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Olivia Loo

Episode 132

International Guidance

Olivia Loo, currently Director of International Students at Pasadena City College, has been in the field of international education for over 15 years. A Chinese native who grew up in Panama, Olivia immigrated to the U.S. to complete college and earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s at the University of Southern California. Her journey in international education started with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, an English teaching program sponsored by the Japanese government, and since then, she has made a lifelong mission to support international students and their educational goals of studying in the U.S. Olivia presents extensively at conferences on international admissions and educational credentials, as well as mental health and wellness among international students. She lives in the San Gabriel Valley with her family.

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Olivia Loo Quotes

  • “Probably because of how I grew up or where I grew up, like Asian, Panamanian, and Latin. I’m not Latin, and those were some of the biggest things I had to contend with when I went to college. College was that time when I had to explore my identity and figure out where I really fit in. Am I really Latin? Am I really Asian? Am I Chinese?”
  • “When I came to San Gabriel Valley, I was like, oh my gosh. I never knew there was this variety of things, of cuisines that I’ve never been, you know, exposed to. That was really surprising to me.”
  • “That’s why I am in international education because I can understand the cultural nuances of all the different student groups that I have to work with. I can fit in, and I can relate.”
  • Olivia Loo is a champion for international students. 
  • Originally an international student herself, she has worked at UCLA, USC, UC Riverside, and is currently at Pasadena City College.
  • Born to Chinese parents, Olivia grew up in Panama. Her parents encouraged her and her siblings to come to the United States for a better education. 
  • Olivia moved to the San Gabriel Valley to live with her aunt and attend USC. 
  • During her time in Panama, Olivia faced racism despite going to an international school and being in a diverse community.
  • When attending college, Olivia saw lots of student organizations that were based on ethnicity. Despite the number of clubs she struggled finding where she fit in. 
  • Olivia uses her own experiences to help international students at Pasadena Community College. Their program is designed with her personal experiences as an international student in mind. 
  • She sees herself as an ambassador for the US education system and shows the benefits of community colleges and four-year universities to foreign families and students.

What is a champion for international students?

A champion for international students is someone that’s advocating for our international students. It’s being an ambassador for the United States in many ways to share with our international students and their families how great a US education would be and welcoming students to come here to study in the US and also the San Gabriel Valley and seeing the benefits of what is here, and helping students achieve their educational goals. 


How does that start?

Most of the work that most of us do in international education is pre-arrival for many students. For example, I work at Pasadena City College, and a lot of the work we do is talking to families and students before they arrive. 

Students access us through video conferences, Zoom, and webinars. We educate students a lot, even before they arrive. That process can take a year for some students. 

What is your connection to the San Gabriel Valley?

I was an international student many years ago. I grew up in Panama. I’m Chinese. My parents are from Hong Kong and Macau, and they immigrated to Panama. I grew up there, and when it was time for me to go to college. I was very fortunate my parents allowed me to study abroad. 

We had family in Monterey Park, California. So, I ended up here in San Gabriel Valley because my aunt recommended that I stay with her. 

I went to college near here, I lived here, and eventually, I got married, had kids, and I ended up, you know, establishing roots here. 

You work at Pasadena City College. Did you attend there?

I didn’t. My sister and my brother did. I went to USC, and my backup plan was PCC. 

When you were at USC, did you know this was the career you wanted to do?

No. I thought I would work for the UN because I was interested in international relations. That was my major, and I wanted to work for the United Nations. When I graduated, I thought, “Should I move to New York because that’s where the headquarters is?” But I hate the cold. I love the heat. I grew up in the heat. I could not move to New York to work for the United Nations. 

I ended up teaching English in Japan for two years and thought that I’d take a break and see where it goes, and that’s how I ended up in international education. I enjoyed the exchange and the ability to promote US education.

How did your first experience of the San Gabriel Valley compare to Panama?

