Milpitas Mayor and San José City College alum Richard Tran was born in San José and grew up in the Valley with his mother and older sister. After graduating from Milpitas High School, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Eventually, he decided to attend City College after high school. That’s where everything started coming together for him.
This year, as City College celebrates its centennial anniversary, we have been able to talk with former and current City College students, faculty, staff, and administrators. This week, we had the opportunity to talk with Milpitas Mayor Richard Tran about how City College influenced him.
What made you decide to go to City College?
Milpitas Mayor Richard Tran
I went to Milpitas High School and am a proud graduate of the class of 2003. Trojans for life! Yet, I wasn’t really the best student in high school. I put in a whole lot of effort, but some issues off campus presented a real challenge for me as a student.
I chose San José City College because of the tradition of others from Milpitas High going there before me and the proximity to Milpitas. San José City was the first opportunity I had to really go deeper into what I found interesting. I had the option to choose classes that I would take with me for the rest of my life. I remember choosing political science, sociology, and even Asian American Studies. It was a turning point for me as a young student where it really opened my fascination with different subjects.
Going to City College allowed me the opportunity to be the first person in my family to attend college and receive a degree.
Did you know what you wanted to study when you went to City College?
I did not. I just knew I had to transfer and do something with my life. At that time in my life, I was at a low point. I didn’t have too much going for me out of high school, and I was realizing that the world was a hard place. Thank goodness to those introduction classes and that ability to explore different subjects while getting my associate degree. That really helped me. Fortunately, I fell in love with sociology and political science and went from there.
Were there any instructors you remember who changed your perspective?
Your question really brings a smile to my face. I certainly had an instructor who was instrumental in my life trajectory and politics. I took Intro to Political Science with Instructor Vuong Vu-Duc. He not only provided the course instruction, but he also gave his insights on the field and answered any questions I had.
He was more than just an instructor. He even wrote me a letter of recommendation as I attempted to transfer which was a great blessing of mine. I kept in touch with him for many years. He’s not teaching at City College anymore. He immigrated to San José from Vietnam as a refugee, like my parents. And when we last communicated, he had moved back to Vietnam to be a professor there.
Were there any pivotal moments while you were at City College?
There were so many moments in terms of stages of development. Transitioning from being a young person to becoming a student, for some people it takes longer for everything to come together. When I went to San José City, that was the moment where my brain started to turn, and I was able to process a lot more knowledge and information. One of the highlights was taking political science courses. That was really what got me where I am now.
Sociology was key, even Asian American Studies. And oral argumentation was a course I’ll never forget. I felt like that course was a million bucks for me. It taught me some lessons I use even today here in Milpitas.
Finite math and statistics were challenges. I’m not really a science, math, or technology person, so those courses were difficult. But those professors really pushed me to do my best. I learned in math that I can get by without getting the highest score. I learned that sometimes in life getting 100% isn’t always required, or even 70%, but as long as I did my best is what matters.
I was also on the track and field team at San José City College. I was a sprinter and ran mostly the 100 and 200-meter. The college has a rich tradition in track and field, as we all know. I was able to compete and grow as a student athlete for two years on the oval there.
Being at San José City, I was able to build relationships with other students who were in similar places to where I was academically, in that we were all striving for something better. To go through the same college experience with other people and to grow with them was very meaningful. I still maintain those relationships to this day. We’re all doing pretty well, having gone to four-year universities and receiving our degrees.
I got my associate degree in liberal arts in 2005 and walked the stage at graduation. It was just a huge self-esteem and confidence booster. It was a very happy day with all my family and friends there, and it really empowered me by being the first person in my family go to college.
What did you do after graduating from City College?
I transferred to UCLA and double-majored in sociology and political science. I barely graduated from high school, so this was really exciting to have done something to turn my life around.
At San José City, I put so much time into the library. I would go to the library three or four times a week for three or four hours at a time. I took it very seriously, like my life was on the line. It was that work ethic I developed right on City College’s campus. When I went to UCLA, I just wanted to maximize everything I could. I would have gone for a triple major if I could have.
I graduated from UCLA right when the great recession hit in 2007-08. I had a hard time finding a job since I had no experience and so many were getting laid off. I waited tables at a sushi restaurant down in L.A. for a while until I asked myself, ‘what would I do if money wasn’t an issue?’ I thought about helping other people. I ended up getting a job with Catholic Charities of Los Angeles and I worked at their homeless youth shelter called Angels Flight in downtown L.A. I did that for a year helping runaway teens. I learned a lot about life.
When I was in high school, I had a track coach all four years named Paul Abbott. He happened to also work for the county probation department. He also went to San José City College and was on the track team there. He was even in the track and field record books at San José City. I always felt we had this San José City College connection. I wanted to be like Coach and be a probation officer to help people. So, I decided to go back home to San José and get my master’s in social work from San José State University to become a probation officer.
As soon as I graduated from San José State with a master’s in social work, I decided to take my public service education even further. I applied to New York University, the Wagner School of Public Service and received a Master’s in Public Administration.
After that, I moved back home again. That’s when I got into local politics here in Milpitas. I ran for city council the first time in 2014. I lost. In 2016, I decided to run for mayor. I ended up winning by a landslide. I won three times in a row. Now I am in my last term before I get termed out. I couldn’t have asked for a better life here, serving the community that helped me when I was a younger person.
There’s nothing better than to be in public service and to help others. I would probably not be in politics if it wasn’t for my hometown. I really enjoy making Milpitas a community that is safe and sound and where families can flourish. It’s been so full for me here at home. Folks know I love this town. I’ve been able to be in every home multiple times over. I’m on social media, and I put my cell phone number out on the internet and folks know they can call me.
The best moments are when I show up at folks’ homes in town, and they say, “Richard, we’ve known you since you were a kid. You’ll always be Richard to us.” I think the most heartening thing I get is the trust of this community. Even on the bad days of politics, which there are, I am so grateful knowing that my friends and family are here. I’m surrounded by nothing but love in the city I grew up in. We have one high school in town, and everybody’s family knows each other – and it’s just perfect.
Is there anything else you’re involved with?
I’m on the President’s Circle at San José City College which has been very important to me. President Rowena Tomaneng is an outstanding leader. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go in my time. I told the President that it means a lot to Milpitas that so many teachers, leaders, and community members went to San José City.
Now, we have the San José City College extension in town. We have about 10,000 students in Milpitas each year, and I’m always encouraging the seniors to keep pursuing things and figure out what they want to do in a constructive way.
I think a community college like San José City can give a person a second chance at life. I am eternally grateful. I consider myself fortunate to be able to pay it forward by being on the President’s Circle. The value of a San José City College education is second to none.
What will you do after your mayoral term is over?
I have been preparing for it, as I will be termed out at the end of next year. I think I’m done with this chapter of my life in politics. I’m not running for higher office, and I’m not leaving Milpitas. I did social work. I just got out of the Air National Guard last year after six years. Now I look forward to maybe starting a few businesses here in town and seeing how that works out. I have organized chaos in my life, and I somehow seem to figure things out. Maybe I’m catching some luck along the way, too.