You’re working with a student, explaining an especially difficult concept and suddenly you see the flash of understanding in the student’s eye.
“When you finally see that student, that spark of acknowledgement in their eyes when they finally get that difficult concept — that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing,” says Terry Ayers, who teaches computer science at Wallace State Community College.
Why teach? “It’s about the lightbulb moment for me — the moment when you see on someone’s face that they just figured something out,” says Todd Hicks, director of the School of Nurse Anesthesia at University of Mobile.
Hicks works with a special group of students — well motivated and in love with the field. With them, he says, the challenge is making sure they have all they need to succeed. “A nurse anesthetist has to make a decision for a patient that makes the difference for them. The more knowledge they have, the better prepared they are to make that autonomous decision when it matters.”
Alabama community college faculty members find themselves just as motivated to help students succeed as Hicks is with his graduate students.
“You have to have a heart for people,” says Chris Cox, president of Shelton State Community College. “That’s one reason I love what we do as a community college. The mission is so pure. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like, what problems you have — we’re here to put you in a place to better your life and get a livable wage.”
Whether it’s a certification to join the workforce tomorrow or two years toward a bachelor’s degree and maybe even law or medical school, community colleges “are changing people’s lives in a positive way,” says Josh Duplantis, dean of workforce development at Coastal Alabama Community College.
Jeff Lynn, president of Central Alabama Community College, builds from “a vision for how community and economic development mesh with higher education to create an environment to enrich the lives of students and community members.”
Community college education here is “based on one core belief: that Alabama’s community colleges are the most affordable, accessible and practical avenue for all residents who want to strengthen their quality of life,” says System Chancellor Jimmy Baker.
Leslie Reeder, dean of instruction at Wallace Community College-Dothan, learned that lesson from a student’s perspective. She is fond of telling her history as an example. From her earliest years, she planned to be a bank president. She thought bankers looked impressive — so much so that her parents got her suits for her new Easter outfits each year. The fact that she didn’t like high school math ought to have been a sign, she jokes.
But when she arrived at Wallace, the adviser helped her see what steps would be needed to reach her goal and that the first step would be developmental math. Working her way through the math offerings, she lost her fear of math and began to enjoy it, she says. And after graduating, she got a job in a bank.
She transitioned from that to a job as secretary to a community college president and began to see a whole new career world. Back to school she went, earning the credentials to teach and a career she never plans to change.
“As teachers, we’re world changers,” she says.
Some of today’s education is in a traditional classroom setting and some is not.
For Rick Fenwick, academic program director at Columbia Southern University, the classroom is entirely online — offering opportunities to students here, there and everywhere. Fenwick himself is based in Michigan. He’s a firm believer in online education, which is more convenient for students — and which has benefitted from a whole raft of advances in the past few years.
He can create a video and open class with it, knowing students can catch up with it later if they’re late. His office hours are online, too, so students can readily get individual attention.
But he also loves his subject matter. A psychologist, he enjoys seeing how students can use classroom lessons to improve their lives — such as opening better channels of communication with a spouse. A lifelong hockey player, he coaches a college hockey team and likes seeing his student athletes use classroom concepts to help them focus or reduce stress.
For Patrick Murphy, director of the Barefield Entrepreneurship Program at UAB, a modern approach to teaching entrepreneurship requires no books and no traditional exams. His students study entrepreneurship models in the classroom, then head to the community to put their ideas into practice with nearby startup companies. Their evaluation comes, in part, from an assessment of the student’s value to the company, prepared by the company owner.
“Students have to see what the theory looks like in practice,” Murphy says.
William Hustwit, director of the Donald C. Harrison Honors Program at Birmingham-Southern, loves the fact that he learns alongside his students. Because teaching history requires you to revisit the same stories semester after semester, “you get to revisit the things you love,” and, moreover, “you’re always learning new things.”
Hustwit also leads the college’s honors program, interacting with the most highly motivated of a very highly motivated student body.
He enjoys the focus on the liberal arts. Many people prefer a degree that aims at a specific job, he says, but life changes and those plans may not work out. “Life turns out differently,” he says, “so why not really enjoy your education, become an educated person — steeped in philosophy and literature.
“That’s what a really good liberal arts college does — offers learning for a lifetime; a place for learning to love learning.”
Says Murphy, “Teaching is the most important thing we can do for the future. Period.”
Who are these execeptional educators?
Instructor and Department Chair, Computer Science
Wallace State Community College
After earning undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama, Ayers spent 35 years in the military, including earning a master’s in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College. He began teaching part-time at Wallace State in 1993 and joined the faculty full-time in 1997. In addition to teaching, he and his team work with BEST robotics competitions around the state and help students prepare for Skills USA contests, where Wallace State students have earned gold and silver state awards and succeeded in national contests.
