Dean's Award recipient Putue Teh has not been back to Liberia since leaving as a child, but he continues to have an impact on the people there. (Photo courtesy of Putue Teh)
By Dixie Reid
Putue Teh, the 2020 Dean’s Award winner for the College of Health & Human Services (HHS), was born in 1991, during the early years of Second Liberian Civil War. A quarter-million Liberians would be slaughtered before peace came in 2003.
He and his family spent five years on the run from rebel forces, hiding in the bush, and moving on whenever danger neared. They finally escaped into the neighboring Ivory Coast, where they lived for another decade in refugee camps. His father died in camp when Teh was 13.
In 2005, the United Nations and U.S. government arranged for Teh and 26 family members to relocate to Yolo County, where his grandfather has lived since the 1970s.
Teh (whose full name is pronounced Pooh-two Tay) transferred to Sacramento State in spring 2019, after earning an associate’s degree in Science and Mathematics from Woodland Community College.
He graduated in May 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in Health Science (Health Care Administration) and plans to attend graduate school somewhere in California to become a physician assistant.
“Putue has somehow found the personal strength to survive extreme hardship, which is very humbling for many of us who have never had to face such peril,” said Michael D. Mink, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health, who nominated Teh for the prestigious Dean’s Award.
“His ability to turn that hardship into personal achievement and to commit his time and talents to helping others build a better, safer, and happier life is remarkable model of true success. He inspires us to be better ourselves.”
Teh, 29, has not been back to Liberia since coming to California, but from afar he’s helping poor families become self-sustaining through Save a Life Liberia (SALL), the charity he founded in 2018.
“I raise funds for people who are struggling, so that they can start family-based sustainable businesses,” he said. “I’ll send a family $300 U.S., and they buy soap powders, oils, and other ingredients needed for soap-making. They sell the soap to people in their community and then have an income to support themselves, to feed their family, and to send their children to school.”
The charity also supports family-run tailoring businesses, giving them money to buy fabric to make clothes they can sell.
“When we think about people in poverty – and my family was in poverty for as long as I can remember – we tend to underestimate their ability to work hard and try to get out of that situation," Teh said.
“Once you provide the funding families need, they’re able to get themselves out of poverty. That’s the aim of the charity I established.”
Teh also believes in the value of education, and through SALL, he hopes this fall hopes to open a school in a village that has been without one since the 1990s. The COVID-19 pandemic may delay the start of school, he said.
“There are 10 villages around that area, and the kids have to go to school in a bigger town. Some walk for hours to get there, and some parents send their children to live with relatives so that they can attend,” he said.
The new school will reunite families and ensure that children can study and learn with less hardship.
Teh dips into his savings to fund his charity work. SALL also accepts donations. For more information about the charity, go to www.usasall.org.
“We feel that Putue best represents the kind of Hornet Pride, commitment, and determination we want to foster in students,” said Robin Carter, HHS interim dean.
Teh plans to be at Golden 1 Center next May, when Commencement ceremonies postponed by the coronavirus pandemic for 9,778 2020 graduates — the largest class in Sac State’s history — will be held in expanded ceremonies with the 2021 class. He is scheduled to be the student speaker for HHS.
"Mr. Teh stands out as an individual who will continue to break down barriers in healthcare and society," said Susan Perez, professor of Public Health. "I have witnessed him advocate for others who are less willing to advocate for themselves.
"I am so proud and honored that Mr. Teh is someone we can say was 'Made at Sac State.' "