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Jamaican's dream soon to come true at BYU

OREM — In 1974, Victor and Verna Nugent became the first Jamaicans on the island to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church brought them to Utah a year later for general conference and a tour of church properties, including Brigham Young University.

Struck by what he saw, Victor set a goal that along with their conversion would alter his family's path forever.

"I had been to many other campuses, but I was totally impressed by the way the students looked, the facilities and the spirit we felt on the campus," he said. "We had two children, one 8 and one 5. I prayed that if it was possible, that all my children would be able to come to this university. I promised to do my best to obey the commandments to receive that blessing."

Against long odds, the fifth of the five Nugent children will graduate from BYU next month, 32 years after his father's prayer. And Spencer Nugent will do so after recently winning a prestigious national award for industrial design.

"Four have graduated," Victor said this week. "Spencer is the youngest. That is a great blessing realized. It's just been awesome to me."

Victor's goal was more audacious than he possibly could have known in 1975, even for a well-educated Jamaican who fully understood when he joined the church that he could not hold the priesthood because his skin was black — a ban that would be lifted two years after his conversion when the church announced a revelation.

BYU had undergone explosive growth for two decades, a dramatic trend that would not end until church leadership capped its enrollment at 27,000 and now at about 30,000. Tens of thousands of LDS college-age students who previously would have been admitted to the university no longer qualify.

Additionally, the Nugents were poor Jamaicans. Even though they had a better income than the average Jamaican family, the country's economy was in shambles, making BYU tuition a difficult expense even for a man who himself had majored in chemistry, zoology and botany in college. He once was a budding artist like Spencer. Young Victor Nugent was the first Jamaican to win first prize in the national art competition in both drawing and painting.

"My parents told me they knew too many starving artists, that I couldn't make a living by drawing or painting," Victor said.

There is money in industrial design. Spencer completed an internship with Astro Studios during the summer of 2006 and another with General Motors this summer. He worked on designs for a toy car, the Jam Pack Jam by Cranium, that is on shelves this Christmas, and his design suggestions for GM and Intel helped him win a major scholarship awarded annually by the Industrial Designers Society of America to the nation's top two industrial design students.

One of his feature ideas was based on Smart Carte, the airport baggage carts that require a deposit. Spencer dreamed up "Smart a la Carte," a space-age-style orange lunchbox for planes. Passengers could order food from an airport kiosk — it would be better than airline fare — then return the lunchbox like a Smart Carte at the end of their flight.

"It encourages reusability," he said. "The size and shape are such so that it fits on your tray table, and so you can stick it in the pouch in front of you, then return it for a cash incentive."

He also designed a sleek green product that would gather the computing power of a small business' aging computers and combine them into one faster and more reliable machine.

He also designed a watch that, whenever a wearer was close to an Internet connection, would download e-mails and Facebook messages.

Spencer's own quest began amid the orchards of his native Bog Walk, Jamaica. From there, the Nugent family emigrated in 2000 to Orem, where Victor and Verna operate AJS Carpet Cleaning. Like his oldest brother and sister, who attended Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) before being admitted to BYU, Spencer spent a year at Utah Valley State College. After an LDS Church mission, BYU accepted him.

"In Jamaica, the education system is a little different. I didn't have enough requirements to get straight into BYU," he said. "For me, UVSC was a segue into BYU. I always knew I was going to go to BYU someday."

He has a 3.9 GPA and after graduation will move to San Francisco to work for Astro Studios, which helped design the Xbox 360 and works with Nike and Microsoft.

"My parents taught us good principles," he said. "Education was always stressed. For me, looking up to my brothers and sisters influenced me."

The oldest Nugent child, Peter, earned a degree in sociology; now he runs an information technology firm in Utah. Then Cecile earned an art degree; she works at a museum in Pittsburgh. Mark, who now works for Intel in Oregon, earned both civil engineering and MBA degrees from BYU. Camille also graduated with an art degree and does graphic design for a Utah firm.

The Nugents sacrificed financially to achieve Victor's goal, especially as the Jamaican economy saw interest rates rise at one point to 40 percent.

"We had to have good employment, and most of that money I had to use to pay to get them into school," he said. "Some way or another, it always worked out, because I endeavored to be a full tithepayer (10 percent of one's gross income). We had to forego buying the things we thought we really needed and spend only for the necessities. Every time the fees were due, some way or another things worked out. It's been a miracle. I know it's been an answer to that prayer."

The children contributed heavily.

"We got the children up here by making great sacrifices, and all of them got some sort of scholarship and were able to find employment on campus," Victor said. "Spencer has been able to support himself since the first year on campus."

The family has made having a computer in the home a priority since Victor purchased an Apple II in 1982, the year Spencer was born.

"We put him on the keyboard when he was three, and he took to it like a duck to water, and he has never looked back," his father said.

Now the children of Victor and Verna Nugent, BYU grads all, have provided their parents with nine grandchildren. BYU's steady enrollment cap and the growing pool of potential LDS students makes it increasingly unlikely that they could duplicate their parents' feat, but Victor Nugent would love to see it happen.

"Hopefully they'll all be able to go to BYU," Victor Nugent said. "That would be a treat."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com