Adults always ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. As an American-born Vietnamese kid, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. But I knew I wanted to change the thing I had to do each day: school.
At eight-years-old, my third grade teacher reprimanded me in front of my class for speaking Vietnamese. It was clear my cultural heritage was not valued in school, and I learned to hate my roots and love the whiteness reflected in my textbooks and teachers.
Thankfully, my two older brothers helped me be proud of my heritage, in part through b-boying—a dance originated by Black and Latinx youth in the early 1970s. Dancing with my brothers introduced me to the powerful music of Black artists, like James Brown, who said, “give me schools, and give me better books, so I can read about myself, and gain my truly looks.” I not only danced to, but identified with these lyrics, which developed my passion for social justice.
In sixth grade I made my first Black friend, and thereafter grew a circle of Black friends in the “white” city of Portland, Oregon. My adolescence was shaped by the racist systems my friends endured—policing, employment, and most of all, school.
Our high school had two tracks, health and vocational occupations, and practiced detracking, where students had autonomy over which track to take. I selected the vocational track because I had some interest in radio broadcasting.
Yet, the vocational track—taken predominately by Black and Latinx students—came with teachers who had low expectations for students and lacked academic rigor. I finished high school without having read an entire book, and scored in the lower percentiles on both the ACT and SAT.
Luckily for me, two teachers always reminded me of my potential, motivating me to apply and attend college. Given my K-12 experience, starting college was difficult because I was afraid of failure—a fear all too common for first-generation students of color.
The results of a required placement test suggested I take remedial math, solidifying my anxiety. I initially thought remedial courses would help me, even though there was something odd about taking a class that wouldn’t count toward graduation. Little did I know, students of color have historically been disproportionately classified as “remedial,” and have languished in these non-transferable courses, accumulating debt and ultimately dropping out at higher rates than their white peers.
With the encouragement and guidance of my college counselor, I dropped the remedial course and enrolled and passed college-level math with an “A.” I grew confident that I could be successful in college.
My freshman writing instructor, Mike Copperman, sparked my passion for educational justice. His classroom was the first academic space my identity and life experiences were validated as valuable and integral to learning, covering topics such as education inequity and racial profiling. School was now relevant to my story and empowered me with knowledge to change education in our country.
Mike was the teacher I wish I had in third grade. I realized that while I couldn’t get that year back, I could create a different educational experience for low-income students of color. I could value students’ identity and culture as assets in the classroom, instead of deficits. I could challenge students to ask critical questions of the world and become leaders of social change not in some distant future, but while they were students in my class.
I became a teacher.
During my six years teaching in South Los Angeles, I realized teachers impact student achievement more than any other aspect of schooling. I knew I couldn’t be my students’ teacher forever, and I wanted to do more to ensure they had great teachers and schools, kindergarten through college.
After serving as a teacher coach with the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, I decided to go to law school to enforce education civil rights, advocate for policy change, and elevate student and parent voices in local, state, and federal decision-making.
As a student at UC Davis School of Law, I not only am provided with opportunities to work with scholars engaged in education law and policy—such as Professors Mary Louise Frampton and Aaron Tang—but Davis is also conveniently located right outside of Sacramento, where all of California’s state policies are made. King Hall’s location has given me a unique opportunity to clerk at Public Advocates, where for the past five months I’ve been privileged to weave my personal and professional experiences into legal policy advocacy.
I hit the ground running by drafting a letter of support for SB 614, a bill that would replace a standardized reading test for teacher candidates with a more authentic performance-based assessment of science-based reading strategies for all students. Bilingual approaches, for example, are currently not tested but would build antiracist, anti-biased, and asset-oriented classroom communities—something I would have greatly benefitted from as a young English language learner.
Later in the summer, I drafted the legal framework to challenge weak implementation of AB 705—a bill that requires community colleges to ensure students enter and complete transfer-level coursework within one year. Among many things colleges can do to meet this requirement, counselors can guide students toward taking college-credit courses, where they have a higher chance of completing the course in a year than if they took a remedial course—my own experience with this is a testament to it. Notably, AB 705 discourages using placement tests to determine what courses students should start in—the same tests I was required to take as an incoming college freshman.
There is something special in the way our world puts us where we are meant to be. At Public Advocates, I work on issues I faced as a child and a young man of color, issues made more stark during a time of pandemic and profound racial reckoning. Because of a few great teachers and an incredibly supportive family and community, I now am addressing the same issues I faced as a first-generation English learner in a system that still privileges white, middle-class American culture. Schools where every child can attend and genuinely be themselves with equal opportunities to grow into their greatest potential will challenge our society to reimagine education—with racial justice as its compass.
Although a seemingly impossible task, it is one worthy of our collective effort. If there’s anything this journey has taught me, it’s while I still don’t know what I want to be, I definitely know what I want to change.