There was so much variety in food. There was so much diversity in food. In Panama, I grew up eating Chinese food, and there’s local Panamanian food, which is like Cuban food in many ways. There’s a lot of fried food, stews, and there’s a lot of diaspora even within Panamanian food. 

When I came to the US, it was the first time I got exposed to Mexican, Vietnamese, and Korean food. When I came to San Gabriel Valley, I was like, oh my gosh. I never knew there was this variety of things, of cuisines that I’ve never been, you know, exposed to. That was really surprising to me. 

Did you experience any discrimination growing up in Panama?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I think, in many ways, the Asian immigrant experience in the United States is very similar when you talk about Asians being in other parts of the world. Like, my parents had a business. We were very fortunate. When he was young, my dad worked very hard to create his own business. But I experienced racism, like people calling me names. 

I went to an international school and was bullied for being Asian. They would call me names.

What was it like when you moved to the San Gabriel Valley?

I was surprised there were so many Asian people here. You can blend in very easily here. Not that I didn’t in the town that I grew up in, Panama. Because there were a lot of Asians, but people in Panama would still call me Chinese as I was walking down the street. I would be called Chinese.

Yes. I am Chinese, but that’s not just who I am. Like, you’re called by your race. Over here, I don’t feel unsafe walking because everyone looks just like me.

Do you feel like an outsider here? Do you feel you would need to live in Hong Kong or China to not be an outsider?

That’s a very good question. I don’t feel like an outsider just because of how I look here in San Gabriel Valley. Right? But I still don’t always fit in because of how and where I grew up. Like Asian and Panamanian Latin, I’m not Latin, and I think those were some of the biggest things I had to contend with when I went to college. 

College was that time when I had to explore my identity and figure out where do I really fit in? Am I really Latin? Am I really Asian? Am I Chinese? I remember very distinctively at USC, there was the Hong Kong Student Association, the Chinese Student Association, the Chinese Student and Scholars Association, and the Chinese American Student Association. 

So, you have four different clubs that address different ethnic backgrounds within the Asian community. Even then, I remember asking questions like, “Do I fit in with the Hong Student Association because my family is from Hong Kong?” No. Not really. “Do I fit in with the Chinese American Student Association?” I don’t really. So it’s really trying. I don’t fit in everywhere, right? 

I don’t feel like an outsider because of how I look. Still, inside, sometimes I do feel like an outsider because I don’t fit in the mold of your traditional Chinese-American student or Chinese-American person.

It’s interesting that you add Latin to your identity that you’re seeking. Have you tried to integrate yourself into a Latin group?

Yeah. I did. And even then, it’s like, “Who are you?” I’m not your typical-looking Panamanian, and even the Panamanians are diverse. I don’t fit in everywhere. 

That’s why I am in international education because I can understand the cultural nuances of all the different student groups that I have to work with. I can fit in, and I can relate.

Have you ever caught anyone speaking poorly of you in spanish?

Oh, yeah. Many times. 

Is it fun to out them?

It is fun. I think I was at Disneyland when I was younger, and we were standing in line waiting for a ride, and people would be saying things about me in Spanish, and I turned around and talked to them in Spanish. 

It’s like I’m right here. So what are you saying? Yeah. It’s a shock.

How do you make the connection with the students while they’re in their home country?

Where I am working now, we have a platform where the college is very supportive of welcoming international students and giving the opportunity of exchange for even other students. Sometimes, we travel and visit high schools and talk to students. 

Community college is a very foreign model outside of the United States. Not all countries understand or have a similar educational model. Many times when we speak at high schools, we are ambassadors of US education because we have to explain the difference between a community college and a 4-year university and the benefits of going to a community college first versus going to university directly. 

So we talk about access and equity a lot in our work because that’s what community college is for access and equity of all students.

And a lot of the work that we do because of COVID is online. 

Do you do school career fairs in other countries?

We do some of that. Most of the work we do is usually at the high school. We have dedicated time with the students, and because community college is something new to many families, it’s difficult to explain. They will always know who UCLA and USC are. They don’t necessarily know who Pasadena City College is.

