San José City College Centennial: McArthur Hoang

Growing up in San José, McArthur ‘Mac’ Hoang was a foster youth with a difficult childhood. After aging out of foster care, he occasionally attended college around the Bay Area, but he wasn’t serious about it until he went to San José City College in 2014. Starting in double remedial classes, it’s thanks to those he worked with at City College and his tenacity of spirit and heightened dedication that in three years

he transferred to UC Berkeley in 2017, after having been accepted to multiple universities including Ivy Leagues.

In his first year at Cal, he quickly noticed the challenges some students had in understanding how the college system worked. This was especially so for students who needed additional money for college and academic counseling and services for their unique needs, and further resources to help them succeed.

He realized he had been able to access these services and resources for himself and knew he could help others by sharing his system road map. In 2018, through the UC Berkeley Public Service Center Peter E. Haas Leadership Fellowship, he developed the NavCal program to help underrepresented, first-generation college students learn how to navigate the UC system’s services and resources with the guidance of near-peer mentors. As stated in the NavCal program overview page, this incredible program “empowers students to advocate for their community, address challenges, and ultimately ensure that more students are educated on how to access and maximize available resources.”

Mac Hoang at UC Berkeley

Thanks to Mac’s insight and desire to break down the “hidden curriculum” within the UC system, NavCal and Nav2Cal – which specifically helps high school students going into Cal – have helped over 400 students thus far. He has created the first formerly incarcerated scholars’ research cohort, and helped to create the first undocumented scholars’, women of color scholars’, and foster scholars’ research cohorts which have generated thousands in funding to impact students’ experience. Mac has won many awards for his work developing these programs, most recently winning UC Berkeley’s highest honor, the Chancellor Mather Good Citizen Award.

San José City College celebrates its 100-year anniversary in 2021, talking with former and current City College students, faculty, staff, and administrators. We had a chance to talk with Mac about how City College influenced him.

When did you start at City College and why?

I started at San José City College in 2014. I decided I wanted to go back to school and increase my job options. I thought I would major in drug counseling, but as I took more classes, I started setting my goals pretty high and thought, “let’s see what happens!” I got a transfer associate degree in Communication Studies at San José City, but in transferring, since Cal didn’t have a Communications program, I switched and got a bachelor’s in Sociology. I’m really interested in the ‘haves and the have-nots’ in society, so it was a good fit.

When I began at San José City, I was in double remedial English and double remedial math. During that year, my life changed because of English professor Noe Torres, Communications professor Shelley Giacalone, and EOPS counselor Julio Flores.

I took almost every class Noe Torres taught, and because of him I was able to sharpen my skills and become decent at writing. He’s really shy, but he also gives it to you like it is. I remember the first remedial English course I took. It’s the bottom of the bucket. He said, “look, we all know the data. You’re starting in double remedial. 7% of you will end up transferring somewhere. 3% will get a degree. That’s just the honest truth.” Then, he started with simple sentences. They hire the right people at City College, because you could pick his brain about sentence structure and there’s almost nothing that’s going to throw him off.

“I’ll always cherish the community atmosphere that San José City comes with.”

Mac Hoang

Julio Flores, who runs the Guardian Scholars Program was my Guardian Scholars counselor. He taught me how to coach others. When you’re a foster, you feel like a Martian. For someone like me that aged out of the foster system to meet Julio and Accreditation Specialist Julinda LeDee who are both former foster youth, words can’t express that connection. That will tell you what San José City is about, because college administrators said, “these people have lived experience, so let’s go out of our way to help and make sure they are here for our students.”

I remember when Julio got hired. They went out of their way to hire him, and he was the best choice they’ve ever made. I can’t relate to someone who doesn’t have a sense of my foster identity. But I can tell Julio anything, because he would say, ‘dude, I was there, too, bro.’ They’re like steppingstones. They could have gone on to bigger, brighter things, but they stood there, and they captured us. I was able to win all those Berkeley awards because they escorted me right up the rocket ship to take off. Without those people, none of this is doable.

That’s why Julio and EOPS Guardian Scholars were so important in my life. I didn’t have money. Financial aid doesn’t give you enough. Julio would always see me hungry, and he would buy me some stuff. It was hard, because I was the first older foster to be a part of Guardian Scholars there. I got meal vouchers. And it’s because of Julio’s connections I got linked up with Pivotal Scholars in Santa Clara County. I was a Pivotal Scholar for five years until I graduated.

Shelley Giacalone was an incredible instructor who put me on stage as a San José City student at the Adobe Let Your Life Speak event. She, Julio and Noe are what make San José City San José City.

Video on the NavCal Program

Was there anyone else who stood out during your time at City College?

There were so many people at that school that helped me and made a difference. In the three years I was there, I was at the tutoring center every day because I knew I was at a deficit. This whole community was there to help me. You’re only supposed to get tutoring twice maybe three times a week, probably only once a day. But I would just sit there, and they would say, “that’s Mac. If you’re not helping anybody else, give him another run. He needs your help.”

