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, N.Y., Lei Chen returned to his native China to finish his secondary education. He hoped to pursue college and earn a living there using his strong math and science skills.
Instead 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 to America on a green card 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,” Chen explained. “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.
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.
Thanks to this family’s generosity and to grants and assistance from financial aid offices at both Tompkins-Cortland Community College (TC3) and SUNY Cortland, the college senior is on his way to grasping that sheepskin 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, my preferment is to just travel back and forth between those two countries.”
At almost 30, Chen dresses and resembles the College’s more typical 18- to 21-year-olds rather than his real cohort, the College’s approximately 300 nontraditional students.
“I think my look fits in but my mind doesn’t fit in with them,” he said. “When I sit with a group they will respect me as a peer but I feel when I talk to them I’m not with them.”
He’s not much for small talk and he’d rather hit the books than the nightlife.
“That mindset has helped me through the past few years,” Chen said. “I have this goal, this direct route. I’m not going through curves or off the track. Which is really good.”
Chen is one of SUNY Cortland’s approximately 300 undergraduate students who is 24 or older, according to Cheryl Hines, coordinator of student outreach and non-traditional student support.
Chen is another reason why SUNY Cortland recognizes and celebrates these dedicated students during Non-Trad Week, which started on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, and runs through Friday, Nov. 18.
Nationally, non-trads are defined as students older than 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. These students often take unique paths to realize their academic goals and achieve their degrees after overcoming obstacles that traditional, right-out-of-high-school students don’t usually face.
Non-Trad Week events include family activities, a specially tailored scholarship session, a free taco bar and a “Non-Trads Rock” T-shirt day, when anyone spotted wearing that signature shirt will win a prize. A full list of activities is available.
The College will be publicly recognizing notable non-trads throughout the week, Hines said. You can nominate someone for recognition.