I remember stressed-out evenings freshman year when I would rush down to the Towers dining hall (may its memory live on) to grab a quick bite before studying. I would hand my BU ID quickly to the cashier, and she would look at my ID, swipe it, and say “Hello, Cecilia!” with a huge smile. Every time.
That cashier was Sandi, who now works at the dining hall at 100 Bay State Road. Two years later, she still asks me how I’m doing every time I see her. All I know about Sandi is that she is incredibly friendly, so I sat down to learn a little more about the life behind the smile.
Sandi is from Hong Kong, China. When she was twenty-five, she and her husband, newlyweds, came to the United States due to his work. Sandi recalled, “I found out I like Boston. I didn’t move again.”
It wasn’t easy from the start, though. “In the beginning, my English level was very low. Like kindergarten level. So each day I went to three different kinds of school to study English,” she explained to me. Eventually Sandi learned accounting and got her first U.S. job at a bank. “I thought I had settled down, but I found out my English wasn’t enough to handle it,” she admitted. “So I quit my job and got a part-time job and went back to school.”
The part-time job was with a Chinese organization that helps new immigrants. Later, she took a job at a printing shop. It was a good setup for a new mom. “I could go in late or leave early, depending on the kids.” After ten years there, she worked at an elementary after-school program. There, she helped many new immigrants. “My school sent me to trainings at UMass Boston, Wheelock College, and some other schools so I could learn how to help these families. I really liked it.”
Sandi is a helper, and she told me why. “When I came here, I rented an apartment in Chinatown. It was out of electricity and water and I didn’t know how to fix it. A couple called the company and paid for me. They helped me.” I could still hear the gratitude in her voice as she recalled it. “My whole life, I have appreciated that. It is always on my mind. If people need help, I help them. Helping people is a treasure.”
Part of Sandi’s motivation to help others, especially new immigrants, comes from her experience after first moving to the United States. There is a unique difficulty in immigrating to a new country with little knowledge of the language and nobody to lean on. Sandi’s family–her parents, five brothers, and two sisters–are all still in Hong Kong. “Many years ago I worked on the application for them to come here. They were on the waiting list and waited eleven years. But then they didn’t want to come. They said, ‘I have family now. I don’t want to take a risk.’” For her first thirteen years in Boston, Sandi could not go back to Hong Kong. Now she visits every two years.
Sandi has two daughters born in Boston, currently 26 and 29. “I used to put all my time into them. I got them to learn music, gave them rides to school. When your kids grow up, you can get lost.”
But Sandi has become a sort of surrogate mom to some BU students, because of her friendly and helpful nature. “Right now, I am happy,” she told me as students milled around us, some waving at her as they passed by. “I have a lot of friends who are young and make me feel younger. I don’t feel like an old lady.”
To her college-age friends, Sandi offers up some advice: “I know college is not easy. But if you fail, continue. Keep going. Don’t quit,” she insisted. “Sometimes I see students and they’re not happy. I tell them: ‘Okay, doesn’t matter! Eat! And tonight, sleep! Tomorrow, study more.’ Finally they smile.”
I think that’s what she was saying to me, more or less, every time she said “Hello, Cecilia!” my freshman year. And it’s true–finally, she can get you to smile.
What’s the Story? tries to tell the stories of various BU faculty and staff to shed light on their lives. Have someone whose story you’d like to hear? Send me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org