LOS ALTOS HILLS — On the same day that Donald Trump took the oath of office some 3,000 miles away to become president of the United States, Thuy Thi Nguyen gathered her students at Foothill College and promised to support them no matter who they were or where they were from.
Then, as the man who had promised to build a wall along the southern border became commander-in-chief, she invited undocumented students to paint a mural, a process she hoped would be cathartic.
There was no press, no publicity, but months later, sitting in her office on an unseasonably warm August afternoon, Nguyen recited the famous lines from the poem etched on the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp besides the golden door!”
“Those words might as well be engraved on the steps of every community college,” she said, remembering the day.
As the nation’s young people become more diverse and the need for a college degree grows, community colleges find themselves uniquely situated to fill a void in a higher education system still rife with gaps. Many of those gaps, she said, often fall along racial and socioeconomic lines, between who does and does not have access to opportunity.
For Nguyen, now entering her second year as Foothill’s president, the issue is deeply personal. As the nation’s first Vietnamese-American college president, she’s worked tirelessly to help fill those gaps, and was honored this summer as part of the Carnegie Corporation’s “Great Immigrants” tribute, aimed at recognizing naturalized citizens who have helped advance society, culture and the economy.
Born in Vietnam, Nguyen fled the war-torn country with her family in the late 1970s on a small boat. Drifting through the chop toward a big storm, the family was spotted by a larger ship whose crew waited a full day for clearance to pick up the refugees.
The family would end up in Kobe, Japan. As she spoke, Nguyen’s fingers brushed over the delicate lace details of her cream-colored sweater. It was originally gifted to her mother, she said, by a family who helped care for them there. Her little sister, Lieuko, now a pediatric nephrologist in San Diego, is named after one of the women in that family.
They were slated to go to Paraguay but given the option of coming to the United States after then-President Jimmy Carter announced the country would accept more refugees. Nguyen and her family wound up on Saigon Drive in New Orleans, part of a community of other Vietnamese Catholic refugees. “It almost felt like we were still in Vietnam,” she remembered.
Before she entered high school, the family moved to Oakland and Nguyen became a minority in an already minority community, an experience that would shape her life’s work. “It’s very noticeable, the disparities,” she said.
Case in point: At Castlemont High School, she and a friend, an African-American boy, were voted the pair most likely to succeed. She’d go on to Yale and a distinguished legal and academic career. He’d land behind bars for his involvement in an armed burglary. He’d clearly made some bad choices, she acknowledged, but what about the environment and expectations with which he’d grown up?
After Yale, where Nguyen became a first-generation college graduate, she returned to UCLA for law school. When she earned her J.D., an uncle who’d come to celebrate began to tell Nguyen — who was just a toddler when she left Vietnam — what she had to overcome just to get to this country. He was quickly hushed by relatives.
But Nguyen, whose warmth and quick laugh exude ease, has some idea. And she regularly turns to her personal story to say to students, I’ve been there and there is a way forward. “How you show up has to be intentional,” she said about why she feels a responsibility to talk about an experience others might rather forget.
“At the end of the day, it’s about students,” she added. “It’s not about you.”
During her first office hours as Foothill president last year, Nguyen capitalized on the Pokemon GO craze sweeping the country, marched across campus to a popular PokeStop and set up a tent so she could meet students who might otherwise feel too intimidated to come.
She launched an “I’m the first” campaign to identify faculty and staff who were the first in their families to graduate from college that students could ask for guidance. This coming year, at the request of students, it will expand to students who want to wear the label on a button. “You will be changing your family’s history,” she tells them. “That’s powerful stuff.”
The last thing Nguyen wants to do is be mentally guarded, “with armor,” because she never knows when sharing a part of her experience will have a lasting impact, she said. In the fall, she sent an email to the campus community identifying herself as a first-generation college graduate. Months later, a young woman who had been struggling confessed that message helped give her the confidence to continue.
Nguyen knows what that’s like. After law school, she joined the Peralta Community College District in the East Bay and was shortly asked to step into the general counsel role. She was 25. As she drove home, the Lee Ann Womack song “I Hope You Dance” came on the radio. You can do this, her mentor had said. “I’m dancing,” Nguyen vowed. It was a job she’d hold for more than a decade.
Nguyen — who is married to Thang Nguyen Barrett, the first Vietnamese-American judge to be appointed to the California judiciary and a former community college student himself — wanted to do more to give low-income students and young people of color opportunities to pursue legal careers. So, in 2014, she volunteered to create what has come to be known as California’s 2+2+3 pathway. It’s a collection of community colleges who partner with a series of four-year universities and law schools in the state to mentor and encourage students to pursue legal careers, part of an effort to diversify what is a largely white profession.
The work earned her the Diversity Award from the State Bar of California.
Now, she’s spearheading a program that gives local high school students a chance to take classes at Foothill for free and get a head start on college. Interest has been particularly high among students of color, she said, noting that she sees the program as a way to reduce gaps in college access.
Closing those gaps, Nguyen insists, “is possible.” It’s why she endures an hour and a half commute from Castro Valley and long days away from her daughter Ha-Tien, 10, and son Tai, 8. Finally, she said, more people are coming around to the idea that closing those educational gaps is possible with hard work and creativity. “It’s no longer a question of the deficiency of the students,” she said. “To finally start from that point is refreshing.”
All Credit Goes To : Source link