Jimmy H. Baker
Chancellor, Alabama Community College System
The dynamic transformation of student experiences and training at Alabama’s 24 community and technical colleges is led by Baker, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System. In just five years as chancellor, his combined five decades across every aspect of education have resulted in state-of-the-art workforce centers and robust infrastructure in every region, rapid training classes in several high-demand industries, nationally recognized apprenticeships, top academic instruction, additional athletics programs, top-notch campus security and more. Every advancement is based on one core belief: that Alabama’s community colleges are the most affordable, accessible and practical avenue for all residents who want to strengthen their quality of life.
President, Shelton State Community College
Cox has nearly 30 years of K-12 and higher education administration experience. A Geneva native, he began his career as a teacher and coach at Dale County High School before moving into administration in the K-12 and community college systems. He served as special assistant to the chancellor at the Alabama Community College System, working as interim president at multiple community colleges including Northwest-Shoals Community College in Muscle Shoals, Bevill State Community College in Jasper and Lurleen B. Wallace Community College in Andalusia. He is a graduate of Troy University with a master’s from Alabama State University and a Ph.D. from Auburn University.
Dean of Workforce Development, Coastal Alabama Community College
With experience in K-12 and college settings, Duplantis has taught a variety of business-related classes, earning recognition from Greg “The Shark” Norman as a Prosperity Pioneer and has been featured in University Business Magazine and many other local and regional publications. He is chosen frequently as a speaker and holds a namesake award, the Josh Duplantis service award, earned by university faculty and staff who provide exceptional service to military veterans returning to higher education. His research and publications around the concept of social capital have been cited in studies in the United States, Nigeria and Turkey.
Academic Program Director for Behavioral Science
Columbia Southern University
In addition to his work at Columbia Southern, Fenwick is head coach of a college hockey team. He enjoys helping student athletes learn to focus and handle stress. He is a graduate of Madonna University with a master’s from the University of Phoenix and a Ph.D. from Capella University.
Director, School of Nurse Anesthesia, University of Mobile
Hicks joined the University of Mobile in June 2021 to launch the DNAP program. Hicks is active in the American Association of Nurse Anesthetist and has been a board member of the Alabama Association of Nurse Anesthetists. His focus in service is for expansion of nurse anesthesia practice in Alabama to full-scope, as well as pharmacology-based continuing education. Previously, Hicks served as an assistant professor and the associate pathway coordinator of the BSN-DNP Nurse Anesthesia Pathway at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Director, Donald C. Harrison Honors Program, Birmingham-Southern College
In June 2021, Hustwit was named director of the Donald C. Harrison Honors Program and is leading the program’s revitalization, offering innovative and challenging courses, opportunities for research and study abroad, mentorship, teaching assistantships, and avenues for scholarship and personal growth. A historian, Hustwit is the author of “James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation,” and “Integration Now: Alexander v. Holmes and the End of Jim Crow Education.” In 2012, Hustwit’s article in the Journal of Southern History, “From Caste to Color Blindness,” won the Ronald T. and Gayla D. Farrar Media and Civil Rights History Award from the University of South Carolina.
President, Central Alabama Community College
Lynn has an extensive background in economic and workforce development. He came to the Alabama Community College System from Louisiana Economic Development, where he developed and started LED FastStart, nationally recognized as the No. 1 workforce development program in the U.S. for the seven-plus years he was in Louisiana. He is an exceptional educator because he has tremendous vision for how community and economic development mesh with higher education to create an environment to enrich the lives of students and community members. He also serves on several statewide and national boards tied to workforce and education.
Director, Barefield Entrepreuneurship Program
Goodrich Endowed Chair for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
University of Alabama at Birmingham
An award-winning teacher and researcher, Murphy has led entrepreneurship, social enterprise and technology programs in university and ecosystem settings. In 2017, Future Founders selected him as its inaugural “Entrepreneurship Professor of the Year” for Illinois. In 2016, he was named to AmericanInno’s “50 on Fire” for his impact on the Chicago innovation ecosystem. He is editor-in-chief for the “Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development.” A U.S. Navy veteran, he speaks Mandarin Chinese and is the former president of the board of the Chicago Cultural Alliance.
Dean of Instructional Affairs, Wallace Community College – Dothan
Reeder began her involvement with the Alabama Community College System as a student before entering the banking workforce and eventually transitioning back to community college faculty and administration. She has been dean of instruction affairs at Wallace Community College – Dothan since 2017. She has an associate degree from Wallace, a bachelor’s from Troy University, a master’s and is working on a doctorate in rural education from the University of West Alabama.
Nedra Bloom is a Mobile-based writer/editor for Business Alabama.
This article appears in the November 2022 issue of Business Alabama.