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Thank the Statue of Liberty

Santa Rosa Junior College President Frank Chong and his family’s immigrant story

Johnny Chong was a young man in the Chinese merchant marine in 1939. The ship on which he served had a brief stopover in the port of New York. Johnny was from a poor village in Southeast China who dreamed of making his fortune in the U.S. He could see the Statue of Liberty beckoning him from across the harbor.

So Johnny jumped ship...

A few years later, he would enlist in the U.S. Army at the start of World War II, serve his new country in North Africa and Italy and obtain U.S. citizenship for his service. A few years after that, Johnny would travel back to another village in China to meet and bring home a bride – a young girl who spoke no English named Lin Choi.

Later, their son Frank would graduate from U.C. Berkeley and Harvard, rise to prominence in his field of community college education and serve as Deputy Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration.

That son—Dr. Frank Chong – is now celebrating his 10th year as President of Santa Rosa Junior College. He refers to himself as an “ABC from NYC”—an American-born Chinese from New York City.

Here’s his family’s immigration story.

Johnny and Lin Chong

The story of Frank Chong’s parents’ brief courtship and marriage is a romantic one, but not uncommon for immigrants from that era. Seeking a life partner from their own culture, immigrants to the United States often went back to the old country to look for a spouse. In fact, it’s still commonplace.

Frank’s father Johnny heard about his future wife at a bakery in New York City’s Chinatown. The proprietor shared a photograph of his sister, an unmarried young woman living in China. Johnny saw the photo and expressed an interest. Some negotiations ensued and Johnny made the journey back to China to meet the girl.

It was 1946. After a long ship voyage from New York to Hong Kong, Johnny journeyed to the rural area where his future wife lived. He entered the village, wearing his U.S. Army uniform and impressing everyone there, who willingly gave their approval to the match. Johnny brought his newlywed wife back on a return ship. Frank’s mother, Lin, was processed through the Angel Island immigration station in San Francisco Bay, where many immigrants from China were admitted before entering the U.S.

Johnny was a serial entrepreneur, operating various small businesses over time: a garment factory, a laundry, a restaurant; he even ran numbers. After one very big day winning at the track, Johnny earned enough money to send his wife back to her home village to visit the family. Three-year-old Frank came along. He still remembers the flight to Hong Kong on TWA, and the long sojourn to the rural community, where he met his grandmother for the first and only time.

Frank’s childhood

Frank grew up in lower Manhattan. The area was very diverse; a melting pot of families from all parts of the world. Frank’s childhood friends were Puerto Rican, Jewish and Italian, among others. He learned their food, their customs, even a bit of their languages. “It was like growing up in the United Nations”.

It was there that Frank learned to love the food of immigrants: knishes and bagels; cannelloni and gelato; plantains and flan de queso; and of course, the Chinese food that his mother made.

Frank’s father was known as the local guy who helped other Chinese immigrants. He spoke English and knew the system, so he became the local contact for many men from his village who came to New York to find their fortune. Johnny would pick them up at the dock, get them jobs in local restaurants and kitchens, even give them a room to stay in until they got settled. Frank grew up around these “uncles”, who would take him to Coney Island or the races and share their stories with him.

“Sixty years ago, my dad was harboring undocumented immigrants,” as Frank fondly remembers. “I learned early from him that you should always embrace diversity and appreciate people for who they are, no matter how different they are from you.”

But Johnny died when Frank was still a boy and his mother became a single mother with 5 kids to raise. She worked in a garment factory, did some babysitting, and strung pearls at home for extra money. She did what she had to do to raise their five children: Dave, Doris, Frank, Danny and Joyce.

Pursuing the American dream

Frank Chong put into practice the lessons of hard work and diligence that he learned from his immigrant parents. He graduated from Brooklyn Tech High School before moving to the West Coast to study at U.C. Berkeley. Later he would earn a Master’s Degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Ph.D from Dowling College.

Dr. Chong has spent over 25 years leading community colleges in California, serving as president at Laney College and Mission College and dean at City College of San Francisco. In 2010, he was appointed by President Obama to be the Deputy Assistant Secretary for U.S. Department of Education. He became the Obama Administration’s point person for Community Colleges

In 2012, Dr. Chong became President of Santa Rosa Junior College, where he now oversees a faculty and staff of over 3,000 that serves almost 20,000 students. During his 10 years at the helm, the college has consistently been one of the state’s highest ranked community colleges. Frank has worked hard to expand the minority members of the student body and faculty. In particular, he has made outreach to the North Bay’s large Latino community a major priority.

One of Dr. Chong proudest moments as President was cutting the ribbon on the DREAM Center that serves undocumented students, many of whom have DACA. “It reminded me how important that immigrants are to our society. I’m very proud of the role our immigrant community plays at the Junior College and we try to do what we can to facilitate that.”

“We all came for somewhere. I’m proud of where I came from and proud of where I landed.”

I’m sure Johnny and Lin would be as well.

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