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“Hero” Following China’s Massive 2008 Earthquake Sacrifices Spring Break Trip, Pitches in to Build Houses for Habitat for Humanity

MORRISVILLE, NY—It was supposed to be a trip to celebrate the end of mid-semester exams and to enjoy a much needed break from the rigors of school work.

But instead of packing a camera and binoculars and ironing out details for a sightseeing vacation to Washington, D.C. with fellow classmates and friends, Zheng “Tommy” Jiang is loading his suitcase with an arsenal of work clothes, blankets and a tool belt, and following his heart on a different venture.

The Morrisville State College natural resources conservation student is among 10 students sacrificing their spring break to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds houses for low-income families.

They will travel to Danville, Va. in a 15-passenger van along with Amy Buckley, resident director of South Hall, and Emily Casey, AmeriCorps VISTA member, March 14-21.

It’s a different type of journey for Jiang, one that signifies hope—something he’s restored in so many lives.

Jiang, a native of Beijing, is considered a hero in China—recognized for his altruistic efforts following the massive earthquake in the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan Province of western China on May 12, 2008. The 8.0 magnitude temblor claimed the lives of 80,000 people and left more than 5 million homeless, toppling buildings and trapping people in mounds of concrete and steel.

His efforts in helping, guiding and directing immediately following the earthquake, earned him kudos along with other top young undergraduate leaders who became known as the SUNY 150 and received scholarships to attend one of 22 participating SUNY schools. Jiang was not eligible however, because he did not live in one of the 40 districts damaged by the earthquake.

But Denis Simon, founding provost and vice president for academic affairs at the Levin Institute under SUNY in New York City at the time of the earthquake, met Jiang in the aftermath of the devastation and could not let his efforts go unnoticed.

“He showed courage and citizenship,” Simon said. ”He is a great young man who deserves kudos for his attitude and sense of community.”

Simon connected Jiang with Morrisville State College where he received a one-year scholarship.

“Tommy’s story is much bigger than he will ever share,” Dr. Ray Cross, president of Morrisville State College, said. “He is a very solid young man with excellent character and outstanding academic skills. We are happy to have him here.”

“I didn’t think about what I did. I just did it,” a humble Jiang said downplaying his heroics.

Jiang’s story began on an ordinary day while he was a student at the Non Chong campus of Southwest Petroleum University. He was in class when high winds stirred, the ground began to tremble and buildings cracked around him. It would be hours before anyone knew exactly what had happened 124 miles away.

Realizing the earthquake had wiped out nearly all communication devices and had cut the province from the outside world, Jiang sprang into action, turning his broadcasting hobby into a survival mechanism for a campus population of approximately 12,000, plus countless others in surrounding communities.

Using the campus radio station as a source of news for local residents and students, Jiang worked around the clock with little sleep for nearly seven days, informing them where to get supplies and advising them to remain in a playground until the threat of aftershock (a smaller earthquake in same area as the main earthquake) had passed.

He compromised his own safety broadcasting from the fifth-floor of a building, a dangerous place to hail during high alert of aftershock.

Immediately following China’s deadliest earthquake in half a century, Jiang witnessed help and empathy pouring into the devastated province from worlds away—and he vowed to repay that kindness some day.

Now is his chance.

“I appreciate everyone who has helped me and has helped others in China,” Jiang said. “Volunteering (for Habitat for Humanity) is a way I can give back to others.”

“It is great to know he is taking full advantage of the opportunity and is giving back,” Simon said. “I am not surprised because his behavior is consistent with his giving and caring style.”

Jiang isn’t the only one with a record of giving. Buckley also volunteered for Habitat for Humanity when she was in college and spearheaded Morrisville’s trip.

Udara Wisumperuma, of New Zealand, an engineering science major, has made a life of helping others too, including participating in fundraising efforts in Sri Lanka for victims of the 2004 tsunami.

His experience with Habitat for Humanity is a chance for him to see another part of the world, to help those in need and to gain hands-on experience that will be useful in his career plans of becoming a civil and water engineer, helping impoverished nations.

But the underlying generosity of others is what’s making the trip possible for Morrisville staff and students. A portion is being paid for through the college’s Sheila Johnson Institute and the Campus Activities Board (CAB), while staff and students, who are being housed free in the basement of a church, raised additional money through fundraisers. Even Cooley’s hardware store in Morrisville pitched in, donating tool belts.

Despite not having any painting or building skills, Jiang said he isn’t worried about the tasks ahead of him.

“It doesn’t matter what they ask me to do. I just want to have more experience—to help people not only in China but everywhere,” he said.

Morrisville students and staff will work under the direction of a construction team on several houses during their visit.

“We don’t know what we will be doing,” Buckley said. “We could be painting or putting rafters in a roof. It depends on where they need help most.”

Skill level isn’t an issue.

“They will find something for everyone to do,” Buckley said.

Jiang will be taking along one very important item on his journey to Virginia– his laptop computer which will serve as a journal.

“I want to record everything,” he said. “This experience is a treasure.”

On the Morrisville State College campus, Jiang has excelled academically, earning a spot on the President’s List. He is planning a career in petroleum engineering and wants to return to China someday, taking what he has learned in the United States to help re-build the local economy and infrastructure of the earthquake impacted region in China.
Nearly a year has passed since the earthquake, but its shadow still weighs heavy in Jiang’s heart.

“Someday I want to devise a program or do more to help those whose spirit has been broken (by the earthquake),” he said. “We lost friends and family and the laughter in our faces. Lots of people helped us and I just want to help others now.”

Morrisville State College offers more than 75 bachelor and associate degrees and options. Considered to be one of the most technologically advanced colleges in the nation for its ThinkPad University program and wireless technology initiative, the college recently became the first in the nation to comprehensively replace landlines in residence halls with individual cellular phones. Morrisville State College was also chosen as one of the top five colleges in the nation for campus activities by Campus Activities magazine.

The Morrisville State College Norwich Campus offers associate degree programs in accounting, business, computer systems technology, office administration, liberal arts transfer, nursing, early childhood, criminal justice and human services to south central New York residents and employers. Students may also apply coursework to other associate or bachelor degrees at the main campus.

Morrisville State College students and staff participating in Habitat for Humanity during spring break

Amy Buckley - staff, of South Colton, NY, resident director (RD) of South Hall at Morrisville State College
Sarah Carbone, of Pleasant Valley, NY, renewable resources technology major
Amber Eller, of Parish, NY, nursing major
Porsha Marshall, of New Hartford, NY, individual studies major
Emily Casey - staff, of Indianapolis, IN, AmeriCorps VISTA member at Morrisville State College
Mariecarmel Bernard, of New York, NY, business administration major
Regina Laws, of Uniondale, NY, sports, nutrition and fitness management major and resident assistant (RA)
Marcus Figaro, of Rosedale, NY, an automotive technology major and resident assistant (RA)
Peter Sorrell, of Altona, NY, renewable resources technology major
Shameek Basnight, of Brooklyn, NY, business administration major
Udara Wisumperuma, of New Zealand, engineering science major
Zheng Jiang (Tommy), of Beijing, China, natural resources conservation major