Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ames
June 2004

I came to Iowa State to complete a graduate degree in Molecular Biology and then return to industry. As part of my ISU education I was a Teaching Assistant for undergraduate science labs. Now, many of us have had this experience. And I would say that most find it enlightening and at least to some degree rewarding. Being a teaching assistant in these labs had little to do with the assistant part and everything to do with the teaching part. TA’s taught and graded these labs all on our own. Although my job was to supervise laboratory exercises, what I frequently found myself doing was teaching what was the lecture material to students who weren’t ‘getting it’. And when they got it, my spirit soared. 

I don’t know that I have the right words for it but there is something so satisfying about the coming to know something, that moment that occurs when, something you’ve been trying to bend your mind around, falls into place and makes perfect sense. It falls into place as a foundation for greater heights in knowing. Learning opens doors in a way that nothing else does. It can provide access to deeper knowledge, and then real change is possible. 

I changed my career path because of my experiences teaching at ISU. I wanted to teach college. Not at a university but at a private four-year college. I interviewed at several colleges, turned down one offer and suffered a heart-breaking blow to my ego by becoming runner up at another.

I only considered community college because of an opening in Marshalltown, a location that allowed my husband to keep his job in Des Moines and farms in the area were within a price range that we could afford. It was convenient but I was a snob. I felt that there was no way that community colleges would teach as well as the university and would certainly have lower standards. Prior to my employment I was guilty of reckless perpetuation of that myth.

When I came to MCC seven years ago I had no idea what I was getting into.  I believed that my job was to teach biology, just teach. Instead I have found myself listening to stories of incredible courage and terrible tragedy, sometimes from the same student. I have watched men and women struggle to find their life’s goal, seemingly aimless not knowing who they wanted to be. What a hard place to be, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I have been privileged to witness those same students find their passions, to determine what it is they want their life work to be and then do it.

I have seen women who have freed themselves from hurtful relationships, suffered poverty, struggled to raise children and succeed in college. I can’t image doing what they do, alone. And yet they waltz into my office, smile and say “well, here I am all I have left is to get though your class Dr. Barnes! It’s my last one, by the way I hate science.” At least they’re honest. And some of them even change their mind about science.

Some of our students are the first in their families to go college. This too takes courage. There is no role model, no example of how to succeed. And yet they graduate. 

I have seen men come through our doors because life has dealt them a physical blow. One of our students was in a plane wreck. He lost his father and a year of his life in recovery. He tells me he’d never gone to college except for that accident. He wouldn’t have had the courage to quit his job and start school. He also said he couldn’t have handled a large university, that the community college was the right place for him. He finished last year, ready then for the large university. He wants to teach high school math. He’ll be good. I would be thrilled to hear that he was my child’s math teacher. Man, I want to be part of these people's success.

Students also challenge my integrity, bank on my fears, and pray that I have apathy. They cheat, plagiarize and challenge me in ways I find unnerving. I had one student tell his mother that I was prejudiced against him because he didn’t believe in evolution, that that is why he failed my class. Frankly I had no idea whether he found the theory of evolution credible or not! I provided the dean with the young man’s final exam, evolution was the only part of the exam that he had passed.

Some have attitudes, I had a student that was chronically late. He sauntered into class one day, turn to me as I was lecturing and boldly suggested that he was paying me so it was irrelevant whether he were late or not. I was so ticked off, I fired back, pointing to the other students, so are they! He was never late again. I’ve been verbally attacked and continue to be threatened by a former student who believes I’m the sole reason he couldn’t finish his A.A. degree. I’m holding my ground.

On bad days I say, “You can lead a horse to water, you can shove his head in it, but you can’t make him drink.” This reminds me I’m not solely responsible for anyone’s enlightenment!

And yet I’m privileged to be a facilitator and a witness. On good days I am respected, the classroom is exciting, and we all learn together. I have never in all my years in school learned as much biology as I have teaching at the community college.

My students have shown me that there are many bright and compassionate, and inspired people striding into the future. When I teach and see passion sparked in a student, my day is made. I have just gotten a glimpse of that future.

So, is this all related to spiritually of work? My spiritually is connected to my sense of worth. Why I’m here. I so do not want to leave this planet worse off for my having been here. And I like to think that just a little connection with me made a positive difference to that future.