by Joyce Helens, President, St. Cloud Technical & Community College
May 21, 2016
What happens in the classroom is not always comfortable and convenient, but there are teachable moments everywhere, and when we take advantage of those, lives change and improve.
Recently I attended the annual St Cloud Technical & Community College end-of-year celebration where we honor retirees. A special faculty member, Joy Sjoberg, retired after 27 years teaching at SCTCC.
Although Joy represents so many fine faculty teaching across the Minnesota State System, what sets Joy apart in the two-year system is she has had a research specialty and passion for a curricular area that she created and taught, called Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Joy dedicated her life to researching and teaching in this area and it grew to be a large part of the Humanities curriculum. She also took students on trips to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, as well as trips to Europe to visit concentration camp sites, changing many lives over the years.
Earlier in my tenure at the college, I recall a conversation with a young man who told me that he had taken Joy’s class because he had to fulfill a requirement and it fit his schedule. He never imagined it would change his life.
Growing up in a small town where everyone knew each other, he said he pretty much had a fixed idea of the world and it was not a large one, because he had never experienced a bigger world. But the class on the Holocaust and a trip to the museum in Washington changed all that.
In his telling of the story, he often looked away, remembering with emotion the first time at the museum he saw the pile of shoes that represented the many people exterminated, gassed in the camps, and how this affected him. He said being taken into the larger world where this could happen deeply disturbed him. Others who saw he changed recommended he drop the class or “forget about all that from the past.”
So this student began to think about what was happening to him, and he said he realized that pretending these atrocities did not happen, or were things of the past was not what he wanted to do. Instead, he started reading more.
He told me, with great emphasis, that atrocities still occur in the world, and, almost breathless, he suddenly became silent. After a long pause, he looked up and said at first he was depressed that things like this still occurred, that how can he, a kid from the farm, have any positive affect in this regard? Then, he said, about that same time, he became aware of another student being made the butt of jokes in one of his classes.
It was then, the young man said, that he saw he could make a difference immediately with this one person. Normally, he admitted, he might have just laughed at the jokes, too. But something had changed. He “stepped in and up” was the way I recall he put it. The jokes stopped. And he went out of his way to meet this student and befriend him. They became study partners and friends.
He said Joy’s class had thrust him into a new awakening. It was not pleasant. It was disruptive and uncomfortable. But it was necessary. And from that, he said, he found himself.
Education has a way of doing this, bringing people into a bigger room. We have students learning to be welders, among many other paths, for example, who start out thinking they will come to SCTCC and just gain that skill and then get a great job. Nothing wrong with that. But then our welding instructor might just begin a different class conversation that initially seems to have nothing to do with actually welding, talking about life and one’s place in it, promoting the students to take other classes, like the Holocaust and Genocide course, which changes lives.
This is the wonderfulness of our colleges, our faculty, and our staff. At SCTCC, we get to interact with amazing, ordinary students who turn out to be really quite extraordinary. And we have a hand in that! What happens in the classroom is not always comfortable and convenient, but there are teachable moments everywhere, and when we take advantage of those, lives change and improve — one person at a time.
When I told this story to a group of educators outside St. Cloud recently, one faculty who also teaches at a small private liberal arts college said SCTCC's faculty and students have answered the question of what liberal arts education should be more eloquently than any outside accrediting body could. And it happened at a two year technically-based community college!
Amazing things continue to happen at SCTCC. Joy Sjoberg has had a great deal to do with that for 27 years, and, upon her retirement, Joy donated her special collection to the college's library, where students will benefit from her scholarship for years to come.
This is the opinion of St. Cloud Technical & Community College President Joyce Helens. To A Higher Degree is published the fourth Sunday of the month and rotates among the presidents of the four largest Central Minnesota higher education institutions.