Instructors at the Friday Center are leaders in their fields of study, and take great pride in teaching students of all types and educational goals. Their stories illustrate their approach to teaching, as well as how they have worked with students to overcome challenges to find success both in and out of class.
It’s a long way from Chapel Hill to Cairo, Egypt. Anne Hastings, a senior lecturer in UNC-Chapel Hill’s sociology department, has been there and back—and everywhere in between. Every place has its own unique culture, whether that’s at a market in Nicaragua or a pub on Franklin Street.
That includes the virtual classroom.
For the past several years, Dr. Hastings has taught sociology courses online through the Friday Center. Content-wise, her online course is pretty much the same as the on-campus version. Like visiting a new country, the online classroom has its own unique flavor that, while different from her face-to-face courses, provides unique learning opportunities that are either unavailable or impractical in person.
For one thing, online courses attract a different type of student. Sure, there are plenty of on-campus undergrads who see online classes as an escape from a semester’s worth of jostling for a handrail on a crowded bus. But Hastings’ online classes also include working adults and people scrapping just to get their college careers started. She’s been impressed by the work ethic of the military personnel who have taken her courses. Many late-in-life learners who’d otherwise feel like outsiders in a room full of young adults have blossomed in the egalitarian setting of a discussion forum. This diversity of life experiences is a real asset when teaching subjects like “Family and Society” and “Race and Ethnic Relations.”
“A lot of my students are working through some issues—family, depression, emotional issues,” Hastings said. “I had one student, she’d been through hell with her family. Given up for adoption by her mother, raised by her grandmother until something happened to her, then raised by a family friend after that. Her close friend was murdered at the beginning of the semester. She took an on-campus course and struggled. I had a lot of talks with her, and she ended up getting a solid B. The next semester, she took an online course, and I offered her some more mentoring. She ended up with an A-, and she’s going on to bigger and better things. The course really boosted her confidence. She’s a remarkable young woman, and I’m glad to see her succeeding.”
Hastings finds virtual learning ideal for this type of mentorship. “Online, it’s easier to work with students one-on-one. On campus, I can do it through office hours, but there’s an inertia for on-campus students and they don’t come for whatever reason.” Online students, she said, have been more eager to seek help via email conversations or chats, allowing for more in-depth work.
Like a lot of cultures, Hastings’ online classes change and evolve—each semester shepherding in a new mix of students from every station in life. It’s a culture that she relishes visiting, and a lot closer to home than Egypt.
The travel and tourism business is essentially about change—a week in Honolulu for a change of scenery, attending a conference to inspire positive change in the workplace.
Teaching courses in Hospitality and Tourism Management through the Friday Center, Dana Clark sees a lot of students trying to make changes in their lives and careers—changes that often are not the students’ idea. “I have a number of people who are working for a company, then their job changes and they find out they’re in charge of booking meetings and conventions,” Clark said. “But others seek out this line of work, and this is a good way to dip their toe in the water and try out the career and see if they like it. Plenty of people who have taken this class have gone on to have successful careers in corporate or association meeting planning. Their coursework helped make them more knowledgeable and confident.”
Clark teaches courses like “Meeting and Convention Management” through the Self-paced Courses program and is a professor at Appalachian State University. This course explores a variety of issues that impact the management of large and small conventions, meetings, and events.
In the true spirit of his industry, Clark mentors students in the far-flung regions of the globe via distance education courses. But some of Clark’s most motivated students have the fewest travel options themselves. “A dozen or more prisoners have taken my class,” Clark said, referring to the Friday Center’s Correctional Education Program. “Some of the most brilliant students I’ve ever had were inmates. Creative answers, with depth, too.”
Clark never underestimates a student committed to making positive changes in his or her life. “I’ve had a lot of students enroll without a college degree or experience,” Clark said, “and these folks come in with a lot of fire, and they push each other—and me—a lot, and that’s a good thing.”
In his Friday Center courses, Dr. Lee Pedersen teaches chemistry and self-reliance.
During his undergraduate days, Lee Pedersen switched majors from journalism to engineering. However, he hadn’t taken the required courses to get into engineering school. None of the colleges near his rural Oklahoma home offered them, either. He started taking correspondence courses and enjoyed learning the material. He also liked learning to lean on himself.
“I think many people go through life without solving problems completely by themselves,” Pedersen said. “The best thing [about distance learning] is that a person learns to think on their own—you have to figure stuff out by yourself. You can contact the instructor, of course, but it’s not as direct, so it puts students in a situation where they have to learn something on their own, which is very powerful.”
As a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he encounters many students who, like himself years ago, see distance learning as a way to advance their studies and careers. “By and large, kids who enroll aren’t kids—they’ve gone out and dealt with the world, twenties to fifties and older. Trying to advance themselves in a field that requires chemistry.”
