When Nikki Liu graduated high school, she had university in mind.
She wasn’t quite sure what she was looking for. Like many fresh graduates, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to pursue. She just knew college was the next step. The results came back: she didn’t score high enough to get into a university. Uh oh.
Wait. Let’s go back further.
She was born Yingzhe (YINH-juh) Liu, raised in Guangdong, a province right outside of Hong Kong, China. She began learning English in elementary school. She said reading and writing it wasn’t difficult but speaking it was hard. She got into physics and biology in middle school.
China legally requires kids to attend nine years of education. After completing 1st through 9th grade, students who want to continue their education — to what would be the equivalent of America’s sophomore, junior and senior years — apply through a high school entrance exam. Those who graduate can apply for universities by taking the highly competitive Gaokao, also known as the National College Entrance Exam. The nine-hour standardized test outweighs every other determining factor for college entrance and thus determines eligibility and priority for students.
“I was so nervous the day before (the exam),” Liu said, “I did not get a good grade.”
So began the quandary. The daughter of a computer science teacher and an engineer failed the college entrance exams.
The pressure, from herself and her family, weighed on her like an anchor. She felt tied down to the number on the paper, the only clear definition of her future. She was worried. She was lost. The thought of letting her parents down was drilling an emptiness inside her spirit. But a reprieve was waiting for her.
Her aunt lived in Castro Valley. She learned of Liu’s predicament and told her about community colleges, how they are a second chance for Americans. It could be hers, too.
It might seem hard to fathom at first, this school being the apple of someone’s eye — all the way across the globe. Las Positas has been nicknamed “Lost Potential” and mockingly dubbed the “University Behind Costco.” Locally, some parents consider their children landing here a failure. Many students who attend even have a hard time seeing the value in Las Positas and go through their time on campus underneath hoodies with their headphones in.
But for some, this school is not just picturesque because of its scenery, but because of the way it helps bring dreams into focus. Las Positas represents more than just the neighborhood school or a backup plan. It can bring clarity. It can give people chances at a future they never knew they could have. To these students, LPC is an open door to put the world at their fingertips.
“If I had stayed in China, I would know what I would become,” Liu said. “But now, I think I have better potential.”
The first thing Liu will do is get the door for you.
After you have entered, she’ll apologize for her English, insisting it is more broken than it actually sounds. She’ll take her black, shoulder-length hair, that’s so straight and shiny as to look synthetic, behind her ears and cross her hands on the table, waiting for you to speak before she does. She has a distinct elegance given to her by her high cheekbones. When she smiles, her cheeks give her a youthful energy– she looks younger than she is, but her composed demeanor makes her seem older.
It is clear almost immediately Liu was not raised here. Her mannerisms, the polish of her movements, the humility in her tone. This isn’t a girl who grew up on Disney Channel and Doritos. She has a routine for everything in her life. She operates with precision and purpose.
These days, she is the vice president of the math club, known as the Mu Alpha Theta Honor Society. She is also a STEM tutor on campus and an award-winning mathematician. She will graduate on May 25. Most of all, she’s discovered her passion. There is a certainty about Liu, the kind of quiet confidence that comes with success. The vibe she gives off is of one who is in control.
But getting here was a journey, one that highlights the benefits of community college. She is also a shining example of how California’s system, and this school in particular, has been a beacon for international students.
Liu — a 21-year-old computer science major in her second year at LPC — is the only child in her family, a product of the strict one-child policy that ruled China for 36 years. Her parents imprinted an interest in technology in her. Her country instilled a set pathway for her life. She was given the opportunity to choose her career, but she was only given one chance.
“When I was in high school, my parents,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “put so much pressure on me. I didn’t know why I was studying.”
She didn’t get the grade on her college entrance exam she needed to study computer sciences at the university in China. That left her with two choices. Option A: stay in China and study at a trade school and go straight into the workforce. Option B: alter her life completely and travel to the United States to attend a community college.
Option A didn’t inspire her. She knew the path. It was all-too familiar. If she stayed, her life was certain to follow a common projection. Go to college. Get married at 25. Work a “regular job.” Live a stable life. Such wasn’t the life she envisioned, didn’t match the blueprint of the future she diagrammed in her dreams.
Liu doesn’t like change. Uncertainty is like an allergy to her skin. But this was change she knew she needed to endure, because in this case it meant opportunity. It meant a second chance. It meant the life she wanted becoming a feasible reality.
She packed her bags, got a plane ticket and escaped across the Pacific Ocean. Option B took her nearly 7,000 miles from home to the Bay Area. Her aunt offered her a room in her home in Castro Valley. Liu started at Las Positas in the spring of 2017.
She was terrified. Part of her resented the move. But all of those feelings took a backseat to her gratefulness for the opportunity to dream chase.
“Nobody’s life ever follows a straight line,” said Michael Peterson, one of Liu’s former math teachers. “There are lots of twists and turns, successes and failures. It always inspires me when I see students working hard to tackle their challenges and eventually overcome them.”
