October 21, 2021

From China to Cortland, student takes the long way ’round

Photo provided by SUNY Cortland Lei Chen, a student at SUNY Cortland, has taken a long and circuitous route that led from China to his senior year at the college.

Photo provided by SUNY Cortland

Lei Chen, a student at SUNY Cortland, has taken a long and circuitous route that led from China to his senior year at the college.

Contributing Writer

Ten years ago, Lei Chen had a plan.

After spending one year of high school as part of an intercultural student exchange program that placed him in Cazenovia, Lei Chen returned to his native China to finish his secondary education. He hoped to pursue college and earn a living using his strong math and science skills.

But in 2008, the worldwide economic meltdown threw his single mother of two sons out of a good-paying government job.

“My family faced a really bad financial issue because I couldn’t go to college after high school,” he said.

So in 2008 Chen — lucky to have reconnected with a Chinese-American former high school classmate — returned on a green card to America, where he found himself laboring in a Super China Buffet in North Carolina. A few years passed while he scrimped and saved and sent small amounts of money back home to Chong Qing, a small province in the middle of China.

“In China, if you are a boy, you have to take the responsibility to get the family back together,” said Chen, who is nearly 30 years old. “You work multiple jobs. You save as much as you can. You do a little more. What you send back to China is worth eight times what it is here.”

Chen’s second chance at higher education came in 2012 when his Cazenovia high school host family reconnected with him through Facebook and invited him to live with them again, this time as a college student.

That host family, which had since moved to Cortland, consisted of John and Kathy Suarez.

What is a non-trad?

Lei Chen is one of SUNY Cortland’s approximately 300 undergraduate students who are considered nontraditional students. These are students older than age 23, students raising children, students working full time, students with prior military experience or students who have an interruption in their education. And they make up an increasingly large segment of campus populations.

The so-called non-trads are being celebrated during Non-Trad Week, which began Nov. 11 and runs through today.

It just so happens that John Suarez teaches in SUNY Cortland’s English Department and serves as service-learning coordinator for the college’s Institute for Civic Engagement while Kathy Suarez also teaches. The two educators worried about Chen.

“After they found me, they were talking to me on the phone,” Chen said. “I came back to visit them and they encouraged me. They said, ‘You should just get a college degree, you’ll have more opportunities.’”

Chen had no money for college. Originally, his financial aid status was complicated by a difference of opinion over whether or not he had graduated from a United States high school.

Through the Suarez family’s generosity and with grants and assistance from financial aid offices at both Tompkins Cortland Community College and SUNY Cortland, the college senior is on his way to graduating next May.

He’s no longer a kid in high school, but his former host family once again provides him with a roof, a bed, meals, support and encouragement.

“They have really helped me from beginning to end,” Chen said of the Suarezes. “They said, ‘Just do what you can, we’ll provide what you need. This is not just a place to live but a feeling of family.

“Because in my culture, I don’t actually speak out for a lot of things, I don’t say ‘I love you, guys’ or hug them, but I do try to say often that I treat them as my family. I feel they are my real family. All my biological family is there in China. But I don’t really mind if I stay here because I connect to two places. John and Kathy, they are also my family.”

Now he’s a permanent resident in America.

“If not, I would not be able to go back to school,” he said.

First Chen completed 11 credits at SUNY Cortland — just short of matriculation.

“TC3 accepted me because I showed I could do college work,” said Chen. “TC3 encouraged me to go farther. That’s why I pursued a four-year degree.” He studied math and English there while maintaining excellent grades and graduating in 2015 with an associate’s degree in liberal arts.

Chen’s chosen major at SUNY Cortland, English as a second language (ESL), non-certification track, holds some irony for him.

“I thought I would become a math or science teacher in China,” he said. “I had taken five years of English but I never acquired it because I never thought I would go to any country where I would practice it. I actually started learning English when I came here.”

Living with teachers hasn’t hurt.

“That’s how my English got so much better,” Chen said. He recently demonstrated his proficiency at his second language when he volunteered to promote the ESL program to prospective students at a Fall Open House.

Chen has chosen to minor in mathematics and computer applications. This may help him serve a business clientele.

“I want to teach students at an older age, maybe as a tutor or a trainer to adults,” Chen said.
In the future Chen hopes to travel back and forth between China and America.

Jennifer Wilson is associate director of public relations for SUNY Cortland.