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City College counselor steers former inmates to education

 

Change Agent Raymond FongRaymond Fong has worked for City College of San Francisco’s Second Chance program since its founding in 1994, helping formerly incarcerated students adapt and succeed in academic life. Fong was driven to help develop a program in which people are not unfairly judged for their past mistakes.

“Education is the obvious alternative to incarceration,” said Fong, a co-founder, counselor and formerly a coordinator for Second Chance. “Second Chance students are given the prospect of truly changing their lives and the opportunity to reclaim their humanity, as the respect and consideration they are shown by the program are in turn given back to their fellow students and to their communities. And it’s hugely cost effective.”

Fong cites the average cost to house an inmate for a year in the state ­– about $52,000 – compared with about $1,100 a year for full-time tuition at a California community college.

More than 120 students are enrolled in Second Chance, all with former convictions ranging from gang violence to murder and drug-related crimes. Participants are provided a counselor, academic tutoring, peer counselors and sometimes funding for supplies – including computers. The program’s numbers have grown in recent years, but cutbacks have forced a cap on admission. There now is a waiting list for enrollment.

Name: Raymond Fong 
Age: 51 
Residence: San Francisco  
Making a difference: Co-founded City College of San Francisco’s Second Chance program, which serves more than 120 formerly incarcerated students  
In their own words: It’s not about whether they fall; it’s about whether they get up again.

Some students have served decades behind bars, and the challenges they face entering academia are many, from housing to unemployment and how to work with a computer. With many Second Chance participants coming from drug and alcohol treatment programs, battling addiction and staying clean can be tough. Others are former members of prison and street gangs and might be uncomfortable in the diverse population at the college.

“Here, they learn to work together,” said Fong, whose most memorable day was watching members of two race-based gangs work side by side in a study group.

“In prison, they would have been bitter enemies,” he said.

Statistics show the Second Chance program works. This year, 36 percent of the students established GPAs of 3.0 or higher, with 6 percent earning a perfect 4.0. Some Second Chancers, as they are known, have transferred to San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley and Mills College and now work as drug counselors, social workers and activists.

David Holly, 41, is one of the program’s successes. During a 19-month jail term for drug-related crimes, he earned his GED diploma, then enrolled at City College at age 36. With Fong’s guidance, he earned a 4.0 GPA and was named valedictorian of his class. He transferred to UC Berkeley, where he has maintained both perfect grades and his relationship with Fong.

“Ray knows how to meet people where they are and get them to where they want to go,” said Holly, who credits Fong for his “seemingly limitless compassion” with a population that is often “less than pleasant.”

Holly, a double major in history and American studies, is applying to graduate schools and hopes to attend Stanford University.

Fong keeps in touch with many former clients. “It’s part of the joy of this work,” he said. “I am proud to call David my friend.”

But Fong is also quick to note that working at Second Chance is stressful. Burnout among staff is high, funding has been cut, staffing is short, and the needs of the students always exceed the resources available. Last fall, Fong took a semester off to re-evaluate, rejuvenate and address some health issues.

“Many of our student base are addicts,” Fong said. “They want their problems solved immediately and crave instant gratification – that’s not something that happens in academia.”

And at times, there is disappointment; some Second Chancers end up back in jail or in treatment programs.

“But it’s not about whether they fall; it’s about whether they get up again,” Fong said. “We treat everyone as nonjudgmentally as possible.”

Fong and the rest of the Second Chance staff operate under what he calls the simple concepts of dignity and respect.

Fong, an accomplished bodybuilder, is also a longtime martial artist who teaches at his South San Francisco dojo, Enshin Karate. As at Second Chance, he runs his school under the same principles – dignity and respect. And discipline.

“Training is my savior,” said Fong, who is at the gym most mornings at 5 a.m.

A San Francisco native and son of Chinese immigrants, Fong was born in Chinatown and grew up in the Mission. During his early school days, he hung out in gritty neighborhoods where gang violence and crime were rampant.

Fong holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in Asian American studies, and master’s degrees in counseling and ethnic studies from SFSU. He attended the University of San Francisco for his doctorate in international and multicultural education.

He started at City College in 1990 in Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, the umbrella program for Second Chance that serves low-income and at-risk students. Before that, in the ’80s, he was a social worker focused on delinquency and youth gang prevention and worked with teen parents in Chinatown.  

“I experienced many of the things my students have lived through,” Fong said. “The capacity to relate to other people’s struggles is one of the blessings that come from this hardship.”

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