When I Landed My Dream Job

This is the third of a series of articles on my adventures and misadventures from my way-too-long 24 years in academia. See the first article here.

After completing my master’s degree in physics at UC Berkeley (UCB), I was ready to pursue my dream of teaching at community college that was inspired by Mr. Wilson.

As I was soon to learn, landing a full-time community college position is not always easy. There are many dedicated college teachers who spend years teaching part-time, often traveling between multiple community colleges while barely earning a livable wage, in the hope of someday landing a coveted full-time position.

For me, however, as with many things in life that are meant to be, it was very easy. I had positioned myself perfectly by graduating from UCB at exactly the time one of its biggest Northern California feeder community colleges, Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC), had an opening for a physics and engineering instructor due to a retirement.

As I wrote about earlier, I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles and the combination of too many people, too much traffic, and (at that time) poor air quality led me to leave it behind as soon as I could. By the time I was looking for the community college job I was a confirmed Northern California boy.

And Santa Rosa isn’t just anywhere in Northern California. It’s located in the heart of the Sonoma Valley wine country with beautiful, gently rolling hills.

Sonoma County Wine Country

Santa Rosa is also just a short, scenic drive through more rolling hills and endless small ranches with grazing cows and sheep to reach the Pacific Ocean. If you’ve never visited Northern California, it’s worth it alone for the spectacular, rocky beaches. You can spend hours or days driving up and down Highway 1 from just north of San Francisco to Eureka and beyond.

Sonoma County Rocky Shoreline

I applied for, interviewed, and was offered my dream job at SRJC that I started in the fall after graduating from UCB.

SRJC fits right into the beauty of Sonoma County.

Unlike some community colleges that were built with limited funds, and it shows, SRJC seems to have built with sufficient funds to make it a beautiful campus.

Most of the buildings are built with brick and have appealing architectures. At times, walking around the campus it could almost seem like I was in the ivy league because ivy had grown up the brick walls of some buildings. And, like much of Sonoma County, there were many majestic, mature oak trees throughout the campus.

Santa Rosa Junior College

I was given a light teaching load my first semester as a new instructor. I had two classes to teach, both of which included lecture and lab. These sophomore courses were a physics course on electricity and magnetism (E&M) and an engineering course on introduction to electronics.

While I didn’t have a degree in electrical engineering, I had taken several relevant courses, including introduction to circuit theory, and a couple of upper division courses on digital and analog circuits.

As a learned, there was a need for me to completely modernize the electronics course. The retired instructor had been teaching vacuum tube electronics. He was known to say to the students “Bring your old TV in and we’ll get it working again.”

For the younger audience, vacuum tubes were used in most electronics, including TVs, before the age of solid state electronics and transistors. The tubes were designed to be easily replaced as they tended to burn out over time.

Vacuum Tubes

I was very fortunate to have a great bunch of students in both of these first two classes. Since it was a community college, a fair number of the students had been in the workforce for a few years and were more mature.

One student in particular was a lot of fun and was very helpful to me in my introductory electronics course. Ed “Born to Solder” Snyder, as he sometimes wrote his name on his lab reports, had a few years of experience as an electronics technician prior to enrolling in the engineering curriculum at SRJC.

Ed was one of those very high energy guys who always had about a dozen things he was somehow juggling all at once. Not the least of which was a family with five young kids! That wasn’t enough, of course. In the middle of a busy semester with that large family, he still found time before Christmas to string up gobs of lights on his house and time the blinking of the lights to music.

As that fall semester was winding down, I was running out of ideas for lab assignments, since I was creating them all from scratch. No problem. Ed to the rescue! He created that final lab assignment for me. Suffice it to say he didn’t have to complete that assignment.

Ed was one of several students from that sophomore class I stayed in touch with for several years. After completing his BS degree in electrical engineering at the University of California, Davis (UCD), he worked for several years in Northern California as an electrical engineer. He later packed up his wife and five (or was it more by then?) kids and moved to Chicago to complete an MBA at Northwestern University.

If anyone had the profile of an entrepreneur, it was Ed. I keep expecting to one day read about a successful startup that went public and made him a fortune.

My other course that first semester was the most memorable one at SRJC. First of all, E&M was always a favorite physics course of mine, both as a student and an instructor. There were 52 students in the course and as it turned out, 10 of them earned an “A” grade, so the talent level was very high.

Among the 52 students in the course, there were about six or seven Vietnamese young men and women. They had all been refugees, among the 2 million so-called Vietnamese Boat People who fled Vietnam by boat between the late 1970s and early 1990s.

Many of these Vietnamese refugees had been upper-middle class professionals in Vietnam before they fled to the United States. Due to the language barrier and their degrees often not being accepted outside of Vietnam, many of them had to take non-professional jobs to support their families in the United States. A whole generation, including the parents of my students, had to sacrifice so their children would have a better life in what was for their children a real land of opportunity.

Vietnamese Boat People

Most memorable of these was one student who was off the charts talented. I recall he used to sit in the lectures with his arms folded and a slight Buddha-like serene smile. No lecture note taking required for this student. He went on the earn a BS in electrical engineering at UCB, and I believe he continued there to complete his PhD.

As you’d expect, when I gave my first exam in the E&M course, there was a distribution of scores for the Vietnamese students. My most brilliant student scored a near perfect score. The other Vietnamese students had scores that corresponded mostly to a “C” grade.

Then a strange thing happened.

