Mandy Vu, a high school social studies teacher at Summit Atlas, teaches his students that discovering one’s purpose in life can take unexpected turns. 

Mandy understands this from his own lived experience.  

He grew up in the Rainier Vista neighborhood, one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the country. After graduating from high school, with no clear vision for his future, he enrolled in community college. To make ends meet, he took a job that got him working with kids for the first time – at the same Boys and Girls Club that he attended growing up.  He mentored a student whose father worked at the University of Washington–Keoke Silvano. 

Keoke believed in Mandy before Mandy believed in himself. Gradually, the father of the son Mandy was mentoring became his own mentor.  

Keoke pushed him to get a 4-year degree and coached him through the application process, and he was accepted to the University of Washington. But new family responsibilities and health challenges threw up unexpected roadblocks. He dropped out of school, and settled into a series of low-wage jobs, including the night shift at UPS. But he still had the fire to make a better life for himself, his family, and kids like him. He eventually re-enrolled in the University of Washington, attending classes during the day and delivering baked goods in the evening, often getting home at 2 AM. What he lacked in sleep, he compensated for with clarity of purpose and commitment.  

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, his mentor Keoke – himself a former Summit employee –  told Mandy about a paraprofessional role that had just opened up at Summit.  Mandy began his Summit career as a paraprofessional supporting students through remote learning during the pandemic.  

Summit Atlas principal Dan Effland immediately recognized Mandy’s “natural gift” at building relationships with students, and encouraged him to apply for an open classroom position.  To do that, he would need to get accepted to an alternative certification program.  

Dan connected Mandy with U-ACT, an accelerated certification program at the University of Washington. Mandy recalls that after his interview, the program director told him: “You are destined to become a teacher, and I am going to make sure you get there.” 

Mandy was able to teach while pursuing his certification. And,, he has evolved into a highly effective teacher who is beloved in the school community.  

Without an alternative program like U-ACT, Mandy would never have become a teacher. He believes the opportunity cost is simply too high for low-income adults to return to school to get a traditional education degree.  He believes he is successful in the classroom because of – not despite – his untraditional background.  

There are many things that Mandy loves about the teaching at Summit Atlas. The project-based learning, the focus on critical thinking, the deep relationships forged between students and teachers. Summit offers students what he wished he had gotten in high school – mentorship and support in finding a clear path for the future, even if it’s not going directly into a 4-year college.   

Raven Bordman is a junior and one of Mandy’s mentees. He credits his guidance with helping him grow as both a student and as an employee in his job.  But most importantly, he has helped him identify his life’s passion – art – and come up with a plan for life after high school.  

As for Mandy’s future, he’s in the process of completing his master’s degree at the University of Washington. Balancing teaching with his coursework and his responsibilities as a father is really hard. Sometimes, he needs a boost. And he finds it in the most obvious of places – his students.

Next spring, in the span of a few weeks, Mandy Vu will hand his first crop of mentees their HS diplomas and then go on to receive his own diploma – a Master’s Degree – from the University of Washington.   

Mandy’s untraditional journey is not only a powerful story, but one his students can look to emulate in finding a purpose.