Aerial view of the Dowagiac campus

Former SMC student banks on San Francisco

Brenda Pavolka and Jason Leung

Much has transpired since Sai Kit “Jason” Leung traded flat Southwestern Michigan College for San Francisco, the hilly “city by the bay.”

“I finished here in 2009,” said Leung, who studied business administration at SMC before transferring to the University of Michigan.

The 2002 Dowagiac Union High School graduate lived with host families such as Shawn and Judy Sirk.

“I still have the Dowagiac newspaper from when I was in high school, sitting down with two other foreign exchange students from Germany. We were on the front page,” he said.

Leung, who popped into SMC’s Career Planning Center July 15 to surprise Brenda Pavolka, academic advisor and articulation coordinator, expressed his own amazement at how much Dowagiac changed, from Four Winds casino south of town to three residence halls, a Student Service Center and a Student Activity Center on campus.

“I’m so outdated, I feel like I just came from another planet,” said Leung, wearing a maize-and-blue School of Natural Resources and Environment Alumni T-shirt.

Leung majored in economics and minored in environmental science at U of M after an internship such as Career Planning Center work-study Christian Lopez landed for this summer.

“They got a Gates Foundation grant,” Leung said, “so I was doing climate change research, studying how indigenous people adapted and how their livelihood changed. I did that for two years. After that, I went back because my wife really wanted to see Hong Kong. I was born and raised there, but I moved here when I was 17. I’ll be 31 in October. Dowagiac is my hometown.”

Though from Michigan, his wife had never seen Mackinac Island.

“I thought that was ridiculous. I had to take my wife to Mackinac Island,” Leung said. “I borrowed a car from her family (who has a Lake Huron cottage near Rose City) and we drove up. We took the ferry, rented a tandem bike and rode around the island. We took pictures in front of the Grand Hotel, but we’re watching our weight, so we didn’t get fudge.”

A British bank, HSBC, offered him a job in Hong Kong.

“It was a culture shock for her,” he said. “I give her a lot of credit” for sticking it out for 10 months before they returned to her family in the Thumb.
Since moving to San Francisco, Leung is engaged in retail banking.

“Eventually, I want to get into investment banking.”

His current position is as a personal banker for Wells Fargo in the financial district.

During a three-week vacation, Leung roams the mitten, visiting friends from Dowagiac to Kalamazoo.

While a student, he cashiered at China Garden in downtown Dowagiac and worked third shift at Niles Walmart.

“I was hustling,” he grinned. “I lived at the (Archie B. Gardner) mansion at 511 Green St. (also known as The Maples and owned by the William Lorenz family).

His 10-week summer experience proved pivotal.

“I wasn’t actually planning to go to U of M,” Leung said, “just going to the big school for the summer for the experience. But I fell in love with Ann Arbor, which is so beautiful. People are so nice and there are so many smart kids. If you think you’re smart here, you need to go there. They make you feel not smart at all. I lived in a co-op house with 15 students and professionals. One I’m still friends with had a Ph.D. in math.

“I loved SMC,” he said. “I transferred 44 credits, which helped reduce the cost a lot. I’m amazed at how beautiful the dorms are. I wish they had been built when I was going through. My first two semesters I lived across (Dailey Road)” at the Institute for International Cooperation and Development (IICD).

In San Francisco, he lives a block from the art deco Lillian Coit Memorial Tower in Pioneer Park of the Telegraph Hill neighborhood.

Though an apocryphal story claims the 210-foot 1933 tower was designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle, due to Coit’s affinity for firefighters, the resemblance is coincidental.

“We’re also a block from St. Peter’s Cathedral,” he said.

Saints Peter and Paul Church was where Marilyn Monroe posed with husband Joe DiMaggio after their 1954 civil ceremony.
The church was also featured in two Clint Eastwood movies, “Dirty Harry” and “The Dead Pool.”