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Majoring in Metamorphosis

When Vietnamese immigrant To Chong talks about the transformation in his life triggered by UMass, it brings to mind the metamorphosis from an earthbound larva in a milky green cocoon into a soaring black and gold monarch butterfly. Some 10 years ago, To arrived in this country as a senior in high school with very little ability to communicate verbally in English. Today he is an articulate citizen of the world, who supports his family back in Vietnam, is president of the UMass chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and is working on very sophisticated computer research for his capstone project at the Commonwealth Honors College.

Here’s the backstory. In 2001, To immigrated from his hometown in the coastal city of Nha Trang, Vietnam, to Oregon, where he had received a scholarship to a local high school.

“I could barely speak English, and my listening skill was horrible, but I could write English well, so that’s how I was able to do my assignments,” To recalls. “Sometimes, I would sit at the dinner table with my host family, and they would keep talking and talking, and I tried so hard to listen to them. But I barely could understand anything except when they said my name.”

To struggled through that year and graduated by using his native intelligence and a lot of elbow grease. But on the graduation day he found he didn’t have enough money for college, and he also had to help support his family back in Vietnam. So he had to get a job as a waiter for four years in a Vietnamese restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown while he lived with his aunt.

“That was really the saddest day of my life because I still had a passion for education,” To says. “Then I began working up to 55 hours a week and self-educating myself. I bought textbooks, including English and calculus, to retain my knowledge. I did every single problem in my calculus textbook, and I enjoyed it. I guess I’m a born engineer.”

All the while, To waited for an opportunity to go to college. That chance came four years ago, when To was accepted by both the UMass College of Engineering and a much more expensive university that was his first pick. To finally attended UMass because he could afford it.

“At first, I was so unhappy that I couldn’t go to the college of my dreams,” To says.“But after I was here for a little while, I realized that coming to UMass was the best academic decision I have ever made. Not only does the college give you good academic and technical training, but it also gives you the communication and interpersonal skills necessary to succeed in any engineering field. When I came to UMass, I remember I could poorly communicate and understand people. But UMass has changed me a lot for the better.”

Since then, To has spread his wings and soared through the curriculum in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. In addition, he finished a very valuable internship with ExxonMobil, which he got through Cheryl Brooks, director of the college’s Career Planning & Student Development Center. He did a project through the UMass Research Experience for Undergraduates for his advisor, Professor Russell Tessier.

“My job basically was to write a code that can automatically generate routers on a Field Programmable Gate Arrays chip,” explains To. “We wanted to get up to 32 routers at once on a customizable chip, and the code I wrote can generate that.”

To is now doing a follow-up with that research as part of his honors thesis at Commonwealth College. Meanwhile, To was busy on many other fronts. He joined the IEEE chapter and is currently president. He startedthe UMass "MicroMouse" robot team, which builds a robotic mouse to navigate to the center of a random maze to compete at the annual IEEE Northeast Region Conference. And he is currently coordinating a large conference for between 100 to 150 students to educate them about the professional skills they will need to flourish in the corporate world.

All these activities have certainly given To the professional skills he will need to thrive in the corporate environment, but he wants even more. He plans to attend graduate school before conquering other worlds in industry.

“My general goal in the future workplace is to improve the development of technology in a way that advances society toward a better way of life,” he says like the true citizen of the world he is. “High pay is not necessarily my top priority.” (October 2011)