If your dream is to be a humanitarian and work for the United Nations, the quest ought to be attainable with the right motivation, the proper college degrees and hard work.
Then life intervenes, and instead you become a different kind of humanitarian by helping high school kids realize their dreams — and when the school closes during the Covid-19 pandemic, you start making N95 masks for emergency personnel from your apartment in Palms.
That might sum up the life of Palisades High School maker education teacher Jamie Agius, who has dealt with adversity most of us have never had to face.
Agius explains maker education as helping students in a classroom situation where they choose what they want to make and then actively pursue the knowledge required to accomplish that goal.
“For example, a student might want to make a remote-controlled airplane but have no knowledge whatsoever on how to get started,” Agius said. “We use this as an opportunity to learn how to either use 3D design software or hand and power tools to build the plane, electronics and programming for movement and remote control, and in the process content knowledge in mathematics and science, as well as technology!”
Agius took a large room that had been used for storage at Palisades High for the past five years and completely revitalized it. “I’ve spent more time there than in my home the last year,” she told Circling the News. “I’ve worked nights and weekends, fixing it up, ordering and setting up equipment, and making it safe and student ready.”
When classes on campus were cancelled in March, Agius received permission to bring her classroom’s 3D printer home. She has since been printing N95 masks for Cedars-Sinai and USC Keck, while also sewing fabric masks.
“When I was in eighth grade,” Agius recalled, “my dad brought home an old antique cabinet sewing machine from a garage sale for me. We fixed it and tuned it up. I figured out how to use it and how to sew through good old trial and error. I’ve been sewing ever since.”
Her family had moved from Michigan to Orange County when she was six. She was the youngest of four children, but when her parents divorced and remarried, four stepsiblings were added to the blended family.
Agius attended El Dorado High in Placentia. “To be honest, I was not the greatest high school student,” she said. “My favorite and best subjects were art and ceramics.”
Although she was a good athlete, the setter and the captain of her volleyball team, she only played three years because of a congenital spine issue.
“I had spine surgery in my late 20s to correct it and ease the pain it had caused my whole life,” said Agius, who also worked during high school. “My first job was at 14 years old working at a local pizza place.”
At one point she had three jobs: the pizza place, a stationery store and as a phone operator taking food orders for Restaurants on the Run!, one of the first restaurant food delivery services.
Agius needed the three jobs, because at the beginning of her senior year, she moved out of her family home and began paying for an apartment. After graduating in 1998, she attended community college.
“My parents could not afford to pay for college,” Agius said. “It was not an option straight out of high school. They did not make enough to pay for it, yet I was unable to qualify for federal financial aid until they were no longer able to claim me as a dependent.”
When not taking classes, she worked a variety of jobs in the music industry, managed bands, worked for a small booking agency and then moved to a major production company (AEG Live). “I also was the marketing director for an independent record label called Revelation Records,” she said.
At 28, Agius was working for a graphic designer in a small company, when she was laid off. Most people are devastated at losing a job, but Agius said, “I saw it as my opportunity to transfer to UC Irvine and get a degree.”
She majored in urban and environmental studies and worked as a research assistant to Dr. Richard Matthew, founder of the Center for Unconventional Affairs. She published research on Mitigation and Adaptation Projects in Peacebuilding, and Emergency Medicine.
Then life threw Agius another twist. “My last year of finishing up my degree, I was diagnosed with a benign, but life-threatening brain tumor called an Acoustic Neuroma.”
Agius underwent two major and one minor brain surgeries – and then contacted a staph infection.
“I still completed my courses doing work from the hospital and from home — even part of the year attending my classes on campus with a PICC line” (a thin catheter that is used for antibiotics and medication).
The brain tumor left Agius completely deaf in her left ear, and shortly after the PICC line was removed, she underwent emergency gallbladder surgery.
At that point, Agius realized she had to give up her goal of working for the UN. “Considering my previous health issue, I realized that I probably shouldn’t spend my life traveling through developing countries,” she said. “I still wanted to do something with my life that would be empowering for both me, and others. I was drawn to teaching because I knew I would be able to connect with students.”
She entered the teacher credential program at UCI and, in 2015 was hired as a science teacher at PaliHi. She has since earned a master’s degree in education.
Agius taught general science until last August, when she began teaching maker education.
“This is my dream teaching job and I had wanted to bring back the program my entire time working at Pali,” said Agius, who spoke about her sadness at not being able to finish the spring semester in the classroom. “I feel sad that they [students] didn’t get the chance to fully participate in the maker education program and experience using all of the tools, materials, equipment and technology we have in the Makerspace. They are so inventive and creative! I miss being able to see them accomplish the making of something they never thought they’d be able to make.”
As Agius continues to sew masks and print 3D masks in the isolation of her apartment, what does she think about?
“My thoughts have varied day to day and also as time went on,” she said. “I used to wonder if I was making enough, if they would work, if people would wear them, if they would get to them on time. Now I know they work, and I know there is still such a high need for both sewn and 3D printed masks. I think about my family and other people’s families, and how scared everyone is/was.”
She continued, “I think about how amazing it is that hundreds of makers in Los Angeles rallied together to figure out a way to solve this problem. I think about all the times my students have said to me, ‘I’m just ONE person, my actions/decisions don’t matter on a large scale.’ I think about and wonder how long we will all need to do this and if I’ll have enough materials and time to keep going.”
View the student videos on @pchsmakers instagram https://www.instagram.com/p/B3aGasOAmBk/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link