Finding Education: A Berkeley senior’s journey from the abyss to a sociology degree

May 9, 2024

Somdeng “Danny” Thongsy knows what it’s like to be dealt a bad hand in life.

A refugee from Laos, he grew up in a tough neighborhood, living in poverty and surrounded by gangs. His brother was murdered when Danny was a teenager. This led Danny to commit a serious crime that landed him a 27-years-to-life sentence in state prison.

He hit rock bottom. And that’s when he found education, and it changed his life.

Danny, who will graduate next week from UC Berkeley with a degree in sociology, spoke recently to Berkeley Social Sciences about his arduous journey from incarceration to academic excellence. The interview is edited for clarity.

Tell us more about your background and how you ended up at UC Berkeley
Danny Thongsy: I'm a first-generation transfer student. I’m also a 1.5 generation, and my family and I are refugees from Laos. The reason why I say 1.5 is because I did not experience the same kind of experience as my parents when they were taking refuge and immigrating.

Growing up in Downtown Stockton, I faced many challenges such as poverty and gangs, which led me to drop out of high school. My older brother was murdered when I was a teenager, which sent me into a deep depression. I ended up taking the life of another person and was sentenced to 27-years-to-life in state prison. 

During my incarceration, I transformed my life through education. I earned a GED and an associate degree in social science from San Quentin's on-site college program. After being paroled in 2016, I faced potential deportation due to my revoked green card. But thanks to community advocacy and policy work, I was pardoned from Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020. This allowed me to continue my education at UC Berkeley in Fall 2021. And that fulfilled a long-held dream of mine and furthered my commitment to giving back to the community.

You can read more about the details of my background from this first-person account I wrote for Berkeley News: Student Danny Thongsy: We can look within ourselves to find strength and persevere

What are the challenges of being a formerly incarcerated student?
Danny Thongsy: When I arrived at Berkeley, I faced several challenges. First, I struggled with imposter syndrome, feeling like I might not be good enough. I was also worried about how others would judge me once they learned about my past. While I don't usually share details about my background right away, I believe people will understand me better once they know my story. Everyone makes mistakes, and I know that people can rise above their mistakes just like I have. Adapting to new technology was also difficult for me. Due to my time being incarcerated, I had limited access to modern technology, so learning to use it was another challenge for me.

Who's been your mentor(s) at UC Berkeley?
Danny Thongsy: I've had several mentors who have positively influenced my experience at Berkeley. During one of my earliest semesters at Cal, I enrolled in a course called NavCal. It's designed to help you become a “master” student. Through this course, I joined a mentorship program where my mentor shared valuable insights about her time at Berkeley, including how to ask for help, find resources and effectively manage your schedule. This was crucial because balancing classes, homework and a social life at Berkeley requires careful planning.

Another mentor was Ethnic Studies Continuing Lecturer Harvey Dong. He guided me through one of my research projects, helping clarify what research involves and demystifying the process.My counselor Seng Saelee from the Sociology Department has been tremendous in helping me stay on track academically. I also asked for help from student tutors for several class assignments. These tutors, who took the same courses before, offered me insights that were very helpful. I also consider graduates and community members to be my mentors too. They provided perspectives based on their experiences at Berkeley, which has been very helpful. The Firebaugh program, Haas Public Service Leaders, HOPE Scholars and Berkeley Underground Scholars also provided me with community and the support I needed. 

Why did you decide to major in Sociology?
Danny Thongsy: The reason why I chose Sociology is that I have a lived experience — a personal experience of dealing with systemic issues. I wanted to learn the broader systemic structure of society and particularly why certain communities thrive and why certain communities struggle just like mine. I know that I was always taught this narrative about how you have to pull yourself up by your bootstrap. But I feel like that doesn't really explain some of the systemic issues that are going on within our society or community and the inequity in the world. 

I think that sociology has kind of helped me understand the structures surrounding it, especially with the method and focus. With the work that I’m doing within the community, I want to be able to have a broader perspective of things with a more concrete framework around it, so I can help the community to shape certain policies and so forth. 

What did you like best about your UC Berkeley experience, both academically and socially?
Danny Thongsy: Academically, I have learned a different framework in discipline and a new understanding of broader issues that impact my community through the lens of established structures and how it impacts things that do and don’t happen. Socially, it could be lonely, but I think it helped to become a part of many different student groups here on campus. I think that’s kind of the key to getting to know people and providing moral support for each other. At the same time, you also get to connect and create those relationships with others. 

What's next for you in terms of your academics and career goals?
Danny Thongsy: I plan to take some time off to rest and reconnect with family and friends, while also reflecting on my life. I think it’ll be a good time for me to just do the things I’ve always wanted to do by getting back into my routines of exercising and sleeping regularly, while also traveling and being outdoors. Beginning in the fall, I’m going to start applying for grad school — either law school or something to do with social welfare or public policy. I haven’t given it much thought since I plan on taking a gap year while continuing to work with nonprofits within the community and organizing.