So, we do things a little bit differently.  

When they come to the us, do you still support them?

Yes. I oversee the International Student Center. My team are rock stars because we support the students once they apply and get enrolled. We help the students by guiding them through the visa application process. And once they secure the visa, getting them to come here, we onboard them. 

There’s a lot of prep work. For example, next week is orientation for our new students. We try to explain to students, and sometimes families, what support services there are for them.

Once they start classes, we stay engaged with the students. We do a lot of tracking of the students even though they don’t know. Behind the scenes, we check how they are doing academically because sometimes, for many of our students, if they’re doing poorly, it’s usually the first signs of other larger things. 

Sometimes, students open up; sometimes, students don’t. But the idea is that we are constantly there so that if they are ready to reach out whenever they need our hand, we’re there. 

Is it primarily Chinese students that you are working with?

I would say most PCC international students are from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. We also have a very large group of students from Indonesia, Burma, and Myanmar.

I don’t think Americans realize how unique it is that America is a destination for a better life.

Absolutely. I think one of our biggest exports in the United States is education. Many international students’ families sacrifice their time and money for that. 

But we’re not the number one receiving country for international students. We have a lot of competition from Canada, Australia, and even places like Singapore.

We train a lot of students and let them go to other countries. We’re not taking advantage of it. Is that your point of view as well?

Other countries have gotten ahead of the game compared to the United States. Many students choose Canada as a study destination because it’s a conduit to citizenship. 

International students are not just coming here and getting support from the US government. They come here to contribute to the US economy.

They’re renting apartments here, contributing to society, and doing research. Even our community colleges are contributing to the local economy. It’s a win-win. 

I think we have lagged in many ways in creating immigration law that is friendly to immigrants so that they can eventually contribute to the US economy.

Do you work with a law firm that helps your students get visas?

We don’t. We are certified to enroll international students. Our staff has to undergo training through the Department of Homeland Security to understand the rules. When we assist students in the visa process, it’s giving them guidance like these are the steps. It isn’t as in-depth as a law firm or an immigration lawyer would do, but we do provide them with guidance.

We have very high visa approval rates for the students who usually come.

How much of your personal experience as an international student do you share with potential students?

Almost every day. I don’t work as closely with students now, but a lot of the work and planning we do is keeping my experiences and background as an international student in mind. 

I know how it feels when you land in the US and are in a foreign country, and everything smells different. Everything looks different. 

How do you get a cell phone? How do you open bank accounts? So, we navigate those in our spaces together with our students. So, everything we think of in our program is keeping in mind what I and many of my staff members experienced in the past.

Have you only worked at PCC?

No. I’ve been at PCC for five years. I used to work at UCLA, UC Riverside, and USC.

What advantages does PCC offer international students?

They have a community of care at PCC. PCC is the first community college where change happens quickly and is very student-centered. The changes happen quickly. And so when I say there’s a community of care, not just international students, but all students, every single student at PCC is guided from when they step foot on campus. They’re guided every step of the way to understand what college is, how to be a college student, and the support until they’re ready to transfer or they’re ready to graduate. 

No matter what, there’s always someone there they can ask for help. There’s always someone there thinking about them and making sure that they’re progressing and making progress to get to their educational goal.

How many students do you have in your program?

When I started five years ago, there were about 900. We are at about 400 or 500 because COVID decimated a lot of our numbers.


If people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

They can visit the Pasadena City College website. Our international website is We welcome all students. If they want to contact me, my contact information is there, too.

Picture of Olivia Loo

Olivia Loo

Bubble Puff and Tea: They have great boba, and their owner used to be an international student. 

QQ Kopitiam: They are a Singaporean/Southeast Asian restaurant, but the owners have been there for a long time. 

Lacy Park. Lacy Park is huge and very open. It’s a great place to take a stroll, especially during the summer when it’s so hot.