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Q&A: Thuy Nguyen

Editor’s note: Thuy Nguyen has broken barriers as one of the first in the Vietnamese-American community to serve as general counsel and legislative liaison for the Peralta Community College District. As a member of the State Bar’s Council on Access and Fairness, she was instrumental in the creation of the 2+2+3 Pathway to Law initiative, including 29 community colleges, six law schools and their undergraduate counterparts. She recently talked with Bar Journal staff writer Psyche Pascual about herself and her work.

Thuy Nguy

Q: How has being an immigrant shaped you for the job that you have today?

Nguyen: As college president of a community college, being an immigrant – a former refugee – has definitely shaped who I am today. For instance, 27 percent of the students that we have at Foothill College – we have 29,000 students – are first-generation college goers. We also have a large group of students who are international students and [I have] a framework of what it means to acculturate into a society that you naturally aren’t born into and understanding what acculturation means and acclimation means.

Community college is an extraordinary place. I often say there’s nothing more American than baseball, apple pie and community colleges. Because it is literally America at its best. And that is open access, relatively low [cost] enrollment – $46 a unit. You could finish at community college for one year for $1,100 approximately. So it’s very affordable, accessible and then just the incredible diversity of our community colleges. Diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, age, career, circumstances, etc. Being a person of color, being an immigrant, being the first in her family to go to college, I’m able to tap into that experience to fully appreciate and connect with our students.

Q: How did the 2+2+3 program come to you? Did someone bring it to you?

Nguyen: It was two parts. I was general counsel at Peralta, and Elihu Harris said to me, my chancellor at the time, “You’re doing a great job here. People know how good you are as a lawyer here. But you need to go out into the world and let the world know what you can contribute.” So it was sort of an encouragement. Then I met Holly Fujie, who was the president of the State Bar at the time. I was looking for what is that volunteer opportunity that I could have, that would help kind of marry some things. I was doing some things, but they were just within Oakland. I was on the board of other organizations within Oakland, but something that was just a little bit bigger.

So I thought either it’s the ABA or the State Bar or what have you. But Holly said, “Volunteer for the State Bar.” And it was amazing. And through some conversation with her I said okay. And I looked at the State Bar and said, “What is the one group that is a most natural affinity?” Of course there are a lot of sections and committees I could have volunteered for. I saw Council on Access and Fairness and I said, “ A little pigeonholing me.” So I applied, got on the council, and the first year as the council was talking about diversity, about the pipeline, I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, there hasn’t really been a pipeline connection for community colleges.” As I was digging deeper into the issues, I discovered various things, discovered that law school recruiters don’t come to community colleges.

Many community colleges do not have pre-law clubs and yet the 2.3 million community college students in California are half the population of students in higher education and are even more diverse than this state is. Here we are, we have this very diverse pocket of students and we don’t recruit. They’re not part of any pipeline. On top of that, I found a study of the Law School Admission Council. They did a national study that showed that community college students do just as well in law school as students who are coming from the four-year [colleges], what they call native four-year students. I said, wait a minute. We should do something that connects the pipeline. But I didn’t want to do a form of what I call drive-by mentoring. Which is one day, big law day at community college, bring all the volunteers, talk to the students, and that’s it. I said if we’re going to do a pipeline, let’s put some meat on this. The meat was to actually have the law schools commit to something, commit to something real.

At that time I was talking to the law schools about committing guaranteed admission. And these six law schools said, “We’re open to looking at that.” I mean it was unbelievable that we were able to identify six law school deans who said, “I’m tired of tinkering around the edges. Let’s do something real and meaningful.” And those six law school deans, those six law schools said, “I’m willing to push the envelope.” It was extraordinary. We ended up with special consideration waiver of fees for when they apply and a guaranteed interview. That’s on the admission side. But while they are at the community college the law schools are involved in talking to those students. That hadn’t occurred before. The community colleges were purposely selected. So 45 applied, we only chose 28 community colleges because of their ability to move the needle on issues of equity. As a consequence these community colleges are on their own committing: “We will start pre-law clubs. We will have a mentorship program. Each community college will have an advisory council of judges and lawyers. We will have these seven courses that you identified as what makes lawyers good.” It’s a study that [Berkeley School of Law] Professor Marjorie Schultz and ‎[UC Berkeley Professor Sheldon Zedeck] did on 26 factors that make a good lawyer. And 18 of those factors we were able to identify courses at community colleges that students can take now in preparation to be a good lawyer.

