By Max Shatz
CCC Journalism Program

Many factors may make a professor one of your favorites: They’re funny, the class is easy, they don’t take attendance until the end of class. Conversely, what makes Professor Jaime Vona an exemplary educator is much deeper than that.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, a young Vona attended Archbishop Ryan High School in Northeast Philadelphia. Raised by her parents with her two sisters, one brother and multitudes of aunts, uncles and cousins living on the same block, Vona was surrounded by her loving family. But Vona recalls a certain sadness to being born and raised in Philadelphia.

“Nobody has any real high hopes for you to succeed,” she says. “Because of where I came from, I needed to excel to get out of my situation. There are lots of lawyers and doctors in Philly, but most of them weren’t born there.”

However, unlike many who would consign themselves to failure from this mindset, it instead drove her fervently to improve herself and forge a good life for herself. She attended Philadelphia University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in science, and later graduated from Chestnut Hill College with a master’s degree in counseling, where she was honored as Summa Cum Laude.

It was only then that Vona, a 24-year-old with a master’s degree, no children and no life experience decided that she wanted to become an educator. Desiring applicable real-world experiences, Vona began teaching at Montgomery County College and Camden County College. Soon, this evolved into a passion.

“Now that I’ve made it, I want to give back. When I look at students, I want them to see beyond themselves,” explains Vona.

In this way, she has inspired many of her students. A prime example is Brianne Polakoff, a former student of Vona. Polakoff was so touched by Vona’s unique approach to education and her devotion to her students that she composed a letter of nomination for Vona to receive Camden County College’s annual Teaching Excellence Award in 2011. Vona won the award.

Polakoff wrote, with the concurrence of the 96 other signers of the letter, “She offers to help whenever possible. She keeps in touch with previous students offering recommendation letters or references for their future. Having Professor Vona as a teacher has not only been a privilege but an honor. She is a teacher that changes students’ lives, the type of teacher students remember as being pivotal pieces to their success. I don’t believe even this nomination is equivalent to the excellence of Professor Vona. I believe words are not adequate and a person must experience her dedication, persistence, and joy for her job and students firsthand.”

Now, with a husband and two daughters, Vona keeps busy with her family along with the numerous psychology courses she teaches at Camden County. However, her occupation is work in name only. Says Vona, “I care about the success of my students above any paycheck. My work is completely selfish. I would work for free if I had to.”

And, she encourages everyone, “No matter who tries to tell you that you can’t, you can.”

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