Onondaga Community College annually recognizes distinguished graduates by naming them ”Alumni Faces” for their accomplishments and contributions to the community. The 2016 class will be honored during a ceremony October 26 at 5:30 p.m. in the Recital Hall which is located in the Academic II building. One of the graduates we will honor that night is Dr. Thomas Zengeya.
When Thomas Zengeya walked out of the Syracuse’s Hancock Airport in January of 2001 he thought ice was falling from the sky. Zengeya had flown in from his native Zimbabwe where it was summer. “The warmest piece of clothing I brought with me was a leather jacket.” His plan was to study science in a colder and snowier place, SUNY Oswego. Unfortunately his scholarship wouldn’t cover his expenses there. That’s when Jerry Oliver at SUNY Oswego called Monty Flynn at Onondaga Community College. A short time later Zengeya was a student at OCC.
“The two of them worked everything out,” Zengeya said. “Monty proved to be instrumental in my success because he and his family took me in until I was able to find a place of my own once I arrived in Syracuse.” Zengeya made connections with the Pan Africanist Community of Central New York where he met Dr. Eric and Elizabeth Ngwashi. They showed him around Syracuse and helped him obtain warmer clothes to combat the winter months.
Adjusting to life in Central New York was difficult. By comparison the coursework was easy. Zengeya’s AP classes in Zimbabwe covered much of the work in his initial science and math classes. Flynn suggested Zangeya submit his AP work to an evaluation board which ultimately granted him two full semesters of college credit. The continued support from those around him proved to have a profound impact on Zengeya. “Nothing prepares you from being thousands of miles away from the comforts of home especially as a young man transitioning into adulthood. I missed my family, friends and country but OCC provided a community from which I was able to thrive.”
Another key ingredient to his fast acclimation to his new setting was a course he took by chance in his first semester called Intercultural Communication with Professor Katharine Rumrill-Teece. Zengeya learned about American culture and society and his classmates learned from him. “Thomas was a delight to have in class and he was always asking questions about our culture and what things meant, so the whole class learned a lot from his questions too,” said Rumrill-Teece.
Zengeya became a math/science tutor on campus. He also became affiliated with the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (C-STEP) at OCC thanks to a fellow student, Rhondye Williams. “C-STEP was an important part of my success at OCC. Drake Harrison and the staff there did a wonderful job showing me the opportunities afforded to me that I was unaware of and created a nice support system for minority students who were in the math/science curriculum there. OCC turned out to be a great start for me. Monty, Drake and Professor Rumrill-Teece as well as many others all played a part in my success there and I still keep in touch with them today.”
Zengeya earned his associate degree in three semesters. In January 2003 he transferred to SUNY-ESF where he would earn his bachelor’s in chemistry. In the year’s that followed he would juggle work and school on the way to earning his Ph.D. from SUNY Binghamton in 2013.
Dr. Zengeya now works as a fellow for the National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institute of Health, where his research focuses on better understanding cancer cell metabolism in hopes of finding vulnerabilities which may in turn lead to cancer cures. He is humbled to be named one of the College’s Alumni Faces. “I am greatly honored and flattered. OCC was a gateway for me into the American society. As I was going through the process often times I felt I was a burden to people and to OCC. To be selected means to say I did something right and that’s a bit rather prideful. It also means that those helping me then thought it was worthwhile and I hope I too pay it forward.”