Several years ago, on a fateful pre-election night—in the twilight zone before the pandemic—the editor of SMC in Focus was attending an event on Santa Monica College's main campus, organized by student leaders to help get out the vote. A young woman named Dan "Micca" Cao—then Associated Students Director of Student Advocacy—took the mic. The particulars of her speech have faded with time, but for one thing: the emotion and persuasiveness with which she urged those who could vote, to exercise that right.
Today, that passionate student leader is a graduate of Columbia University. She launched a nonprofit—Ms. Dan's Chinese—during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Miami, to "champion education and facilitate meaningful cultural exchanges." The nonprofit provides Mandarin lessons and other such educational initiatives, plus helps curate Asian cultural events to promote appreciation and intercultural dialogue. She's already gotten an offer from one of the Big Four accounting firms—Deloitte & Touche (after majoring in finance at Columbia, Micca continued her education at the University of Miami, where she is currently in the final stages of completing a master's program in accounting and taxation and preparing for her CPA license.)
Tracing back her trajectory to Southern California, Micca's time at SMC was equally impressive: in addition to being a student leader at SMC Associated Students, she was a Dale Ride intern, a board member of Phi Theta Kappa, and a peer mentor at the International Education Center. But these high points—an enviable resume— don't quite get to the heart of what makes Micca, as one SMC mentor put it, " an exceptional individual."
"I Guess it's a Journey."
"I heard about this concept of 'community college' from an Internet friend," says Micca about how she ended up at SMC. (The community college is a uniquely American institution.). This friend told her that he transferred from Pasadena City College to UCLA and saved a lot of money along the way. "I was very intrigued," she remembers.
Micca applied to Pasadena City College but missed the deadline—and that's how she ended up at SMC, first as an art major and then as a political science one. She wanted to understand the U.S. political structure and learn about things that were important to the community.
While Micca had the financial means to support herself as she moved to the U.S. to begin this chapter of her life—her father owned an investment property that was her inheritance; she convinced him to sell it and funded her studies with the profit (Micca is proud to note, "I gave the initial investment back to my dad")—she was alone in fulfilling her drive to go abroad and, as she puts it, "just give it a try."
In her recommendation letter to a selection committee for a statewide scholar’s program, Communication & Media Studies Professor Dr. Nancy Grass (Interim Associate Dean of Student Life when she was writing the letter) touched upon what made Micca an extraordinarily passionate student leader and advocate:
"When asked, Micca will explain that her passion for helping others reach their goals stems, at least in part, to realizations she had during her upbringing in China and from her mother's inspiration," Dr. Grass wrote.
When she arrived in Los Angeles—this was January 2015—Micca had no idea how the leap of faith she'd taken would lead not just to her becoming a leader but that she'd end up at an Ivy League institution.
"Who knew I would end up at Columbia?" Micca says. "Or that I could be so happy? But I guess it's a journey."
The Happiest Time of All
Those in the business of preaching the virtues of Santa Monica College (and community colleges in general) have a handful of highlights that can be rattled off with ease. Not surprisingly, when asked what her SMC experience was like, Micca's response could be transcribed and passed around as an elevator pitch for why anyone should consider attending the college.
"First, it's a perfect bridge to a four-year college," she says, without hesitation, "Second, it is the most cost-efficient way for those who cannot afford a four-year private school (also, I wasn't sure about my potential). It's a perfect opportunity for everyone who wants to explore their potential, to further their studies, to give it a try, or to restart. Third, there are so many resources [at SMC]. There's always a way to get involved. I found it so rewarding to participate in those things. I had time to get involved in the community. It's in a beautiful location!"
"Got involved" is a humble way to describe Micca's role as a student leader. Dr. Grass describes her as "a powerful voice for students while, at the same time, working to serve them." Micca became an active member of the Student Senate of California Community Colleges (SSCCC), attending regional and state gatherings. She supported Title IX and Women's Empowerment activities and attended just about every Associated Students event.
