Ink and impact
- November 16, 2023
- Geoffrey Yeh, UCI social science ’00, has been honored with the Inspiration Award from the American Writers Museum in Chicago
UCI social science alumnus Geoffrey Yeh ’00 was inspired to pursue teaching after 9/11. At the time, he was working in the game testing department for Sony Interactive Entertainment. He was paid well and on track for management, but after he saw two planes crash into the Twin Towers, his perspective changed. He couldn’t see himself playing video games for the rest of his life. He yearned for a career with more meaning.
Fast forward 22 years. On September 11, 2023, Yeh received the Inspiration Award from the American Writers Museum at their annual benefit, hosted at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. The award was presented by his former student, comedian and Emmy-nominated writer Karen Chee.
Chee, a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, was given the opportunity to nominate a teacher for the award. During her speech at the ceremony, Chee remarked that Yeh had such an impact on her, that her life could be divided into “Pre-Yeh and post-Yeh,” or as she joked, “the A.D. and B.C. of my era.”
A changed world
“After 9/11 I evaluated my life and what I wanted to do with it. I wanted to do something that would change the world,” he says.
During this time, Yeh contemplated a lot of possible paths, including joining the military. He also read a lot of books. He read classics he should have read in high school and found that what he read really moved him.
“When you’re seeking knowledge, what you find can really change you,” he says.
As he contemplated his future, what Yeh learned as a UCI undergrad resurfaced. What he had studied in his social sciences classes had broadened his world view. He thought about the year and a half he spent working for the Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP), the UC-wide program to promote college readiness in underserved schools. As an EAOP advisor, Yeh had felt for the first time that he could really make a difference. So, when a friend said he was going to go into teaching, Yeh followed suit.
“That first year, I put everything into teaching. I wanted to show the world who we really were and help create leaders,” he says.
Inspiration and influence
Yeh was in his first year teaching when Chee came into his class. Yeh was hired by Bowditch Middle School in San Mateo-Foster City School District, which also happens to be the school he attended after his family moved to California from the Midwest.
He had his 6th grade language arts class read Animal Farm by George Orwell and analyze rap lyrics from Tupac, Nas, and Dr. Dre. In her speech, Chee noted that it was Yeh who first introduced her to political satire, something she now does for a living.
“You could tell he really respected his students and genuinely believed we were capable of a lot. I think because of that, we also believed it, and so we were. I think it’s genuinely special and rare to have an adult who is not a family member, who is there for you, and really believes in you,” Chee said in her speech.
It’s no wonder that Yeh has inspired a writer. When he’s not teaching, he spends a lot of his free time reading and writing. Currently, he’s working on a fantasy novel. Before that, he dabbled in screenwriting and self-published a couple of graphic novels based on a character he created while a student in the same class that he now teaches.
Lessons in empathy
Yeh has a lot of loyalty to UCI. During his senior year of high school, he failed calculus. Since admission to UCI is contingent upon receiving passing grades senior year, Yeh panicked. When he called the admissions office, he was told he’d be able to enroll if he retook the class during the summer. Fortunately, he passed and was able to enter with the rest of his freshman class.
But then, freshman year, due to personal issues, his academic struggles persisted. His GPA was so low, he was told he was dismissed from the university. He was crushed and lost. He reached out to the ombudsman’s office, who in turn, communicated with the administration to give his case special consideration. He was allowed to return sophomore year on probation.
“The UC system gives you the freedom to figure things out by yourself, but they also have empathy. They saved me. They gave me second chances,” he says.
Perhaps, this is the reason Yeh became such an excellent teacher. He experienced the power of empathy and second chances and pays this compassion forward to his students. He prides himself with being open and honest. He tries to see every student for who they are and who they aspire to be.
“I felt like a misfit my whole life and now I can make a positive impact. It’s so satisfying to see my students grow up,” he says.
Since that first-year teaching, Yeh has had to shift some of the focus of his lessons. In addition to covering academics, he also spends a lot of time buoying his students’ mental health. With 180 students, this is a difficult feat.
“Teachers have had it so hard since Covid,” he says.
This makes the recognition from the American Writers Museum especially significant.
When he told the other teachers at his school that he would be receiving the award, their faces lit up. At first, Yeh was confused by their happiness and affection. It was all so humbling.
“And then I realized,” says Yeh, “they loved it because we teachers finally got a win, and we all share in that win. Everyone can use this now.”
-Jill Kato for UCI School of Social Sciences
-pictured: Geoffrey Yeh ’00 receives the Inspiration Award from the American Writers Museum. Presenting him with the honor was his former middle school student, the comedian and Emmy-nominated writer Karen Chee.