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From High School Dropout to NVC Instructor

There are no “typical” students at Napa Valley College. There are, however, thousands of stories of how people, circumstances, resources such as the Napa Valley College Foundation, and individual motivation come together to create beautiful, inspirational stories of determination and aptitude. This is one of those stories.

Growing up in Fairfield, California, a bedroom community 40 miles up I-80 from San Francisco, Chris Lemley didn’t strike many who knew him as a candidate for college.

“I was a terrible kid, on drugs, in trouble with the law, ditching school. I was a train wreck,” 32-year-old Lemley says now. “I really had no formal education after sixth grade. I attended school, but failed all my classes, even PE. I dropped out. My whole family and many of my friends looked at me as a person who would probably spend his life in and out of jail, except for my grandfather, Leonard, who never gave up on pushing me to pursue an education. He ALWAYS told me he thought I could do better and wanted that for me.”

Chris Lemley as a teen

Lemley was an intelligent person but learned that life as a high school dropout was difficult. After an arrest, he began volunteering in a commercial kitchen as a requirement to have his record expunged. That experience led to future jobs in the restaurant industry; however, each time he applied for a new position, he was embarrassed to have to say he had neither a high school diploma or his GED. So in 2008, at the age of 20, Lemley earned his GED.

By his mid-20s, Lemley had paid off his bills and entered the Police Academy at Napa Valley College (NVC), with an eye on a future as a police officer. It was a new start that he needed, but he was filled with self-doubt. “I had never been a successful student,” he said.

Shortly after he entered the Academy, he was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle and suffered severe injuries. Unable to attend the Academy, he began taking Machine Tool Technology classes while healing. “I had helped my father restore classic European cars, so the mechanical thought process and design work that goes into machine technology was a natural fit. Ultimately, I realized I probably wasn’t going to be a police officer and decided to finish the Machine Tech program and become an engineer,” he says now.

When Lemley chose engineering, he had to take remedial math classes to learn the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, as well as other knowledge he had missed in middle and high school. But he proved to be both a quick, determined learner, taking morning classes in the program and volunteering in the afternoon classes.

It was during this intense time that Lemley first crossed paths with the Napa Valley College Foundation, which for more than 40 years has worked with NVC to provide student scholarships and financial support for instructional equipment, programs, capital projects and other needs. In the last five years the Foundation has assisted more than 600 students through the award of over $1 million dollars. Each year scholarships are awarded based on merit and student need, making Lemley a likely candidate for an award.

“One morning before class started, I was called into professor Ehlen’s office. My mind was racing, trying to think of what I could have done wrong. He said to me, ‘I just had a meeting with the president of the college because of you.’ My heart sank, until Dean told me that he had nominated me and I was being awarded the Foundation’s Ray and Dorothy Cleone Memorial Scholarship, to pursue machine technology.

“That single act of kindness propelled me to where I am now. For the first time I thought that maybe I could be a successful student. The scholarship award caused me to think, ‘Maybe I can do this.’”

Jessica Thomason, executive director of the Napa Valley College Foundation is not surprised to hear that.

“Chris’s story closely ties to the Foundation’s purpose for scholarships, in that they not only provide financial support, but perhaps more importantly, help to instill confidence in students’ ability to succeed,” she said. “Chris always thought he was terrible at school. When someone believed in him and he was awarded a scholarship, his perspective changed.”

The following semester, Lemley enrolled in both Machine Technology and general education classes. The scholarship covered lab fees, books and his transportation for the semester and his class fees were covered by the NVC Promise.

NVC Chemistry professor Steven Fawl remembers well Lemley’s intelligence and tenacity.

“I remember him struggling in class, so he would often come to my office to ask for help,” Fawl says. “I saw potential in him so, to be honest, I was harder on him than I would normally be. I gave him fewer direct answers to questions and made him work through problems with less help. I am sure that he wondered why he had to work so hard, but I saw something in Chris and I knew that he was capable of stepping up and coming up with answers on his own. Rather than flounder and give up, he rose to the challenge and excelled in my class.”

By the time he earned his Associates degree in Machine Tool Technology in 2014, he had also earned three certificates, two in MTT and one in Digital Design. He was well on his way to earning enough credits to transfer to a four-year program.

For the next few years, Lemley took more classes and with the help and guidance of several professors on campus, was able to take on increasingly responsible positions at NVC. In 2016, he became a Machine Tool Technician, a lab position focusing on helping students with running machines and building projects while the professor is lecturing in the classroom, applying the theory.

“Chris was assigned as the instructional assistant for Machine Tool Technology when I took on the program in fall 2016. He had completed the curriculum in the spring of 2015, so he was well-suited to provide assistance in the nuts and bolts (literally) of managing the Machine Shop,” says Stan Hitchcock, Machine Tool Technology professor and program coordinator. “Since then, Chris has taken on several diverse campus projects and excelled at each one. It comes as no surprise that the Napa Valley College Foundation tapped him to assist with efforts there.”