Dr. Hasam Rahim is a math professor. I have to say, I was one of those who said, “why do I have to take algebra? Why do take any of this stuff you’re making me take?” But Dr. Rahim will get you through it. He had that soft touch that got me past statistics.

Cultivamos Excelencia was very influential in preparing me for doing research on an Ivy League level. And Carol Vasquez in the Transfer Center, Counselor Lezra Chenportillo, and the other EOPS counselors were my greatest cheerleaders. I would come in there so negative, saying, “what am I doing in school?” And they would just say, “hold up, slow down. We got this.”

With my kind of personality, I would just stop by and go to people’s offices. I remember it didn’t matter how busy Carol was at the Transfer Center, she would always make time for me. I must have interrupted at least eighty of Carol’s lunches at the Transfer Center. She would always say, “I got five.”

“It’s one thing to achieve something for yourself, but if you can pull others up with you, you can positively influence those around you, and everyone succeeds. People don’t have to reinvent the wheel themselves. They can have a place to start.”

Mac Hoang about NavCal

What do you remember most about being at City College?

San José City College is different. I don’t know many places where you could just stop the President and have a conversation. When the Chancellor or the President walk by and know your name, that’s a community. And to me, that’s the essence of San José City College. I knew everybody and they all knew me. They all remembered names, and I’m not the only one! That’s the beauty of what San José City College is.

They listened, too, which is amazing. We students made some really big changes there. Like, San José City College is the east side school. It’s in a nice area, yet most of us live on the east side. We said to them, ‘you got to give students bus passes to help us get to the college.’ And they did! Then we said, ‘since we’re far from our houses, you need to supply some food for us.’ After that, they put a Basic Needs Center on campus.

That probably wasn’t the San José City College of twenty, thirty, forty years ago. But under then President Dr. Byron Breland and Vice President Roland Montemayor and the rest of that team, it’s our community members who work there. And it wasn’t just the leadership, but all of City’s employees – the financial aid staff, EOPS, DSP, the Transfer Center. This was methodically plotted, because you see a lot of melanin in there.

What did you do after you graduated from City College?

From San José City, I was accepted into the Ivy League. That’s the kind of support San José City gave me that I got into an Ivy League school. Once I transferred to UC Berkeley, as an older student, I just came in with more life skills. I just knew how to navigate things. I started mapping down how to excel at Berkeley and excel in life to share it with others. I was able to set this blueprint down and no one could believe how easy it was. We call it “Interaction Theory,” and it’s more or less a practicum versus theory.

Mac Hoang at UC Berkeley

There is this hidden curriculum or social capital that says a lot of us high achievers will win things for ourselves and won’t map down how to get there. It’s one thing to achieve something for yourself, but if you can pull others up with you, you can positively influence those around you, and everyone succeeds. People don’t have to reinvent the wheel themselves. They can have a place to start.

I tell our students that I have won hundreds of scholarships. I have a 3.89 GPA, I got awards from everywhere. I’ve done all these things and I’ve made a roadmap. Why are you trying to do it yourself? We start to dig into the indoctrination of why do you need to do this yourself. Do you really believe in this competition model? Do you really need to step on someone else’s neck to find your success? We started to ask our students about that scarcity mentality of “there’s only so many spots,” to say, “why don’t we just create more spots?”

If you don’t think that’s true, just look at this program I created. There wasn’t one a few years ago. For the students who are a little more hard-headed, I’ll explain to them by saying, “There was no map before me, there was nothing. Because I wrote it down, now you’re winning. You can do anything at Berkeley. You can do anything at most places if you can just think out of that box. And because I came from foster, because I did all this, because I never fit in the stupid boxes in the first place, and I can’t think in that box because it never fit me, it freed my mind to do all this outward stuff.”

With my programs, I mostly help transfer students. But I have to say, I got to tip my hat to San José City that I got into the best schools. I had some skills, but I look at San José City as where I sharpened this tool of mine, and they allowed me to sharpen it.

“When the Chancellor or the President walk by and know your name, that’s a community. And to me, that’s the essence of San José City College.”

Mac Hoang

I’m excited to see the direction San José City is going. I would say it’s one of the premier schools, and I had the privilege of going there as an older student. Plus, San José City has state-of-the-art buildings, like the new tech libraries and science buildings.

I owe everything to San José City College – it’s my alma mater. If they asked me to show up, I will show up anytime. It can be really hard to stay the course as a community college student. There are such high dropout rates. But San José City College, if you work it right, it’s got a community waiting for you. I’ve been to other colleges before where you could tell they were commuter schools. That’s not how San José City College is. That’s what I’ll take with me. I’ll always cherish the community atmosphere that San José City comes with.

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