Formerly incarcerated immigrant graduates from UC Berkeley, inspires others to pursue dreams

A Cal Berkeley graduate from Southeast Asia is committed to inspiring his community to dream big, despite the challenges you may face.

Somdeng "Danny" Thongsy, 45, is an immigrant from Southeast Asia, who spent two decades serving time in prison, but now he is an advocate for others like him.

As Thongsy walked across the stage at UC Berkeley on Monday, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, he thought of the family he shattered when he took someone’s life back in the 1990s. 

"To this day, I’m still living with the guilt and shame and I think part of my academic education is a transformation of that, to ensure other kids don’t make the same mistake I did," he said. 

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand when his family was escaping the war in Laos, Thongsy immigrated to a low-income neighborhood in Stockton when he was just a little boy.

"A lot of kids ended up in gangs, like myself," he said, "When I was 17, my brother was murdered by a rival gang, which led me to a deep depression."

Without help or resources, the depression eventually led him to retaliate, sending him on a journey through the prison system at just 17 years old. He was charged with 2nd degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

25 years later, Thongsy never thought he would be someday graduating from UC Berkeley and pursuing his goals. 

"Wow, this is like a dream come true," he said.

Thongsy reflected on his journey. He said while serving his time, he began going to church. 


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"There was a preacher that came to my cell and started telling me about love and forgiveness, saying ‘you got to be able to forgive yourself,’ and I felt the word of love and forgiveness was the word I needed."

He said that is when his whole trajectory shifted. While in prison, he got his GED, then his Associate’s degree, and was granted parole for good behavior.

He worked as an advocate for the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, a non-profit organization helping members of the AAPI community reenter society.

Despite trying to better himself, Thongsy’s immigration status was at stake as he faced deportation because of his felony.

In 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom granted him a pardon after hearing about his advocacy work, freeing him to join a program called Underground Scholars at UC Berkeley.

The program began as a club by a formerly incarcerated student in 2013, Danny Murillo, who wanted to help others like himself.

"One thing I notice about Danny is that he’s using his life experience to inform his research, and the work that he wants to pursue," said Murillo, who now serves as associate director of Underground Scholars.

Now, it’s expanded to every UC campus and community colleges across the state as a prison-to-university pipeline.

"Every year now we get 4 million dollars from the state budget that gets divided by nine undergraduate UC campuses to serve formerly incarcerated students and system impacted students in university. 

At Berkeley alone, Underground Scholars has 40 graduates this semester. Thongsy is one of them.

On his big day, he offers these words for dreamers like him: "Here I am, it’s not too late. If I could do it, anybody could do it."

Thongsy said he plans to work full time and will apply for grad schools in the fall, so he can continue working with marginalized communities and supporting formerly incarcerated members of the AAPI community.