Bridging policy to practice
At age 28, Thu Cung became the youngest person on the leadership team of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), managing the budget for the sixth-largest school district in California.
“I knew it was a huge undertaking,” she says of her role as executive director of budget services, where she oversaw a $1.1 billion budget, making funding decisions that affected 55,000 students and more than 9,000 full-time employees. “But I was really excited to make change and help the district become more equitable in its allocations. I thought, what better way to fix it than through money?”
For three years, she tried to shift inequities while working to engage the community in the district’s budgeting process. But her efforts “weren’t moving the needle enough for me,” she says of both her time at SFUSD and later as a freelance education consultant.
Cung’s first teacher was her mother, who in Vietnam had taught elementary school before fleeing to the United States as a refugee. The family settled in a suburb north of Seattle, where Cung’s K-12 public education was supplemented with workbooks handpicked by her mom. “Education was very much a priority to my parents,” says Cung, the eldest of three.
She enrolled in Stanford GSE’s Policy, Organization and Leadership Studies (POLS) master’s program in the fall of 2021 in order to study the U.S. education system across disciplines, digging into its roots as a historian or an anthropologist would.
“I was like, ‘Yes! I would love to be able to take courses on public policy and philosophy and psychology and bring that together,” she says. “Bridging policy to practice is something that has shaped a lot of my work. And I hope that through POLS – by connecting with peers and faculty, and by gaining new perspectives and tools – my work will continue to evolve.”