At the Head of His Class

March 27, 2007

Willie Richards is not your average elementary education teacher.

For one thing, there’s his gender: Elementary education isn’t a profession men typically pursue. But Richards, who will graduate from BMCC this May, has not only trained for that profession, he has already excelled at it. In recognition of his achievements, he has been named one of six recipients of the 2007 Vanguard Award, which is presented to outstanding undergraduate students preparing for careers that are nontraditional for their gender. The statewide award program is coordinated by the Center for Innovation in Career Development at the University of Albany and sponsored by the New York State Education Department.

“I’ve wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember,” says Richards. “My teachers were my heroes, and, in turn, I’ve always hoped to provide a role model for children.” But why early childhood education? “Because that’s where I can feel I can make the maximum impact,” he says. “It’s where the need for a positive role model is greatest.”

Experiencing diversityWhat also sets Richards apart in his chosen profession is the fact that he is blind. BMCC early childhood instructor Takiema Bunche-Smith, who nominated Richards for the award, says his disability has proven more an asset than a drawback.

“The children who interact with him see firsthand that we live in a very diverse world,” she says. “It’s one thing to talk about diversity or read about it in books, but another thing to experience it every day from an early age. Having Willie as a teacher becomes an invaluable part of the children’s education.”

It helps that Richards is totally open about his disability and encourages children’s questions. “Kids at that age have no prejudice – and no discomfort – when it comes to people with disabilities,” he says. “How do you match your clothes when you get dressed in the morning?” one second-grader asked recently. Richards explained his system and why it was important to him. “I like to be a snazzy dresser,” he said.

Constant companionWhen Richards steps forward to receive the Vanguard Award this month, and later, when he receives his BMCC diploma, he will be accompanied by his guide dog, an endearing black lab named Victoria. “She’s been with me every step of the way – a true partner,” he says. “If not for Victoria, I would never have been able to go to college.”

Victoria isn’t Richards’ only source of support. “Many, many people, including Takiema Bunche-Smith, the staff of the BMCC Department of Disability, and others, have provided an incredible amount of guidance, help and encouragement,” he says. “Frankly, I was surprised to be nominated for the Vanguard Award. I guess Takiema sees something in me that I may not see in myself.” Bunche-Smith smiles at his self-effacement.

“We chose Willie for this award because he is a wonderful student and a great teacher,” she says. “He’s exactly the kind of person we want to represent our profession.”

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