Paying It Forward

September 4th, 2020 - 1:01pm

Each year, the Golden Bell Awards, presented by the Marin County Office of Education, ring true for outstanding faculty, staff, and administrators who bring innovation and dedication to public education in Marin County.

Person smiling with their hands on their hipsCollege of Marin (COM) had three of their employees win a Golden Bell Award this year, and they also had an alum win – Vincent Chew. Vincent won in the category of Classified Employee of the Year for his role as a Paraeducator with the Marin County Office of Education and his work as a mentor to high school students at Marin’s Community School.

Due to COVID-19, this year’s Golden Bell award ceremony took place online for the first time in its 38-year history.

“I didn't really get to celebrate,” Vincent recalls. “But it did mean that I was appreciated for everything I did for the students and for the school. I am thankful, I am blessed, but I wish things could be normal so I could be there for my students.”

Vincent was exceptional as a paraeducator. He provided academic and emotional support for both the students and their families, often talking with students’ parents about issues they were having at home and ways they could help their children. “I am one of the few paraeducators that do more than classroom support,” Vincent added. “Not only am I on the school grounds, but I’m also in the community, providing for the needs of the families and the students. You have to be there to see it. I’m about that action.”

He continued, “There are a lot of kids that don’t feel safe at home. They have arguments with stepmoms or stepdads. And, because their clothes smell like pot, they get kicked out of the house. The parents call me upset. It’s then I say they should have a conversation with their kids, not kick the kids out.”

Vincent is talking from a place of experience. When he young, he moved from Malaysia to New York City to live with an aunt and uncle. He soon got in with the wrong crowd and ended up going to prison four years later on gang-related charges. After his release, he went to live with another uncle in Novato, and attended Novato High School where he received his high school diploma.

It was in high school where he first started meeting people who would be his allies in Marin. Vincent remembers a day he was frustrated and didn’t want to take his prescribed medications. He talked about it with the director of a local non-profit organization helping high school and college students get to and through college called 10,000 Degrees. The director listened to him and said, “You want to get away from something that is good for you.”

“Ever since she since she said that, it gave me the motivation to do better for myself,” Vincent recalls. “She would tell me the truth, even when I didn’t want to hear it.”

It did motivate him. He graduated from high school soon after and moved out of his uncle’s house. His mom, wanting him to have a stable career, urged him to go to college to become a nurse. With that advice, he started taking classes at College of Marin during the day and worked at night to support himself.

As he persisted, he realized he had an entire support system of people who were helping and encouraging him; they were listening to him, seeing him, and meeting him where he was. Vincent’s list of faculty, staff, and administrators at COM who made a huge impact on him is quite expansive. “They put up with a lot and called me out on it. They did it in such a caring and understanding manner. They went above and beyond by understanding what I am going through in life. They were much more than faculty and staff members. They are like my family, they wanted to see me graduate and give back to the community.”

“They wanted to help me better my situation. I was homeless and running the streets; they helped steer me toward thinking positively and knowing my worth. They didn’t look at how I did in high school or my disciplinary records. They didn’t judge that I was locked up when I was 16. They didn’t care that I was couch surfing or homeless. They gave me an environment that was almost completely inclusive. It changed my life.” That support was his key to success.

Vincent realized he wanted to give others what he was given at COM. “Everything I do for my students was because these people planted a seed in me. When I needed them while I was struggling in life, and these people were there unconditionally. It's only right that I return it and serve my students in the same gesture.”

“I enjoyed that I get to use what I learned in college and through my lived experience to share it with students that I work with. Most of the time, my war stories on the streets became an entry point for the youth to open up and then I was able to help them. My position was not just being a role model but as someone to say it's okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from it. It provides them a sense of hope.”

For a population of high school students who are often marginalized, having someone who listens and understands where they are can be just that sense of hope they needed to persist in school and life.

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