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Building Connections: Prep Welcomes New Faculty and Staff Members

By Mel Malmberg

New teachers, administrators, and staff joined the Prep community for the 2020-2021 school year.

While they are new to Prep, they bring a wealth of experience, wisdom, and creativity to their positions—especially valuable traits as they create connections with their students and colleagues in this challenging and unexpected year.

Passionate about so many things, but especially education, these new members of the community are finding connections with each other and with students—and enjoying the warm embrace of Prep, even virtually.

Grace Qing is inaugurating the school’s first-ever Chinese language courses, Mandarin 1 and 2. She is also teaching a senior Chinese Culture and Society elective, in English. Her family includes several generations of teachers; she has taught for 10 years in the U.S. and China. Inherent to Ms. Qing’s teaching philosophy is the desire to help students build a direct connection with the language and culture, and she encourages her students to collaborate. “When the project is accomplished, the sense of achievement binds them together as a community,” she says.

Ms. Qing enjoys hiking in forests and mountains, and listening to music, which she calls “the world’s language.” She has recently discovered musicals, and loves to visit national parks and the beach, watch movies, and eat diverse food.

Fun facts: Ms. Qing was born with the name Tsengel Borjigin; her Mongolian first name means happiness or joy. Transliterated to Chinese, her name became Qing Gele, which sounds like her first name, Tsengel. In the U.S., Qing is recognized by her family name, but she goes by Grace Qing.

Erin Thomassen is Prep’s first makerspace coordinator, headquartered in the brand-new Bachmann Collaboration Building’s Dongyun Zhang Family Makerspace. She teaches 7th grade Design Thinking and is the Flintridge Prep Robotics team assistant coach. Previously, she taught AP Calculus, robotics, mathematics, engineering, and choir in Boston and Chicago. To get to know her students, Ms. Thomassen grants them five free minutes to do “something that gives them life” in the middle of each class period, then asks them to share what they did. Whether it’s playing an instrument, jumping on the bed, or wrestling with their dog, the answers she receives tell her a lot about their passions and what grounds them.

Ms. Thomassen’s own passions include surfing and yoga; she wakes up early each day to stretch, read the Bible, and play piano before school. An aunt to two, she loves spending time with her sister’s family. Ms. Thomassen also extends her design thinking to her kitchen, saying that her cooking without recipes creates dishes which are “good most of the time.”

She likes that Prep students are making their own connections and supporting each other. “I am so thankful and impressed by the way my students all help each other when I am with another student,” she says.

Dr. Olanna Mills is another teacher new to Prep who believes that her students have much to teach her, and each other. Recognizing that everyone in her English classes for 7th and 9th grades has valuable contributions to make, she works with her students to create an open and accepting academic discourse community. Previously, Dr. Mills, who earned her doctorate at USC, taught English and History at the Marymount School of New York, and taught in the departments of American Studies, Classics, and English at USC. “My students have taught me that Prep is a school that is committed to fostering and sustaining bonds of community grounded in intense learning,” she says.

Outside of class, Dr. Mills enjoys jogging and hiking. Raised by educators, growing up, conversations around the dinner table revolved around teaching and learning. Her father was the first person of color hired to teach on Long Island, NY. Her brother, former president of the New York Knicks, is on the board of the Madison Square Garden Sports Corporation and her sister is president of a marketing and brand management company. Her niece just graduated from Princeton and is a marketing associate at Peloton.

Fun facts: Dr. Mills wrote her doctoral dissertation on Marcus Tullius Cicero. As a classicist, she refers to her Prep courses as “English VII and English I.”

Olivia Sajjadieh is Prep’s newest college counselor. After graduating from Pitzer College, she worked in admissions at USC and at American University, where she also earned an MBA. She is an alumna of Westridge School, where she was involved in student government, basketball, and theater. She says college counseling is about connection, particularly in helping students link their current passions with their hopes and goals for the future. “The students I work with have been so kind, accommodating, and resilient,” she says. “I’m so thankful that they’ve been so open with me, especially with how difficult it can be in a virtual space.”

Ms. Sajjadieh’s balancing routine includes meditation twice each day, going to bed early, and exercising daily. To relax, she watches Hallmark holiday movies, and she loves listening to pop culture, political, and true crime podcasts.

