Making Family History: Integral Major Richard Trinh ’24 on the Importance of Creating Space, in the Classroom and the Canon

First-generation college student whose parents immigrated from Vietnam. President of the Asian Pacific American Student Association. And here’s why they value the unique pedagogy of SMC’s Integral Program.

by Jordan Sapp MFA ’25 | May 9, 2024

When Saint Mary’s was established in 1863, its founder had first-generation students in mind. Joseph Alemany, San Francisco’s first archbishop, envisioned a college for the “children of Miners, Mechanics, and Agriculturists,” the working people of the fledgling state. 

According to the most recent data, around one in three Saint Mary’s students today are trailblazers, the first in their family to pursue a college degree. For many first-generation students—“First-Gens,” as they often refer to themselves—the journey to and through college brings unique struggles—and surprises. We regularly ask First-Gen Gaels to share, in their own words, their history, hopes, and advice for the next generation.

Meet Richard Trinh ʼ25: a fourth-year student in the Integral Program who will continue on at SMC next year to earn an MA in Teaching and a Teaching Credential. Trinh, who uses he/they pronouns, is a first-generation student and the child of immigrant parents. The Integral Program’s unique method of teaching has given Trinh the tools to make their own way in the world. 

Restaurant roots

I grew up about 40 minutes east of Saint Mary’s, in Brentwood. My parents are Vietnamese immigrants; my father came in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, and my mother eventually came over to marry him because they knew each other. Their families were from the same hometown, Rạch Giá.

Most of my life has revolved around the restaurant business. When I was young, my dad worked as a chef, and my mom worked as a server. Then, in 2010, my parents opened up their own Vietnamese restaurant in Antioch, which they ran for six years. They separated when I was in high school, and my mom opened her own restaurant—Pho Mama in Union City—which she’s been operating for the past four years. For myself, though, I had a different sort of aspiration. I wanted to go to college.

The road to Saint Mary’s 

Richard Trinh holding a camera
Photographing the photographer: Richard Trinh brings experience in photography and a good eye to work with SMC’s Office of Marketing & Communications as a student photographer. / Photo by Francis Tatem

I’m a first-generation college student, so I did most of the application process on my own. I was the one replying to school emails, or scheduling dates and times to check out schools. I was the one who took all of my parents’ tax documentation and filled out FAFSA, trying to figure out the financials of how I was going to be able to get to college. 

The financial aid that Saint Mary’s offered me definitely helped, but I would not have come to Saint Mary's if not for the Integral Program of Liberal Arts. I was originally going to go to another school to study political science because of my interest in law, government, and political philosophy. But a teacher at my high school who went to Saint Mary’s, Melissa Hatlen ʼ05, recommended the Integral Program, which I had never heard of before. 

At the time, I was taking her Advanced Placement Seminar and AP Research classes, and Melissa said, “This research you’re doing is master’s level work. If you want to keep pursuing this sort of thing, and learn how to do proper research and be a critical thinker, then you should check out the Integral Program.” The Integral Program was a standout because it’s not at other colleges. It’s a unique major, and studying it has allowed me to continue to pursue literature and philosophy, subjects I really got a taste for in high school. 

Why Integral?

As its name suggests, the Integral Program weaves together the liberal arts—arts of speech, calculation, observation—into one coherent curriculum. In Integral, we all take the same courses in Mathematics, Language, Seminar, Natural Science, and Music. It’s a holistic kind of focus. And there’s  room for you to have individual passions and concentrations.

My favorite class was Senior Language with Tutor Michael Riley ’72. It’s a dialectic class, meaning a back-and-forth discussion to reveal new knowledge. A lot of the works we read were mystical and more about Eastern philosophy. There were so many ways of interpreting and finding truths in it that the class would be talking about a text for hours, trying to push their interpretations at each other. 

"If you want to keep pursuing this sort of thing,” a high school teacher told Richard Trinh, “and learn how to do proper research and be a critical thinker, then you should check out the Integral Program."

The Integral Program has given me free rein to be who I am. So as long as I am in the classroom and being productive and conducive to other people’s learnings, insights, and experiences, I’m still able to do what I want to. I get to learn as much as possible, find what sticks to me, and decide what I believe and value.

The Classroom as Community

By the end of my sophomore year, I decided I wanted to pursue a field of study adjacent to the Integral Program. I emailed the director of the Integral Program, Elizabeth Hamm ’03, to ask the feasibility of doing the Single-Subject Teaching Education (SSTE) minor. She got me in contact with Kalmanovitz School of Education faculty to organize a plan in which I could overload and take classes while being in Integral. After I graduate, I intend to continue at Saint Mary’s to complete my 4+1 SSTE minor and earn a dual Master’s in Teaching and Teaching Credential. I plan to teach English in a high school.  

Because of my Integral background, it’s easy for me to grasp the materials and concepts being taught in my Teaching classes. In one, we had to bring in a pedagogical scholar from the past to review and discuss their work. I immediately chose John Dewey, an educational thinker and philosopher who believed classrooms are like little political communities. He saw education as something to uplift students to participate in society and make them capable members who could serve one another. That really resonated with what and how I’ve learned in Integral. The program has driven my educational style and the passion I have for classroom learning.

Richard Trinh headshot
The draw to SMC: “I would not have come to Saint Mary's if not for the Integral program," Richard Trinh says. / Photo by Francis Tatem

APASA and Support as a First-Gen Student

Other than the High Potential Program, the largest support SMC provides its first-gen students is its advocacy and promotion of diversity programs. I would not have stuck around on campus if not for the Asian Pacific American Student Association (ASAPA). It provided me a massive amount of support and community when I arrived at Saint Mary’s. I’ve been on APASA’s executive team for two and a half years, and currently, I’m the president. 

Being president of APASA has been rewarding; my goal is to bring people in, even if they’re not Asian, to show them why this project matters. It mattered a lot to me and established many of the relationships I have now. 

Making Space to Thrive

A lot of the work we do in Integral—and academia in general—focuses on the Western canon. The truth is, not a lot of people of color or BIPOC students will find themselves in the Western canon. As a Vietnamese male, I have had to nail down my critical interpretations and examinations of these texts to make space for myself in them. 

Being in the Integral Program has given me a toolset to tackle anything with intellectual rigor and cultural competence. Never again will I be like that kid in high school who was afraid of accessing institutions and seeking help, just because I don’t see myself in those places or the professions of the fields I want to go into. Now it feels like I can assert myself wherever I go and make space no matter the place or time. 

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Jordan Sapp MFA ’25 is a graduate editorial fellow with the Office of Marketing & Communications at Saint Mary’s. Write her.