“I was in my first assistant teaching position, a high school dropout with a GED, and terrified,” Lemley says.

He worked in the machine shop for almost two years, shepherding several groups of students through an entire program and onto their goals while also earning his second Associates’ degree, in Natural Science and Mathematics.

Armed with his several years of experience in the trades and his degree in Mathematics, Lemley was offered in spring 2018 the opportunity to become an instructor teaching Tech Mathematics, aimed at students in the Career Technical Education program.

“I was in charge of an entire classroom for the first time, alone and terrified again, as this was the Big Leagues as far as I was concerned,” he says. He taught the classes in addition to his own full-time class load in engineering courses, a job in the campus café and a part-time job, as well as continuing to struggle internally with the mental and emotional impacts of his childhood educational experiences.

“Teaching was without question one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever had. I love it,” he says. “I taught both levels of Tech Mathematics for a year and a half and loved every minute. I talked with students who were really struggling with math about my history with school and I feel like it helped a lot to give them that perspective.”

“Chris entered my class as a student and emerged as a confident leader among his cohort,” says Dr. Forest Quinlan, instructor of chemistry. “It is no surprise that Chris was asked to teach the Technical Math course for the Machine Tool Program. He had the experience, knowledge, and the ability to relate to, and to lead, those students pursuing that certification. In fact, he was so good at teaching the course, he ended up teaching it for four semesters for NVC.”

When it comes to teaching and to motivating others, Lemley says he’s adopted two adages he used regularly when someone was having a tough time.

“I’d tell them, ‘Believe in the me who believes in you,’” he said, “and ‘Make choices,’ the point being that we should keep moving, that there is value in the learning and growing.”

That summer of 2018, Lemley was offered an opportunity that provided him with incredible experience in project management and, potentially, business ownership: He would work with the faculty and deans to finish the abandoned project of completing the update of the Makers Lab, in the former cadaver lab in the 1800 Building on campus. Assisted by three student workers, Lemley ordered machines and equipment; built out the lab based on the broad utilization requirements of the space; and created training manuals for every tool and piece of machinery in the lab, along with protocols and safety materials. It was a monumental moment for the program and for Lemley himself.

With enough credits under his belt, he transferred to Oregon State University in summer 2019, but the challenge of finding affordable, convenient housing was too much to overcome. In fall 2019, just as the semester was beginning, he moved home to Fairfield and re-enrolled in classes at NVC, completing the requirements to transfer to the UC system.

Once again, his NVC and Foundation connections supported him in his journey. He quickly got a job as the food, beverage and contracts manager at NVC’s District Auxiliary Services Foundation (DAS) and, following cutbacks to his hours due to COVID, a second job at the Napa Valley College Foundation, helping with office administration and the scholarship program.

At the same time, he transferred to UC Santa Cruz, to study applied physics via online classes and is on track for graduation in 2022.

Despite his difficult start, Lemley is both proud and pragmatic about the progress he has made in his education and his personal journey.

“I am proud of being the first person in my family with a degree,” he says, “Proud of steps at NVC that got me where I am now. I still sometimes feel like I am not good enough to be in school. It’s a hang-up from my childhood experience. Also, being older, I NEED to work. I have obligations that I think most younger people don’t. It’s hard to call myself unique, though. There are people doing this with young children and working. I can’t imagine that.”

In addition to fulfilling his own journey, Lemley’s experiences have allowed him to participate in others’ success, as well.

“As a Napa Valley College Foundation employee, Chris is part of the process of awarding scholarships to students who are just like him,” says the Foundation’s Thomason. “He personally understands why these scholarships are important and is eager to do all he can to grow the program and provide scholarships to students like himself. In that way, his story has come full circle.”

Lemley says he agrees with that.

The support of others, including scholarships, he says, has “helped me to build myself, my belief in my abilities, and changed how people see me now. It has helped me to accomplish the dreams I have set for myself. Pursuit of a higher education is something that gives me faith in people, even when the world seems dismal. There is almost always someone who wants to help. It’s restoring.”

Learn more about the Napa Valley College Foundation and its scholarship program.

When Dr. Quinlan was asked for a quote, he had a few things to share…

  • Jack-of-all-trades: master of them all! – New York Times
  • Most valuable man on campus! – Wall Street Journal
  • What can this man NOT do? – Fox News
  • We considered him for the cover – Time
  • A role model for Children – Sesame Street
  • Should me knighted – Queen Elizabeth
  • Makes me look bad – Brad Pitt
  • So generous of his time and efforts – Dali Lama
  • Considerate of the environment – Greta Thunberg
  • Houston would have a problem without him – NASA

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