When you sit down with Seattle Urban Academy junior Andre Ruth and science teacher Chris Bhang you can feel the chemistry between them. They chat easily about assignments, laugh at jokes, and put each other at ease. Their relationship has more substance than student and teacher. They are friends.
Andre, 17, started at SUA two and a half years ago, and he shows a confidence in his decision to be here. “I didn’t have an idea before,” he said about his education before SUA. “Now, I’ve got my focus down.” Andre’s focus catalyzed when he started his first chemistry class with Mr. Bhang, who introduced new concepts in fresh ways. “He made chemistry feel so interesting,” he said. “The way he introduced things actually caught my attention.” These engagements led not only to a successful understanding of the subject, but a friendship with Mr. Bhang that remains today.
“[Mr.] Bhang is the [kind of] teacher that when I’m having a bad day I can get advice and talk to him. I can trust him with that,” Andre said. The ability to build genuine friendships with students drew Chris Bhang to teach at SUA five years ago. He was coming off two years working and volunteering in urban neighborhoods in Chicago and Philadelphia after having completed a BS in Microbiology from the University of Washington and MA in International Development at Eastern University in Philadelphia.
SUA’s mission and small class sizes allowed him to get to know the students on a personal level. “I admire my students because life forced them to mature and grow up much faster than me: as teenagers, they know loss and homelessness, addiction and hunger; they know what it is like to be the parents of children and how it feels to be abandoned by their own. In many ways they teach me.” At SUA, Bhang’s role as educator, advocate, and friend are allowed to holistically blend together.
Two years into his position at SUA, Bhang’s passion for social justice and youth advocacy led him to become a teacher by day and a Seattle University law student by night. Now, after a full day at SUA, Bhang attends classes four nights a week in hopes of using his law degree to work in education reform and policy. While he admits it is a struggle to balance full-time work, school, and family, he believes it is important to the greater mission. “It’s the balance of pursuing justice,” he said. “It’s personal and systemic. That’s what Jesus did. He challenged high authority while keeping a close-knit group of friends. My students keep me grounded.”
Andre is one student in particular who keeps Mr. Bhang’s feet firmly on the ground. His influence and teaching style gave Andre a confidence in science he never had before. In fact, Andre hopes to study chemistry or psychology in college thanks to the exposure Mr. Bhang gave him.
Overall, the two share a chemistry that leaves each one rooting for the other. “I couldn’t do what he does, but he definitely works hard,” Andre said of Mr. Bhang’s balancing act of teaching and law school.
Mr. Bhang feels the same towards Andre. “Andre has experienced a lot of struggles, but he is the kind of guy you want to root for at this school,” he said. “He has come a long way—it’s impressive.” They are both impressive indeed.
For a handful of years, volunteers from UPC’s Women’s Intergenerational Fellowship (WIF) group have faithfully served the SUA community by serving lunch to the students and staff once a week.
“To my way of thinking, we WIF volunteers who work the lunch service are each but a small piece in a beautiful jigsaw puzzle. And being an inconsequential part of a big picture is truly a wonderful experience. We help it become whole. For me, the opportunity to serve at Seattle Urban Academy is a gift—it gives me joy. I am transported away from my daily lists, goals, relational anxieties, and imperfect achievements, and I get to step into a different world where the natterings of my mind are quieted because I am busy witnessing transformation at work.
“The teachers, the staff, and the more experienced students shape the newcomers. If one student in the lunch line grumbles at the casserole, another student is likely to speak up and remind the first to be thankful. A student who once showed a little attitude in my presence (not directed at me but noticed by me) was, one year later, immediately responsive to my admiring comment vis-à-vis an intricately tied headwrap. She promptly unwound it and tied it again, commenting and illustrating, step by step. The difference was trust. She was not trusting me personally, but she trusted that she was respected and loved.
“I could go on about the many little moments I have witnessed, dots to the letter ‘I,’ if you will. We lunch ladies are neither big nor important, but we do enable the staff of SUA to do their work without worrying about this one particular detail.”
“Although volunteering as a lunch server is a small—tiny—part of my monthly schedule, I always feel the staff are welcoming and appreciative. Also, because we do this lunch service as a pair, I’ve become acquainted with other women. I have carpooled, talked, and shared a few hours with some of these volunteers, which has been meaningful. We also learn by whom and where the donated lunch is made, and we understand that all the hot lunches are made by caring people who also want to give to these young high-school–age students.
“SUA is a special place where the common goal is to help the students learn, adjust to difficult issues, and graduate. The opportunity for WIF members to serve in a small way towards their well-being is so special. You volunteer thinking you are giving something, but in fact you receive much in return.”