Not a Chinaman’s Chance

Me Reading this Blog Post

The phrase Chinaman’s Chance from 100+ years ago is related to “The Unrest” that is 2020; my claim (I welcome you to stand for or against in the comments) is we can connect Chance and Unrest to examine how students like myself are learning (or not) this academic year. One origin to the phrase Chinaman’s Chance may be traced back to the development of the U.S. transcontinental railroad. During construction, volatile bottles of nitroglycerine were used for blasting, and often Chinese workers would be lowered over cliffs by rope to place the nitroglycerine. According to a newspaper article in 1870, 20,000 pounds of bones (remember this number for a later paragraph) from Chinese workers who died building the railroad were shipped to China (you may use the ‘find’ feature in your browser for the word “bones” in the summary). Another origin of the phrase Chinaman’s Chance is from the California Gold Rush of 1849. The time it took for the news of the gold rush to reach China, most of the mines were already taken. These Chinese immigrants who arrived late only had lands which had already been exploited, meaning these late arriving immigrants had a spare chance of success. Therefore upon arriving California, “Not a Chinaman’s Chance” of making it. There’s a 3 hour long video PBS is currently hosting in Amazon Prime Video that showcases some of this story. Does the idea of lacking genuine chance resonate with you and your story? This not a chance woe combined with unrest is something I felt & experienced in many (STEM) college courses.

The vast majority of my peers from Foothill College to SJSU are not white, and many of us found ourselves in one way shape or form affected by the gush of racism and plague of covid in 2020; along with the unprecedented fires and choking smoke that made all of us hold our collective breath… so the question is could we have done anything differently to protect ourselves? Simplifying our understanding of race to just be the color of our skin is dangerous due to the hierarchical nature & narrative of that simplification. I recommend you listen to this Curious Minds podcast episode by Gayle Allen if you’d like to learn more about how that viewpoint leads to detrimental dehumanization. Visceral reports of Anti-Asian, Anti-LatinX, Anti-Muslim, Anti-Semitic incidents flooded the Bay Area as they did on our respective campuses. The dehumanizing “rhetoric coming out of the White House” not only “made it hard to concentrate,” for doctor Scott Lankford to empower his students at Foothill, but made it increasingly difficult to derive meaningful value from our online educational experiences out of our bedrooms on Zoom. Some of my international peers found themselves threatened with the sudden message of deportation. My undocumented friends were told that their Dream Act Protections would be gone. All of this was the reality of thousands of students trying to keep up with the expectations of the syllabus or curriculum, all while not having a fair “chance” at learning, in an environment and system that has always been rigged against the ones with least power & wealth. Therefore, pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching matters (most), especially when that’s all what many students have.

Co-Generative Learning Environments Restore Faith in Humanity

How does chance, unrest, and pedagogy relate to learners and students who are (dis)engaged with their course work and The Learning Code?

The director of the Ronald E. McNairs Scholars program Maria Cruz shared with me on multiple accounts for The Learning Code equity and learning grant “in 2019, less than 20% of first generation SJSU students graduated within 6 years.” 

If 🚀 astronomical alarm 🔔 bells 🔔 are not ringing here in terms of systemic issues at play, please re-read what Dr. Cruz researched above with the McNair’s Scholars team. This to me, after insights from the heart of educational professionals that I’ve worked with over the past 4 years, is a clear indicator that the ~80% non-completion rate after 6 years statistic is a manifestation of some surface & shallow thoughts of:

a) 1st generation students just have more challenging lives and responsibilities…

b) they lack healthy sustainable learning habits, or effective study skills…

c) they just aren’t motivated and don’t know how to manage their time to do the work…

d) how can YOU be under privileged or under represented in Silicon Valley?

