Sam Soun

samSocial Studies & Science Paraeducator
Our social studies and science paraeducator has one very strong philosophy in life and that is that “every individual success is based on a collective effort.”

“Once upon a time, there’s always going to be someone who inspired us, or supported us, or gave us an idea, or shared an experience with us. It could be anything that made us who we are,” said Sam Soun, the paraeducator in our high school program at the main campus.

Sam feels confident about this philosophy because his own life has served as strong testament to its validity. Sam, who was born in the war-torn country of Cambodia, spent several years of his youth in a Thailand refugee camp trying to escape the war. Eventually, Sam’s family sought refuge in the United States and Sam was transported to the Tenderloin of San Francisco.

Because of this, Sam knows that if it had not been for several people along the way, he may not be where he is today. One organization in particular gave Sam the tools he needed to pull himself out of his circumstances – one organization which was not dissimilar to Highlands.

Sam was first introduced to this organization as a child, going in for food or clothing donations with his mother, but later on in life, when his father had left the home and his mother passed away, the organization took notice of Sam once again.

“They remembered me,” Sam said. “And they just asked like, ‘Hey we see you doing this or that and making changes…would you like to be a part of this program?’”

By belonging to this community, Sam was given the means to remove himself from the chaos that had once been his life. He began working multiple jobs, got custody of his younger sister at the age of 19, and acquired his GED.

“To be honest with you, when I dropped out of school in sixth grade, I never thought I would get a GED and college seemed far, far, far off – beyond imagination really,” he said.

What once seemed only a dream, Sam saw as a reality when he moved to the green hills of Eugene, Oregon and began attending community college. This move was due to two more components of the “collective effort” which had influenced his life thus far. They were his life partner, who was moving to Oregon to do her PhD at the University of Oregon, and a philanthropic sociology professor, who had spent time at Sam’s community organization teaching college courses to youth growing up in the Tenderloin.

“Once I left the hood, things just changed for me,” Sam said. “And I think it was a positive change because I got out of an environment that was sucking everything out of me.”

Once he made that move, he started to find success. After about a year, he transferred to the University of Oregon where he acquired his Bachelor’s in Sociology.

While Sam felt the move gave him the perspective, he needed to continue moving forward with his own life, he still feels very connected to and grateful for the experiences he had growing up in San Francisco’s Tenderloin.

“I did benefit a lot from that environment. Based on the people I met, I have learned to become very resilient – based on the things I went through, based on the things the neighborhood threw at me,” Sam recalls. “To have a different perspective in life – to be able to analyze and observe how social systems work is a positive thing. And I like to focus on the positive.”

Sam says the influence of that sociology professor in particular allowed him to view his circumstance through an outsider’s lens – it allowed him to subtract himself from the equation.

“From being a part of it, I can see that the inner city level is simply a basis where it’s kind of like a containment zone,” he said. “A place to contain specific, unresolved issues from spreading to the outer, more affluent communities and neighborhoods. It makes me really upset sometimes to ponder about this. ‘Why do you bring people into places like where I lived?’ You see the pattern everywhere, right? You see refugees by the masses coming into the hood – being told, ‘Hey come in, come in, we’ll help you! Opened arms.’ But really you’re offering for someone to enter, but then you’re making them crawl.”

This exact kind of injustice is what brought Sam to apply at Highlands as a paraeducator.

Sam, who had a strong background in social work and event coordination, had begun a career in education before realizing just how much he missed the social work aspect to it all.

“I was visiting my clients, about eight who were Highlands students in partnership with SHRA, and hearing their stories, empowered me. I fed off their energy and the motivation they had to make steps – to make changes, positive changes, to better themselves, and to be positive examples for their peers and their children,” Sam said.

Upon hearing more about Highlands, Sam realized that a career at Highlands would set him up in an industry which addressed both sides of the coin – education and social service.

“So I started thinking that maybe I should look into this Highlands thing because I like both of those things a whole lot,” Sam said. “I can provide some kind of emotional support, social support, and provide academic services. And it’s something more tangible. When you can provide people with something like a high school diploma or a college certificate. It’s tangible. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in life, but what it does is it helps increase your likelihood of success.”

Sam has only been at Highlands for two months, but he says he can already appreciate the camaraderie he sees every day.

“People here are willing to lend a hand and pull each other up, and I like that about this school, “ he said. “I love that attitude that all of our students and staff have – that we stick together, we keep showing up, we keep working, and we work hard individually and collectively.”