The winter issue of NC State magazine includes a story about photographs that Michael Ligett, a part-time lecturer in the College of Engineering, has taken of the Free Expression Tunnel. The story includes three photographs of a wedding proposal that took place at the wall outside the tunnel on Labor Day last year. Here is the story behind those photos.
Jimmy Nguyen had no problem figuring out where he wanted to propose to Sonya Patel. Making it work, though, was a tad more complicated.
Nguyen and Patel met in 2005 as students at NC State — they were both members of a dance team on campus — and they started dating soon afterward. They continued to see each other after they graduated and lived in different cities.
So when Nguyen was ready to propose last year, he knew the perfect spot to pop the question.
“Sonya was born and raised in Cary,” Nguyen says. “Her family had season tickets to NC State football — she was a Wolfpacker through and through. During our relationship, she would say, ‘I love NC State. I’m so glad I met you here. Everything has worked out.'”
So Nguyen decided to propose at the Free Expression Tunnel. Nguyen initially thought about copying the style of the graffiti artists who frequently paint on the wall outside the tunnel. “I tried to do it myself, but spray painting was not my thing,” he says. So he tried to find one of the graffiti artists, hoping they would accept a commission to paint his proposal on the wall. That didn’t work, either. “They were hard to find and wanted to remain anonymous,” he says.
With painting no longer an option, Nguyen thought about pasting large photos of he and Patel on the wall. But he worried that NC State might have rules against pasting items on the wall and that they would be too easy for others to take down before he could get Patel to the wall.
Then, after brainstorming with a cousin, Nguyen figured out his plan. He would paint the wall white, frame the black-and-white photos in red, wooden frames and stick the frames to the white-washed wall. Then he would make another red frame for he and Patel to stand in when he popped the question. “I wanted to do it in NC State colors – red, white and black,” he says. “It all made sense, kind of tied it together.”
Making his idea a reality was no small task. He wanted to propose on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, so he blocked out the entire weekend to buy the wood, cut it to make the frames and stain it red. Then Patel called, telling him that her father had tickets for the NC State football game that Saturday. Nguyen tried to beg off, offering the “lame” excuse that he needed to do yard work. But he went to the game, thinking the whole time about how much work he still had to do before Sunday afternoon.
“I stayed up 72 hours straight working on this,” he says.
Nguyen enlisted some cousins and friends to paint the wall white on Sunday morning, a job that took about an hour. But when they started trying to attach the frames to the wall, the frames kept pulling off the paint and crashing to the ground. It was 2:30 in the afternoon by then, and Nguyen had told Patel he would pick her up at 5 p.m. for dinner that night.
“So I’m freaking out,” Nguyen says. “What am I going to do? Then we get some twine and tied the photos to bricks we had found and strung it over the wall. It worked – it had movement, it was kind of crooked, it was nice.”
Nguyen only had a couple of hours left to get home, get cleaned up and pick up Patel for dinner. He had come up with a plausible reason to give Patel for stopping by campus on the way to dinner, but he was running out of time. And then he noticed the storm clouds moving in. He picked up Patel, and high-tailed it for the Free Expression Tunnel.
“We headed to campus, and I’m speeding,” he says. “She tells me to stop speeding, but the clouds were moving in pretty quickly. That’s the reason I was speeding. I’ve never seen clouds move so fast in my life.”
Nguyen and Patel made it to the wall in time. She says she was initially so focused on the tunnel itself that she didn’t notice what was on the wall. “I just remember thinking, “I haven’t been here in so long – and I miss it,” she says.
Patel’s initial reaction to seeing her photos on the wall was confusion. What are these red frames? Why are our pictures on the wall? Then it hit her.
“Once she realized, the waterworks turned on and they didn’t stop,” Nguyen says. “She completely knows what’s happening at that point.”
Or, as Patel says, “Jimmy started talking, saying he wanted to surprise me and show our story together for the past several years up on the wall. And I knew. And, yes, the waterworks came full speed! I could hardly talk.”
So Nguyen took Patel by the hand and led her to the large frame. He got down on one knee, pulled out the ring and popped the question. “For a split second she was speechless, which kind of worried me,” Nguyen says. “She eventually said ‘Yes.’ That’s how we got engaged.”
Nguyen and Patel hope to get married this summer. They are both glad that the Free Expression Tunnel was where they agreed to spend the rest of their lives together.
“Jimmy putting up our story on the wall was poetic and very ‘us,'” Patel says. “Proposing there was our next chapter. I just love that place, with all its good, bad and in between. Even when there was controversy surrounding tags in the tunnel, it is always a conversation starter and I love that.”
Nguyen says the tunnel is a “huge part” of NC State. “It shows that the university is open to having any and every conversation,” he says. “It’s a really good space.”