BY JAMES FARRELL
From a high school student turned car repairman in China to a bakery employee turned Queensborough Community College (QCC) student in America, Tao Hong’s life has taken many winding turns.
And on June 2, the Fresh Meadows student’s life will take another turn when he graduates from QCC with his associate’s degree, hoping to one day go into chemical engineering. During his time at the Bayside college, he managed to earn two prestigious scholarships: the Jack Kent Cooke foundation’s Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship and the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.
When Hong graduated high school in China in 2011, he decided that going to college was not the right path for him. This was partly due to his antipathy toward the Chinese educational system—Hong struggled in high school, he said, and believes that it was due to the environment.
“It’s always focusing on solving questions on the paper,” he said. “And the teachers judge you only based on the score on the test papers.”
But an even greater factor in his decision to forgo college was to help alleviate a financial burden. Shortly after Hong graduated, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hong knew that his family would need a monetary boost, so he began work as a car repairman. It was a decision that came easy, Hong said.
“I feel like it’s just my duty to do that,” he said. “There’s no specific reason—it’s my duty, it’s my mom. There’s no complex thought or theory. Just a responsibility.”
Hong’s mother would win her battle with cancer—she’s fully cured now, he said—but the experience revealed a new passion that would set the stage for his future. Working in a car repair shop, he realized that he loved building things, learning how things worked, taking them apart and putting them back together. At his job, however, there wasn’t much room for experimenting. He was expected to follow the instructions and copy the experts’ every move—and was never given the opportunity to learn how the parts really worked.
“I was very confused and, sometimes, very frustrated,” he said. “I want to understand how everything works. This was basically my drive to go to college in the U.S.”
Two years after graduating high school, Hong and his family moved to Fresh Meadows. For a year, he made ends meet as a cashier at a Flushing bakery. It kept him busy, but he soon grew antsy to move on to something more fulfilling. Soon, his father was making enough money as a factory worker to help him go to school—and with a little help from financial aid resources, he decided to make the leap to Queensborough, where he rekindled his love for science and engineering in an environment better suited to his academic needs.
“The professor is very responsible and cares about you,” he said. “They’re not focusing on the score on the test paper. They just want to make you become a better student, better people. They’re focusing on developing your critical thinking ability.”
In this new environment, Hong was able to excel. He worked on research projects in the chemistry department and fell in love with the subject. Doing research taught him to discover how things worked.
Last semester, Hong spent a significant amount of time applying for scholarships and internships—mostly to no avail. So, when the Jack Kent Cooke and Goldwater scholarships accepted him, he was thrilled.
“It’s very painful when you’re trying to wrap all the things up in applications, so when I heard about [winning the awards], it was just a pleasure because all my hard work gets recognized and my future becomes brighter,” he said. “There’s nothing better than this feeling. You become very hopeful.”
And his future is indeed hopeful. After he graduates with his associate’s degree, his new scholarships will help him go to a four-year institution for chemical engineering. He’s already been accepted to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Now, he’s just waiting to hear from Cornell University. When he hears back, he will make his decision.
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.