Devoted OC Community College Counselor of the Year: Eileen Tom

OCC Counselor Eileen Tom

Eileen Tom attended Orange Coast College after graduating high school in 1989, and returned to the campus that helped spark the foundation of her career. 

“It's really kind of cool to come back and work for the campus that really got me interested in higher education and made me believe that I could get a college degree,” Tom said. “And I was the first in my family to do that.”

Tom will be recognized by the Orange County Department of Education as the Community College Counselor of the Year and honored for her devotion to the OCC community at the 2021 Virtual OC Counselor Symposium on Nov. 10. The theme for this year’s symposium is “Reconnecting, Resetting, and Restoring,” and will highlight furthering learners’ access, equity and excellence. 

“I think that part of it really resonates for this year, and the last year and a half,” Tom said. “When [students] are trying to figure out their career plans and paths, suddenly they’re like ‘I could do that job from anywhere.’ There's a desire for normalcy, but there's also a desire to make adjustments with some of the things we've learned.” 

Tom took advantage of her time as a student at OCC, and saw the flexibility that community colleges offer as a fresh start for her future. Her passion aligned with social science, which led her to take courses in sociology, anthropology, geography and communications. 

“It was the variety of interests – I had a hard time picking a major personally,” Tom said. “I liked a lot of those things and I wasn't sure where to focus my energies because I was unsure about what I wanted to do.” 

Tom then transferred to the California State University, Long Beach where she began her efforts to reach out to students who faced educational jeopardy in the school’s Academic Advising Center. This opened the door to a career in higher education counseling for Tom, and led her to get a graduate degree in the field at UCLA. 

“I worked at Cal States and UC’s for probably about 8to-10 years before coming to the community college,” Tom said.

Tom’s background in providing help to students majoring in science began in the Health Professions Advising Center at UCLA, although she also gained experience with assisting pre-health students at CSULB.  

“I did a similar position at Cal State Long Beach...with a goal of trying to increase the pipeline of underrepresented students who would make their way into health professions, such as degrees in medicine and dentistry, things that would require a doctorate degree,” Tom said.

OCC’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Academy received a $2.7 million grant from the Department of Education in early Nov. of 2018. The funds allowed the STEM center to include specialized tutoring and a full-time counselor, in order to help students progress and eventually transfer in STEM fields.   

“When the STEM grant came about, I had the opportunity to work a little more closely with the program,” Tom said. “The STEM Academy also focuses on teaching careers in science, which is kind of cool to nurture with students as well.”

Tom is chair of the Counseling Department, teaches a career planning course, works as an honors counselor, does appointments for the Transfer Center and conducts workshops for transfer applications. Along with her student-focused time, Tom is part of the Curriculum Committee and Academic Petition Council that holds regular meetings addressing student learning outcomes and appointing faculty positions. 

“I do love the variety,” Tom said. “I can teach classes and do counseling, and all of the students are so different. They have different goals and interests which provide a lot of challenges and a lot of rewards.”

The emergence of remote learning at OCC due to the pandemic created the challenge of allowing new and returning students to feel properly equipped, a crucial part of academic performance and interest. 

“How do we do orientations for new students to feel connected when they have never even stepped foot on campus?” Tom said.

During this time of trial and error, Tom addressed the fact that students and faculty at OCC all have different levels of knowledge about technology by working alongside two other counselors to create videos for the new Canvas. 

She also provided Cranium Cafe and Zoom training to the counseling department by creating her own YouTube videos, teaching others how to use the new software.  

“I try to focus on what needs to get done right, and what was needed [at the time] in our area to provide services to students remotely,” Tom said. “That was fun. You can learn anything on YouTube. I learned some new skills.”

While taking classes at OCC, Tom worked in a group home for abused children. Through witnessing the devastation that came with the job, she recognized and admired the balance in helping others that came with being a counselor. 

“That was too sad,” Tom said. “That was something that I would take home with me.”

She now extends the importance of finding a healthy medium to her Career Planning class, along with other beneficial aspects to consider while selecting a job.

“There's stuff that you know about yourself now and there's stuff you'll never know. Maybe in 10 years you'll know something that you could have never known at age 20,” Tom said. “If you're active about what you can learn, you're constantly bringing in information and then making decisions that are informed by all of those experiences.”

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