By Zoe Trout
Everyone has their happy place. For FSC graduate Wiresh Punwasi, it is his black 2012 Mustang with a roaring engine and dark leather interior. A white graduation tassel hangs from the rearview mirror, a reminder that he can accomplish anything, no matter what the barriers – and he has surely had more than his share. He says that the car and diploma are so important to him because they are his; from start to finish.
Wiresh is a reminder that resilience comes in many different packages. In this case, the package is a short kid with big, round glasses and a sense of determination that just won’t quit. Not when he found himself homeless at 16, not when he was working 70 hour weeks to put himself through college (graduating with high honors and no debt). Not even when he lost his abusive father, an addict, to an accidental overdose. Not many people can imagine getting through life without the support of family, but Wiresh says that, despite the challenges, he wouldn’t change the course of his life. While difficult at the time, Wiresh feels like he is finally on the other side of the most challenging part of his life, and he is thankful for the work ethic and determination to succeed that being on his own forced him to foster.
Wiresh was born the only child of an unhappy arranged Indian marriage. His childhood was filled with memories of loud, violent fights, broken furniture and angry threats. He recalls feeling momentary relief when the divorce was finally announced, though this feeling was quickly replaced by loneliness when he went to live with his father in Naples, Florida. His Dad worked full time in Miami and Wiresh found himself living alone at age 13. He loved and respected his father, and valued the close relationship they had, but resented him for the angry and violent tendencies he inherited, and hated the similarities between them.
After a string of undiagnosed mysterious health problems, Mr. Punwasi self-medicated with various prescription drugs and a bad drinking habit. When he was home, Wiresh’s dad was usually either sleeping or passed out from drinking, so Wiresh didn’t think anything was unusual on the morning he awoke and went through the morning and afternoon without his father emerging from his bedroom.
“Around 3pm I got hungry, so I went up to see if he wanted me to make enough food for two,” Wiresh remembers.
It was then that he found his father hunched over his bed, his body cold.
“When I called 911, the people on the phone told me to try and resuscitate him,” Wiresh recalls, “but I knew he had been gone for hours. There was no point. I didn’t cry. I was just in shock.”
Though his father had talked about dying many times before, Wiresh says that he knows his father’s death was unintentional.
“He always used to say, ‘If anything ever happens to me, promise me you won’t go live with your mother.’–Oh yeah, after they divorced my mom was sleeping with my dad’s brother,” Wiresh adds in a joking tone, aware of the nearly ridiculous drama of his story, “so I respected that.”
At 16, Wiresh went to live with an aunt and cousin nearby. He had inherited his father’s old beaten up Mercury Grand Marquis, and his mother told him that if he wanted to keep it, he had to get a job to pay for insurance and gas. However, one day when he went to the mall to collect a folder-full of job applications, his aunt kicked him out for not coming directly home after school.
“It’s an Indian thing.” Wiresh claims. “She was just super strict, and I didn’t like being told what to do after being independent for so many years.”
He called his mother, but through her words, slurred from too much pain medication, he heard his step-father in the background making it clear that he was unwelcome in their house. So he found himself without a home.
“I just really invested myself in school and ROTC, and I got a job at Publix,” Wiresh remembers. “I spent as much time at school and work as I could, and stayed with friends until my mom convinced my step-dad to let me stay there until I graduated.”
It was in college that Wiresh found the freedom from his life in Naples and an interest in foreign languages and criminology that helped him to excel. He started working part-time in the mailroom while maintaining a 4.0 GPA within his double major in criminology and math, and minor in Spanish, learning Chinese on the side for fun. He used summer savings, a bit of money that his father had left him, and his earnings in the mailroom to pay for school, but he says that it quickly became clear that those weren’t going to be enough.
“I think it was the opportunity to pay for school and say no to loans that kept me going,” Wiresh shared. “After my freshman year, I realized that I was going to need to work a lot harder to make enough money to pay for school, but with each new semester, I found a way. Along with that, basically every expense, from food to travel to different types of insurance, all became my responsibility. I just felt really satisfied with the fact that I could handle it myself. The more I was responsible for, the more capable I felt.”
During his junior year, Wiresh began working full time at the local Geico call center. By this point, he was taking 20 credit hours while working roughly 70 hours/week.
“I wanted to be the go-to person wherever I worked, and I needed the money,” Wiresh adds, “so I took any opportunities to work I could get. I came to campus early and stayed during breaks to help in the mailroom, and there was always more for me to learn there. There was always overtime at Geico because we were constantly understaffed, so I just worked whenever and however I could.”
If employer respect was the goal, the sleepless nights and nonexistent free-time was certainly worth it.
“Wiresh is one of the best employees I have ever had,” says John Burton, head of the mailroom at FSC. “His graduation was a huge loss for us. He wasn’t just another student worker. He became more like one of us over the years, and we gave him more responsibilities to go with that respect.”
At Geico, he quickly moved through promotional opportunities and became the first employee to ever receive a recommendation from the supervisor there.
Graduating from FSC in May 2016, having still maintained his double major with a 3.6 GPA, Wiresh has spent the past four months traveling between Tampa, Orlando and Washington D.C., training to be an auto damage adjuster for Geico, where he hopes to stay for at least the next two years.
“I’m used to being by myself,” Wiresh says with a shrug. “So giving up a social life in order to graduate without debt wasn’t all that strange for me, and I had friends through work.”
Wiresh’s dream is to return to Taiwan, where he traveled during his junior journey, to teach English. But for now, Wiresh is just looking forward to settling into the new apartment he shares with his cousin outside Orlando, not living out of a suitcase for a while, and creating a life for himself there.
“Now that I’m only working 8-5, I have no idea what to do with my free time. I’ve never really had it before. I think once I get settled with this new job, I’ll start taking classes to work towards my masters, and maybe get another part-time job,” he added with a sheepish smile, laughing at his own inability to sit still.
While, often, people who have undergone hardships during childhood wear that hardship on their sleeve, Wiresh does not come off as “damaged.” While he is open about the challenges he faced, and says that they absolutely shaped who he is today, he doesn’t want them to change the way that people look at him.
“I miss my dad every day.” Wiresh says, a delicate fondness in his voice, “but I don’t want to think about where I would be today if he hadn’t died,” he adds, a pained sadness sneaking into the corners of his eyes. “I’ve learned to control the anger I inherited from him, and I’ve built a life for myself. I love my mom and my dad and even my step-dad. I’m not mad at them. I think I’m a little more financially aware and stable than most people my age, and if they hadn’t been who they were, I wouldn’t have that.”
Resilience comes in many different forms, but Wiresh Punwasi, the short kid with big, round glasses, whose life story I spent hours and months piecing together over the mailroom counter, is one of the most unique examples that I have ever come across. His story both challenges and inspires anyone who hears it, and is a lesson that you can always do more than you think.