Tag: education

Honored with the Bullard Award by Princeton’s Wilson School


On April 9, the Students & Alumni of Color at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School honored me with the Edward P. Bullard Award. I was deeply grateful, and shared this message with my peers.

Thank you so very much. It means a great deal to me to receive this award.

I remember organizing the 2nd symposium back in 1996.

The number of attendees at that event may not have been as great as today’s. But I remember feeling the same energy and excitement over the wonderful opportunity to step back from our busy student lives and meet with alumni – to hear their stories, to learn from their experiences, and to gain some perspective about our own experiences here at the Wilson School.

And now we’re here, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Students and Alumni of Color coming together. And for that we owe Ed Bullard and Jeffrey Prieto and John Templeton and all the MPA students who organized these weekends a great deal of gratitude for their vision and hard work that got us here today.

Soon after I got the call from Renato Rocha and Gilbert Collins about the Bullard Award, I reflected back on my experiences here and how they shaped my career and ultimately my life.

Thankfully, I was able to forget all the painful and sleepless nights from working on econ problem sets or writing five-page policy memos or cramming for this or that exam. I’m really super thankful that my brain was able to erase all those memories so that I could focus on all the good stuff.

I’m sure all alumni in this room can say the same, right? Well, fine — I’ll speak for myself.

But earlier today I walked into a Bowl downstairs – and for the first time I did not get nervous. My heart rate didn’t go wacky, my leg didn’t get restless. Really. After 20 years I was able to just sit back and enjoy being here at Princeton. (Yeah. It took me that long to get over it.)

Thinking back on my life, I was able to trace much of my current work at the Mission Asset Fund to what I learned here at the Wilson School.

Professor Uwe Reinhardt, for example, he opened my eyes to the horrific injustices of people falling prey to predatory lenders in the financial marketplace. His class was about financial management, which was a little boring and dry. But in his subtle way, he would insert stories in his lectures about how lenders manipulate loan terms to load borrowers with extra fees and costs. I remember feeling disgusted over how easy it was to rip people off – and angry that lenders could get away with taking people’s hard-earned money with impunity.

Reinhardt’s stories allowed me to see finances not as dull but rather as a social justice issue that could materially improve people’s lives.

And there’s Professor Alejandro Portes. He taught me a very important lesson, one that is actually the cornerstone of Lending Circles, a program that we offer at the Mission Asset Fund to help hardworking families build and improve their credit.

Portes taught me to see and appreciate the incredible economic activity that happens informally.

We see it all over the world. The street vendor selling tamales on busy street corners. Or the day laborer working odd jobs.

He showed us that what the street vendors do, the economic activity they generate in the informal economy – while invisible, it is still very similar to the economic activity that happens in the formal economy. It’s not less than, not criminal, not inferior, but the same – with the only difference being that economic activities in the formal economy have laws and regulations to protect and secure and make them visible to the broader economic systems.

I used this idea to create Lending Circles.

Our clients – largely unbanked, low-income Latino immigrants – have a time-honored tradition of coming together in groups to lend and borrow money from each other. In Mexico, these are known as tandas or cundinas, and they go by many, many different names throughout the world. These loans are informal, based largely on trust.

But nobody really knows about them except the people involved. Nobody knows that participants actually pay these obligations first, before anything else. Really, the financial industry has never appreciated the fact that tandas are a phenomenal financial vehicle – helping participants manage the intense income fluctuations in their lives.

Why is that? Because tandas are informal, taking place outside of the financial systems.

They’re invisible. But at MAF, we changed that.

We created a process to make this activity visible by getting people to sign promissory notes, allowing us to service loans and report payment activity to the main credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. And thereby we’re helping our clients start a credit history and improve their credit scores.

The program works. In 2014, Gov. Brown in California signed a law recognizing lending circles as a force for good. So, as you can imagine — and I can say this in this room of full of fellow policy folks – getting a bill enacted into law is pretty cool. I was excited.

I was proud of myself for getting this done!

I was flying high as a kite when this happened. But In time I realized that this achievement was no accident. You see, I’m the product of the Public Policy & International Affairs (PPIA) program, a program dedicated to increasing the number of students of color in public service.

I did my Junior Summer Institute here, at the Wilson School in 1994. And because of that experience and support and people I met, I was able to see myself here at the School as a full time student, getting an MPA, and building a career in public service.

It was no accident. I’m doing exactly what this program was designed to accomplish.

Through the years, the PPIA program has built an incredible cadre of professionals of color, working in public service. It’s wonderful. We can see it in this room right now. Look around.

It’s incredible to see a room full of beautiful and talented and passionate people dedicating their careers – their lives – to public service. Half of MPA students of color come through the PPIA pipeline.

But when you consider the enormous problems we face as a nation: from the lack of public trust in our institutions and leaders; to the appalling inequalities from wealth to income to educational opportunities; to the disenfranchisement of millions of people from electoral process; to the devastating effects of climate change… well, you know we can go on for hours listing all the issues we face as a nation.

The point is that there are not enough professionals of color in public service confronting these issues.

I look around this room and I’m amazed with everyone here. But frankly, I don’t think that there’s enough of us. There is simply not enough people in the trenches that come with different perspectives, different ideas, different life experiences that can add significant insights to solutions to our nation’s problems. The number of people in this room, quite frankly, should be double or triple.

