Oakland International teacher wins “Unsung Hero” award

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A parade of ING executives, students and school staff marched into Thi Bui’s Oakland International High School classroom on Wednesday morning to make a surprise announcement. Her 11th graders paused to look up from their computers at the spectacle as three men in suits walked towards their teacher, followed by four of their classmates holding up signs that read “ING Unsung Heroes” and a large mysterious item wrapped in brown paper.

“We’re here today to talk about one of the top three winners in the whole United States,” said Bernie Heffernon, a vice president for the financial services firm ING, who had traveled from Kansas City for the presentation. Heffernon said that Bui applied to ING’s Unsung Heroes program earlier this spring, which rewards K-12 teachers who develop creative and innovative lessons. As everyone stared at the mystery package, Heffernon said that not only was Bui chosen as one of 100 teachers to receive $2,000 for a classroom project, but she was the program’s third place winner and would be awarded an additional $5,000.

Amidst a suspenseful rustling of brown paper, the students helped Bui unwrap the package, revealing a giant check made out for $7,000 from ING. “I’m totally stunned,” Bui said. “I had no idea this was happening today, or at all.”

Bui, the school’s arts and computer teacher, won the award for her “Nation of Immigrants: An Oral History” project. With the grant, her students can now make a website featuring a world map with links to stories about how they came to America, told using their own audio and video, as well as photography, illustration and poetry.

“When I first met our students, I was surprised by how little they valued their stories,” Bui said. “It made me worried: What if nobody ever asks them what happened to them when they came to the States or when they left their country? Will their stories just be lost?”

At Oakland International High School, the more than 300 students are English language learners. The majority of them immigrated to the U.S. with their families in recent years, some as refugees escaping conflict in their homelands. Over 30 countries are represented among the student body.

Bui herself is an immigrant; her family came to the United States from Vietnam when she was 3 years old and settled in San Diego. She has been teaching at Oakland International since the school opened in 2007, and is the only teacher from Oakland to be awarded one of the top three Unsung Heroes prizes since ING established the annual grant program in 1995.

A few years ago, Bui began urging students in her art classes to tell their sides of the story through illustrations. In February, she helped publish a four-year collection of student-drawn comics depicting their immigration experiences. The book, We Are Oakland International, can now be found in branches of the Oakland Public Library and is sold online by Amazon.

With the new project, Bui wants to use the Internet to make students’ stories more accessible and let them try their hands at multimedia technologies. Student Azucena Cuevas, 16, who is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, said she had never seen a computer before coming to Oakland International last year. She said using the computer in Bui’s class is now one of her favorite things to do and she looks forward to creating stories through video.

Daniel Martinez, 16, is another student in Bui’s computer class who witnessed the check presentation. “It was great,” he said. “$7,000 is, like, a lot of money, and it’s going to help us, too.”

Martinez’ family came to the U.S. from El Salvador. When asked why he thought sharing immigration stories was important, he said, “It’s important because we all had pretty rough lives in our countries. Some other guys have come by the desert and they’ve told me it’s really tough. They hoped not to get caught by the immigration and then they get caught and go to jail. Then they try again.”

Martinez said he hoped the new project would show that “we should be more liberal with our immigrants and give them more opportunities.”

Bui intends to use the $7,000 grant to purchase a few Flip video cameras that students can use to record themselves and family members at home, as well as video editing software and a laptop and a microphone to create an “oral history recording station” at school so students can interview each other.

“We wouldn’t exist without outside help,” said Bui, who applies to two or three grant programs a year. “The budget crisis has been really rough.”

Oakland International Principal Carmelita Reyes, who was there to celebrate in Bui’s award, said about 90 percent of the school’s funding goes directly to teachers’ salaries. “We have virtually nothing left over at the end of the day to support classrooms,” she said. “It takes donations and mini-grants to fund all those extra cool things that make learning fun and memorable.”

One Comment

  1. Birdy

    What a heartwarming story.

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