By Liang Wee, Ph.D.

President, NICC College

    There is a Chinese saying which is equivalent to “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I am still a student of America and her people, and I straddle two cultures every day.

My parents showed their love for me by sending me away. I arrived in this country in 1983 -- on Independence Day. I did not know what my future would bring, just that I was working toward a better tomorrow.

For the past 33 years, many people in this country have shared new ideas and opportunities to help me grow.  They walked with me on my life’s journey, and at times helped me get up when I fell. I learned about partnership, collaboration, philanthropy, civility, diversity, compassion, passion and much more.

I experienced my first Thanksgiving dinner when two female classmates at the University of Arizona invited me to join their family. I participated in their family tradition and have cherished Thanksgiving ever since, as my Chinese culture is also rich in welcoming people over a meal at our homes.

At first, I found it difficult to understand the context of stories and jokes. (Johnny Carson’s humor, for example.)  People around me were laughing when I was trying to find the humor. Over time, I came to understand the American culture better, and now I enjoy watching re-runs of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

Successful communication requires an understanding of context. Many disagreements and fear have arisen from a lack of contextual understanding. We must seek first to understand.

My late mother always reminded me that hard work never hurt anyone. While in college, I worked at a parking lot, operated a switchboard and did yard work to help pay for my education. My co-workers were patient even though I made my share of mistakes.

At Northeast Iowa Community College, many of our students also work hard while pursuing an education. I remember a Latina graduate, Maria, who worked at a hog farm every day before coming to class with a smile. I have always admired the “can-do” attitude of the American people.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona, I studied information systems. I was planning to enter the computing industry when Dr. Wayne Eirich, assistant department head, asked me if I would help him with his classes. 

That’s how I got into teaching. He cared about his students and wanted every one of them to succeed. And the students loved him. We would be at an event and a student would recognize him and come over to greet him. That love of students in me is a gift from Dr. Eirich. Most importantly, I learned about my calling in life from him.

I have met many immigrants who are very grateful to have a new beginning in this great country, and some are even willing to put their lives on the line for America. Thee Tran was a refugee. She and her siblings fled Vietnam after her father was killed in the war. While in college, she asked me to write a letter of support when she applied to the U.S. Navy. She wanted to serve America. Although challenging, she passed the officer training program and was commissioned an officer.

This country and her people have contributed much to my growth and success. In return, I strive to serve my community to the best of my ability. I am proud to call America home.