Santa Rosa Junior College president Frank Chong describes himself as an ABC from NYC, or an American-born Chinese from New York City.
The youngest of five children, he was raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan by a single mom who immigrated to the United States during World War II. His father died when Chong was 5 years old.
“She never really spoke English,” he said of his late mom, Lin Chong, who worked at her brother’s bakery and later remarried. “She did whatever was necessary to raise five kids.”
As a son of Chinese immigrants, Chong said he feels a strong connection with his students, many who are immigrants themselves or first-generation Mexican-Americans.
“I observed a lot of the challenges of being from an immigrant family,” he said.
Chong, 59, is now putting those observations to work, along with experience drawn from more than three decades of work in the worlds of academia, politics and nonprofits. He oversees a college with a $173 million annual operating budget and 28,000 students spread across its Santa Rosa and Petaluma campuses, the Public Safety Training Center, Southwest Center and Shone Farm, which is used for agriculture classes. The college is one of the largest employers in the county, with more than 3,000 faculty and staff.
Chong is the fifth person to serve as president in the college’s nearly 100-year history. He also is the first minority to take on that role — and one of the few in the country, where, he pointed out, less than 1 percent of college presidents are Asian-Americans.
“He sees the college as an institution that gives an opportunity to all,” said Ricardo Navarrette, SRJC vice president of student services. “Other presidents have done that also, but I think he has re-energized that kind of vision that really embraces everybody in our community.”
Chong arrived on campus four years ago at a time of changing demographics in Sonoma County. The school’s role, too, was shifting from a traditional institution that prepares students for four-year universities to one meeting the demands of the local workforce. And it’s a change he has helped accelerate.
Businesses have increasingly turned to community colleges to fill workforce needs since the end of the recession, and Santa Rosa Junior College has been no exception. Chong, who has worked closely with business organizations such as the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and the North Bay Leadership Council, said the college exists to meet the needs of the community and should reach out to all segments of the population.
“I see my job as making sure that all students succeed, that they get to reach their ultimate objective, whether it’s to get a certificate in fixing cars or a certificate in working in some of the finest restaurants in Sonoma County, or to transfer to a four-year university, which many of our students do,” Chong said.
“We do both and we do both well,” Chong said, referring to workforce development and preparing students for four-year institutions.
Boosting diversity on campus and making the college more inclusive is a central mission for Chong, who lives in Petaluma with his wife, Lene Jannes, and has two daughters, Mia and Sophia, from a previous marriage. Since his arrival, he’s doubled the number of Latino professors and hired more LGBT faculty members, part of an initiative to make the faculty better reflect the community.