Ethnic Studies Instructor, Dr. Cindy Huynh, spent the first part of her life in Des Moines, Iowa. Her parents were both refugees from the Vietnam War, resettling in Iowa. Shortly after Dr. Huynh began middle school, her mother moved her and her older sister to San José. Dr. Huynh’s formative years growing up in San José instilled in her a deep love of the area and its communities.
In high school, Dr. Huynh was very active in student government, so much so that she decided to major in Political Science at UC Davis. But just before registering for her first quarter classes, her older sister recommended she take an Asian American studies class. It changed how Dr. Huynh saw education and her place in it. She switched her major to ethnic studies and decided to become an educator.
Dr. Huynh received her master’s from San Francisco State, and her Ph.D. from University of Utah. She is in her fourth year teaching at City College and is now a tenured instructor.
Dr. Cindy Huynh with her niece
As San José City College celebrates its one-hundredth year educating the community in and around San José, we took a moment to talk with Cindy about how she became an ethnic studies teacher and why she is passionate about San José and community college.
My parents’ journey to the United States was tumultuous. My dad is Sino-Vietnamese, which means he’s ethnically Chinese, culturally Vietnamese. In the late 70s, after the fall of Saigon, the nationalistic government wanted to get rid of the Sino-Vietnamese population. My dad paid the government to leave. He stayed in a refugee camp with his brother for about a year before being sponsored by a Chinese American family in Des Moines.
My mom left Vietnam with her family three years after my dad, because she’s not Sino-Vietnamese. They ended up in a refugee camp in Indonesia for about a year before they resettled in Germany. I don’t know how my dad did this, since there weren’t cell phones or social media back then, but he was able to locate and sponsor my mom to the U.S after years apart. She arrived in the early 1980s to be with my dad in Iowa. That’s their origin story.
People always asked, “How the heck did you end up in Iowa?” President Ford had dispersal policies. He didn’t want large concentrations of Vietnamese people in one area, because he was fearful of the decline of resources and inundation on local infrastructures. He dispersed refugees all across the U.S. There was a small pocket in the Midwest, including in Des Moines.
My parents divorced when I was younger. My mom moved my older sister and me out to California when I was 11 going on 12, because she really wanted to be around more Vietnamese people. I grew up in downtown San José on 13th Street and Julian. I attended San José Unified public schools, going to Steinbeck Middle School and Gunderson High School. I very much identify as a San José kid and have a great deal of pride about it. When I think about my coming of age and growing into my compassion, empathy, understanding and consciousness of the world, I have done it through San José.
In high school, I was passionate about student government and decided to major in political science at UC Davis. Just like every kid in student government, I told myself, “I’ll go into poli sci, get into government, and maybe one day I’ll be president.” Before I left for college, my sister, who was at San José State, said to me, “You should take an ethnic studies or Asian American studies class.” I asked her what those were. She said, “Just trust me. I think you’ll like it.”
I enrolled in a political science class and an Asian American studies class my first quarter at Davis. In my political science class, I thought, “What am I doing? I don’t understand any of this, and none of this seems interesting.” But when I went to the Asian American studies class, I was blown away at the material, and that I could get a degree taking these types of classes. I could not believe that this could be my education. I didn’t know I could learn about people like me, about my own community – that there was a place for us. I fell in love instantly.
In that Asian American studies class, I was assigned an oral history paper. My sister had done one on my mom and encouraged me to do the same to learn more about our mom’s story. This assignment gave me space to bond with my mom in a way I didn’t think was possible. It was a beautiful way to intersect my own life with higher education.
I changed my major from political science to Asian American studies and social and ethnic relations. I took a wealth of courses at UC Davis on Native American studies, women’s studies, African American studies, Chicano studies, Asian American studies. I also served as a research assistant to an Asian American studies professor who took me under her wing and showed me the possibilities of higher education. It was an enriching, beautiful experience, and another of coming-of-age chapter for me.
I was burnt out after college, so I took a year off and worked at a very well-known Asian American law firm, Minami Tamaki. A lawyer there had worked pro bono in the 1980s on the case that overturned the wrongful conviction of Fred Korematsu. I felt wrapped in Asian American history in my nine to five as an administrative assistant there, but I didn’t love that nine to five hustle. I felt there had to be more to life than being in a cubicle.
Left: Dr. Huynh graduating with her doctorate at University of Utah; Right: Dr. Huynh teaching at San José City College
A year after college, I decided to apply to a master’s program in Asian American studies at San Francisco State. I worked part time at the law firm and commuted to San Francisco for the program. Those were the best two years of my educational experience. I had a cohort of seven people who were just as passionate about Asian American studies and ethnic studies as I was. They were also community oriented. My cohort was all made up of educators or aspiring to be educators, like me. And the faculty there enveloped you in this beautiful mentorship of love and care – this very radical sense of care – to ensure you got what you needed and had a strong foundation to get you to the other places you wanted to be. I truly enjoyed that.
My master’s program was where I cemented that I wanted to be an educator, specifically a professor. I’ve always been very curious and always had a love for learning. I felt like one of the ways in which I could continue lifelong learning was to be an educator. You have to continue learning to educate your students.
