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African SUNY Canton student seeks assistance to complete school


CANTON — When Pierre Nzuah moves into his SUNY Canton dorm this weekend, he hopes it isn’t for the last time.

When Mr. Nzuah, a Cameroon native, began his studies in 2011, his tuition and board were paid by an uncle who subsequently went bankrupt.

Now, the straight-A electrical engineering student hopes the generosity of the north country will help find the $50,000 needed to complete his degree. Friends in the area have established the Against All Odds fund in an effort to raise the sum, with leftover money granting scholarships each year to the most deserving SUNY Canton engineering student from Africa or Asia.

“We’re pretty sure we have this immediate semester covered and that is about it,” said Ellen J. Rocco, who helped establish the fund. “He has three more years to go.”

Ms. Rocco said the school is helping Mr. Nzuah, but can’t cover all of his $28,000 per year tuition and board.

“I think SUNY Canton is a great college. If it wasn’t this sort of college, it wouldn’t bend over backward for Pierre,” she said. “The president’s office is using discretionary funds to help pay his tuition — they really want to keep Pierre on campus.”

Aid is scarce for international students, said Ms. Rocco, who is station manager for North Country Public Radio.

“There are no undergraduate scholarships for international students in this country — you either get funded from your own country or get here on your own. Many students come from rich families who pay their way,” she said. “Pierre is an anomaly among international students in this country.”

In some ways, it is a miracle Mr. Nzuah, now 27, made it to the United States in the first place. He is one of 15 children from a small, remote farm in equatorial Africa. His family wasn’t starving, but didn’t have the means to put all the children through school.

“My parents don’t have electricity, they don’t have phones,” he said. “Radios have to use batteries, and we have few engineers around.”

Mr. Nzuah found that he enjoyed learning. He started to work at a young age to raise money to put himself through middle and high school.

“The financial means were not there,” he said. “People grow crops just to sustain themselves. I was the tenth of 15, and my father couldn’t do it.”

After graduating from high school, Mr. Nzuah moved to a small city, attended a one-year technical program and began to work. When an employer stopped paying him, he decided he wanted something more from life.

“I decided to do a one-year computer science course,” he said. “I’d move from one place to another to work, but I didn’t get paid. That was when I saw I needed to go back to school.”

There are no universities in Cameroon, and no place where Mr. Nzuah could expand his knowledge. He began searching online for a place to continue his studies.

“I found SUNY Potsdam first. I contacted them and they told me they didn’t have electrical engineering, but Canton did,” he said.

It cost Mr. Nzuah considerable time and money to apply for school and the necessary visas to come to the United States.

“The admissions process took two years,” he said. “When they asked me to pay, we don’t use credit cards, so I had to travel to another town and pay someone else to use their card.”

Just sending documents to the U.S. to apply for visas and admission cost more than two months’ salary.

When he arrived in Syracuse in January 2011, he had no experience with winter weather.

“When you get off the plane, you go directly into the building,” he said. “When I stepped outside, I went right back in. I live on the equator. I don’t know about winter clothing.”

After becoming acclimated, he pursued his studies with zeal, taking 19 credit hours a semester. He tried making friends through student organizations and becoming a math tutor on campus.

“I joined the Brother 2 Brother club, I joined the Newman Club,” he said. “I do have free time, but not a lot. Last semester, I forced myself to take a little bit.”

He made the President’s List in his first semester.

Mr. Nzuah also joined the congregation at the Canton Presbyterian Church.

During summers, Mr. Nzuah became a farm apprentice for Ms. Rocco, which is how the two met.

Then his funding source went bankrupt.

“When I lost my sponsorship, I felt like the whole world was behind me,” said Mr. Nzuah. “All my teachers made me stay in classes. I am really grateful.”

Congregants from the church, community members and Annette Plant, a former French professor at SUNY Canton, chipped in to help Mr. Nzuah continue his studies, but much of that funding source dried up after Ms. Plant died this spring.

That left Ms. Rocco looking for other ways to help Pierre.

“I’m sort of frantic because last summer I had no idea how I was going to help him meet his financial need for college, and Annette came through like an angel,” she said. “If Pierre can’t find the money, he gets deported.”

Though Mr. Nzuah worries about his future, he has already been touched by the kindness and generosity of Northern New Yorkers.

“That is one of the things about the north country,” he said. “Everybody is really welcoming. If all people were really like they are here, it would be amazing.”

Mr. Nzuah wants to return to Cameroon one day.

“People from my village don’t have anybody to look up to,” he said. “I really enjoy helping people. If I could really have a chance, I could pass that on to somebody and maybe inspire them.”

The “Against All Odds” fund could continue to help future students, said Ms. Rocco.

“Maybe Pierre is the first student this fund benefits, but there are other students this could support,” she said. “It is a real enrichment for all students to have some diversity in the area, and they can take their knowledge to their home countries to improve conditions there.”

Those who are interested in helping Mr. Nzuah may make checks payable to Canton College/AAO Fund and send to: Julie Parkman, Associate Director for Advancement, SUNY Canton, 34 Cornell Drive, Canton NY 13617. Any questions about the fund may be referred to Ms. Parkman at 386-7446 or 1 (800) 811-6727 or

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