Community Stories

From Immigration to Inspiration: Derek Ruan’s CYC Journey

Welcome to our new series of staff highlights at Community Youth Center of San Francisco (CYC). In this series, we’ll introduce you to the individuals who are the backbone of our organization, sharing their stories and the vital work they do to support youth in our community. Join us in getting to know these exceptional staff and the significant impact they make in the lives of the community members we serve.

Former CYC youth, alumnus and now staff member Derek Ruan (left) presents a certificate to a Newcomer Club youth at a recent graduation event.

Derek Ruan’s life is an extraordinary testament to resilience, community, and the values championed by Community Youth Center. In the bustling city of Guangdong, China, Derek’s family made a life-changing decision when he was just 12 years old, moving to the United States… specifically to the vibrant neighborhood of Chinatown in San Francisco.

When he arrived, he faced an uphill battle adapting to a new culture and language. Like many immigrants, he initially encountered a significant language barrier, making him feel like he didn’t quite belong in his new home. Navigating the intricacies of life in a new country was also not without its obstacles. Derek mused, “The most difficult part was doing small things, like ordering food or getting around. And back then we didn’t really use phones, so the environment looked the same everywhere.”

It wasn’t until he entered high school at San Francisco International, a school with many resources for English Language Learners (ELL), that he started to feel more comfortable in his new community. Here, he found teachers who were patient and empathetic and who understood his journey.

Derek’s experience demonstrates the relevance and the immense positive benefit of CYC’s culturally and linguistically attuned programs. As he entered 10th grade, Derek encountered CYC for the first time through the Newcomer Club. There, Derek found a sense of belonging where he could engage in meaningful conversations and build a close-knit community of peers, while also learning necessary skills to thrive in a new country. 

With high school graduation quickly approaching, Derek initially doubted his ability to attend college due to his limited English proficiency. He remembers thinking that college was never going to be an option. However, a teacher who spoke Chinese encouraged him to give it a try. He applied, got in, and became the first person in his family to graduate from college in the United States, staying close to and with his family in Chinatown all through school. 

After graduating from San Francisco State University, he heard about job opportunities at CYC. Derek started as a temporary program assistant with MYEEP (Mayor’s Youth Employment and Education Program). Coming full circle, he subsequently found his niche working with Chinese students learning English as a staff member in Newcomer Club. All of the lessons he learned as a youth leader in the club, he now brought to his role as a staff member.

Speaking about his program work today, Derek said, “Every high schooler has their own identity. They are unique and different. These differences can impact their learning.”

In his current role, Derek knows that every high schooler has a unique identity and struggles with various emotional and educational challenges, especially when transitioning from China to the United States. He often encounters students who contemplate giving up on learning and reminds them that he was once in their shoes. 

Working at CYC is fulfilling for Derek, but it also comes with challenges. The job often demands his attention outside regular hours, as he is deeply invested in the lives of his students. He understands that sometimes it can’t be a 9-5 job to make sure these students succeed.

Derek still considers himself in many ways Chinese, feeling that he has not fully assimilated into American culture yet. He believes that immigrants face challenges in surviving and thriving in the United States, especially once they enter the education system, where the transition from high school to college often requires a great deal of self-motivation.

He credits programs like Newcomer Club and schools like SFI with playing a critical role in helping ELLs succeed in college. He appreciates the approach of staff who have inspired him, people who treated students as friends and engaged with them on a personal level. 

“I feel like at this job, there are moments you feel proud. [The youth I work with] are graduating high school and going to college. So different from my time. I really feel proud.”