I was the youngest to finish in my master’s program and got accepted into a PhD program with a full ride to the University of Utah. I was 24-years-old. Being a first-generation high school graduate and college graduate, I had no one to share with me what that was like to be in those spaces. When I started my master’s program, I googled, “what does it mean to be a master’s student?” And “what is being in a master’s program like?” When I got into the PhD program, I was a kid, essentially. I left home and didn’t know what that entailed. What study habits should I have? What is a good study habit, and what is not a good study habit? Who do I ask for help? I got my own studio apartment and had to build things for it. I had never done that before without the assistance of my family and community. That was a really lonely, but also empowering experience.
I was in Utah for four years before reaching the research phase of the PhD program, which allowed me to move home. I moved back immediately, because I was homesick. While researching for my dissertation, I got an adjunct position at San Francisco State in the College of Ethnic Studies, teaching race and resistance studies for their First Year Experience Program from 2014 to 2017. I loved it.
But in my heart, I always knew I wanted a full-time teaching position. I knew that the best place to focus on teaching was at a community college. I always had intentions to apply to a community college in the South Bay and teach students who looked like me, and who came from the same neighborhood and barrios that I did.
As I was finishing my PhD, I was hired at Evergreen Valley College as a full-time, tenure-track Ethnic Studies instructor. I then moved over to San José City College a year later to be a part of their robust ethnic studies program and teach alongside my really dear friend from SF State, Andrés Rodríguez, who had started teaching Chicanx studies at City College the same year I started at EVC.
I’m in my fourth year now at City, and I recently received tenure. I’m feeling that shift from being junior faculty to veteran faculty. It holds more responsibility.
What’s cool having been at this campus for four years is seeing many of my students move on. One of my students just graduated high school. He took one of my summer classes, and I just wrote him a letter of recommendation. You don’t get to see transitions unless you stay somewhere a while. It’s awesome guiding my students to the next phase. I get to say,“You did great here, and I can’t wait to see the things you’re going to do elsewhere.”
Also, I’ve been able to build a reputation for myself. More recently, students tell me they are taking my class because their sibling took it and liked it. Or they say, “I’m taking your class because my daughter took it. Now I’m a returning nontraditional student, and I want to take your class.” Seeing that generational connection in your classes is cool.
I often thought about higher education solely through young people, because that’s how you’re taught to think about it. One of the populations I didn’t think I would be so deeply connected with have been my elder students. My oldest students have been in their mid-seventies, and I’ve even taught those who have retired and come back.
Elder students have humbled me. They are open to learning from me, but also so willing and excited to take care of me. It’s special to feel that type of knowledge and wisdom in your class. For them to say, “I honor your educational background and your expertise,” and for me to say, “I honor all the life you have lived, and all you are pouring into me and the students in this class.”
Across the board, my elder population has been amazing. One student, named Chinasa, is someone who will always stick out to me. She added my class late, and came in saying, “I don’t know what’s going on. This is kind of chaotic. I’m confused.” The next thing you know, we developed this wonderful rapport and relationship, to the point where my sister and my partner know who she is – everyone in my family knows about her. She has been so generous to me with her time and love. She just transferred to San José State a year ago and has become like my family.
Another population who have inspired me have been students in my Vietnamese American culture classes. 80 to 85 percent of my ETH 041 students have been Vietnamese American, with a fair number being international or English language learner students. Those students have motivated me to reconnect with Vietnamese culture and build my Vietnamese language skills. It has allowed me to grow as a better educator in service of them.
I have some dual enrollment students who have motivated me, too. One student, Jaden, was a senior at Milpitas High School when he took my class. He said to me, “I’m just taking this class for fun. It’d be cool to get college credits, but I don’t see myself as a college student.” I thought it was unbelievable that he said he didn’t think college was for him, because every time he would submit an assignment, I thought, “Man, this kid is truly exceptional.” He was very clear on the things he knew and very clear about the things he wanted to know. At the conclusion of the semester, he then said “Oh, yeah, I’m enrolling at City College. So, I’ll see you next year.” He’s in another one of my classes this semester.
When I see his name on Zoom, there’s an excitement. I hope he keeps going. I’m motivated to be a good educator to keep him here and eventually, help him move on to other places.
Honestly, I love my students. I love the dichotomy of enjoying my elder students, but also teaching dual enrollment students who are 15, 16, 17 year-olds. They can be challenging to engage. I’m now in my mid-30s and recognizing the distance between me and my students will only continue growing. I feel inspired by young people to stay on top of things, whether it’s trends, or slang, or things that are relevant to them.
I encourage all students to have a great deal of pride in being at a community college. People denigrate community colleges and say, “because it’s open enrollment, anybody can go to a community college. It’s not as prestigious.” I did a TEDx talk on the prestige of community colleges. I tell my young people, “community colleges are prestigious. It’s just that people don’t have a clear, holistic definition of what prestigious is. Give yourself a lot of credit for going to college. And be proud of going to community college – know that you are learning alongside elders, you’re learning alongside young people, folks that are parenting on their own, folks that are rebuilding their lives, folks that are realizing it’s never too late to return to school. How special that you get to learn alongside a vast community of people. Not many get the opportunity to say that, and that in and of itself should be something you hold dear. Take pride in it.”
I’m very thankful to be here, to be acknowledged by the community, and to be invited to opportunities like this to share my story. I hope my story or my experience, and the way in which I teach, resonates with someone. Some days as an educator you question yourself. But when a student tells you, “Today was great,” or “I’m really enjoying your class,” or “I enrolled in two of your classes this semester, because I think you’re cool,” that’s motivating. I’m thankful I get the opportunity to hear those things and be in the position that I’m in.