Professor Thao Ha Secures $50,000 Grant to Establish North County Resource Center for Justice-Involved Individuals

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MiraCosta College Sociology Professor Thao Ha has been awarded a $50,000 grant to create a North County resource center to assist justice-involved individuals as they reenter society – an outgrowth of her groundbreaking work with formerly incarcerated students at the college.

The grant was awarded by the Nancy Jamison Fund for Social Justice, created to honor a San Diego philanthropist who died in 2021.

Ha spearheaded a program at MiraCosta College called Transition Scholars that works with students who want to get an education after serving their prison sentence. The program started in 2021 and has served approximately 75 students each year. She said the formerly incarcerated students are eager to turn their lives around.

“They’ve had time to reflect on their past,” she said. “They have a determination not to repeat their mistakes. They want to be productive members of society. I’m always in awe of how much they want to give back.”

Ha said that when working with the students, she found that North County had few services, such as employment training or life skills classes, to offer them. With the grant money, she plans to open a center to serve the reentry population and help direct them toward getting the education and training they need.

“There’s a public concern about recidivism, that they will be likely to reoffend. Studies have demonstrated that people who get an education have lower rates of recidivism,” Ha said. “It helps reduce the burden of the criminal justice system.”

Ha’s background growing up in Houston showed her the impact of a prison sentence on the family. Her uncle came to live with her family after he was released from prison, and the ankle monitor he wore strictly restricted his movements. Even a visit to a gas station on the way to work – outside his usual pattern - prompted a visit from his parole officer.

Ha’s family had come to the United States from Vietnam after the end of the war in 1975 while she was still a baby. Although she was a good student, she got caught up in gangs.

She attended the University of Houston, majoring in biology, with plans to become a doctor. As a first-generation college student, she said she had trouble navigating college and dropped out in 1996.

She got a job at a computer shop, but her life changed dramatically in 1997. During a gang shooting outside a pool hall, she was shot in the arm. Around the same time, her boyfriend was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

She decided to return to the University of Houston and majored in sociology with plans to become a lawyer. A professor convinced her she should become a sociology professor instead.

“It’s been 1,000 percent into sociology ever since,” Ha said. After earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Houston, she earned her master’s and doctorate in sociology at the University of Texas in Austin.

She was hired at MiraCosta College in 2007. She said MiraCosta has allowed her to be innovative in finding ways to teach better and serve students. 

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