Q: Does the 2+2+3 mean two years at …?

Nguyen: Community college, then two to transfer to the four-year institution, like Cal or Davis. And then three years at law school.

It was unprecedented. When we had the big signing ceremony of the community colleges it made big news. We signed it on Law Day, May 1, 2014. It was all over the paper. The LA Times, all these papers were covering it because it was so extraordinary for these law schools to band like that and create such a pipeline, right? But on the community college side, nationally it was all over the news because it was almost unheard of to have an agreement not with the institution you’re going to transfer your students in but professional schools. So on both sides it was considered innovative and unprecedented.

Q: Has this been adopted by any other community in the United States?

Nguyen: There was some interest by the American Bar Association around modeling this program. So we’ll see where that goes. It’s very grass-roots. So it’s hard for a state to say, “Thou shalt do this.” Because it wasn’t the community college or the state chancellor’s office for community colleges did this. It was grass roots on the State Bar’s side. And because I knew the community college side, they kind of came on board. That’s how it kind of coalesced.

Q: So you feel like it has to come from the community. The people.

Nguyen: It has to come from the profession. Because it’s a rallying cry. The State Bar, the attorneys and the judges that were on that council knew it was a crisis behind our lack of diversity of lawyers and knew that we had to do something big and were willing to entertain “Thuy’s idea” of 2+2+3 because of the data, because of the sheer number of students we’re talking about.

Q: So are you hoping that the number of community colleges expands, or is it going to remain the 28 for a while?

Nguyen: You know, it’s a pilot program actually. Once we get our data towards the end of the year, we will kind of figure from there and decide. Based on stories I’m hearing, certificates I’m signing, it is extremely diverse. We chose community college because they are more diverse than the state. And here we are with a pathway program that is more diverse than that.

But I think the big one is making sure that our program is successful. And we formed a nonprofit to add on the high schools. High school law academies. So pretty excited about fully connecting the pipeline. High school, community college, four-year, law school. And in fact, the medical school called me and said, “We would like to do something like this for the medical.” Because they have their crisis around diversity in terms of the medical profession. So I’m technically advising a coalition of medical schools on doing the 2+2+4.

Q: Your role [at Foothill College] as a top administrator, as a woman of color. What do you think you represent to the students that are here?

Nguyen: What it represents for students has two elements, I think. One is I’m relatively young, so somehow our students have a connection with me. I’m 41. In fact sometimes students think I’m president of the associated student body. So I think there is a connection that students have, and I have with them. And then as a woman of color I’ve been advised by students to really make a point to walk around, which I do, because they think visually that could have a real positive impact on our students.

Q: Can you cite a moment in your childhood or when you were growing up that was really formative for you? Was there a particular time when you really felt like, “This moment drove me to become an attorney.”

Nguyen: It’s definitely a period – the period was when I was a student at Castlemont High School in East Oakland. The school is predominantly African-American, and the second-largest group is Latino. We probably had no more than 20, maybe even 10 Asian-American students, and at least from the eye could see, no Caucasian students. It’s a large, comprehensive high school in Oakland. But in East Oakland, which is a highly impoverished area. It was formative for me because it was a time when I was a minority within a minority community. I saw a lot of things that frustrated me about our students, about my classmates, around being able to focus on school, around making school a priority, etc. As much as there was that frustration, there were an enormous amount of lessons that I learned too because it was constantly talked about in media.

The students were homeless coming to school, the students were pregnant. Some of them were pregnant, and we didn’t even know it because they were wearing the big jersey jacket and then of course, you wear it even during hot weather. So sometimes you can’t tell until they deliver, and you’re like, wow. Didn’t know. Or students who show up to class every day and they’re wearing the same clothes, but you just don’t notice it because it’s not within the culture to notice what students are wearing per se, ironically for high school. But then you later learn they were homeless during that whole time. So it really led me to think a lot about racially isolated communities and the resources that don’t come with that. And so it got me to think deeply about desegregation, around education. And yet here I am tapping into the educational system and the freedom that comes with that, the social mobility that comes with that. And so it became very clear to me that no matter what I do I have to come back to the Oakland area and support what was happening at Castlemont and to work on issues that relate to that.

