at a Harley-Davidson dealership. Though intimidated by testosterone-fueled stereotypes of the sport, she gave it a shot, applying at Timpanogos Harley-Davidson. Much to her surprise, the experience was the antithesis of what she had endured elsewhere. General manager and UVU alumnus Rick Story and his team were focused on her UVU education, and the skills and experience that she brought to the table. Chuon hadn’t gotten home from the interview when the dealership called her and asked if she could start the next day at 9 a.m.
“They looked at what I could do for them,” she says. “They welcomed me with open arms and invested knowledge in me that I’m really grateful for.”
Chuon is Timp Harley’s parts manager, a key position within a Harley dealership’s management team because customization is such a significant part of the company’s business model. A positive and fun atmosphere permeates the dealership, largely she says because Story puts a premium on customer service and employee job satisfaction.
She uses the skills and knowledge from her UVU education daily at the dealership, and never fails to tell friends and co-workers of her great memories in the Sparks Automotive Building.
“I tell them it’s awesome. I hope that everyone would have a chance to have as great an experience at UVU as I did,” Chuon says.