Student Support Specialist
Michael Leong

Photo courtesy of Michael Leong

“Controlled chaos. That is the best way I can describe it.”

As an international graduate student in Public Administration, this is how Michael Leong summarizes his life at the University of Arizona. Already earning a BA in Environmental Studies from the university in 2020, Michael has been at the SALT Center since 2017—first as a student, then a tech coach, and now as a tutor.

Michael first traveled to the US from Singapore over a decade ago when he came to attend high school, and then a small college in southwestern Connecticut, where resources to support students with learning challenges were minimal. “I was struggling academically, and I didn't know what to do with my life, didn't know what academic course to take, what program, so I ended up transferring” to Arizona, Leong said.

Finding some of his undergraduate courses, like mammalogy and chemistry, a bit daunting, Michael flipped through the university course catalog and discovered theater arts, which became his minor. Acting “allowed me to use my emotions in a productive way,” Leong said. His passion led him to become the president of Students On Stage, one of the campus theater clubs. “Asian culture, it's very based in what can you do that makes you money, not just what makes you happy,” Leong said. Public Administration is practical, but he believes work in theater, film and voice acting are still in his future. “I want to do something that makes me happy. I want to do something that I feel I could be good at.”

Michael first heard about the SALT Center from a friend and the program has since become a home away from home. After a decade in the US, Michael has observed the world from multiple perspectives. “I can connect with people who are from the US a lot more easily than some international students, I feel. And at the same time, being an international student, I can see what people struggle with and why it's harder for them to connect,” Leong said. Interested in foreign affairs and international relations, Michael spent the summer of 2022 interning with the International Rescue Committee helping refugees find jobs and learning about their unique experiences.

“Adaptability is his strongest skill, his superpower,” Jennifer Hansen, Michael’s Student Support Specialist, said. During his senior year in 2020 when COVID hit, Leong returned to Singapore, where lockdown left him with few outlets. Living in a time zone 15 hours ahead of Tucson's, Michael still made the effort to meet weekly with Hansen. “It was super early in the morning for him and later in the day for me, but the meetings were good. He persisted, and I think, again, he was able to adapt.” Hansen remarked, “Michael will be able to fit in anywhere that he lands, he is like a cat. He's gonna land on his feet.”

Mary Beth Eustice, Michael’s former supervisor, and SALT Center Tech Coach coordinator, described Michael’s keen self-awareness. When stumped with a technical problem, he would seek guidance. Michael is “really good about that knowing, ‘Hey, this might be a little over my head, I'm not sure,’” Eustice said.

Michael also works well as part of the SALT Center’s drop-in tutoring lab for reading, writing, math, and science. “I like the people I work with, both students and other tutors. We understand that with other tutors, we talk about what we're all going through outside of work, what we're struggling with, and we try and help each other out,” Leong said.

“A lot of people like working with him,” since he adapts to a student’s needs, Jaqueline Mullins, Michael’s tutoring supervisor, said. He keeps “students accountable to their own learning. He knows when to provide the boundary of what's best, which means not giving answers, but finding ways to build on what students already know to learn the course content.” As a graduate student juggling academics, extracurriculars, and life, Michael is “very vocal of the struggles that come with staying on top of deadlines and being an exhausted student, but persevering nonetheless,” Mullins said.

Looking for an outlet during lockdown, Leong also decided to tackle learning new languages. His fifth was Japanese. Mullins said she’s trying to learn Japanese, and Michael has been her go-to support system. Even via instant messenger, Michael encourages her learning by sending a ‘thank-you’ in Japanese.

Describing himself as “a feral Yankees fan,” Leong found an interest in sports when he arrived in the US. In Singapore, soccer was the national sport, but “not his thing.” Baseball was “something about American culture that that I got attracted to—the fact that you could distract yourself with something like sports.” Fast-paced naturally, he’s also taken up kickboxing, working out, cooking, and drawing—a hobby that has taught him to slow down.

Constantly exploring new subjects, ideas and activities, Leong has adapted as an international student and offers this advice: “Remember what you're good at. At the end of the day, there's something that you can do that other people can't. I guess it’s being able to take a step back and just kind of look at what you've done.”