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 2g community colleges, six law schools and their undergraduate counterparts. She recently talked with Bar Journal staff writer Psyche Pascual about herself and her work.
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...