For the Love of Students: A 45-year Perspective

Yesterday was my last day as a teacher at Cypress College, in Southern California. I am the last member of the founding faculty to retire. My mind skipped back three months to the life altering step I had taken the day I met with the teacher retirement counselor. I still felt stunned. I cannot believe this! I could not believe that I was finally brave enough to give up the students and the classroom!

I recall the counselor, an energetic man with a booming voice as he proclaimed, “Only 3% of all teachers ever make it to 40 years and you are at 45! How did you do that?” I just smiled, while I thought, “Well it was easy, I did it for the love of our students.“


Driving home to San Juan Capistrano from the O.C. Education Office, I mulled over his question. How does one stay energized across all those four and a half decades and some 13,000 students? How does anyone stay energized in any profession?


I flashed back to when I joined the Cypress College family, it was a fall evening in 1966 and my husband and I had gotten our baby to bed. The phone rang, I answered, “Hello.”


“Donna, Congratulations!! This Dr. Dan Walker over here at Cypress Junior College, and we want to offer you a full-time tenure track teaching position.”


I happily accepted. I was a community college graduate myself, and although I was only 22 years old, I loved the idea of starting out my career with a brand new college. In fact Cypress Junior College had been written up in Newsweek Magazine as the “Instant Campus: From tomato field to classes in 74 days.” This was wonderful, but in the back of my mind I knew that I had a tiger by the tail with such a big job. We wanted a larger family and I knew the maternity policy in those days. There was no system in place for family leave and it was not considered acceptable to be in seen in a family condition in the classroom.


However it was the 60’s and society was changing, I took a risk and strategized a schedule that allowed the birth of my next two children to coincide with my long summer breaks. It worked! No one at all acknowledged my pregnancies…….truly it was an early version of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” My children arrived and I never missed a day of teaching. There were no congratulatory baby showers or campus-wide announcements. “Don’t tell!”


My 53 colleagues and I settled into building curricula, attracting more students and growing our campus. We expanded it from a few hundred students in the 60’s to the 17,000 students our college serves today. What has been a thrill for me is to see our community college system living up to California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, 1960-1975. The dream of the Master Plan was that the community college would serve the state’s higher education needs for the first two years, in addition to providing certificate programs and lifelong learning.


That dream has become a reality, not just in California but across the United States. The American community college system is the workhorse of higher education, educating 11 million students each year. That is half of all undergraduates!


For so many millions of Americans the community college is a door-way to hope. It is a place to earn an affordable education, a place for a second chance, or a place to learn where one fits into the world. The community college has taken on the daunting task of educating anyone who can benefit from an education. In our state, 40% of the students do not speak English at home, while 35% are the first generation in their family ever to attend college. Seventy percent of our students come to our doors under prepared in reading, writing and math.


I have personally been inspired these 45 years by being part of a culture dedicated to improving the lives of our community. My faculty and administrative colleagues are in sync with striving forward, our Cypress College motto decrees, “Motivating Minds.” It is a thrilling environment where students are turned on to learning new ideas, where one’s colleagues welcome students with open hearts, where each day a teacher might see the light of discovery flash across a student’s face.


I recall how magnetizing was my student ,Kerri, so disabled that she needed a robotic talking board and battery operated wheel chair to come to class. Her determination and perseverance were a daily lesson to her classmates of the power and value of education. How proud we all were the day she graduated from Cypress College. Currently, she teaches other disabled students. Then there was, Jack, retired military and newly sober in his 60’s, earning straight A’s and going on and finishing a Bachelor’s Degree. Today Jack is paying it forward working with others in the recovery field. Yesterday I met with the case worker to admit my 97 year old aunt into a hospice program. The social worker was a graduate of my college, had taken our communication classes and gone on to receive her Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She could not say enough about her community college experience, spending afternoons at her kitchen table doing homework with her two elementary- school- aged children. There are thousands upon thousands of these stories of triumph and hope within the walls of our community colleges.


The community college system, due in large part to the economic crisis that is gripping our nation, is living up to its full potential as the public universities are forced to cut more and more classes. Our classrooms are full to capacity and our students are more eager than ever. The energy field that emanates from them permeates the fabric of the institution, inspiring all of us to do our best. We are turning out business people, media consultants, future lawyers, doctors, nurses, psychiatric technicians, dental hygienists, automobile specialists, refrigeration experts, mortuary scientists, and more. These are good people ready to take their place in the world.


So as I move on to my new adventures, I feel proud that I hitched my dreams to those of the community college system, and particularly to Cypress College. I am proud to have watched it grow from the first scrawny trees to the premier learning institution it is today with its state of the art library/learning resource center, to its smart classrooms, its serene and beautiful grounds and its highly dedicated faculty and staff, How funny to recall the years of traveling on Valley View Street. In the 60’s and 70’s it was lined with odiferous dairy farms. Today that street is host to international corporate headquarters, quite a change in forty years! As Orange County grew up so did Cypress College and I am proud to have dedicated these decades to helping my students to have been a part of it.


Perhaps the answer to the puzzle, how does one stay energized across a lifetime career? Certainly it is something about really believing in what you do , in sharing yourself with others, with the excitement that each day brings. Absolutely, I do know that it was for the love of teaching and our students that kept me going all those years.