In September 2022, Mark Johnson (Executive Director of Marketing, Communication & Public Relations at Peralta Community College District) had the great pleasure to interview Sheng Thao, soon to be elected Mayor of Oakland, about her experiences as a graduate of Merritt College. We are proud to have a Merritt Valedictorian as the new mayor of Oakland. Congratulations Sheng Thao!
To view a video of the interview recorded and edited by Joe Sullivan (TV Broadcast Coordinator at PCCD), click HERE or watch below.
MARK JOHNSON: Thank you so much for your time and participation in this interview. Please start by introducing yourself and telling us about your connection with Merritt College.
SHENG THAO: Hi, everyone. My name is Sheng Thao, and I am a proud Merritt College graduate. I'm a daughter of refugees. When I came here to Merritt College, I was here with my son. And I'm a single mom escaping a domestic violence relationship, didn't have anywhere to live, lived in my car. I met really great people here on the Merritt campus, including lifelong friends who really allowed for me and my son to just kind of couch surf with them.
And I came here for a paralegal studies program and to get in and to get out with my certificate. But little did I know that I would be encouraged by the great teachers here, the great instructors, to actually move forward with going to actually law school. And so, that's what I did. Through their mentorship here on the Merritt campus, I was able to apply to UC Berkeley.
MJ: Please tell us about your experience as a student here at Merritt College.
ST: Merritt College holds such a special place in my heart. Walking these halls again, it's actually very emotional. Because Merritt College changed my life. It truly changed my life. I didn't know what I was signing up for. I just knew that I needed to do something to try to sustain myself – to have some sort of financial stability with myself and my son as a single mom, unhoused.
And so, what I've learned through going through Merritt College is that it was all of the administrators, all of the teachers and instructors who were so supportive, for instance allowing me to bring my son to class with me when he couldn't go to daycare. And so, Merritt College saved my life.
MJ: Were there any particular programs or resources that were important to you?
ST: I was actually always in the counseling center all the time. And so, it was work-study that I actually worked in. And then, in the counseling center, I found an ally in the transfer counselor, Tanya Ilarde. I don't know if Tanya is still here at Merritt College. But you know, it was truly Tanya Ilarde who saw the strength in me, to really help me prepare to go and move towards my next step of transferring out of Merritt College to UC Berkeley or to a four-year institution.
MJ: Were there other people, faculty members or support staff that helped?
ST: There were so many faculty members here that were just amazing. Linnea Willis, who heads up the paralegal department, she was such a great mentor and just amazing in regards to how she truly made you feel as if you belonged. A lot of times, you know, growing up really poor, you come to a campus like this and you feel the imposter syndrome, like you don't belong.
But it is truly the instructors, the administrators, like I said, Tanya Ilarde from the transfer department, Linnea Willis from paralegal studies department, the actual attorneys that came and taught us in the paralegal department as well, really pulling me to the side and say, Sheng, you're more than just a paralegal program student. You can actually do more, go further. If you want to be an attorney, you can do that.
And so, it actually took them a few times to telling me this that really allowed me to believe in myself again. Coming out from a domestic violence relationship and not having much, not even a bed to my name, it was really hard to really find, you know, that grounding of where belong, to feel I do deserve better. And so, it was so encouraging to have the faculty, the staff really be supportive of students.
MJ: Can you tell us more about your thoughts on college education?
ST: I believe that everybody has their own track in life. I did not go straight to college after high school. After four years, I entered Merritt College. And my advice to students is that everyone has their own way of learning. And community college, it shouldn't be seen as less than. Community college is a great breeding ground for wonderful leaders.
I am council president pro tem today, here in our beautiful city of Oakland. I graduated here at Merritt College as valedictorian in 2010. And I remember telling everybody, let's remember to come back to our community to take care of our community.
And so, community college and Merritt College, it's a place where you can build your leadership skills and other skills, life skills as well too.
MJ: Would you recommend Merritt College to anyone who might be considering a college education?
ST: I recommend Merritt College to all students. I think that it is such a great place to really figure out who you are, what your interests are, you know, and the support system is like no other. And so, if you're asking me if I were to recommend Merritt College, 1,000%. Merritt College, again, saves lives. Merritt College is a place to build community. Merritt College is a great area to really truly find out who you are and what your interests are.
MJ: Merritt College is part of the Peralta Community College District, which also includes Laney College in Oakland, Berkeley City College, and College of Alameda. How was your experience with the district as a whole?
ST: Peralta Community Colleges, it's so much more than just going and taking classes. You have opportunities that expand to different horizons. If you wanted to take concurrent enrollment at UC Berkeley, you can do that. If you have a need for financial assistance, you can get that. I remember applying for so many Peralta scholarships and was able to receive the funding that I needed for myself and my son to succeed.
Because a lot of times, when people come to community colleges, it's because they already have the lived life experience. They're either trying to enter in and change a career, or they're coming back because they've taken some years off of school. It's the lived life experience that really brings character to community colleges, especially in the Peralta Colleges here.
And so, I always talk about how Peralta and Merritt College saved my life. But it's saving my son and my life-- both of ours. We do this work together. And it is that intimate support that is so needed, that feeling of true community that you get in the Peralta Colleges that you don't get, actually, at the bigger universities.