Profile picture and text: 50 FOR 50 STORIES: Story #22: Tom ChanStory #22: Tom Chan

This story about Tom Chan was originally written in 2018. Today we are re-sharing it to highlight this special alumnus as part of our anniversary series!

On the front porch of the JEP house hangs an elongated crimson colored banner that reads “Service is Education.” It’s the Joint Educational Project’s pedagogy of service-learning that can be summed up in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

In 1988, as a junior, Tom Chan transferred to USC’s Marshall School of Business from UC Riverside. After participating in JEP his first semester, Chan’s passion for teaching was ignited. He realized his indelible heart for service. It was this JEP experience that would positively alter the trajectory of his career path and change his life forever.

Excited about his newfound interest, Chan changed his major to Liberal Arts and eventually received his undergraduate degree in Communications, Social Science, after a two-year assignment in Thailand with the Peace Corps. Even though his parents were not in agreement with his newfound profession, Chan continued to advance himself academically and pursue a career in education. He received his MA from USC in Curriculum and Teaching in1996. He later completed an additional MA in Educational Administration from CSUN.

Chan is enthusiastic about his current position as Director of Special Projects and Student Services in the Fillmore Unified School District, located in the city of Fillmore, in the Santa Clara River Valley and Ventura County, California. His office provides services for students with disabilities at the seven schools within his district, for which he feels he is better suited for than from his initial interests in marketing and the business world.

Chan is married to Jackie Larco, a USC alumna, whom he met at the JEP house while working as a program assistant (PA). She also works in education as a kindergarten teacher. They have two children, Maddy (16) and Mathew (14).

In an extensive phone interview, Chan was eager to talk about the epiphany he received during his JEP experience and how grateful he is that it completely re-shaped the course of his life…for the better.

Blount: How did you first learn about JEP?

Chan: I was a junior and had just transferred into Marshall School of Business. I had marketing classes and a typical business curriculum. I was enrolled in a business law course and Patty Ramos, the JEP PA Coordinator, did a presentation introducing JEP. The instructor offered ½ credit towards the final for students who successfully completed JEP. Everyone was business minded and focused, no one was really paying attention to Ramos’ presentation until she mentioned the extra credit.

Blount: What can you recall about your first JEP assignment?

Chan: My first assignment was with a mini team. It was a more traditional and formal JEP assignment. There were three to four students assigned to a team. It was my first time in a classroom environment. The students were second or third graders, I don’t really recall. I do remember really liking and enjoying the experience, although my  initial reason for signing up was solely to get the extra credit. I don’t remember the subject we taught, but I was heavily impacted by the condition of the school. It didn’t look super nice. It was an inner city school and had lots of non-English speaking students. Seeing the students light up when we walked in to present our lessons affected me the most and had the most beneficial impact on me.

Blount: Was there a defining JEP moment for you?

Chan: If we weren’t required to stop and carefully reflect on the experience, it may have passed me by. Like any other college course, I simply wanted to complete the class, get my grade and move on as fast as possible.  I truly believe I wouldn’t have recognized the impact it was having on me, or more importantly, the impact I was having on others, had we not had those reflective essays and discussions. One time, I was not able to make my assignment, I didn’t think the students really cared until I was told by the instructor how disappointed the students were that I didn’t come. That hit me hard. These kids didn’t have the resources we had.  I knew I couldn’t let them down and that I needed to keep my commitment. It was that moment when I realized the students are getting something out of me being here. There was a frustration too, it was that I realized, if I’m going to be working in this environment, then I must prioritize their needs. It was that moment that brought me to a crossroad and  I didn’t know if business was what I wanted to do anymore. I liked being in the classroom. The feeling of servicing the needs of others was more gratifying than crunching numbers.

Blount: Why did you choose to become a JEP Program Assistant?

I became a Program Assistant in 1990. Ramos, thought I would make a great PA and encouraged me to apply. When I became a PA, I saw firsthand how JEP inspired other students and helped them to develop their passion for service. That’s one of the characteristics of service-learning and the goal of JEP. I saw different phases of JEP. It’s an honor being a part of a team of people. There are about twenty-five to thirty PA’s that oversee roughly eight hundred participants each semester. As PA’s, we encouraged JEP participants to be aware of the experience they were having with reflective essays that would stimulate thinking about how they were affecting the community and the impact the community was having on them. I don’t recall with much specificity, but I tried to help volunteers capture the essential importance of the work, to savor the experience and reflect on what it was doing for them and the kids they were working with, just as it had impacted me. It was like turning on a light bulb with certain students. Even those who completed their assignments just to get the grade got something important out of it, and gave something back in return.

Blount: When was the moment you realized that JEP unlocked a door into your future?

Chan: After my first JEP assignment, I changed my major from Business to Liberal Arts and decided to actively pursue Journalism. I worked at the Daily Trojan. My next JEP assignment was at Manual Arts High School. There, I worked with students on their newspaper. It was then that I knew I wanted to do more. I signed up for the Peace Corps and left February 1991. I spent two years in Thailand.

