OCC’s First International Student

Today the OCC student body includes representatives from dozens of countries. In the early 1960s when the College was in its infancy there were very few international students. Nicolas Habayeb was the first to ever earn a degree from the College. “If OCC didn’t exist when I came to this country I could never have afforded college. I would have just been a social security number. I cannot forget how much everyone at OCC helped me. I’m where I am today because of OCC.”

Habayeb’s journey from halfway around the world to Syracuse was unexpected. Nicolas and his wife, Hyam (pictured together above), were living in Haifa, Israel. He was working at a refinery and she was working at a bank. They dreamed of moving somewhere warmer. Central New York wasn’t on their radar until they heard about a brand new college, Onondaga Community College, through a relative attending Syracuse University. The relative sent Nicolas an application; he applied and was accepted. The Habayeb’s decided they were moving to Syracuse and arrived at 5 a.m. on October 1, 1962. Five hours later Nicolas was attending his first class at OCC’s Midtown Plaza building. “Tuition was only $150. We didn’t have much money. We were very fortunate to have OCC,” he said.

Habayeb found his major and his profession almost by accident. He came to the United States with the ability to speak fluently in four languages: English, French, Arabic and Hebrew. Despite his strength in languages he wanted to become a chemical engineer. Habayeb registered for seven classes including physics, chemistry and math. “At the end of the first week I dropped physics. The second week I dropped chemistry. Then I dropped math. I knew I needed to get a degree in something but wasn’t sure what.”

Habayeb’s struggles led him to realize something he had taken for granted; his ability to fluently speak several languages. He thrived in French because it was one of the four languages he had mastered while living in Israel. He would ultimately earn a master’s degree and become a teacher. Habayeb taught French at East Syracuse Minoa High School from 1969 until he retired in 1994.

Hyam Habayeb began taking classes at OCC in 1965 and earned a degree three years later in Medical Technology. She worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital for 35 years as a medical technologist specializing in microbiology.

Nicholas Courgi is the Habayeb's grandson and a 2014 graduate of OCC.
Nicholas Courgi is the Habayeb’s grandson and a 2014 graduate of OCC.

Despite being retired from their primary jobs, the Habayeb’s still own and operate a successful business. Multilingual Translation Services is based in East Syracuse and helps people in 32 different languages. “With all of the refugees coming to the United States, we are here to help them,” said Nicolas.

Less than one year after moving to Syracuse the Habayeb’s gave birth to a daughter, Doris. She never attended OCC but her two sons did. Nicholas Courgi graduated in 2014 with a degree in Professional Communication. His brother Alex is presently enrolled in the Hospitality Management program.

“OCC has been such a big part of our family,” said Nicolas. “When I see what the school has become it is fantastic. I feel very proud to have been a student at OCC.”