A journey well-traveled

Steady Moono, president of SUNY Schenectady County Community College, at the ribbon-cutting for the college’s learning commons in 2021. (Photo: SUNY Schenectady)

Steady Moono, president of SUNY Schenectady County Community College, came to the U.S. from an impoverished village in Zambia, with aims of getting an education and starting a new path. Even that long journey — 7,550 miles — did not compare to the obstacles Moono faced in acclimating to his new home.

“I was lost — this was not just my first time outside my country, it was the first time I’d been outside my village,” says Moono, who began his presidential tenure at the New York college in 2015. “It was my first time on a plane. When I came to the States, navigating this world was incredibly hard.”

This article is an excerpt from the current issue of Community College Journal, the flagship publication of the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.

Much has changed since Moono’s flight touched tarmac on September 1, 1981. Even so, he knows that challenges remain for immigrant attendees who may feel as unmoored on campus as he once did. In response, Moono and other immigrant community college presidents are working to ensure the unpleasant, even frightening experiences of their younger years are not replicated among the current student body.

The full-time SUNY Schenectady enrollment is 54.5% white, with Black learners comprising 18.4% of the student population. Hispanic (10.4%) and Asian (9.1%) students round out the college’s total enrollment, a group that includes ten international students from nine countries.

Whether from overseas or marginalized U.S. communities, no individual should have to struggle like Moono did early on, he says. Reaching underrepresented students is good start, a fact that the college leader himself can attest to.

While studying for his bachelor’s degree at Messiah College — a Pennsylvania liberal arts institution — Moono had a snowy walk back to campus from the grocery store alongside a friend and fellow immigrant.

The pair trudged through near-blizzard conditions until a Messiah College professor drove by in his car. The man picked up Moono and his friend, days later inviting them over for Christmas dinner, a kindness that extended to a mentorship opportunity still active 40 years later.

“He was the only professor I knew who was Black, the closest I came to seeing someone like me,” Moono says. “I was puzzled by it. I saw other (people of color) within the college doing good work, but not as professors or senior administrators.”

Moono believes the kindly instructor — as well as a librarian who provided a similar mentorship role — saved a college career on the brink. Today, that compassion informs a student-first philosophy that includes telling his story to international learners and other students of color, even if just to remind them of life’s possibilities.

Making a difference

Of course, a few gentle words don’t mean much without the policies to support them. Moono prioritized development of a mentoring program aimed at all currently enrolled students. While open to all, the program places special emphasis on international students, English language learners and other populations for whom support networks are not always equally accessible.

Under Moono’s leadership, the college also established a food pantry the president calls “a replica of a supermarket,” while $300,000 in annual emergency funding aids students with everything from car repairs to tardy rent payments. Although centering students is a common practice in higher ed, and particularly in the community college realm, Moono wants that attitude to permeate all levels of the institution.

“I look at myself coming to this country from a peasant background, and the experience I had,” Moono says. “If there’s any evolvement in my educational philosophy, it’s a commitment to educating the entire student and doing everything we can to meet their needs. Are we prepared to embrace all students regardless of where they come from or the issues they’re facing?”

‘Here for students’

Immigrant leaders interviewed by Community College Journal believe their institutions must be ready for students, even as the higher-ed party line embraces learners doing all they can to be college-ready.

Lin Zhou, president of Bates Technical College (Washington), came to this country in the late 1990s as an ESL student. Previously a well-paid product manager for a computer company, the Beijing native arrived in Washington state with her husband, who had been hired as a programmer.

Lin Zhou came to the United States from Beijing in the 1990s. She’s now president of Bates Technical College. (Photo: BTC)

“I was a manager in a big city, and I was enjoying my life,” Zhou says. “Now I’m here with no friends and no English. It was very frustrating not to use my talent and experience because I couldn’t speak English.”

With encouragement from her husband, Zhou went back to school at age 30, intent on finding technical work similar to what she had in China. An opportunity to work as associate dean of instruction at Lake Washington Institute of Technology — where Zhou had also learned English — quickly changed her trajectory.

During that time, Zhou met an older student with a technical writing background who wanted to transition to massage therapy. The woman’s excitement and joy upon finding a job within a brand new industry stayed with Zhou in more ways than one.

“As an ESL student, I always needed help from others. I never thought I could help someone else,” Zhou says. “But helping someone made me feel so great. I knew I could make more money at Microsoft while doing business around the world, but I knew there were more students like me who didn’t have English. I wanted to be there for them.”

Read the full article in CC Journal.

About the Author

Douglas Guth
Douglas Guth is a writer based in Ohio.