*okay dominant mainstream narrative, sit your donkey down*

Would you have those thoughts about your mother if she couldn’t learn how to edit a pdf document?
What type of offspring would you be if you BELIEVED those thoughts when you could have showed her how to edit a pdf, and wrote some notes for her on how she might do it next time?
How about if it was your best friend who dropped out of school due to substance abuse compounded with the flawed & narrow minded thinking of (a) – (d) above?
Fact: Drug overdoses are currently the leading cause of death in the US for those under 50 years old.
think about it

~80% of students unable to complete their college degree after 6+ years, when many advisors and administrators, state and federal authority policy & funding, expect us to finish in 4… if that isn’t a prescription for a nuclear disaster and untapped familial & societal potential, please tell me what ‘else’ is? Turn on your phone and open your email, but don’t forget to open your 👁️eyes👁️ – do you not feel the consequences when teaching and learning are not treated and funded as legitimate 🧫 petri dishes of cognitive kindness & sciences 🧫? When the DMV warrants drivers licenses (at least back in 2008) without ever guiding drivers to learn how to drive on the freeway, there are serious ramifications of this… There’s a concept of “Linked Fate” that I’ll expand on in a future post. But just because you have the driving skills and habits to be a safe vigilant driver, doesn’t mean you will be immune to the people who lack these skills when you’re on the road. Just because majority of your students pass, does not mean you have given them the lessons they need to thrive in the near future. Just because you live on higher ground, doesn’t mean you aren’t also needing to hold our collective breath during the record breaking wildfires of this year. Lets crown just-because-isms phenomenon as – JFIO Just Figure It Out.

What would it look like for our system to genuinely support the ~80% of students who do not finish in 6 years, systemically? Spoiler alert, want smaller student to teacher ratios, vote. Extra Credit Spoiler, focus on how to learn because the first person you gotta be teaching & leading is yourself… because when “the going” gets rough, we better hope we’ve set the foundation of sustainable learning habits and help seeking practices in our current college rhetoric, to fight the good fight. JFIO.

Why is there not a learning habits and study skills “funded” open access course (club, organization, support center) that leverages the social-cultural capital each and everyone of us embody, to develop agency in our challenging coursework? Who are the students who have the wherewithals to learn by failing multiple courses, and to re-enroll? Who really are the A students besides hard working, disciplined, and interested in the subject? More importantly, how do we not ostracize them just like we do our students with F-C grades? Isn’t infringement on academic integrity a symptom of JFIO(just figure it out)? How many learning disabilities arise due to JFIO? How many students drop out due to JFIO?

Why not give more of us a fair chance? Last spoiler alert, it’s up to us, as students to 1) slow down and critically think about our own academic plan & 2) find reasons to study the material beyond the learning objectives our professors have set for us.

There are ~5000 1st generation students at SJSU, 20% of that number is ~1000. A thousand first generation students who do not graduate per year at SJSU is on the smaller side of the ledger. If we multiply ~1000 by 20 pounds of bones per student body, that number becomes eerily close to the number in the first paragraph. Shame on me, Henry Fan, not graduating college should not be compared to tragic deaths due to merciless physical labor, but I argue they are similar, in a sense of a Death of a Dream. When my ancestors came here to help build the railroad or mine for gold, they were sold a dream for a better future. When my peers started their college education, they were advertised a dream they’ve been told can be achieved in 4 years for a brighter future, too.

Sobering Fact: I’ve interviewed 3 senior engineers that told me it took them 6+ years to get their undergraduate degree 12+ years ago… So why in the world are we being advised & pressured to graduate in 4? The truth is, many people (unfortunately including ourselves) are navigating college as if we were a Toyota Corolla in a production line. However we are all human, we are not cars.

With the developments in the digital age, I’d like to make a bet our STEM curriculum and course of requirements only had more stuff crammed into it, since. Solution? Teachers JFIO (just figure it out): Speak Faster *Jeff can you add your goofy sound byte here of, “don’t dooo ittt”? that would be perfect* We all been in those rooms when the only person in the loop is the speaker, that environment is not friendly and directly contributing to the ~80% of students who do not obtain their college degree…

This begs the question: do we have a “chance” at a college education? Do people in positions of power have our learning interests at the top of their minds or are they simply preserving rigor? Why do startup companies get more attention & assistance than the thousands of college students who do not complete their degrees? How do we get our demanding learning needs met, assuming we have our basic needs already? How the *bleep* do we JFIO?

Here’s some insights when vailent students try to advocate for themselves in addressing their learning processes in a standard computer science class. 

Summary Dialogue on Learning 

Student: *right after lecture in office hours* wow, that was a lot of content

Professor: Yes, and?

Student: How am I supposed to remember all that material, for my exam?

Professor: wow, I hope that’s not why you are trying to remember it

Student: what should I do then?