Fun facts: Ms. Sajjadieh is 6’2” tall (hard to tell online) and will be married on 4/3/21, to a St. Francis grad—though they did not know each other in high school!

Teaching and college counseling are all about making connections—especially now, and especially at Prep. Two of Prep’s new teachers know all about school connections.

Austin Roy '13 returned to Prep after earning a masters at USC, where he taught undergraduate writing. He teaches 10th grade American Literature and 7th grade Drama and will also direct the spring play and assistant direct the musical. When he was 14, Mr. Roy fell in love with literature, words, and storytelling; in graduate school, he began teaching, and that determined his career path.

Mr. Roy spends every Sunday at the beach; he also bakes, runs, and loves to read. He just founded the Me and My Mom Reading Books Book Club and invites you (and/or your mother) to join.

“I believe it’s essential to connect the texts we read in English class to the events that are happening in the world around us,” he says. “I also tell my students to make time to journal so that they can document, understand, and process this extraordinary time.”

This year, long-time Prep employee Emma Goo is teaching 8th grade art; she has taught middle school art, drawing and painting in Prep’s summer school for the past six years. Ms. Goo earned a BFA in film/animation/video from RISD and has worked at Prep in various front office jobs, including as substitute coordinator, since 2008. For fun, she visits the drive-in at Mission Tiki, loves exploring LA on three-hour walks, and enjoys boba drinks and slumber parties with her cats Catsby, Zelda, and Daisy.

Bringing a wealth of experience in administration to her job is Dr. Megan Hutaff, Executive Assistant to Head of School Jim Pickett. For the past 17 years, she worked in Student Life at USC Annenberg, facilitating student career development and job and internship opportunities, as well as interfacing with faculty. Before that, Dr. Hutaff worked at MTV News, covering Los Angeles and training student interns. Now a member of the busy leadership team at Prep, she decompresses by taking long walks with her dog, building Legos and baking with her two sons, aged 6 and 11, and learning new things. She also loves gardening, restoring her old house, playing Settlers of Catan with her family, and hiking.

Fun facts: Dr. Hutaff was a White House intern, married her high school sweetheart, and all the power tools in her house belong to her.

Dr. Hutaff enjoyed reading The House on Mango Street, the Prep Reads book for 2020-2021, which helped her connect early in the year with students, faculty, and staff. She says that the book’s themes about the power of language and the struggle for self-definition at pivotal times in life resonated with her, especially now, and as a former career counselor making a change of career in the middle of a pandemic. “I am learning what a wonderful and welcoming community Prep is!” Dr. Hutaff says.

To meet the burgeoning technical connectivity needs of faculty, students, and parents, Prep welcomed two technology staff members in the summer. They have been busy working behind the scenes to facilitate online learning and installing new tech in the new Bachmann Collaboration Building.

IT Support Specialist Anitha Johnson says she is glad to join the Prep community; her daily goal is “online education with no hiccups for students and staff.” She spent three years as the IT specialist at a primary school in London, England, and taught chemistry and computer science to grades 6-9 in Bangalore, India.

For fun, she drives to the beach with her family, and loves shopping, watching DIY videos, and cooking—especially hot ginger lemon soup with extra black pepper and turmeric to increase immunity. She makes sure to get plenty of rest, follow COVID guidelines, and play a lot of Pictionary with her kids. She also finds solace in the beauty and grandeur of nature. “I’m impressed to be working with friendly, welcoming and inclusive colleagues, helping Prep stand tall even in rough times,” Ms. Johnson says.

Michelle Correia serves Prep as a support technician. She previously worked in IT at the Buckley School, and before that she was a face painter at Disneyland! She enjoys how warm, funny, and kind the people are at Prep. In her down time, Ms. Correia cuddles with her cats and her partner, plays video games, and watches Netflix and anime. The occasional virtual or physically distanced game night helps her see friends, too. When she’s able, she hunts for new and interesting food places, regions, and styles.

“Hopefully, all the things we are doing here at Tech have been helping people stay online, connected, and able to keep in contact with others,” she says.

Fun facts: Ms. Correia originally wanted to be an astronomer, holds a certificate in illustration, and found the world of IT through the advice of a friend and mentor from high school.