Bringing NYU Wagner Lessons Back Home: Alumnus Richard Tran is Silicon Valley's Youngest Mayor

Riley and Rich
Richard Tran, right, was elected mayor of Milpitas, California, in 2016.

Richard Tran (MPA-PNP 2014) may be the only NYU Wagner graduate to cite Jay Z and New York City’s hip-hop scene as the reason he was drawn to the school.

Jay Z’s lyrics about a city brimming with life, opportunity, and purpose made Tran feel there was no better place than NYC to learn how to dig in and change the world. As Tran puts it: “I applied to one school in New York, and I said if I get into Wagner, it was meant to be, and lo and behold, I got into the school, and the rest is history.”

And it's been quite a history. Since graduating in 2014, Tran has gone on to be elected mayor of his hometown of Milpitas, California, a city just north of San Jose; in fact, he’s now the youngest mayor in Silicon Valley. Milpitas is nestled in Santa Clara County, home to more than 140,000 Vietnamese-American immigrants—one of the most heavily populated Vietnamese immigrant enclaves in the country. Tran is especially proud to be the first Vietnamese-American mayor of Milpitas.

But Tran says he never set out to run for public office. Before attending NYU Wagner, Tran worked as a medical social worker, an experience that, he says, imbued in him a deep sense of social justice.

“I’ll never forget working with the homeless...and families who needed their basic needs met. Having a social work background keeps me very grounded when I’m going over a $166 million budget.”

NYU Wagner’s commitment to excellence in public service ultimately drove Tran to run for mayor.

“After I graduated, I decided to get into politics… because I saw a need among my community for leadership and a high level of public management and policy, which I became passionate about while at Wagner.”

Graduation

A newcomer in a field of four opponents, Tran faced tough odds. He was outspent two-to-one by another candidate, and was running against a city official who had been involved in local politics for decades. Tran credits his campaign’s integrity, hard work, and dedication to his success. He also notes that his time spent at NYU Wagner prepared him for what would be a grueling race.

“A lot of the experiences I had at Wagner, such as working in teams and group projects definitely contributed to my experience running a campaign. And when it came down to campaign finance and financial management, I relied on my experiences taking financial management coursework at Wagner.”

As mayor of the second fastest-growing city in California, Tran faces enormous challenges—and opportunities. He says courses he took in sustainable cities and public policy for metropolitan regions have helped him think strategically and creatively about how to improve his city.

While Tran can point to countless NYU Wagner courses that make him a stronger public servant, it was his friendships—forged in the classroom, through student organizations and happy hours—that truly enriched his graduate experience.

“I’m still best friends with my Wagner classmates. I flew out to India to visit one of my buddies— I was in his hometown, and I got to meet his family and community. Another buddy graduated and now he's the Director of Economic Development Policy at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. These relationships are forever.”

Despite the breadth of diversity among NYU Wagner students, Tran says one trait sets his fellow Wagner graduates apart: “Wagner students are not afraid. They come to Wagner, in one of the greatest cities in the world, with millions of people—taking a chance on their education, on the trajectory of their lives, and the world they live in. You have hundreds of people from all over the world that aren’t afraid, that are working toward public service, and that’s an amazing combination of dynamics.”