Q: Is that what drove you to become a student representative on the Oakland Unified School Board?

Nguyen: Yeah. It was trying to find voice. Internally within the school, I can talk to my classmates, and say, “Come on folks. Let’s get it together. Let’s form SAT groups.” And we would throw out words, like “ragamuffin.” And every day would be a word. We would try to support each other. Focusing on buying a calculator versus a Nike shoe. So there was definitely a self-discipline within our group but at the same time recognizing that there were circumstances and situations that we could not control so we had to have a voice in the larger context of students. That’s why I thought it was really important to be an advocate, and serving on the school board was one way.

I was actually pre-med. In fact, I took all my pre-med courses. I took the MCAT. I filled out the AMCAS, which is the uniform application for medical school. It was a two-page essay that I had to write about why I wanted to go to med school. And it was right before my senior year that summer that I was writing the essay. And at the end of the essay, I should have written, “Therefore I should go to public health school or law school.”

And it was through that very cathartic exercise of seeing how my life looked on paper, and how the logical flow was ... I need to go to law school. Then I went, “Light bulb!” Of course, when I got back to college – and I was at Yale at the time, my senior year ­– I was worried that I’d have to tell my mother and father that I’m not going to be pre-med anymore. So I called my mom, I said, “Mom, I’m not going to be pre-med. I’m going to go to law school.” I was very nervous that she would not be happy with that, but she was actually really excited. She was like, “Great! Then you can be our first Vietnamese-American ambassador to Vietnam.” It was very nice. As I told my friends in college and also friends from my past, they would all say to me, “We’ve been waiting for you to come around on that one.” Because even at Yale, I was part of what we call “Scrap 187” which was Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant initiative in California. So I was doing a lot of political things. In fact, today I got a text from one of my dearest friends. We make a point to have a mini reunion every year. He’s gay and he’s trying to digest some of things that are happening with election results. He said, “I feel more politically involved now than I have ever been. Even in college I wasn’t. Thank goodness Thuy was always on that track. She knew how important it was to really be vigilant on our political system, our democracy. Yay, Thuy!” It was endearing. All of that to say is, that everyone knew I should be a lawyer or should go to law school and do that kind of work versus being a doctor.

Q: Before you went to law school you taught for a little bit also. Were you thinking, “I enjoy teaching as well?”

Nguyen: I love teaching. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to consider being a teacher. But at the same time, right after law school, while I was working for the law firm, while I was working as an aide for Wilma Chan, while I was general counsel for Peralta Community College District, I was teaching. I was teaching part-time.

Q: And how does that inform you in your administration job now?

Nguyen: I always knew that whatever I do there would be an education band to it. For instance, if I was a doctor it would be public health. The band being education within that context of public health. I always knew I would be swimming in the world of education because I saw it as the vehicle to help improve the lives of those students at Castlemont High School. That was the vehicle. The question is what is the tool that I bring to it? The tool that I bring to it, at least when I decided to be a lawyer, is that it’s going to be of a legal nature.

But then I got a call from the chancellor of Peralta Community College District, and I had not really thought of the community college world, never understood its structure and so forth. But when he said, and he’s a lawyer himself, Elihu Harris, former mayor of Oakland and lawyer, “Come on over and be our interim general counsel.” I was just three years out of law school. I thought to myself, “Elihu’s a lawyer, so he must know what would be needed.” And literally I was driving and [heard] the Lee Ann Womack song, “I Hope You’ll Dance.” “When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you’ll dance.” And it was that song that said, “I gotta dance.”

It was through that boldly going and not even considering that I was just three years out and that I would learn and be humble in that process but get the job done, and there are a lot of people who love Oakland, and I’m one of them and I know I will work extremely hard to make sure the educational opportunities are going to be meaningful for students of Oakland.