Blount: Can you share a little of your Peace Corps trip to Thailand and how participating in JEP was a benefit and gave you an edge there? 

Chan: Because I was a Liberal Arts major, I was given general assignments. Since I had experience teaching in the classroom through JEP, I was bumped to Health Education and English. Teaching became the tool that allowed me to become immediately useful. As I learned to speak the language in Thailand, I became more useful at other things. I was assigned to teaching English at high schools and camps. They encouraged me to go back and finish my undergraduate degree. I was two classes away from earning my undergraduate degree. The two classes were language courses. Having my degree allowed me to be able to apply for a position at The Oregonian, a newspaper that expanded into the entire state of Oregon.  It was an appealing opportunity. My intent was to graduate and go write for it. However, when I returned from Thailand in 1993, I said, “No more journalism, I want to teach.” After being in Thailand so long, I was fluent in the language and with a superior score, tested out of the language classes. That’s how I completed my undergraduate degree in Communications, Social Science. The next year, I applied for the Peace Corps Fellowship Program and was accepted. The award covered half the tuition for my masters. I also got my first teaching assignment in the Los Angeles Unified School District. It was a first/ second-grade combo class. Jackie and I got married, too.

Blount: You started the master’s program, were a newly hired teacher and got married all in the same year? Talk about piling it on. Was there a JEP component that helped you juggle all of that?

Chan: The PA’s are full-time students so juggling work and studies was a given. Jackie was a teacher at the time so we were both able to relate to each other’s work, just like PA’s supporting each other at JEP. So, yes, now that I think about it, JEP did help me learn to compartmentalize and manage my time and nurture relationships.

Blount:  Can you share how you met your wife, Jackie, through JEP?

Chan: We met in the JEP house. It was off hours, around 8pm. The JEP house was a hangout for us. It was a home away from home for me because by that time, I was a commuter student who drove in every day from La Habra. So, I hung out at the house all the time, especially in the evenings. After a friendly football game against UCLA, I went back to the house. I was pretty dirty after playing in the game. Jackie happened to be there with one of the other PA’s who was her former roommate. She introduced us. They were both teachers in Boyle Heights. Jackie had just graduated from USC with a degree in International Relations. The connection was there. I had already submitted my application to the Peace Corps and I knew I was leaving. I invited her to the JEP Christmas party. She attended with me. Jackie surprised me by showing up unexpectedly to LAX the day I was leaving for Thailand. She also came to visit me while I was in Thailand. We traveled throughout India and Thailand together. When I returned from Thailand we were dating. I was sure I wanted to marry her. We both discussed it and agreed we didn’t want her to be referred to as ‘Jackie Chan,’ so she kept her maiden name, Jackie Larco. 

Blount: Can you name JEP practices that prepared you for your current job as Director of Special Projects and Student Services?

Chan: A servant’s attitude.  Dick Cone, the Executive Director at the time, and Ramos were great leaders because they championed that attitude in everything they did and said.  They made us feel part of a family (trips to Big Bear, Christmas parties) that was also part of something crucial and important.  My leadership in the programs and with the staff for which I’m responsible in Fillmore reflects that exact same value today. JEP literally changed my career path. If I hadn’t gone there, lives wouldn’t have been impacted. I wouldn’t have the experience I have. I was also a principal for four years in San Gabriel. 30 years later, I realize that every interaction we have with students can potentially leave an indelible mark on them, good or bad.  As a principal I coined them “crucial interactions” and preached to my staff to be keenly aware of this with a heightened level of consciousness, particularly with difficult conversations or when solving problems – one word, one tone, one non-verbal cue can make a lifelong difference with a child.  We all remember those moments in our own lives as young students. So will the kids we work with today. In my current position, we set core values and determine how current actions move us toward our goals. We remind ourselves what we promise and what are we doing to move towards that. It’s very personal, I know names, stories, and most importantly the needs of the students. We offer a citizenship class that is free in response to DACA. It drives what we do, it drives change and decisions.

Blount: What was a defining moment for you in your new career?

Chan: My Dad finally came to accept of my career choice. When I hopped on the plane for Peace Corps, my parents said, “Where did we go wrong as parents?” Years later, my Mom said, “Dad is really proud of you. He sees how you volunteer to do this.”

Blount: Do you ever think about how different your life would be if you hadn’t signed up for JEP?

Chan: If I had never served in JEP, either as a volunteer or PA, I don’t think I would have been brave enough to change my major to Liberal Arts as a junior.  I never would have become a professional journalist, certainly never would have joined the Peace Corps, and never would have chosen education as a career path. Most importantly, I never would have met my beautiful wife and wouldn’t have the privilege of raising my two amazing kids. Did JEP change my life – it sure did!