Dr. Chui L. Tsang was San José City College’s president from 1998 to 2006. Born in Hong Kong, he moved to the United States after high school to go to college. Since his father was a native San Franciscan, he chose to come to the Bay Area and start at a community college, Contra Costa College, in San Pablo. It was an enlightening experience for him and where he first became interested in education.
From there, he transferred to UC Berkeley and then to Stanford to get his doctorate in linguistics. After college, he worked on a national research project on the bilingual language used in the Chinese American community, where he realized he wanted a career that directly impacted people. He then ran a small non-profit for ten years before returning to academia at City College of San Francisco. As the Dean overseeing many areas, he helped create the Evans campus for the college. Looking for a position to expand his responsibilities, San José City College became the perfect fit.
After his tenure at City College, he was appointed the president of Santa Monica College, a position he led for almost ten years. And in completing
his circle, he stepped in as the interim president at Contra Costa College before finally retiring. He currently lives in Oakland, where he enjoys reading, traveling, volunteering work and catching up with friends and his son and daughter.
For City College’s Centennial celebration, we had a chance to talk with Dr. Tsang about what made San José City College an amazing place to be, and what makes community college so transformational.
Being at City College was a very sweet experience and an important chapter in my life. When I first started at City College, it was poised to step into its next stage. It had been suffering from a lack of stable leadership, putting it a little behind. I felt the faculty, the staff on campus, and even the residents around it, wanted to see some new energy from the college. It took a while for me to get used to that environment, but in the end, we were able to make some very significant changes at the college.
The first change I felt was needed was to hire new faculty members who were more reflective of the community populations. When I first came in, there were only one or two fulltime Vietnamese American faculty members in the entire college, and the poor representation was true for Latino faculty. We were able to hire more diverse faculty members and college personnel.
The college is very well situated, at the crossroads of almost everything in Silicon Valley and close to downtown. It was the oldest campus in the South Bay that had served thousands of students but was beginning to show its age. I, along with others, saw the need to make significant changes and modernize our facilities which would help make the college more relevant to the community and the area.
I worked with many people on campus and the District to push for these big changes, and it’s something I feel proud to have associated with. We fought very hard to have the voters of the county pass the Measure T bond, which was a very, very important milestone in the history of the college in how it changed the college’s landscape.
One of the first completed projects was the construction of a new library. The funding came from the state’s Renewal of Properties program that had moved very slowly. The college had been in line for it since before I came in. The facilities committee worked hard to push it through and finalize it. There were many delays because of all the different State agencies involved, along with college logistics that had to be worked out. But we were able to integrate that into the new master plan for the campus. Once we were able to start, it signaled the beginning of the big changes that were planned. It was very exciting for us.
I was so happy we were able to name the library after César Chávez. There was a strong push for recognition of our Latino students in the college and in the community in general. San José had such a large number of Latinos in the community, and they hadn’t had their share of our attention in many areas. I worked with faculty, some who are still there, who pointed out the significance of the naming. We were able to work with the board and other supporters to get the name approved which was a wonderful thing we did together.
We invited the César Chávez family for the unveiling of the library. It was one of the most memorable and fulfilling events, and a very proud moment for many of us. There was a big write up in San José Mercury about it with some lovely photos. When the library was completed, it was such a beautiful place. It came out exactly how we planned, with the Learning Center, book collections, and all of the student study and computer spaces in one single location. It was easily my favorite place on campus.
There were many memorable accomplishments, one event that etched deeply in my mind happened during an annual luncheon for the Robert Chang scholarship. The Chang scholarship was started by a family who contacted me to find a way to memorialize a family member who had passed away. It is a very generous scholarship for any student transferring to a four-year college, paying up to $10,000 each year for two years.
We had a celebration for the students who earned the scholarship each year, and each of the students would give a speech. There was one student’s story that was particularly heartfelt. He described his life growing up in the barrios in Los Angeles, where his brothers were all gang members who were imprisoned. He moved to San José to go to college to escape the violent life they lived. When he shared his education plan with his brother, he was told, “Forget this. You’re not made for this. We don’t belong there.”
