How Being Open to Change Can Lead to an Unexpected Place: Teaching at a Community College
By Teresa Sukiennicki, PhD, Associate Professor at Genesee Community College
Had you asked me long ago what I would be doing today, never in a million years would this somewhat introverted nerd have said that I would be living east of the Rockies and teaching at a community college. Life, however, sometimes leads you down unexpected paths, and I am happy that it has brought me to where I am now.
So, what would I have said? When I was a child, I clearly remember stating emphatically that I wanted to be a paleontologist. That stage didn’t last long, but my desire to work in science or medicine has been a constant in my life. My first real job, which I began during my junior year in high school, was working as an assistant in the urology-bacteriology lab at Stanford Hospital, setting up urine cultures. I did this for two years, graduated from high school, and was accepted into Stanford University. Since my plan was to eventually go to medical school, I started on the pre-med track. In need of money to help fund my education, I kept working part-time at the hospital, but when offered the chance to switch from working with urine specimens to analyzing kidney stones, I jumped at the opportunity. So, if you passed a kidney stone in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1980’s, it may have ended up in my hands. Working in the hospital, however, made me question my desire to be a physician. For a variety of reasons, it just didn’t seem like a good fit. My freshman advisor, who was a clinician scientist at the Stanford School of Medicine, had mentioned that if any of us wanted to experience what it was like to work in a research lab, he would help us out. At the start of my junior year, I took him up on his offer. I loved working in his laboratory, and it opened my eyes to an alternative career path. I could approach improving human health from a different angle – biomedical research. Still, I wasn’t positive. Working in the lab had been a fun experience, but was it really something that I wanted to do as a career? To answer that question (and earn enough money to buy a car), after graduation I took a full-time job as a lab technician at a biotech company in the Bay Area called Genelabs. Two years later, I had the answer to my question. Yes, I really liked doing full-time scientific benchwork, but I wanted to better understand the science behind what I was doing, so it was time to return to school.
Fast forward a few years. I now had a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington in Seattle, and had been offered a post-doctoral position working on exactly the topic that I wanted to pursue: the role of regulatory T cells in type 1 diabetes. Eureka! But the position was in western New York. Hmm. I was a West Coast gal. Could I survive out east? The project was so appealing that I decided it was worth the risk, and I drove across the country to start my fellowship at the Center for Vaccine Biology and Immunology at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
I really enjoyed my time as a post-doc. Despite long hours and sometimes tedious work, I loved the logic, mystery, and sense of discovery, as well as the interactions with my fellow scientists. However, all good things must come to an end. It was time to move on, and I was facing that same old dilemma – what to do next? My intention when I started my post-doc was to try to get a job running a research lab at an academic institution, but the administrative responsibilities of that position no longer appealed to me. It was time for some deep thinking and personal assessment: what did I like doing, what were my skills, what did I find interesting? I realized that, in addition to doing hands-on experiments, I very much enjoyed working with the trainees in the lab. Talking with them about a technique, demonstrating it, asking them to try it out themselves and then seeing them improve with practice made me happy. I loved working with these budding young scientists and realized that it was possible to combine my passion for biology with my delight in training students. I applied for and was granted an adjunct teaching position at Genesee Community College. Three years later, I became a member of the full-time faculty teaching courses in anatomy and physiology, fundamentals of cell biology and microbiology to our allied health students.
Teaching at the community college level has had many challenges, but these are overshadowed by the rewards. I have gotten to know many extraordinary people, and truly feel that I am making a difference in the lives of our students. The following note that I received from a student at the end of the academic year provides some insight into why I am happy that my career path has led me in this unexpected direction.
“You have helped answer many of the quandaries that I held in my mind prior to this course such as how hormones worked and how truly important the kidneys are. I enjoyed both the semesters immensely; and I will leave bittersweetly, as I know that this is as far as human education goes at this college. But I now possess greater understanding that I will carry with me in my future; and I thank you for your determination [as you] strive for excellence in your students.”
Come join me on Friday February 1st at 10:00 a.m. in the Center for Experiential Learning (Room 2-7544) as I share stories and answer questions about my experiences teaching at a community college. This might include the sorry tale of how I embarrassed myself at a job interview and what I would do differently after having now been on several college hiring committees, how someone with limited training in education survived leaping into the classroom, how I handle working with a diverse population of students with different needs, and the non-teaching responsibilities that are part of the job. I look forward to chatting with you.
Tracey Baas |