With the big support of a professor and the love of her international Concordia family, a computer science graduate is ready to drive her future forward.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories highlighting a few Concordia’s uncommon May 2021 graduates. Faculty and staff submit candidates for consideration. Stories are posted in the days leading up to commencement. View more uncommon graduates here. 

Vy Duong (’21) arrived at Concordia University four years ago intent on studying marketing. The Vietnam native imagined that a business degree from an American university would afford her a life-work balance that wasn’t the norm in her native country. Upon her arrival at Concordia, a happenstance lunch visit with a “big guy who asked lots of questions” changed her course and her life.

This weekend, she’ll graduate not with a business degree, but a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. She’s one of nearly 1,000 candidates for graduation that Concordia will celebrate with in-person ceremonies May 7-8.

2021 Commencement Details

Big questions

The “big guy” Duong encountered during lunch that one day was Dr. Mike Litman, chair of the Department of Computer Science.

He recognized something in Duong at the first of many meals together over the next four years.

Related: Dr. Mike Litman—Make no small plans

“He told me that he saw potential in me and convinced me that my mind would take to computer science,” says Duong. Despite having little experience and no interest in the subject, she took his advice and enrolled in one of Litman’s computer science courses.

“I hated it,” she confides. “Nothing came easy to me.” Duong recalls working on a homework assignment a full 24 hours and still getting it wrong.

Undeterred by the inauspicious start, Litman stuck with the freshman.

“There may have been students that had a head start on Vy in some classes, but nobody was going to outwork her,” says Litman. “And with the underlying talent that I knew was there, eventually that hard work made her among the best of the best.”

Eventually, there was a breakthrough. After countless extra hours, hundreds of meals together, a million questions, and a bazillion doubts, Duong found her stride.

”She’s at the top of our class. She does ask a lot of questions, but almost all of the time, it is in an effort to understand concepts at a level that most students show little interest,” explains Litman.

One big happy family

Duong made her way from Vietnam to Concordia University Wisconsin via Arkansas and Iowa. Having spent two years in America as a high school foreign exchange student, Duong was pretty used to being far from home. Through academic trials, language barriers, COVID-19 restrictions, and the general transformations that happen during college, Duong now considers Concordia, particularly the Concordia International Center (CIC), the home that formed her into the person she is today.

“The CIC team is amazing,” says Duong. “I was quiet and reserved when I arrived here and Amanda inspired me to become more outgoing; more wild.”

Amanda Reitz, director of international recruitment and retention, knows how to bring students out of their shell and make them feel cared for, welcomed, and supported. She and her colleagues are legendary hosts who frequently take the time to celebrate the big things like holidays and birthdays, and the little things like National Oreo Cookie Day, in an effort to create a family environment and foster close bonds.

Their care and support for our international students was particularly notable during the spring 2020 semester when the university moved to an all-online modality due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a matter of days, all but 57 international students vacated the residence halls leaving behind an eerie quiet throughout campus.

As the days became months, the CIC staff continued to create social, spiritual, and physical opportunities for the students to stay active, engaged, and nourished during such an uncertain time. Duong describes how she established a personal fitness routine during the pandemic as a result of a challenge that the CIC put forth.

Related: CIC goes the extra mile for international students

In the driver’s seat

Duong is emotional as she prepares to leave her Concordia home and begin her career as a technologist with a Milwaukee-based financial technology company. Thanks to Litman, Duong has the coursework and the internship experience to be well-prepared for her next chapter.

“Vy has a gift, in that she can break problems down into their smallest parts, allowing her to more conveniently tell a computer what to do,” says Litman.

“Dr. Litman was so determined to help me land a good job that he introduced me to his  contacts, followed up with them on my behalf, and even drove me to the interviews because I didn’t yet know my way around Milwaukee,” explains Duong. “He has been like a second father to me and I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”

Fortunately, Duong isn’t leaving Litman behind. She can’t, because he’s her ride for her first day at her new job. Litman and Duong go out for practice drives into the city—she does have her license after all—so that when she’s ready and knows where she’s going, she will sit firmly in the driver’s seat.

Want in?

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— Lisa Liljegren is vice president of marketing and strategic communications.

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