Our year-long series on College of Marin’s (COM) Umoja Program continues with a Student Spotlight. Join us in 2021 as we explore how COM’s Umoja program empowers students, promotes unity, and builds community and equity.
College of Marin Umoja alumna Topaz Wells grew up in Marin. She went to Tamalpais High and first attended College of Marin right out of high school. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but knew she liked psychology and philosophy. To declare a major, she was required to take general education classes, which didn’t seem relevant and made her lose focus. Plus, she wanted to work and make a living on her own. After being a receptionist at a law firm and working in retail, Wells found a job as an executive receptionist for a family of radio stations in San Francisco – KNBR, 107.7 The Bone, and KFOG. It was a dream come true for Wells.
“I love music,” stated Wells. “I love radio. I love people. I love the busy-ness of people working together and, yes, I am people-oriented!!! Meeting and greeting people is a joy for me. As soon as you would get off the elevator for the radio stations, I would meet and greet you with a smile. This job was totally meant for me in more ways than one. My reception area was a work of art. I had the best seat in the house to meet and greet employees, clients, and visitors entering and exiting the station. This arrangement was epic for viewing the producers and the talk show hosts and their daily guests in the KNBR studio.”
“I was so captivated with radio, the personalities and how radio commercials were made in the studio. I was extremely fascinated by the process in its entirety. Radio personalities like Gary Radnich and producers from The BONE or KFOG would spontaneously call me into the studio to talk on the air, or just call me at the front desk and ask me to comment on a certain topic. My co-workers loved my laugh which is very healing and makes you want to laugh, chuckle, or just smile – you were definitely affected, for sure. It was totally a place of happiness while you worked.”
Wells worked directly with many of the radio hosts, such as Radnich, Dave Morey, Peter Finch, Tom Tolbert, Rod Brooks, and Annalisa, and met so many celebrities, athletes, authors, comedians, and musicians. The stations pulled her into their shows because of her vivacious personality, gregarious nature, and infectious laugh. Everyone who worked there enjoyed greeting her in the morning and talking with her throughout the day. Wells was a well-respected and invaluable member of the team which soon became like family.
“I truly cherished that job immensely,” recalled Wells. “I developed great relationships with so many people. If someone was having a bad day, they'd come talk to me and I would uplift their spirits. They called me Special K or “Speshee” which was before I started going by Topaz, my middle name. What really inspired me was how they kept repeating over and over again, ‘Speshee, you should really think about radio and getting on the air.’ Another memory I will never forget while working with these great people of the radio world was the day I got laid off. People informed me they needed therapy because of it. Seriously, that day I had a crowd of people downstairs in the building’s main lobby who were devastated that I was laid off, because I was the life of the party at that job.”
After 15 years as executive receptionist, financially the company had to downsize and merge with another, eliminating her position. Saddened by the loss, Wells was adamant about not going back to college and eventually found a job as a front desk operator with Sausalito Health & Fitness. Yet over the years she was there, she started thinking strongly about continuing her education to get her degree and return to the radio/media world.
So, she started at College of Marin with Academic Counselor Rinetta Early, who also happened to be an Umoja counselor. Early consistently encouraged Wells to persist through her general education courses and motivated Wells to continue to move towards her goals, even when Wells wanted to retreat.
“Rinetta is my lucky charm of motivation,” said Wells. “I just admire and have much appreciation for her! She really was more than just a motivator for me. When it was almost time for me to graduate, I said, ‘oh, I'm graduating!’ She said, ‘yeah, then you could go to San Francisco State.’ I was so ready to chill for a while and put on the brakes and park after I received my AA degree in Mass Communications. Rinetta changed that tune and made sure that wasn’t going to happen. She said, ‘Ohhhh no, we are not stopping now!!!!’ She was incredible with her top-notch professional skills to motivate.”
“She informed me of Umoja, and Umoja was fantastic. I wish I had a little Umoja encouragement in my younger years during my education. They should have it for younger people, ages 5 on up. Umoja cares about students with patience and compassion, which makes the journey more of an enjoyable challenge for the individual and their studies, regardless of the subject. They consistently practice one-on-one strategies with you to guide you through, showing their expertise in what they do. You never ever feel alone. That’s what motivated me to keep advancing with determination.”
“The subjects I enrolled in were challenging. When in the Umoja arena, I would display that egotism by acting as if I did not need assistance. That was short-lived. For example, math was a struggle, and the Umoja tutors worked with me in their unique way by showing persistence, patience, and consistency to help me through it. Those are all key factors in the Umoja family which helped me tremendously.”
She also took an African Studies course from Umoja faculty Walter Turner. “He is outstanding and genuine,” remembered Wells. “He’s got a sense of humor while teaching, which is a skill, but he’s also serious and no joke. He made his class fascinating because of his knowledge and how much he travels and shares his experiences with his students. He has a gift for teaching Ethnic Studies and history. Walter Turner was always very positive. He is one of a kind and influenced me with his professionalism and expertise.”
Wells is infatuated with the power and the styles of microphones and voices. She knows how to engage an audience with her vibrant personality. While at College of Marin, Umoja gave her the opportunity to use her talents in speaking before the Angela Davis’s event, Umoja graduations, and many other functions. Wells felt she had incredible support and encouragement because of the COM Umoja team. It was exactly what she needed to be outrageously successful in reaching her goals.
“In Umoja, it’s always, ‘You can do it! You must win!’” stated Wells. “They want you to be fearless. Umoja instills confidence and courage from start to finish with their process of learning. Umoja creates a positive, optimistic vision for its students, which is mentally and physically beneficial for your educational needs. You develop and grow amazingly when you work closely with Umoja. In Umoja, I felt very motivated and energized. And kudos and much appreciation for my advocate, friend, and motivator Rinetta who was always there to converse with during this outstanding journey.”
Lastly, Wells has had her Buddhist practice that has helped her stay anchored for the past 36 years. It has helped her remain grounded and focused towards pursuing her goals. Wells transferred to San Francisco State where she graduated with almost a 4.0 and made the Dean’s List. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Radio Broadcasting and Electronic Communication Arts in Spring 2020 just as the pandemic shifted her last few months to remote learning.
She made it through. Now she’s ready to start her new career. Yet the pandemic halted a lot of the opportunities in radio. Never one to let an obstacle keep her from pressing forward, she began getting the equipment together to start her own podcast. Wells is now doing a newswriting internship with a Bay Area radio station and is taking voice over classes for commercials and narration, and conga lessons.
When asked what advice she would give a current COM Umoja student, Wells said, “stay in it to win it. You will be so rewarded in the long run. Yes, it can be difficult, but challenges and obstacles are nothing but golden opportunities to help you flourish. You must keep in mind your past has a lot to do with your present, and your present has so much to do with your future. The process is always the challenge, so keep an open mind to be fearless. Have the attitude that you can make the impossible possible and don’t be afraid to awaken that greatness that you have within yourself. Work that unlimited-esteem and remember you have what it takes to fulfill each and every desire and to become extraordinarily happy.”
Find our first story on Umoja here.
Discover how College of Marin Umoja Community can help you succeed at marin.edu/umoja.
To support the COM Umoja program, please donate. All donations go directly to the program and student scholarships and are tax-deductible.