Making a foreign country feel like home

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Alumnus Lester Ng helps international students thrive at UCI with contribution through the university’s $1 billion Shaping the Future campaign.

Lester Ng ’93 clearly remembers the challenges of studying abroad. During one semester of law school, he struggled to acclimate to the language and culture of Hong Kong.

“While the program was good educationally, it basically dumped you in a foreign land and left you to fend for yourself,” he says. “When you’re on the other side of the planet, it can be very challenging just to figure out how to take care of your basic needs. It exacts a heavy toll on the student and leaves quite an empty hole emotionally.”

The Hong Kong experience had a lasting impact. And when an opportunity arose for Ng to help similarly bewildered students at his alma mater, he took it.

“Perhaps it was a chance event; perhaps it was fate,” Ng says. “I see out of the blue a message from UCI asking if I was thinking about charitable giving and, if so, would I consider UCI.”

He picked up the phone and booked a campus tour – a “trip down memory lane” – through the Office of Planned Giving.

Ng soon learned about the UCI Ayala School of Biological Sciences’ International Student Program, which provides orientation, a full-time international student adviser and peer advisers for students coming from outside the United States.

“I was very impressed that UCI was working hard to ensure that students studying here could spend their time studying, rather than expending time and energy just trying to find the necessities to survive,” he says.

Under the guidance of program coordinator Sherry Ong, students from abroad get help from the moment they’re admitted with everything from transcript policies to navigating the campus. And though Ong is officially an academic adviser, offering suggestions on building class schedules and helping shape research programs, she often finds herself talking students through issues uncommon among their U.S. counterparts.

“I got a call from a student who said her dishwasher was broken,” Ong recalls. “She said, ‘There are bubbles everywhere, and I’m mopping them up!’ I asked her what kind of soap she used and had to explain that even though the dishwasher says it can be used with all dish detergents, the kind she uses in the sink can’t work in the dishwasher.”

Ong moved to the U.S. from China when she was 10, and her own experiences as a UCI undergraduate prove useful every day. Nearly 80 percent of the Ayala School’s international students come from mainland China. She reaches out to them through email, the Chinese social network WeChat and office visits.

Inspired by her efforts, Ng has contributed $75,000 to the program. His support and that of thousands of others helped raise $1 billion during UCI’s Shaping the Future campaign, the first in the Orange County area to set – and reach – such a lofty goal.

Ng has stayed active with the program and the students by attending the ISP’s annual student welcome reception and several of the cultural awareness activities, like the ISP’s Thanksgiving celebration.

“Here at UCI, I find staff to be not only knowledgeable but truly concerned with what is needed, for both the student body and individual students,” Ng says.

As his relationship develops with UCI and the Ayala School, Ng says he sees a bright future for his alma mater.

“Should UCI continue to adapt to the new trends and overcome the challenges of the future, I believe it will be a true leader not only in research … but in educating students to prepare them for moving society forward, worldwide,” he says.

And thanks to Ng’s support, students from around the globe can quickly get to the work of moving society forward.

– David Earl, UCI