David Yama got tired of low-paying jobs and started community college at age 27. He’s surprised himself with how much he’s already achieved.
David Yama dropped out of school when he was 14, and by the time he was in his mid-20s had worked enough odd jobs to last a lifetime.
He’d volunteered as a sailor on a replica of a historic tall sailing ship, worked as a set crew member on a major motion picture, bagged groceries at QFC, sold cars at a dealership on Aurora Avenue, pulled shots as a barista and bartended at a swanky hotel.
But nothing clicked until Yama went back to school to finish his education — where his work ethic has started to pay off.
Yama, 30, was honored this month as one of the top community-college scholars in the nation by Phi Theta Kappa, an international honor society for community-college students.
For his academic, leadership and civic work, he was first picked by a panel of local judges to be the state’s New Century Scholar, then named to the All-USA Academic Team. He was one of just 20 community-college students nationwide to receive the latter distinction.
Yama, who has a 3.96 grade-point average and also does volunteer work at a University of Washington research lab, will graduate with an associate degree this June from South Seattle College, one of the city’s three community colleges. He hopes to transfer to a four-year school — either the University of Washington or the University of California, Berkeley — and eventually earn his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. As part of the Phi Theta Kappa honor, he received a scholarship to further his education.
His instructors say he’s a highly motivated, driven student who often takes a leadership role in class. He’s also a genuinely nice guy.
“He’s very capable, pretty intense — but also really humble, and laid back, and personable,” said South Seattle College chemistry instructor Jake Ashcraft, who said Yama is known for starting and coordinating study groups among science students.
Yama credits the college, located in the West Seattle area, with inspiring him to move beyond a GED and into the sciences.
“Once I started here — the environment was right, it was a 180 from what I thought I was capable of,” Yama said.
His journey from dropout to academic star started in Ocean Shores, in the North Beach School District, where more than 70 percent of students qualify for federally sponsored free or reduced-price lunches. Only about a third go to college after high-school graduation.
Yama has four siblings, and family life was turbulent. His father was an alcoholic and eventually abandoned the family. Yama says some of his teachers decided at an early age that he was a troublemaker. He had run-ins with counselors and administrators, and was held back a grade. When he was 14, he dropped out.
A year later, he persuaded the captain of the Lady Washington, a tall ship that docked in Aberdeen, to let him volunteer on a sailing trip to California. Eventually he worked on other tall ships — experience that led to a job on the set of the 2003 movie “Master and Commander,” filmed in Baja, Mexico, when he was 18.
The job was boring, but it paid well. After nine months, Yama returned to Washington with money in the bank, but no job or specific skills. He hopped from job to job. He knew it wasn’t adding up to anything.
“I was starting to get really tired — I was jumping from boat to boat, basically,” he said.
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Although his lack of a high-school diploma hadn’t kept him from getting minimum-wage jobs, Yama knew he could do better if he went back to school. He wanted, at the very least, to complete his GED, or high-school equivalency degree. When he was 27, he started taking classes at South Seattle College.
GED instructor Jane Harness said many of her students had bad experiences in school and lack confidence in their academic skills. They’re often guarded and insecure. Yama was no exception.
“It’s hard, making that decision to go back to school when you have failed previously,” she said. But with Yama, “this little switch turned on for him, and he became really determined.”
Harness said Yama was remarkable not only for the way he reached out to get help when he needed it, but also the way he helped other classmates when he grew confident with his mastery of the material.
Ashcraft, the chemistry instructor, said Yama excels at self-assessment — knowing his strengths and weaknesses — and he organized study groups where his fellow students could get together to talk science, a proven strategy to improve comprehension.
Yama recognizes that, at 30, he’s better able to concentrate on academics than he was when he was younger. But he also gives a lot of credit to the college: “Here, they’re very interested in your success, and willing to help.”
Two years ago, Yama was accepted into a University of Washington program called Building Bridges to Bioengineering, which gives community-college students experience in biomedical and bioengineering labs. The work paid a summer stipend, and he’s been a volunteer at a UW lab in South Lake Union ever since.
He also tutors at the nonprofit Neighborhood House, which offers aid to refugee and immigrant families, and he has helped clean up the Duwamish River, planted trees for the nonprofit Nature Consortium and donated blood platelets.
Yama doesn’t know if he’s lucky or just reaping the rewards of hard work. But his instructors say they’re not surprised by his success — to Harness and Ashcraft, it’s that combination of a strong work ethic and a generous spirit that has brought Yama to where he is today.
“He’s an amazing guy, he really is,” Harness said. “He has a really kind, warm heart.”