SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) – May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and NewsChannel 9 is paying tribute to members of the AAPI community making a difference here in Central New York.

This week on “Asian Americans Standing Strong,” NewsChannel 9 is featuring Wei Gao, Associate Director at the Center for International Services at Syracuse University.

Wei Gao grew up in Tonliao, a town located in the Inner Mongolia province in China with more than 2 million people. Yet, she considers herself a “small-town girl.”

“In a small town, you don’t have many distractions,” Wei said. “You do well with your school, you participate as much as you can in your school’s activities, and then one way is the only way: you go to college.”

Excelling in academics is one of the most important values in Asian culture. Wei’s goal to attend a prestigious university was set at an early age. Both her mother and father worked in higher education.

In 1987 at 17-years-old, Wei took the national exam and made the 17-hour train ride from her “small” hometown to the big city of Beijing to study world history.

“Beijing was one of the top universities in China. Everybody from all the provinces went there and it was elite. It’s almost like Newhouse in Syracuse University.”

WEI GAO, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL SERVICES AT SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY

Wei was in college during the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, a series of protests and demonstrations for political and economic reform. This shaped Wei’s vision for her future, knowing she wanted to be in a place where she could live in freedom.

I think at that time, my goal was to be able to go to somewhere where there is freedom for us to enjoy, things for us to try, and questions that can be answered, or at least the path leading to finding some truth or answers, can be free for us to explore. That was my goal when I finished college and said “what do I want to do next?” I want to come to the United States.

WEI GAO, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL SERVICES AT SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY

After graduating from undergraduate school in Beijing, Wei got married, came to the United States, and went off to graduate school in Ohio. In 1977, Wei’s husband, Z, got a job in Syracuse and they’ve been here ever since.

More than 6,000 miles from her hometown of Tonliao, Wei’s now the Associate Director at the Center for International Services at Syracuse University. Her job consists of helping international students assimilate here in the United States.

Wei often shares her personal experiences with her students who may be struggling, including the cultural pressures she felt to be the best.

You know, a lot of times, we question ourselves a lot. Am I in the right place? Is this the right environment for me? Did I do something wrong? Or if I can fit in? Or will I ever achieve as much as you look around at all of your peers? So, I think that kind of uncertainty, I totally understand. Going to the big city and having survived, I can definitely share with my students and say it’s going to be hard, but it’s temporary.

WEI GAO, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL SERVICES AT SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY

Wei has been working at Syracuse University for 4 years. Before her career on the SU Hill, she worked at Manlius Pebble Hill School in the Fayetteville-Manlius district as a Chinese language instructor and international student coordinator since 2008.

I’m continuing my mission, which is to support, educate and be there for the students in need. When I see students, I can see my children in them. I always say if my children went to a university that is far away, I would certainly pray and hope there will be somebody who can be there for them when they run into issues or when they need support.

WEI GAO, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL SERVICES AT SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY

“For me, AAPI means acknowledging I have the Asian background and then be proud of it,” Wei said. “Then, trying to teach in my kids to be proud with who you are and use what you have to make the best for yourself, for this society and that’s my hope for everybody.”