Going against the brain drain: Velma Sablan’s 30-year commitment to training Guam’s teachers
When Velma Sablan was offered a position at Boston Children’s Hospital after finishing
her master’s degree at Harvard University, she recalled an important conversation
and opted to return home.
The conversation was about brain drain — the emigration of highly trained or intelligent people from a particular country. A UOG administrator asked her whether she would contribute to the brain drain in Guam or return home to strengthen higher education.
“I vowed I would never contribute to brain drain in Guam after leaving his office,” Sablan said.
She kept that promise. After returning home in 1976, Sablan served more than 30 years at the University of Guam, starting as in instructor and advancing to assistant professor, associate professor, and then full professor in 2008.
One of Sablan’s greatest joys in her career was witnessing learning occur in the classroom.
“My students have been a big motivation and the very best part of being a professor,” she said. “When their verbal and non-verbal behaviors signal that real learning is occurring because of my guidance and support, it is an exhilarating feeling.”
With decades of experience and having taught 26 different courses at the School of Education, Sablan’s passion for human learning was evident throughout her career. She was known among her students for being knowledgeable and passionate about the content she presented.
“From learning about cognitive theories to learning how to be confident in my efforts, Dr. Sablan has always been a professor that has made me feel empowered,” said UOG alumna Cameron Diaz. “She has made learning meaningful and has lit a fire in the hearts of students who truly wish to become great teachers.”
Even when a global pandemic forced everyone to shift to an online classroom, Sablan did not allow it to disrupt her lessons. In fact, she made sure her students were well-prepared for the new learning environment.
“I saw the commitment Dr. Sablan made to quickly learn how to shift our class online. She helped us to explore activities, resources, and strategies that could be done in an online classroom,” said Mebric Navisaga, a 2020 graduate of UOG’s Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education Program.
The following semester, Navisaga entered the Guam Department of Education as a second grade online teacher.
Sablan’s colleagues at the School of Education described her as passionate, committed, and a warrior for change. She was recognized for her commitment to the University and her effort to make a difference for the island.
“Dr. Velma Sablan has contributed to UOG and SOE in so many ways in the 30+ years she was at UOG and SOE,” said Alicia Aguon, dean of UOG’s School of Education. “We engaged in the commonalities we shared as professionals — and as CHamoru women in academia — to advance education across all levels at our university, our island, and in the region.”
In addition to her role as a professor, Sablan worked with the UOG Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Service, and Research (UOG CEDDERS), the Micronesian Language Institute, and served as director of the Western Pacific Special Education Consortium.
A grant she wrote for UOG CEDDERS brought $1.6 million to the University to increase Guam's number of speech and language pathology degrees.
“Dr. Sablan was dedicated to fulfilling the CEDDERS mission of ‘increasing the quality of life for individuals with disabilities and their families,’” said Joseph John Mendiola, former interoperability data manager at UOG CEDDERS. “She worked collaboratively with partners and diligently sought to improve systems for each project she was part of.”
Sablan was instrumental in developing database systems for the Guam and FSM Early Hearing Detection and Intervention programs, which support early hearing screening for the detection and intervention of hearing loss in children. Since the program’s launch in 2002, more than 50,000 newborns have been screened.
Now retired, Sablan reflects back on her time at the University, saying there were many memories she cherished. One that stood out was when she was awarded the UOG Doctoral Fellowship under former President Wilfred Leon Guerrero and former Senior Vice President Robert Underwood.
“My parents could not afford to send me to the prestigious institutions I attended. UOG made that possible, and these gentlemen made it happen,” she said.
She completed her Ph.D. in educational research from the joint doctoral program at San Diego State University and Claremont Graduate University. And after returning to UOG, Sablan advised and mentored students up to the doctoral level of training.
“My greatest hope for all my students is for them to continue their pursuit in higher education so they can make significant contributions to our island,” she said.
Sablan is now taking some time to rest and recuperate.
“I want to enjoy — or am now enjoying — the little things you do with family and friends that bring so much joy to life,” she said.
What does she plan to do next?
“I may write a book or two, serve on boards or commissions, or do other community work,” she said. “The sky is the limit.”