Professor: Come on Henry, I thought you knew better as a returning college student after working for 6 years after high school. You should be trying to learn something here. That way when you go off into the “real” world, you’ll understand how to apply this stuff

Student: hmm, I’m certainly trying to learn something… may you give an example?

Professor: You know like learn data structures, algorithms, and programming languages and then be able to apply it to your life and in the professional world.

Student: But I’m talking about making sense of lecture and making sense of the material you delivered along with the other 4 hours of non-trivial lectures today… rote or applied, how do I unpack that?

Professor: Tutoring, form study groups, revisit your lecture notes, ask questions, gotta spend the time, the standard stuff you were suppose to have learned in high school.

Student: *Inner Thoughts: 1) why do you have to throw less engaged students in the deep end then point to these bandaid services? 2) how might you address the issue of failing students at it’s source for genuine enlightenment for all parties involved *hint: pedagogy & TLC*? 3) the ethos of college is to toughen us up before industry, but who is that really serving and harming? As I flash back to high school experience, but never having practiced any of those skills my prof. recommended* Okay got it, thank you for your time. I wish our class was not overenrolled, because it’s conversations like these, where students stories may act as a catalyst, for real change to happen.

The End of a 2.0 GPA Drop Out

Before I met really student centered professors and staff members like Jeffrey Anderson and Katherine Lee at Foothill College, I felt there wasn’t a chance for me to graduate with a STEM degree because each STEM class was like a high intensity crash course in a whole new language. What ultimately relieved a ton of pressure from these oppressive dehumanizing feelings were deeply pragmatic ideas & methods of how learning works all while unpacking my social cultural identity to develop effective reasons to study, beyond the grade.


A primary motivation for all the work we do here at The Learning Code is help students feel and experience – AKA begin developing a track record of study skills & learning habits that can be leveraged term after term – that whatever it is they want to learn in their life – specifically in their courses they are investing thousands of 💵💵💵 for – they may learn and utilize in their professional & personal lives for many years to come. We genuinely believe you all are some of the brightest (AKA most hardworking) students on our campuses… not because of your GPA or how many clubs you’re involved with, but rather the humility through lived experiences we know so many of you embody. We can all use more people in our lives that believe in us, so let’s continue to build trust, to seek guidance and counsel on reimagining purpose and happiness, all while developing career capital, in our lives. What I am working to achieve through every bit of content whether it be blog or any form of media is to give you all an insider look on just how difficult yet fulfilling learning may be. Fair or unfair, we do have a chance, and The Learning Code exists to provide you skills, tools, mindsets, and encouragement that you can, Yes You Can.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s bold vision I recommend you read out loud:

“I have a dream that one day right here in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.”
What’s your Dream?

I have a dream that students will make the most of their “chance” to transform otherwise not engaging or relevant material in their lives either in or out of school, into profound pieces of knowledge to be benefitted from, for rest of their lives. I have a dream that no matter the “unrest” or academic performance anxiety students encounter, they will be seen as intellectual beings, who simply haven’t figured out the habits necessary to play the academic game. I have a dream that one day students of any race ethnicity gender socio-economic class will be given a fair “chance” to engage in discussions & intellectual collaboration around STEM and other disciplines, not because knowledge work is the magic bullet, but rather, it’s within those dialectical clashes and curiosity filled thoughts, are where our roots of quality and character have a chance to grow deeper. Those roots will emancipate us to solve problems we otherwise would not be able to solve in the world, abundant with growth & opportunity only to be realized by focal skills & thinking that requires deep contemplation.

Besides supporting yourself and your family what problems do you want to solve? What degrees or skills do you need to unlock, to position yourself to solve those problems? Is that pursuit one you’d like to be remembered for when you’re 80 years old? What is your safety net if you were to fall short of that aim?

I want to inspire you all (by extension myself, lol) to become self-regulated learners, not only because it’s one of the most important aspects to my education, but it is a valuable outcome that will pay us and our families (by extension our communities) in spades. Truthfully the journey to becoming a self-regulated learner requires a ton of independent heavy lifting, but research what that takes and continue to follow TLC to not be alone in that push. No, we do not bet on Tesla or Facebook or their shareholders to solve some of the most demanding problems that exist in our communities at their roots. Our bet is on YOU, the most important shareholders to the future of our cities!

