Kevin Young met his wife April when she invited him to a Girls Choice dance in high school. April was too shy to talk before the dance, so they exchanged notes. In one, she revealed her dream to move to Africa and live among cheetah. On their first date, April confessed that she did not dance. No matter, her Africa dream alone won Kevin’s heart.
They studied at BYU where April did her Master’s studying black bears, and then at Utah State University in Logan for Kevin’s PhD research on lizards. “We went down the evolutionary ladder.” Academic life often requires moving for positions. Kevin taught in Yuma, AZ for five years and the family recently moved to Del Rio where he has a three-year position teaching biology to current and prospective schoolteachers at Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College as well as Southwest Texas Junior College.
When Kevin moved from a 4-year university, he realized he had to adjust his expectations to the realities of community college. “Southwest Texas Junior College is typical of small, border-town community colleges that I have seen. The students often come from low-income backgrounds—most receive Pell Grants. Most are first-generation college students. There are hardly any men; it’s more than 80% female. Field trips are difficult because many of them have young children. With so many demands on their time, it can be hard to distinguish between students who are actually trying but just lack a skill set and those who may simply not care. It is hard to get them to communicate, to come to my office for help.”
Kevin related the story of his first class at a community college. He was proceeding with his lecture, writing on the white board, when he realized the students were simply sitting, watching him. No one was taking notes. He had to explain that taking notes might be a useful way to recall what he was saying.
Kevin struggles to find the balance between college-level curriculum and his students’ capacity. “Every once in a while a student catches fire. But that is rare. I am supposed to teach a college level class, but they generally aren’t ready for that. We have this giant textbook, but they can’t read it well. A chemistry teacher I spoke with says he teaches to the one or two who are capable and loses the rest. I can’t do that—I want to help all my students. What am I supposed to teach? I am in education, but I think the system is broken, and I have not figured out the answers.”
The educational struggles that Kevin describes are nowhere evident in his home. His eldest, Megan, is a freshman at Brigham Young University. April homeschools their other children: Ian, Erin, and Dallin. Each is articulate and engaging well beyond their grade level. Teenager Ian described fractals to me and quoted Nikolai Tesla. Erin has primary custody of the household dog, cat, serpent, scorpion, tarantula, and savannah monitor lizard. Dallin is just a sharp seven-year-old who beat us all at cards.
Despite the challenges Kevin is experiencing, he finds much to recommend his new community. “I like Del Rio. The pace of life is slower than anywhere I’ve lived and people are very friendly. The other biologist I work with still collects specimens and we get to teach traditional classes like mammalogy and ornithology. Few campuses are doing that anymore. Everywhere else, its cellular biology, data and statistics.”
He also realizes that teaching at a community college level is an important challenge. “Somehow you hope to lift the community.”
How will we live tomorrow?