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Kai Chitaphong headshot

Affiliation: Doctoral Student
Program: PhD, Counseling and Human Development, with a concentration in Counselor Education
Education: BA, Roberts Wesleyan College (psychology and sociology); MSW, Roberts Wesleyan College (social work)
Background: Social Worker and Case Manager, Unity Health System; Officer, Combat Stress Control Team, U.S. Army

Kai Chitaphong was four when his father woke him up in the middle of the night and told him to grab his things, that the family was leaving Laos. He accompanied his parents, older sister and brother, younger sister and aunt to the shoreline of the Mekong River and climbed into a canoe. Despite the spotlights and warning shots and shouts to turn back, the family, with Chitaphong’s father guiding the boat from the water, made it to Thailand.

But the journey didn’t end there for Chitaphong, now a PhD student at Warner in counseling and human development, with a concentration in counselor education. After his father bribed border soldiers with money and jewelry to spare their lives, the family was sent to prison for three months before being released to a refugee camp, where Chitapong remembers playing in a pond, watching for the trucks that came once a week to drop off rice, and listening from his tiny hut at night to crimes being committed outside. After about a year, three churches from Geneva, N.Y., teamed up to sponsor the family.

Chitaphong to this day is unsure how the churches learned about his situation. But he has been committed ever since - and has demonstrated that commitment throughout his adult life - to assisting others in times of great need.

He vividly recalls the moment he heard that terrorists had toppled the Twin Towers: “I just had this weird feeling of physical pain, like I’d experienced something like this before,” he recalls. “I was immediately able to empathize emotionally and sense what these people were going through. At the time the only thing I could think of was I had to go down there and do anything I could to help.”

Chitaphong, at the time a social worker and program therapist with Unity Health System, joined the 9/11 Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Response team. After returning home, he felt called to do even more, so he enlisted in the military.

“Everybody thought I was nuts,” he says. “I had a good job, a nice family. I was starting on my PhD. They wondered why I would do this. But it was very personal for me.”

He flew into Iraq on a cold and rainy Christmas day in 2004 as the officer in charge of a Combat Stress Control team, making sure that soldiers had mental health services when they needed them, wherever they happened to be.

Chitaphong now serves as manager of the Operation Enduring and Iraqi Freedom Program for Canandaigua Veteran’s Affairs, providing a full range of health services for soldiers transitioning from the combat zone to home again.

“My current training and the pursuit of my advance degree at the Warner School has helped me to methodically pull all the pieces of my life experiences, professional experiences and prior training into a concerted product that further prepares me to better serve others,” he says. “I am proud to be associated with such a prestigious institution.”