I’ve worked in hospitality long enough to understand the differences between transactional vs. transformational service. The more student success equity committee meetings I participate in, the more I feel STEM education is becoming far too transactional in terms of standards, grades, and what they are aiming to deliver. I fault myself for not having the study skills and learning habits needed to see beyond the transaction-ality of grades, and I have the wherewithal to learn through failing class after class, and the great fortune of meeting life saving people at Foothill College, but what about the ~80% of maltreated students? What if those were your children?

I’ve been led to read some of Milton Freedman’s work in consumerism economics, by my all star Humanities professor Cynthia Rostankowski, and I’d like to paraphrase what she said during my check in with her today:

“…what Milton Freedman misses is that to be able to be as free as capitalists think the people in a economy should be, it requires others to have a duty to allow them to be that free – when they do not acknowledge the duty of others for them to have a right to make a pile of money, this leads to a failure of libertarianism in turn neoliberalism, and much much more…”
Words like: duty, right, free, will require me some time to wrap my head around

I encourage you not to pursue STEM (or any college degree) for the sole sake of obtaining rare and valuable skills for deeper pockets, but to realize your pursuit of a college degree allows you to exercise cognitive calisthenics long form thinking: all while actualizing your coexistence with the others around you, challenging with the better critique, comparing with a stronger alternative, deep research … you know, processes you’d normally practice on Yelp or Amazon but for your own personal vision & mission… because it’s within these stages of thought where we develop mindsets & skills that will ignite & propel our drive to become better version of ourselves – a global citizen.

I wrote this post instead of studying for my midterm to empower us all to focus on our learning, so that we develop more “chances” and opportunities in our lives to live out the potential we know we have. I see a ton of youth & adults without the ability to engage in long form contemplatory thought… and live in a whirlwind of anger, regret, and loneliness due to it. This is a very complex problem, and online-keyboard warriors screaming and bashing everything is a small warning sign. However, The Learning Code and Foothill College community has opened my eyes on what learning and living can be, so the least I can do is remind all of us: we have a chance, and the earlier we focus on what/who/why/how we’re learning while restoring our faith that 1) we need each other to thrive and 2) we are as hardworking and intelligent as our out-of-touch counterparts, the higher that chance will be.


4 thoughts on “Not a Chinaman’s Chance

  1. Katherine Lee: “Thanks for sharing and writing this post, Henry — much to discuss with you during our next zoom! Just had a conversation with a friend yesterday about the assumptions our professors make about the kind of advising that they think is useful and how destructive this is for most students. What we discussed echoes a lot of the issues you write about here regarding chance, JFIO, etc, as well as the disturbing ways that our professors advise in ways that reinforce the problems with capitalism and neoliberalism at the expense of working with students as whole people. Your posts give me hope, though — we can create new approaches that center the student and that prioritize creating the kinds of collaborative learning environments that are not just better for students, but that will help push for a different way of living, working, and thinking together in the world.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “So why in the world are we being advised & pressured to graduate in 4? The truth is, many people (unfortunately including ourselves) are navigating college as if we were a Toyota Corolla in a production line. However we are all human, we are not cars.”

    I am glad to have the experiences I have had which do not make me a traditional student. Although, at times I wish I could have been part of that assembly line, as that is what I would have considered a success. However, with time and experience I’ve come to appreciate my outside perspective now that I am back in school. I can really question what and why I am here, I don’t think most students have spent enough time doing so. At least, I hadn’t. 18 year old Steve and 23 year old Steve see education completely different even though my school has remained the same.

    I’m going to steal your phrase of “transactional vs transformational ” services. At first education was a transaction for me, now I want to use it to transform my life by developing professional learning skills and a curious nature to lead my education.


  3. Thank you Henry for sharing such an empowering article. I felt this idea of transactional vs. transformational service was very interesting and penetrating in highlighting some of the difficulties in a STEM education. The primary focus of most STEM students is to harness themselves with a stamped college education for a future job, in the most transactional sense, and learning is slowly pushed away as incidental. However, with a backbone of transformational motives in our educational journey, however incidental we deem the learning process, we as students can really strive to learn. In fact, institutions, beginning from the unit of an educator, can strive to push such learning to give students a chance. There is so much to unpack from the many observations and realizations from this blog, and I am excited to see these thoughts develop and materialize.


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