When she arrived, she was lonely. She found it difficult to make friends. Fluent in Cantonese but struggling in English, she had to learn social norms and mores on her own. Quickly.
Her cousin, and now roommate, Rachel helped her as much as she could. She took classes with Liu so she wouldn’t feel so alone. But Liu started to flourish when she took a chance on a club.
Joining a campus club may not seem like such a big risk. But for someone who constantly worries about her words, who feels like her social fate rests on not offending her peers, the idea of a club is nerve-wracking. Especially for someone who doesn’t like change.
Her risk paid off. Liu fit in seamlessly into Mu Alpha Theta Honors, gaining a community she now couldn’t imagine being without. These were her first friends at LPC. She was secretary before becoming vice president.
The social hurdle was out of the way. But the financial one was lurking.
College is more than just a taxing mental and emotional investment for students like Liu. Tuition is another beast. Regular students pay $46 per credit, which for a full load costs $552 per semester. But for international students, LPC costs around $4,000 per semester, according to Cindy Balero, International Student Program Coordinator. That’s more than 700 percent higher than regular students. And that cost is before adding the living expenses, textbooks or additional supply fees.
After her first year at Las Positas ended, Liu needed a job.
International students can only be employed on campus, so when expenses started increasing, she had to figure out what she wanted to do. She thought back to one of her computer science classes when she had one of her friends help her out weekly.
Liu went to the tutorial center and quickly became one of the most beloved tutors in the room. She taught math and computer sciences. Immediately, she had a new love. What she thought was just a job turned out to be something much bigger — something that made her international trek more than worth the challenge.
“I get so happy when (my students) get something,” she said, really leaning on the word ‘happy.’ “I think I can help find an easier way to learn the materials. When I am tutoring, I usually am very patient because if people see you and you’re tired of something, they will be tired of it, too.
“But if you have passion,” she beamed, “then they will get excited too.”
Liu gets an undeniable glow when she talks about her students. It was through tutoring that she discovered even though she is well-equipped to be a full-time computer scientist, her true passion is teaching. Now, she wants to teach at the college level.
She abandoned the forecasted life waiting for her in China and took the opportunity to change her stars. Now, she knows exactly what they look like.
“I’d think a university would be lucky to have Nikki as a researcher and later as a professor,” Peterson, her old math teacher, said. “She always asks the right questions, showing an already strong understanding of the material but wanting to dive deeper. Nikki was very curious about learning new topics and loved sharing her interest in mathematics with others.”
On May 13, Liu turned 21. She spent almost the entire day in the tutorial center. When she wasn’t in class, she was volunteering to help students.
“I think pretty much everyone here at this school has the intellectual ability, not everybody has the work ethic,” said Alain Olavarrieta, Liu’s former elementary linear algebra instructor. “I think she has that work ethic, where no matter how difficult the problems get in front of her, she’ll figure out a way to solve it.”
Her latest problem to solve: what’s next.
She said she is perfectly content to stay — she repeated countless times how much she didn’t want to leave Livermore — but her journey has taught her to answer when opportunity knocks. After she graduation, she has to choose another school to attend. She has already been accepted to UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis. She was waitlisted for UC Berkeley and UCLA.
She is leaning towards Davis but undecided. Her concern isn’t the academics, but the relationships. She is more worried about making friends as her English isn’t as polished as she’d like.
Still, she has no plans to return to China anytime soon.
“I miss China a lot during finals,” she said, flashing a sly grin. Her classic, plastic-rimmed glasses can’t hide the mischief in her eyes every time she makes a joke. “I’d like to stay here after I graduate. But if I cannot get a job, I will go back to China.”
She missed home the most when she first moved here, before she had classes to fill her time, friends to appreciate her sharp wit or a true confidence in her passion for teaching. She said that it didn’t take long, though, before she had pushed herself into finding community. Ultimately, that’s a tribute to her family — the parents who give everything for their child to have a shot at doing what she loves.
Her parents have always been supportive of her, even if it came with weighty expectations. Now, they’re paying for her tuition and housing. Her mother even came to visit last summer. Liu gave her a campus tour.
“My parents do so much for me. I want to do everything to give back to them,” Liu said.
Now, as Liu prepares for her next big step in life, she’s spending a lot of time reflecting on Las Positas. What she’s most proud of now are the relationships she’s built. Her instructors all know her and are familiar with her. She’s surrounded by people everywhere she goes.
“Everybody loves Nikki,” math club member Emre Goktas said. “She’s the perfect mixture of brilliance and hard work. Everybody loves her. Everybody who crosses paths with her just loves her. She’s so amazing.”
Liu’s life right now is nothing like she saw it five years ago. She never would have foreseen finding her purpose in Livermore. But she now is a testament to the transformation that can happen at community colleges, to Las Positas and the potential it finds. Liu’s comfortable routine is about to undergo another shift. While she’s nervous, she knows she can do it. She’s done it before.
The first thing she will do is get the door. This time, it’ll be for herself.