Micca remembers how she won her AS position. "I ran by myself . . . I took all classes off that week. I was on campus from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., talking to everyone. I went into every classroom I could to talk. I talked to everybody in the cafeteria. I talked to people in the Honor Society, which I was a part of."
Her success is a living illustration of the power of perseverance. She won her position—by 20 or 30 votes, as she recalls it—out from under her opponent, who was on a slate that otherwise had a clean-sweep victory.
"When I look back," Micca says of her time at SMC, "It is the happiest time of my educational journey."
She was awarded one of 25 statewide Civic Impact Scholarships—for which Dr. Grass wrote her the recommendation letter—which connected her to a statewide network of students and leaders in public service, among other things, and she also helped SMC win a Foundation of California Community Colleges grant of $10,000 to encourage further civic engagement efforts. The award money was used to purchase tents for voter registration, and "I felt very proud," says Micca, "that because of money I helped us to win, students after me can [also] use these [tents]."
In addition, Micca was also selected for SMC's prestigious, highly competitive Dale Ride Internship program and interned at Oxfam in Washington, D.C. She remembers a flurry of activity around Congressional Lobby Day, working to invite key, influential leaders to lobby with Oxfam towards the cause of fighting inequality.
Shaping a New Me
"To be very honest," Micca says when asked about transferring to Columbia University, "the transition was extremely rough." SMC had "built her up," and Columbia, she says, "made me realize where I was. It humbled me to an incredible extent." Her major—finance—was one of the most rigorous, and Columbia grades on a curve, which "made it very competitive." (She also studied political science).
"But I made it through," Micca says, "I had to figure everything out myself." Columbia University gave her a particular gift and reminded her that she was where she was meant to be: "I never give up and always look for the best outcome . . . Columbia, and New York City in general, is [a place] for growth. To shape a new you."
Not only did she realize "I belong here," Micca came to appreciate her classmates and the heights of excellence for which they aspired. She went on a study abroad trip to South Africa, volunteering at local orphanages, and more, and graduated—on track—during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking for a Sense of Belonging
With her degree in finance, Micca thought she would work for a bank. But with COVID-19 shutting institutions down, it took a lot of work to find a job. Plus, she was an international student who had visa restrictions. So, Micca decided to take matters into her own hands. Upon graduation, she self-sponsored an OPT (Optional Practical Training), which helps F-1 students get temporary employment related to their major. The can-do spirit that had helped her get to Columbia served Micca well: she worked with a tutoring company headquartered in New York and then ventured off by establishing her nonprofit, Ms. Dan's Chinese, on her own.
As the site puts it, Ms. Dan's Chinese ". . . specializes in private tutoring, infant/toddler instruction, and after-school and weekend group lessons that immerse your child in fun, engaging Mandarin Chinese learning projects and experiences each day." Micca is proud that she recruits Chinese immigrant moms to teach women who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to engage in the community." Her head teacher, for instance, immigrated a couple of years ago and, with a child in the mix, would not have been able to secure a job that allowed her flexibility and "enjoy what she does." (Micca currently has four teachers and a couple dozen students.).
Micca's involvement concentrates on building collaborations within the community, working with other agencies like Miami Dade Community College and communities like Coral Gables and Coconut Grove. The hope is to eventually build a local, permanent school to provide Mandarin instruction.
"I see a lack of Asian representation in Miami," Micca says, "It is about everybody having a good time. We get to know each other. It melts my heart . . . when I volunteer in the local community and help them learn things like Chinese calligraphy painting."
That feeling is, for her, the most important thing. That—in her own words—of knowing she's found what she was looking for: a sense of belonging.
"Every day is a fresh start," Micca says. "In 2017, I was lobbying Congress. How is that even possible? It's just . . . there's no limit. I am here in this country, and all I know is that I don't want to waste a single second."
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SMC in Focus Volume IX, Issue 6
Second Language, New Beginnings
No Limit for Dan “Micca” Cao
Global SMC, Through the Years