But sometimes home is where you find it, and Vinnie found it in Sandy, Utah, miles from his Samoan homeland, and in the caring, supportive teachers and counselors at Alta High. “Their expectations were high for me, and I’m so grateful for that,” he says.
Vinnie first enrolled at Alta two years ago as a sophomore. He and his siblings had just moved from America Samoa to live with an aunt and uncle. “That’s a huge culture shock, a huge change in his life, and he just jumped in with two feet,” says school counselor Kelsie Court.
The transition wasn’t easy. There were plenty of ups and downs, Vinnie says. But with perseverance, he exceled in his Honors courses and landed a position on the football team. “He impressed me with his quiet leadership and work ethic,” says Alta business teacher Kim Batey. “Nowadays students are so focused on grades, and it’s not about the learning. But Vinnie wants to learn…and that is so gratifying as a teacher.”
Earlier this year, Vinnie encountered a few setbacks that threatened to derail him from his academic goals. Sidelined by a football injury and experiencing some trouble at home, Vinnie recalls, “things got a little bit rough.”
He retreated into himself and stopped attending some of his classes. Worried staff and faculty reached out, offering up their classrooms after hours so that Vinnie could access computers to complete his homework. They shared their lunches and, when Vinnie was open to it, words of advice. But mostly, they were just there to lend a listening ear.
“Vinnie doesn’t ask for anything, or want to put anyone out. But he’s the first to extend a helping hand,” says Court, who credits Vinnie, and his never-say-die attitude, for turning things around. “Pretty much everything about him inspires me; his entire outlook on life, everything he has been through. I’ve seen a lot of students go through even a fraction of what he’s gone through and they’ve just folded.”
Vinnie says he’s “grateful for the chaos” in his life, because, “it’s made me who I am today.” He finds daily motivation in his family and his surrogate Alta High “mothers” whom he wants to make proud. His advice to other students: “Don’t be afraid to go outside your boundaries. Be uncomfortable.” And don’t be ashamed to ask for help if you need it. “It’s fun to have friends,” he says.
This summer, Vinnie will proudly join his peers on the commencement stage to receive his diploma. Next stop: Southern Utah University where he’ll explore a career in counseling.
Through his determination and hard work, he has demonstrated that he has what it takes to succeed at college, and beyond, says Canyons Education Foundation Officer Laura Barlow. For these reasons, and more, Vinnie is the recipient of the Foundation’s $2,500 Rising Star Scholarship, one of six scholarships awarded this year to deserving students.
The Foundation announced the following scholarship winners at its Spring fundraising Gala, held at Corner Canyon High on Thursday, April 27. Money raised at the event will support student scholarships and grants to fund teachers’ ideas for enhancing classroom instruction.
Rising Star Scholarship • $2.500
Vinnie Vala’au, Alta High
Bright Star Scholarships • $1,000
Jennifer Pomeroy, Alta High
Cassandra Hatcher, Brighton High
Hailee Thorn, Corner Canyon
Danielle Coccimiglio, Hillcrest
Ismael Zarate-Guillen, Jordan
Canyons Foundation Gala PhotosFind this gallery on Flikr