Eight years ago Seth Bae and his family moved from Korea to Los Angeles. After arriving in his new home he began working to learn the English language. “I knew the alphabet and a few words. That was it.”
Fast-forward to Tuesday night and the December graduation ceremony in Storer Auditorium at Onondaga Community College. Bae (pronounced BAY), who will be attending Harvard University in the spring, was the student speaker and told his classmates they could accomplish whatever they wanted. “Your pattern overrides your potential. You are here today because for the past two years, you committed yourself to what you believed in and dedicated your time and effort. I want to encourage everyone to continuously practice that pattern you devoted yourself to here at OCC. Don’t let your present circumstances define your destiny and don’t let your doubts stop you from moving forward.”
Bae has lived that very message. When his family arrived in southern California he was 16 years old. He was placed in English as Second Language class and struggled in school. “I knew I wasn’t ready to do well in college. I thought it made more sense to go in a different direction.” After graduating from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles in 2013, Bae joined the United States Army. While stationed at Fort Drum about 90 miles north of the OCC campus, Bae drove to Central New York weekly to worship at the Korean Church of Syracuse. He liked the people he met there, enjoyed the area and decided to move closer to Syracuse after he was discharged.
Bae started taking classes at OCC in the summer of 2017 and majored in General Studies – Liberal Arts & Sciences. As his English skills improved he became more immersed in campus life. He was Student Association Vice-President of Media, a VA Work Study student in the Student Veterans’ office, a Peer Connector in the Advising Center and a First Year Experience Mentor. He was also a Social Media Reporter, blog contributor for OCC’s website and presented a TED Talk on healthy communication, sharing wisdom on how people can better understand each other and manage disagreements or conflicts. In the classroom he owned a perfect 4.0 grade point average which earned him membership in the college’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa.
Next month Bae will be a visiting student at Harvard University. In the fall he plans to transfer to Yale University. His goal is to work for the United States government in some capacity. Language is his specialty. Bae speaks Korean and English fluently and is learning Chinese and Spanish. Everything came together for him at OCC and for that he is thankful. “OCC is a great transition for wherever you want to go. It was life changing for me here. I’m really grateful for how things worked out. My message is that hard work really pays off. ”
Nor Rizek grew up in Onondaga Hill and attended Westhill High School until her junior year. Rather than enjoy summer in Central New York she packed up and moved to the West Bank in Palestine to live with family for the next two years. While there, she finished her high school degree and worked as an English teaching assistant at an all-girl’s secondary school.
Rizek returned to the area in 2011, took a phlebotomy course and became a certified technician. She enrolled at Onondaga Community College in the spring of 2012. “I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but didn’t know how to go about it, so OCC was very familiar and I knew I could get my start there while keeping cost to a minimum until I found my path.” During her time at the College she volunteered at a local fire department. She arranged her school schedule around rush hours at the family restaurant to make sure she would be there to assist her father. Whenever her community needed her, she would hurry to the firehouse, get her gear on and hop on a fire truck. Today she continues to serve the community as a volunteer at the Howlett Hill Fire Department.
Things took a turn in 2014, when Rizeks’ mother passed away during the second semester of her sophomore year. The grief was too much to bear and she left school. “It was a tough decision but at the time I needed to step back in order to eventually move forward.” Rizek moved to Hawaii and finished her associate degree. She kept the dream alive of becoming a doctor by enrolling at Harvard University where she is currently pursuing a degree in biology, psychology and legal studies.
Rizek plans to take the Medical College Admission Test next August and anticipates graduating in 2020 after she finishes her research study. Medical schools on her short list include Tulane, Louisiana State University and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Despite the rigors of traveling back and forth from Syracuse to Cambridge to take classes, her determination is unwavering largely because of the lessons she learned at OCC. “I was and remain inspired by all of the students there who are usually working, raising a family or overcome their own difficult situation all while taking classes in order to create a better life for themselves.”
This type of perseverance and faith is something she reinforces with her siblings, especially her brother, Jamel, who is a second year student at OCC. “I tell him every day that he is in a good place and if he ever needs help there is more courage in asking for it than waiting for things to get worse. OCC provides you with the confidence and foundation to advance yourself to accomplish whatever it is you set out to do.”
When you support Onondaga Community College, you are making a statement that you believe in the importance of quality affordable education for everyone. You are creating new opportunities and new beginnings for students and our greater community.