That’s not to say Pedersen throws his students into the wilderness with nothing but a textbook and some test tubes. Crucial to self-reliance is self-assessment, and he’s eager to help students who can acknowledge that they need assistance. “It requires honesty to say to a professor, ‘I don’t know how to do this; can you please help?’” The going can be slow, but those who stick it out often get rewarded with renewed confidence in addition to content knowledge.
Learning to trust their own abilities is easier for some students than others. “I had a student who’d been in the Air Force for twenty-two years and wanted to go to med school. Very intelligent, already had part of an MBA. Of course, guys like him would be good at anything they tried to do. For others, you have to convince them they really can do this. Some are so deeply convinced they can’t do the math—and you can’t do chemistry without math. I tell them there was a time when I couldn’t do this, and I tell them you’ve got to start someplace. It’s incremental. Get them to believe in themselves. They eventually see there’s not anything magic about it, it’s a matter of having confidence, of learning the process, and putting in the time.”
Putting in the time and having the discipline to set one’s own schedule will serve students in any field, whether they use Pedersen’s chemistry lessons or not. As in a chemical reaction, Pedersen’s students often undergo a fundamental transformation into a new state. Where they were once struggling and unsure, they come out as smarter, more confident adults.
UNC faculty member Richard Krawiec is the author of two books of poetry, a collection of short stories, four stage plays, and a pair of critically acclaimed novels. He founded Jacar Press, a publisher of poetry collections and chapbooks. With that kind of resume, students should be able to simply soak up his wisdom, right?
Krawiec says that’s baloney.
“Learners should be actively engaged in their own education, not depending on some ‘genius’ tossing out pearls of wisdom,” Krawiec said.
He takes this learner-centered approach seriously when teaching online courses for the Friday Center. His classes depend on debate between students, and on the democratization of opinions that are only possible online. “Online discussions are far better than the ones in class. In any classroom, there are four or five students who dominate, a bunch who never say anything, and a few who come up for air once in a while. Online, students are required to respond. Awkward students have no problems posting online because they’re not self-conscious. In person, students’ thoughts might be downgraded because they’re not cool, they don’t dress well, etc. Online, it’s only the quality of thought that matters.”
By expressing themselves more fully in discussion forums, students discover they have things to say, and find the courage to say them. “In public schools, students hate writing assignments—to them it feels like it’s a big opportunity for teachers to tell them what they’re doing wrong. Even letter grades can be harmful because they make students censor themselves—if they’re afraid to take risks or fail, they’ll severely limit themselves as writers.”
Those risks don’t just come on the page. Through writing exercises, Krawiec has seen his students discover new possibilities for themselves as people, not just as writers. “Giving yourself permission to think about yourself in a different way, and that you have different facets—not just a soccer player or engineer, or even just a writer. A student a couple years ago learned her voice was important, that she had ideas, perspective, and she applied it by standing up to an overly critical mother who’d been telling her what she couldn’t do in her life. Another student was on the US Under-20 women’s world cup soccer team. She discovered there was a whole other person she could be off the field.”
Krawiec’s students have gone on to win awards and grants, enter prestigious MFA programs, found editing businesses, and make $500-$1,000 a month by publishing science fiction ebooks. Lest anyone suggest that he can take some of the credit, Krawiec is quick to point out that in his class, students learn the most from one another.
Dr. Jean DeSaix’s self-paced Biology 101 class is known as a challenge. DeSaix knows a thing or two about rising to a challenge, though. She enrolled in UNC-Chapel Hill’s zoology graduate program in 1967, the only woman in her graduate school class—a woman was needed to provide cookies and coffee for departmental seminars.
So yeah, the world has changed since then. What’s stayed the same, though, is the fact that intelligence, hard work, and perseverance can take you pretty far. DeSaix’s forty years teaching at Carolina (and tens of thousands of students) earned her a Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012, not to mention the admiration of colleagues and pupils. DeSaix demands nothing less than the best work from her students. Often, they surpass even her high expectations.
“Learning by yourself is harder already,” DeSaix said, “and so many of my students are in the middle of challenging personal situations—I admire them so much, they’re awesome people to be able to take this very hard course on their own while dealing with their lives. For instance, I had a student whose father was dealing with a terminal illness. I’d sometimes get a note—‘It took a long time to finish this assignment because my father was hospitalized these dates.’ By the time he’d finished the course, his father had passed. For some people, taking a course like this is a respite from their day-to-day challenges.”
Changing times have presented a new challenge that even her best students must grapple with—the dwindling number of jobs in the sciences. “It’s not pretty, and it’s getting harder,” she said. But then DeSaix points to the successes her students have had in other career paths. “Some students take this course to prep for a health professions career. It’s gratifying to know that students are successful.” Many of her students go on to nursing and medical school, and DeSaix does a lot of advising for students taking pre-health courses.
DeSaix pushes students to engage with the content. She asks for a lot because she knows they can give it to her. She also knows from personal experience that when you persevere and surmount a challenge, the reward is that much better.