After struggling through his personal difficulties and his studies at SJCC, he was accepted to UC Berkeley. As he was telling his story, there was not a dry eye in the whole audience. He was crying and everybody else was sharing in his pain, his elation, and his struggles. For us at the college, his experience neatly translated to why we do what we do. This was what community colleges meant for so many students.
There were so many exceptional things that happened during my time at City College. One was when I had the chance to go with the basketball team under coach Percy Carr to play several friendly games with college teams in China. There were 17 or 18 players, most were African American students who had never owned a passport. It was exceptional from the moment they looked at their passport to the feelings they conveyed after returning.
We saw the transformation that was made possible in education outside of the classroom. There are some things that you can try teaching, but students don’t necessarily get it. But given the opportunity, one trip can open the world and show them what’s possible. These students realized they were citizens of the world. To see the change that took place for the basketball players made it one of the most meaningful fourteen-hour flights I had to take.
Percy Carr was the coach then – an incredible coach who felt basketball meant a lot more for students than just playing ball on the court. It was the whole person development. He really stuck his neck out with this trip to say, ‘let’s do that!’
First, he convinced the parents that it was safe to send their children to this place that was very foreign to them. Next, through his solicitation, he received a significant donation which paid for a large portion of the expenses. City College ended up being one of the first colleges or universities from the United States to have a basketball team playing in China.
In the first game, our team played the famous TsingHua University in Beijing. It was a fiercely fought contest with both teams playing each other at their very most. We snatched the game from the other team with two baskets in the final minute.
Afterwards, Coach Carr and their coach arranged for everybody to have dinner together. We had the basketball players from both teams share tables. It was six students to a table with three from each team at a table. Low and behold, within 10 to 15 minutes of sitting down, they were exchanging phone numbers and email addresses. Some of our students asked the Chinese students for help buying souvenirs, and they went to the store for a quick shopping spree before the food was served. They were chatting it up, sharing music and exchanging views on movie stars. It was a happy sight of common humanity.
You see, these young men broke all these stereotypes being perpetuated. Their personal experiences helped them discover the common bond and they were eager to get to know each other better. That’s what’s so important.
I thought it was also important to get to know and work with our communities. There were three communities I targeted: The Latino community, the high schools and schools within San José Unified School District, and the Vietnamese American community. I focused a lot of energy on all three to ensure the College could provide better service to each one.
We worked very hard with both the Latino and Vietnamese American communities to make sure students could identify with the college. We wanted them to know it as a welcoming place where they would get a good education and have understanding faculty who could help them in addressing their learning needs. The creation of the writing lab, math lab, and ESL labs in the newly established Learning Center were very intentional in moving that forward.
We also worked very hard with the local school district to reach out to the high schools and make sure their students knew they could come to us anytime they wanted to take classes. We had excellent programs. Middle College was one of those creations we instituted that allowed students to fast track and transition smoothly into college to continue their college education. At that time, some of the parents were skeptical of our academic quality. We had to overcome that to be successful.
I remember Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren’s son came through the college to take classes when he was completing his high school curriculum. He was later admitted to Stanford. By having her son attend City College, it changed the minds of some of the parents: that through SJCC, their children could continue their education and have a smooth transition into higher education.
I was at City College for nine years. I will always remember the great people I worked with. The students, though my duties didn’t lend to working with too many directly, I always enjoyed interacting with them. The community from the neighborhoods around the college I had come to love. They complained to us about our cars, our students parking all over the place, our football games being too noisy. We addressed these as best we could and at the end, they came to be supportive of us. And a very large segment of the San José community who still viewed us as The College of the City where so many of their family members, especially older ones, have attended.
It was a very memorable time. It’s a legendary institution full of potentials. We had good strong leadership in the district and in the college. We had a great faculty and, as always, a great staff taking care of our students and our facilities.
I’m glad the college is taking an opportunity to commemorate its very remarkable history. It’s an institution that has played an important role for this area for the past 100 years. I’m very excited seeing everything that’s coming from the college these days. It’s doing very well and moving in a promising direction. It’s a place I feel really honored and proud to be a part of!