When I gave my second exam in the course, three of the Vietnamese students who scored “C” grades on the first exam got nearly perfect scores. For one of them to have done that could have been explained by working harder or maybe pairing up with their brilliant fellow ex-countryman. However, for three of them to improve their scores so significantly all at once was just statistically unlikely.

So, just a few weeks into my first semester of teaching, I decided to investigate how this happened.

I wandered over to the print shop where my exams were printed. And guess what I learned? There were some other Vietnamese students working the evening shift at the print shop! The woman who ran the print shop said the students were supposed to work on the honor system. If they ran across one of their exams, another student was supposed to print it.

But what about an exam of a buddy? What was the honor system for that situation?

I decided I needed to handle this by doing an experiment. I created two versions of the third exam. I submitted one version via the normal process so that it would be printed by the night crew. I then submitted a second version directly to the woman who ran the print shop and she assured me it would be printed by the day crew.

Imagine the surprise of those three students of mine when they got the second version of the exam on exam day!

No surprise on the outcome. Their exam grades dropped back to “C” or “D” and order was restored.

While I spent lots of extra time preparing my lecture notes and lab assignments, I did find time to enjoy Sonoma County. One weekend I drove around in search of blackberry patches. I was on a mission and after a while I found an awesome patch near a small, seasonal creek.

By the time I was done picking, stuffing my face, and filling up a couple of large flat boxes, my clothes were totally stained and officially became my berry picking clothes.

I had lots of fun eating those blackberries with my homemade granola (yes, I was a granola head at UCB while in grad school!). I also brought enough to my parent’s house in the Sacramento area (where they had relocated from Southern California) so my mom and I could make a delicious blackberry pie.

She made the flakiest pie crust I’ve ever tasted. I never could replicate it and finally had to give up trying.

Blackberry Picking

With such a large number of engineering students at SRJC, they had a very active student engineering club called TEC (The Engineering Club). One time late in that first semester there was a club day in which all the campus clubs had booths and exhibits. Since I served as their faculty representative, my students surprised me with an awesome t-shirt that read “Is Rich Stewart the Shell Answer Man?”

I was very flattered as a new college instructor. For the younger readers, The Shell Answer Man was a character in Shell Oil commercials that ran from the 1970s to the 1990s. He had all the answers to common questions from the public about driving, with advice on vehicle maintenance, repair and safety, as well as guidance to users of home heating oil.

The Official Shell Answer Man

My Dream Job was about to get more eventful than I could have ever imagined before that first semester was over.

At that time, I was not in a relationship. Earlier that year I had broken off an engagement and five-year relationship with my college girlfriend.

Around the Thanksgiving time frame, one of my E&M course students told me that one of my female students in that class liked me a lot. In no time at all I was dating her. And it wasn’t really possible to keep it a secret. She lived just across the street from the engineering building that was on the edge of campus. And, I walked past her house every day on my way to my apartment that was only about ½ mile away.

This student, who I’ll call Shirley (not her real name) had been a solid “C” student. However, I had noticed she was meticulous in her write-ups of homework problems and appeared to take pride in her work. She was also very attractive.

As our relationship blossomed, it came to the attention of my department chair. I can’t remember if I told her myself or if she found out otherwise. Fortunately, it was California and more liberal attitudes prevailed, in general. My department chair didn’t try to tell me I couldn’t continue the relationship. But it was obvious she would be watching closely to make sure that Shirley wasn’t getting any preferential treatment as my student.

On the evening before the E&M final exam I was hanging out with Shirley while she studied. I helped her only as she needed it and didn’t provide any clues about the content of the final exam. Because she had a solid “C” grade and would have needed to nearly ace the final exam to earn a “B” in the class, I told her not to over study because I didn’t think there was a realistic chance she could pull her grade up.

As it turned out, she did quite well on the final exam, though not quite well enough to pull up her grade to a “B”. She was a little unhappy with me for not encouraging her to study even harder. However, the fact that she earned yet another “C” grade provided the evidence my department chair needed that wasn’t giving Shirley any preferential treatment.

Those who know me very well are aware that I can be impetuous. It was certainly the case when Shirley and I decided after just two months of dating that we would elope. I was 26 and she was just 19. She was convinced her mom would not approve so telling her was not an option.

In early February of my first year at SRJC we eloped at the office of the Sonoma County Clerk.

No one would learn of our marriage for over two years.

The next fall Shirley transferred to UCD as a physics major. I spent that second year at SRJC split between teaching during the week and spending the weekends hanging out with Shirley in Davis, California while regularly tutoring her in physics. I had completed my undergrad in physics at UCD, so she was taking all of the same courses I had taken just a few short years ago.

Revisiting all of the more advanced physics that I enjoyed caused me to think about returning to grad school.

The no-brainer, strategic decision would have been to return to UCB. A PhD from UCB in physics or engineering at that time was considered a lot more prestigious than from UCD.

But wait, what about my dream job? I was just in my second year of teaching and had really enjoyed it.

What ultimately made it an easy decision to leave was the paltry pay. With a master’s degree from UCB in the early ’80s I was paid $20,000 a year. That was significantly less than the new grad hires just a couple miles down the road at Hewlett Packard with bachelor’s degrees in engineering.

I was so poor I could not afford to replace my college car that was so near end of life it required me to add a pint of transmission fluid to it every week.

My dream job in my dream location thus only lasted two years and it was on to my next adventure in academia.

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