International students at FM are teaching us many lessons


Fulton-Montgomery Community College has a long history of enrolling international students — more than 100 each year, representing 25 countries and six continents.

In a 2015-16 report from NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, the economic impact of international students from across the country was highlighted. For the first time ever, more than one million international students were studying at U.S. campuses. In New York alone, there were 114,316 international students during this academic year, contributing $3.9 billion to the New York state economy.

This year, FM has 113 international students studying on-campus. Three of these students are Li Chen, from China, My Nguyen, from Vietnam, and Keiichiroh Ono, from Japan.

Although each student’s story is unique, they have one commonality: they came to the United States for a quality education.

Li Chen’s husband moved from China to Milwaukee to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering. Chen held a bachelor’s and master’s degree in teaching and was a teacher in China. After being apart from him for three years, Chen moved to Wisconsin to be with her husband. Looking for work, she was told she needed a degree from the United States if she wanted to stay in the teaching field. Also, her English was not as fluent as she’d have liked and she wanted to strengthen her speaking skills. With the encouragement of her husband, she took some engineering courses at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). Chen found her new studies interesting.

Soon after starting classes, her husband was transferred to General Electric in Niskayuna where they moved and now live. She did not want to lose her educational momentum and looked at local colleges. The one she believed to be the right fit was FM.

“I communicated with three different college’s administrators and staff and the one that always got back to me the fastest was Mrs. Spencer (director of international student and ESL program) at Fulton-Montgomery,” says Chen. “She was always helpful and informative. She explained that I could transfer my credits from MATC to FM. I was happy to start at FM.”

With the help of Spencer, Chen enrolled at FM where she is doing quite well for herself. Last semester, Chen was one of only two students nationwide who received a scholarship/internship at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Maryland. (NIST sets standards for measurement technology). She spent most of her time working in a cleanroom similar to the one found at FM. Chen earned eight college credits through this internship.

When asked the toughest part of coming to America and taking college courses, Chen says it’s the language barrier.

“It’s very difficult to take chemistry and pass when you don’t know a lot of the terminology,” she said. “However, I was determined to get a job. If I couldn’t work as a teacher, then I would work as an engineer. You have to do whatever it takes to find a job you like and go after it. I would say a college degree is what will get you the job.”

Chen said whether married or not, she would always want to work.

“I feel every person, especially young women, need to be independent. A job is independence. Education is independence,” she said. “Family is very important, but they can only help for so long. I have a family in China but now I’m in the United States. I can’t rely on them or my husband.

“I want to feel I am doing something important. Not being able to teach did not stop me. I am very comfortable in the electrical technology field. The job opportunities are vast. In China, you have to compete with 1.4 billion people for a job. Think about that. America really is the land of opportunity.”

My Nguyen is a second year student at FM. Only 20 years old, she has proven to be a very brave young woman. Her father, a doctor, and her mother, a nurse, Nguyen’s parents wanted her to follow in their footsteps and enter the medical field. She passed the college entrance tests in Vietnam to go into either pharmaceuticals or biology, but Nguyen did not want to go to college in Vietnam. She wanted to come to the United States where, she says, “education is much better.”

“My aunt came to America six years ago and now lives in Johnstown,” says Nguyen. “She told me about FM and said if I came, I could live with her.”

Two years ago, with her parents’ blessing, Nguyen came to the U.S. to attend college. She spent her first year in the English as a second language (ESL) program. She then enrolled in the health studies program to honor her parents’ wishes.

Nguyen, however, was not happy, she said. She struggled with classes, especially anatomy and physiology, but was afraid to seek help. Rather, she considered herself “dumb.”

“In the Asian culture, you don’t show your true feelings,” said Nguyen. “You have to be the same as everyone else; if you are different, people notice and think there is something wrong with you. I was afraid to tell anyone that I did not like my studies.”

Nguyen started to feel depressed and alone. It wasn’t until Nguyen took art courses that she started to feel hopeful.

“I took 2D Design; I was good at design, and I enjoyed it.”

She went on to take Stagecraft, where she found a confidant in Anthony Rich, her instructor.

“On the first day of class, Mr. Rich asked each student to talk about themselves. I decided to tell my story. I told about my parents wanting me to be in health care. I told how lonely and scared I felt. Mr. Rich changed my life that day,” says Nguyen. “He told me it’s okay to accept who I am, to love myself. He explained that I am not alone. He made me see that if people did not like me for who I am — even my family — that was their problem, not mine.

“America is where you can be whoever you want to be. Whether people accept that or not is their choice. I did not understand this until I came to FM. I am so lucky to have selected this college. People here help you. They want to see you fulfill your dreams. They want you to know it is okay to be different. They want you to embrace who you are. I love who I am now.”

With her new courage, Nguyen told her parents her plans of becoming an interior designer. When she completes her degree from FM, she is considering continuing her studies in Santa Monica, Calif., or FIT in New York City. She said her parents surprisingly accepted her news.

“Even though my family is very strict, they love me. They could hear the happiness in my voice. Family is everything. Whether you get along or not, you just keep loving them.”

Keiichiroh Ono — or Kei, as he likes to be called — came to FM from Japan because he wanted to learn English.

“Throughout high school my goal was to speak English. If I can speak English, I can make more friends. My goal in life is to travel the world. English is a necessary language to reach my goal. I did not want to learn through class, I want to learn by seeing the world through my own eyes,” said Ono.

After high school graduation, Ono did an online search for colleges in the United States. He read about FM’s international studies and spoke to a Japanese agent about it. To his surprise, the agent was a graduate of FM who gave high praise to the college. Ono was sold. However, his Japanese teachers were not.

“My teachers told me I needed to speak better English before coming to the United States,” said Ono. “They told me going to the states without the proper speaking skills could be very bad. They were looking out for me but I knew the only way to learn the language was to dive right in.”

In the summer of 2016, Ono left his parents and older sister and came to FM. He moved into Campus View student housing and took a course in physical education and ESL. He now speaks English impeccably well.

“I am so lucky to be at a campus like FM,” says Ono. “There are many cultures, not only in America, but also right here on campus. I have made many friends. I thought all my friends would be American, but some of my closest friends come from Albania, Pakistan and Sweden. They teach me about their culture. We traveled to New York City where I made even more friends with their friends. I am also making friends with Spanish and Chinese students. I want to learn all their languages. The more languages I learn, the more friends I will make around the world.”

The reason Ono is so interested in learning several languages and the cultures of others is that his career goal is to be a tour guide and interpreter at the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo. Ono plans to graduate from FM and transfer to another SUNY four-year institution to be sure he will reach his career goal before moving back to Japan.

“Although there seems to be much racism in America, there really is no need for it,” says Ono. “I agree terrorism is awful. Terrorists need to be kept under control. But those from other cultures who are not like you are not bad people. They are just different. Once you talk and get to know them, they can teach you many things. I am one of the lucky ones. I came to America with the support of my family and I am making my dreams come true. Many are not so lucky. They do not have the means to make a better life. I think everyone should have the opportunity to live their dreams.”

For more information on FM, visit or contact the admissions office at (518) 736-FMCC (3622), Ext. 8301.

Amy Radik is the coordinator of public relations & marketing for FMCC.

By Patricia Older

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