College Matters | Commitment to students and community

This article was originally posted in the College Matters column of the Times-Standard.

Thursday, July 20, 2023 - 12:30pm

Educators throughout the world, every morning, wake up knowing that simply by showing up, we can make a positive difference in someone’s life. In many respects, it might not be as obvious as a helping hand, and in most circumstances, it might take several years. But, that is what we do and how this works. We know that through education, and the work that we do at a university, we can impact many people.

Most educators seldom get to learn about how they positively impacted others. For those alumni who might be reading this article right now, have you emailed, sent a card, or called a teacher or faculty member just to thank them for their mentorship and support?

Four years ago, we made a commitment at Cal Poly Humboldt. We decided that we are going to celebrate more often, and also more frequently honor our employees, students, alumni, and community leaders.

We recently celebrated three amazing people for their long commitment to helping students, and for all they have done in support of communities on the North Coast. Their lives make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Each received the President’s Distinguished Service Award, which is the highest honor that I have the sole discretion to grant. It’s an award that, over the years, has recognized individuals for efforts that intersect with supporting the community, the campus, and students. The first of these awards was granted in 1967 to Humboldt State Normal School’s first graduate, Susie Baker Fountain.

The three recipients this year are proof that you don’t have to look far to find people to admire or examples to look up to. They are among a small group of people I consider to be personal heroes. They are College of the Redwoods President Keith Flamer; Alumna Robin Smith; and Cal Poly Humboldt Executive Director of Initiatives Connie Stewart.

College of the Redwoods President Keith Flamer has been a leader in higher education for nearly 25 years, and he has served as president at CR since 2017. He is focused on expanding opportunity and on supporting students from diverse backgrounds. In recent years, he has helped develop a strong relationship with Cal Poly Humboldt, and I consider him to be among Humboldt’s very best partners. He knows that a strong CR-Humboldt partnership is good for the community and great for students, and he has led with heart and hard work to ensure the partnership thrives. His efforts have helped forge a national model for how a community college and a four-year university can work together.

Robin Smith is a 1978 graduate of Cal Poly Humboldt, and today is one of our most outstanding volunteer leaders. She serves as board chair of the Cal Poly Humboldt Foundation and as a vice chair of the Boldly Rising fundraising campaign. Robin is an amazing donor to the university, giving to areas she cares about including the Nursing Program and Club Sports. She credits Humboldt with encouraging her to try new things and always keep learning. She wants to make sure today’s students have the same positive experience. As a student, one of her projects allowed her to learn from tribal leaders and others throughout the Hoopa Valley, and her early work experience was at St. Joseph Hospital. Robin went on to have a very successful nursing career, and then she became a clinical researcher, running global clinical trials and helping bring new treatments to areas around the world.

Connie Stewart is a 1988 graduate of Cal Poly Humboldt and has dedicated herself to making the North Coast a better place to live. Today, she is executive director of Initiatives at Cal Poly Humboldt, focused on projects that connect the campus and community — like high-speed internet, health care, economic development, and workforce training. Connie and her team have had amazing success in developing these projects and, vitally, finding high-impact grants and other funding to support them. Connie’s long career in nonprofits and politics included serving as mayor and city councilmember in Arcata. She later spent a decade as executive director of the University’s California Center for Rural Policy, where she continues to serve as chief policy advisor. She has a long list of service at the state and national level, and a similarly long list of recognitions. Connie is an amazing example of an alum who has fully embraced, and lived, Humboldt’s Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility.

It felt good to recognize these individuals at a small but festive gathering in the Founders Hall Presidents Courtyard. Hearing the recipients share their stories was inspiring, and there was plenty of laughter along with quite a few tears.

Recognizing them was also a reminder of how blessed we are on the North Coast. It doesn’t usually make the news headlines, but our community is filled with people who care. In small ways and in large ways, they are trying to make things better. You and I are surrounded by people who are trying to do the right thing, putting in time and effort, and showing true compassionate spirit when others need help.

Be kind.

Dr. Tom Jackson Jr. is the president of Cal Poly Humboldt.