Institutional Feature: John Thao, TCC TRIO/EOC Program Director

John Thao is the Program Director of Tulsa Community College’s TRIO Education Opportunity Center (otherwise known as TRIO/EOC). He serves as the Past President of the TRIO Oklahoma Division of Student Assistance for the State of Oklahoma. In addition, John is a strong advocate for the Asian American, Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community.

What is TRIO/EOC?
“The TRIO/Educational Opportunity Center (TRIO/EOC) program provides pre-college information and counseling to eligible adults 19-years-old and older who want to enter, re-enter or transfer to a postsecondary education program,” (TCC TRIO/EOC Website). The program is grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education and is accessible to all qualifying individuals, regardless of where they hope to attend college. TRIO programs are known nationally for supporting first generation, low-income college students to earn their postsecondary degrees. John describes TRIO/EOC programming as “Tulsa’s FREE hidden educational gem that people aren’t aware of.”

John and his team work closely with other Oklahoma institutions to ensure that TRIO/EOC students have the information they need to enroll and succeed in college. From financial aid to admissions to tutoring, TRIO/EOC students are empowered with information they need to access and complete their college journeys. John explains cross-institutional collaboration and communication is critical for the success of students– institutions have to align. He also shares his hope that more partner institutions will apply for any of TRIO program grants to enhance the opportunities for students. He describes the grant application process as “straightforward” and an invaluable “pipeline to help individuals who are first generation, low-income pursue a higher education”.

TRIO/EOC’s Greatest Accomplishments
When asked about the TRIO/EOC team’s greatest accomplishments, John highlighted the strengths of each member of his diverse team. John, Clint Sago, Lizette Merchán, Hieu Lê, and Sara Foster comprise this incredible team. Together, they work all in 3 counties (Creek, Osage and Tulsa) supporting students from all backgrounds and walks of life. The team is able to serve individuals who speak all of the following languages: Vietnamese, Spanish, American Indian, Hmong, Thai, and Lao.

John’s Background
John is a first-generation college graduate himself and has an impressive collection of degrees. He graduated as salutatorian from East Central High School (Tulsa Public Schools) then earned his bachelors and masters from The University of Tulsa with full scholarships. In 2011, he received a Fulbright award from the U.S State Department as one of the first U.S. American in history to teach at the National University of Laos in Vientiane, Lao PDR. John is the oldest of eight children. His parents immigrated to the US as refugees and John recalls that though they came to the US knowing no English, they persevered, became multi-lingual, and successfully earned their high school diplomas.

Thao was recently recognized as a member of the inaugural class of LT Represent, where he was featured for his advocacy and support for the AAPI Community especially his Hmong community. John describes his work in TRIO and his advocacy as “interconnected”. “Through my work with TRIO, I learned to equip myself with the tools to advocate on the federal level with congressional officials. I learned how to connect, communicate, and voice my perspective as a member of the Hmong community.” He asks himself, “how can I be a part of the system if I don’t advocate to create change so adequate and equitable access, resources, and services are provided for my AAPI community?”

The Importance of Advocacy and Representation
One resounding theme from our conversation was the importance of equity and representation. Growing up, John noticed a lack of Asian American representation in leadership roles especially in higher education leadership. This has served as a source of motivation for John. “I fear with the lack of AAPI representation and inequitable resources for the AAPI community, a lot of this younger generation cannot see themselves [in leadership]… or see the value of education. My motivation and passion comes from reminding myself- if I am not here where I am now– in the educational setting, in my position, and in the different hats I wear– will there be someone who looks like me be capable to wear those hats and provide a voice for our AAPI ?

John is a transformational leader who leads with equity in focus. The TCC TRIO/EOC program is approaching its 20th, fully funded year and is serving thousands of Tulsa-area students under John’s leadership.

To learn more about the TRIO EOC programs, visit the TCC TRIO/EOC website.