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City College of San Francisco apologizes for dropping Cantonese certificate program

City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Campus on Thursday, June 7, 2022. | Source: Juliana Yamada/The Standard

City College of San Francisco issued a public apology this month for the harm, frustration and confusion its failure to offer a 16-unit Cantonese Certificate of Achievement program for the upcoming academic year may have caused the CCSF community.

The public apology was issued July 10.

While the college started developing the program in early 2022, according to the district’s legal counsel, it was improperly retracted during the final stages of its approval. Community leaders have advocated for the protection of Cantonese classes and creation of the certificate program, arguing that increased access to Cantonese allows students to connect with their heritage and culture and better serve the needs of San Francisco elders.

The college affirmed its commitment to developing the certificate program for the 2024-2025 school year.

Alan Wong, president of the City College Board of Trustees, first proposed the 16-unit Cantonese certificate program in 2022 after administrators planned to cut Cantonese classes from the school’s curriculum. At the time, Cantonese was the only language program lacking both a certificate program and UC-transferrable credits–two metrics the state uses to allocate funding, Wong noted. Cantonese classes, however, were popular, reaching full enrollment since 2019, Wong said.

The college passed Wong’s resolution to create the certificate program in the fall of 2022, allowing the proposal to advance to the curriculum community who would have to recommend the program to the Board of Trustees. After receiving the recommendation of the curriculum committee, the proposal was then ratified by the Board of Trustees. Its final step was to be submitted to the state chancellor’s office for approval.

However, several months after college trustees ratified the proposal, Wong was informed that the curriculum committee had decided to retract the certificate and deleted its records from the curriculum management software, he said.

“I just felt in my gut that what happened was wrong. We had approved this certificate and it was supposed to move forward,” Wong explained.

In November, shortly after college trustees approved the certificate, the curriculum committee had retracted their support for the program during in a meeting, reverting the certificate proposal to draft status.

The committee argued that the world languages and cultures department did not have the resources to develop more Cantonese offerings, including a grammar course. World Languages and Cultures Department Chair Diana Garcia-Denson confirmed this decision in a March board of trustees meeting.

According to Wong, when he spoke to administrators, they said that the curriculum committee could not retract their support for the certificate after the board of trustees had already approved it; this fact was later confirmed by the district’s legal counsel in June.

As for the reasoning behind the curriculum committee’s decision, Wong feels that they could have voiced their concerns and proposed changes when they were first discussing the proposal, prior to recommending it. He also noted that the certificate proposal threads together existing classes and does not require additional resources.

A rally to support saving Cantonese classes in San Francisco in 2021.
A rally to support saving Cantonese classes in San Francisco in 2021. | Source: Save Cantonese at CCSF

“The community celebrated this certificate and for it to be yanked at the last minute because some folks had a change of heart is very unjust and undemocratic, and, as mentioned by the legal counsel, it was an improper action that violated our policies,” Wong said.

Chester Leung, an CCSF student who volunteers with the organization Save Cantonese at CCSF, was delighted when he first heard the college would offer the 16-unit certificate program.

“The Bay Area is one of the few places where people can have easy access to learn Cantonese and this certificate shows to the people, our community, that Cantonese is worth learning,” Leung said.

In his experience, Cantonese is a language that has been stigmatized. Even within his own family, his parents discouraged him from learning it saying it would not be useful and instead encouraging him to learn Mandarin.

“Unfortunately, where I live, there are no community colleges that offer Cantonese, so CCSF was the only lifeline for me if I wanted to reconnect with my heritage and learn my language,” Leung explained.

Taking Cantonese classes at CCSF has indeed allowed him to connect with his roots. Out of the grandchildren in his family, he is the only one who can communicate with his grandfather, a monolingual Cantonese speaker.

Leung worries that without the program this year and with its future still in flux, students will be less motivated to continue learning Cantonese. Instead, they would only take a few classes to fulfill their general education requirements. With less demand, the school might be less inclined to offer their last installment of Cantonese, which Leung said took almost two decades for the school to bring back.

The 16-unit certificate program, which would appear on students’ transcripts, would provide the motivation for students to continue pursuing Cantonese, Leung suggested.

For Wong, establishing the certificate program meant establishing equity amongst the different language programs at City College. It meant meeting state metrics for continued funding, protecting the classes from being cut in the future.

Wong’s dedication to protecting Cantonese classes stems from an understanding of the language’s importance to the San Francisco community.

He recalled a time when he was walking in a San Francisco hospital and an elderly Chinese woman approached him. She told him that she had been riding the bus when someone punched her in the eye for no particular reason and shoved her out. When the police arrived, they could not help her because they did not speak Cantonese. When she came to the hospital, the staff could not help her because they also did not speak Cantonese.

When he thinks about the Cantonese program, he thinks about this experience.

“San Francisco is the Cantonese capital of the United States and if we don’t teach Cantonese here, who will? We need to be able to teach it so that we have our next generation of public servants, our next generation of health care workers, public safety workers, social workers that are able to serve,” Wong said.

“There is harm in the community by this inappropriate action to withdraw the program and we as a college need to rebuild trust with our community and heal the harm that was done. This apology is really the first step in acknowledging that,” Wong said. 

Wong said he is committed to ensuring that the college has a Cantonese certificate program in the 2024-25 school year. In the meantime, he is encouraging students to sign up for the college’s Cantonese language classes this fall.

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