Interview with 2017 Trailblazer
Interview by Thai Nguyen
1) Congratulations on your appointment at Foothill College and becoming possibly the first Vietnamese-American community college president in the U.S. Talk to us about your transition from practicing attorney to becoming the president of a community college.
In a very practical way, my legal career had prepared me for my current position, and I still rely on the analytical and problem-solving skillsets I acquired as a lawyer in my work as president of Foothill College. For several years I served as general counsel for a community college district that has four separate colleges, and I was exposed to many of the issues a college president would face. I also served as interim general counsel for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, and while there I gained a big picture, statewide perspective that is now very helpful to my current position. Many situations I face today have a legal implication to them, so my legal experience is definitely serving me well.
2) Could you share with us some exciting projects you are currently working on?
There are so many exciting projects I’m working on, but let me talk about one. Washington Monthly, a publication that includes community colleges in its rankings, placed Foothill College as number three in the country in their 2017 rankings. We have a great reputation for academic success and excellence, but what I also want our college to be known for is that we develop our students into leaders. I want them to develop skills in public speaking, team work, empathy, emotional intelligence—but I want them to acquire these skills in the context of serving the community and serving others, whether locally or globally.
So I am spearheading this initiative of “service-leadership.” “Service-leadership” means that we are going to help our students harness their leadership skills through service projects. The goal is not only to help students find their voice and to build their soft skills so that they can achieve academically and go out into the world to do great and meaningful things, but that their success will be shaped by a spirit of service to their community, to their families, and to others. This is a very exciting project.
3) You have done a lot of work to establish pathways for minorities into law schools and the legal profession—would you comment on a recent Yale publication titled, “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law,” where the authors noted:
“Asian Americans comprise 3 percent of federal judges and 2 percent of state judges, compared to nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population. Only three out of 94 U.S. Attorneys in 2016 were Asian American, and only four out of 2,437 elected district attorneys nationwide in 2014 were Asian American.”
“The survey revealed that Asian Americans identify lack of access to mentors and contacts as a primary barrier to career advancement. They also report being perceived as careful and hard-working, but not assertive or creative. “Whereas Asian Americans are regarded as having the ‘hard skills’ required for lawyerly competence, they are regarded as lacking many important ‘soft skills,’” the study found.
In light of your work in this area, how can Vietnamese-American attorneys and law students contribute positive change to the situation?
There is definitely an underrepresentation of Vietnamese and Asian Americans in the legal field. In terms of how the Vietnamese American legal community could respond, our bar organizations can continue to facilitate events that will allow young Vietnamese American attorneys to connect with leaders and mentors in the legal field. Out here in Silicon Valley, it is a well known fact that Asians are absent in executive positions; the answer lies in facilitating and building a connection between leaders in the field and guiding those who are younger into future roles of leadership and influence.
4) The article also suggests, in contrast to the lack of access to mentors, that personality-wise, Asian Americans lack the “soft skills” required for career advancement. Would you comment on that?
I would say that there may exist such a perception. But, a lack of soft skills is partly a cyclical by-product of lacking access to mentors, leaders, and role models. The absence of Asian Americans in positions of leadership could produce a lack of confidence in the younger generation and then it would just become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In terms of seeking out mentors, I would encourage young Vietnamese American attorneys to think broadly about mentorship. Your mentor doesn’t have to be a woman if you’re a woman, or a Vietnamese American if you’re Vietnamese American. My mentor, Elihu Harris, is an African American man. Fully diversify your mentorship opportunities.
5) What is one thing you hope every attendee will take away from this year’s conference?
I hope that people will take advantage of getting to know as many people as possible. And I hope they stay connected in a very authentic way. It’s not about, “how can you help me”—no, it should be, “I want to learn more about you, I want to learn more about your trajectory and journey, and any advice you may have for me, that’s great, but I want to stay connected with you. “ Reach out to people, don’t wait for them to reach out to you.
This is a profession. We don’t practice individually. We need to learn from one another and grow together. So I hope that attendees will keep building on that collegiality and fellowship we all feel whenever we attend a NCVAA event. I think that’s very important. And if anything, it makes practicing law fun! You’re not alone. Connect with people who share the same professional challenges.