While I love that the Wilson School has made these weekends a tradition. I think the time has come for the School to do more. The status quo is simply not acceptable anymore. We need to double down and widen the pipeline. We need more students of color getting exposed to careers in public service. We need more students graduating with MPAs. We need more professionals of color working to create the America we deserve.

As you know, the urgency on this issue is not new.

Many times, we’d talked about diversity and inclusion and getting more students of color in this School. But to me it hit home last June. I was getting ready for work the morning of June 18, listening to the news about the horrific massacre of nine people in Charleston South Carolina. The shooting happened the day before, during an evening prayer service at the AME Church.

The senior pastor of the church, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was among those killed. I was stunned.

Rev. Pinckney was a PPIA fellow – we did the Junior Summer Institute program together. He went on to become a State Representative in South Carolina, and later State Senator. He was only 41 years old when he was killed. He did so much at such a young age. Apparently, he was shot dead to ignite a race war. But his death was the impetus that finally took down the Confederate flag in South Carolina, that shameful symbol of racists.

While in the Bowl earlier today, I looked over to where Clem use to sit, remembering his easy smile and deep voice. We spent 10 grueling weeks in those bowls over the summer of 1994. And just thinking of him there, in that room, for at least a moment, it brought me hope. Hope that our lives’ work in this world can be truly consequential.

We need to remember Clem and honor his life.

In my view, he is a true example of what it means to live life in the Nation’s Service. America needs more people like Clem. And I believe the Wilson School has the responsibility and obligation to do more to find and train the Clementas of the world so that we can have a real shot at solving our nation’s problems.

Thank you.

Photographs by: Katherine Elgin Photography

New Latthivongskorn: From dreams to medical school


New is a passionate public health advocate and the first undocumented student to enter UCSF Medical School

It was near the end of high school when Jirayut “New” Latthivongskorn realized that he wanted to make an impact on the American healthcare field. His mother was rushed to the hospital in Sacramento after fainting and losing significant blood. They soon discovered that she had several tumors to take care of. New’s parents were recent immigrants from Thailand and didn’t speak English. His older siblings were busy with work, so New had to help his family navigate a complex healthcare system from translating at doctor visits, taking care of his mother, and handling insurance matters.

“It was the beginning for me to think about what I could have done in the situation, like if I was a doctor or healthcare provider,” he said.

New’s parents had given up so much after economic and social burdens pushed them to move to California from Thailand when New was nine years old. His parents worked long hours at restaurants as waiters and cooks in order to make ends meet. Their drive motivated New at a young age to excel academically and master the English language so he could achieve the American Dream. But because New was undocumented, there were still countless obstacles awaiting him on that journey.

New applied to a variety of University of California schools and was accepted into UC Davis with the Regents Scholarship that would have covered most of tuition costs. Right before the school year would have started, the scholarship offer was rescinded because he was missing an important document in his paperwork: a green card.

Growing up, New had experienced fear of friends and the greater community finding out about his status, but this was different. “That was my first time coming up against an institutional barrier,” he said. New was prepared to go to community college instead but his family came together to support one year at UC Berkeley.

After that, he would have to find the funds to continue on his own. “In my second year of college, I started getting desperate,” he said Luckily, in 2010, he received a scholarship from Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC), nonprofit that supports low-income immigrant students in their pursuit of a U.S. college education. That was a gateway for New to becoming active in organizing for immigrant rights.

Getting involved with groups like the E4FC, ASPIRE, and groups on the UC Berkeley campus opened up New’s eyes to a community of undocumented students who were facing the same struggles. As he neared his graduation from Berkeley, New refocused his goal to going into the medical field but he still had so many questions as an undocumented person. “Is it even possible to go to med school? Where would I apply? How would talking about my immigration status affect my chances?” New said, remembering the confusion he felt.

“We didn’t know anyone who had gotten in to med school as undocumented but people said they had heard of someone who had heard of someone…It was like trying to find a unicorn.”

To solve that lack of structure and support, New co-founded Pre-Health Dreamers with two colleagues from E4FC, a group that two years later is growing across the country to empower undocumented students in their pursuit of graduate and health professional studies. After graduation, New interned at organizations relating to healthcare access and policy, which caused him to become interested in public health alongside the practice of medicine. “My parents and friends are undocumented and when they get sick, they don’t have access which is ridiculous.

I want to change that.” Shortly after DACA passed, New heard about Lending Circles and other programs that helped finance the cost of the application. He had already applied for DACA but he was interested in learning about credit-building. Now that he and his friends had SSN numbers, joining the Lending Circles could help them get started on a path of financial stability. New used his loan to build credit and pay for his medical school applications. “It has been very helpful. Now I have good credit and learned a lot after going through the financial trainings at MAF about managing money,” he said. All of New’s hard work paid off because he is now the first undocumented medical student accepted to UCSF School of Medicine.

With one week away, he is anticipating the start of an exciting journey and passing the Pre-Health Dreamers torch to the next generation of leaders. His main piece of advice for other undocumented youth is to speak up and seek help. “I got here because I had organizations that helped me come to term with what it meant to be undocumented,” he said. “As an Asian, undocumented youth, the fear was so much more pronounced. I know what it’s like to have silence define my life and my family’s.” New believes in finding mentors and advocate to help find opportunities. Perseverance is also key for him when making decisions.

“There is so much uncertainty but never take no for an answer. You don’t know until you try. I am living proof of that. If I hadn’t tried, I would not have had the opportunities I have had–I would not be here today.”

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