For Professor Van C. Tran, Former Refugee Who Went from Hostos to Harvard, Joining The Graduate Center Is About Values

December 9, 2019

"Without CUNY," Tran says, "I would not have an education. Period."

Professor Van C. Tran (Credit: The Graduate Center/Alex Irklievski)
Professor Van C. Tran (Credit: The Graduate Center/Alex Irklievski)

Fifteen years ago, Professor Van C. Tran (Sociology) was profiled by The New York Times in a column whose headline announced his attainment of the American Dream: “From Hardware to Harvard in a Few Hard Years.”
At the time, Tran, described as “a bookish 25-year-old with a slight frame who was born in Vietnam,” was only six years out from his arrival in New York City, after having spent much of his childhood in refugee camps in Thailand. Tran’s job in a hardware store paid his way through CUNY’s Hostos Community College and Hunter, which in turn led to his acceptance to graduate school at Harvard. Yet Harvard, it turned out, was merely the next step on his trajectory — after earning his doctorate, Tran went on to complete a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and to teach at Columbia University. This summer, he returned to CUNY, joining the sociology department of The Graduate Center, where he is also the deputy director for the Center for Urban Research.
Reminded of that Times profile, Tran says, “The person you saw in that article and the person you see today are very different. They’re different because the 25-year-old Van Tran was completely ignorant, if you will, about the significant amount of the social stratification that existed in our society.”

Immigration and Integration
Tran has spent his academic career studying the immigrant experience — people like him, but different in specific ways. He focuses not on first-generation immigrants, but on their U.S.-born children, particularly on how members of this second generation are being integrated into society and how they are transforming society.
When Tran started out, he studied Latin American immigrants, a pan-ethnic category that at the time was the fastest growing minority in the United States. (Asians are now the fastest growing group.) “I was very curious about their language acquisition, their political and civic participation, their residential integration, and their socioeconomic outcome,” Tran says. He was advised not to study Asian Americans — doing so would have been deemed “me-search, not research, as if you’re searching for your own biography.”
But more recently, Tran has turned his attention to the Asian American experience. Two developments have thrust his own group into the national spotlight in a way he wouldn’t have predicted 20 years ago: a lawsuit claiming that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process, and the movement to diversify New York City’s specialized high schools, where Asian Americans account for close to 60 percent of the student population.
Both issues are complex, and in different ways cast Asian Americans as overachievers of the American Dream — a criticism that strikes many as ironic and unfair, considering the effort made by striving immigrant families to play by the rules. “Many working-class Chinese and Asian parents [in New York] know very little about the schooling system,” Tran says. “The only thing they know is that if their children take this exam, and excel at it, they will go to a good high school, and that will get them to college and be a ticket to social mobility.”
The challenge is how to achieve a more integrated student body without singling out any particular group as some sort of wrongdoer, Tran says. “A lack of diversity in elite places and spaces in our country is a real problem,” he says. “Everyone in our society, no matter where they came from, deserves a fair shot at the American Dream.”
Opportunity Versus Outcomes
Tran is quick to add that a fair shot doesn’t always translate to an equal finish. “That’s perfectly fine, because there’s always sorting by talent, by effort, and by luck,” he says. “But we must try to ensure equality of opportunity.”
His own story shows the importance of talent, effort, and luck. His parents had little education — his mother left high school after 10th grade, his father after third — when they were settled in New York City by the International Rescue Committee. They were given $2,000, $650 of which went to the security deposit of their apartment in the Bronx; another $650 paid for their first month’s rent. That left $700 for the family — of seven — to start their new lives. None of the Trans spoke English.
The International Rescue Committee helped Tran get his job at an Upper East Side hardware store. Desperate for an education, Tran looked up colleges and universities in the Yellow Pages and worked his way alphabetically down the list, ruling out private universities with tuition fees of tens of thousands of dollars. Finally, he called Hostos, which informed Tran that the tuition was $2,000 a year, and that he might qualify for financial aid. “I asked, ‘Where are you? I want to visit,’” Tran remembers.
He started at Hostos that summer, entering a program for non-English speakers. After two and a half years, he enrolled at Hunter. His undergraduate education took a total of five years, because throughout the entire time, he was working 50 hours a week at the hardware store.
In the summer before his final year at Hunter, he was admitted to the CUNY Pipeline Program, a program housed at The Graduate Center that supports undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds. “That seminar changed my life,” Tran says. In addition to receiving a stipend every week — of quadruple the amount he received, after taxes, from his minimum wage hardware store job — the Pipeline seminar opened his eyes to the possibility of an academic life. “I realized there was so much that I didn’t know anything about,” he says. “That was why I wanted to go to grad school: I desperately wanted to know more.”
It is this lack of awareness that he sees as the difference between Van Tran of 2004 and the professor he is today. “I thought everyone was working 50 hours a week to make a living as they went to school; I had no frame of reference,” he says. What would he say to the Van Trans of today — the CUNY students who have to spend significant amounts of time working to support themselves and, in many cases, their families? “First, be patient and persistent in the pursuit of your education, but recognize that it will take you longer to complete your degrees than others who might have more resources,” he advises. “Second, recognize that your journey is a unique one and that your intellectual perspectives are equally distinctive, given your work and life experiences.
“Third, the sky is your limit because your entire future is still ahead of you beyond CUNY — a blank canvas on which you can chart your own path and pursue your own version of the American Dream.”
Public Values
Tran spent 15 years of his life at three different Ivy League institutions. Yet at a recent appearance, he introduced himself as an alum of Hostos and Hunter who has now returned to CUNY to teach at The Graduate Center. The vast majority of U.S. students are educated at public institutions, just like he was, he points out. “Yet we’re obsessed with elite schools, both at the high school and college level,” he says. “That obsession is unhealthy, because we generate more inequality and perceptions of inequality.”
When the opportunity arose to come back to The Graduate Center, where he had taken a course long ago while at Hunter, Tran saw an alignment between the values he’d held as a 19-year-old striver and the person he is today. “You have to find the right fit between your own values and the values of the institution,” Tran says. “There’s no greater mission than creating greater access and equality for all.
“When I say that I love CUNY, I mean something very simple that most people don’t understand: Without CUNY, I would not have an education. Period.”

Listen: Professor Van C. Tran on The Thought Project podcast