Grossmont Cuyamaca faculty lauded at two East County colleges
Their peers as the academic year’s best faculty members have selected five instructors at Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges. The honorees were lauded at fall convocations for exemplary service to the East County campuses.
At Grossmont College, art history professor Marion de Koning received the Distinguished Faculty Award, and Administration of Justice instructor Shaun Donelson was picked for the adjunct award. At Cuyamaca College, English instructor Lauren Halsted and math instructor Terrie Nichols are co-winners of the Outstanding Faculty Member Award, and Arabic instructor Aklas Sheai received the award for adjunct faculty.
Marion de Koning
Art historian and a Grossmont College instructor for 18 years, Marion de Koning’s credentials as an art scholar are impressive, but when asked if she is herself an artist, she responds with a laugh.
“I have a few paintings at home, but they are only for my personal viewing,” said the Netherlands native, who emigrated to the United States in mid-‘80s, earning her associate degree from Palomar College, her bachelor’s and master’s in art history from San Diego State University and her doctorate, also in art history, from the University of Southern California. The Phi Beta Kappa member speaks English, Dutch, French, German and conversational Spanish.
“Marion’s unique vision and strong voice exudes enthusiasm, energy and passion for the arts,” Academic Senate President Tate Hurvitz said when presenting de Koning’s award. “Her classes are performances that captivate and invigorate her students.”
De Koning is credited for her efforts to develop an associate degree for transfer in art history at Grossmont and is also lauded for her service as an honor society advisor, Study Abroad coordinator, Academic Senate officer, and her extensive committee work.
Currently serving as chair of the Visual Arts and Humanities Department, de Koning’s career as an educator began in 1975 as an elementary school teacher in her native country and as a cultural guide for Study Abroad programs in Europe. Although she has a master’s degree from a teacher’s college in the Netherlands, she started her U.S. education as a community college student to gain writing proficiency. De Koning credits her community college experience for her commitment to teaching at Grossmont College.
“My best instructors were from my time as a community college student,” she said. “Community college instructors are truly the most devoted to the profession of teaching.”
The multifaceted lives and challenges faced by community college students continue to motivate her as an educator, said de Koning, who in 2010 received Grossmont College’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
“I am constantly amazed by their strength and commitment,” she said. “The impact I am able to have on them as an educator, in addition to the support of my colleagues and the strength of the arts program, are what have kept me here.”
With 31 years in law enforcement, including 22 with the San Diego Police Department, Grossmont College Administration of Justice instructor Shaun Donelson engages his students and Police Academy cadets with real-world scenarios that are both thought-provoking and challenging.
At a time when police and community relations have been the focus of national scrutiny, Donelson is keenly aware of the importance of the lessons he brings to his students about the proper use of force and respecting others.
“It is an important part of my philosophy,” said Donelson, who received more than a dozen citations for exceptional service and performance during his years as police officer, detective, sergeant and training coordinator with the SDPD.
He began assisting an instructor at Grossmont College’s Police Academy 25 years ago, eventually becoming the lead instructor and later expanding his role as an adjunct AOJ faculty member.
“Using first-hand experience, I truly enjoy giving my students a real-world preview of how our criminal justice system actually works -- and sometimes doesn’t,” said Donelson, who earned his Police Sciences degree from Miramar College in 2006.
Three years ago, Donelson began teaching an introductory AOJ course in the Freshman Academy, a Grossmont College program that provides mentoring, counseling and academic support to first-year students. Faculty in the multidisciplinary program have praised Donelson for working collaboratively with faculty in the English and Communication Departments to further student success. In addition to learning the Freshman Academy’s unique approach to collaborative teaching, Donelson also took the time to do outreach to high schools students in underserved communities.
“I find Grossmont College to be a very nurturing, supportive and pleasing environment for both staff and students,” Donelson said. “My priority is my students and helping them understand that, with effort, they can accomplish anything.”
Thinking back to her senior year in high school when her biggest achievement was ditching 54 days of classes, Cuyamaca College math instructor Terrie Nichols said it was only through the miracle of community college that she is where she is today.
Divorced with two young boys and pregnant with her third, Nichols returned to school in her late 20s, enrolling at Cuyamaca College. With no job skills, she viewed Cuyamaca as an opportunity to improve her lot in life. The move proved transformational.
“A counselor placed me into an English class and an elementary algebra class that first semester,” she said. “While watching the instructor prove the quadratic formula in that basic skills math class, I fell in love with math and decided right then and there that I wanted to be a math teacher – and more specifically a math teacher at Cuyamaca College.”
So intent was Nichols on attaining her goal that after earning her bachelor’s and master’s in pure mathematics from San Diego State University, she took a job as a secretary, biding her time until a Cuyamaca teaching position became available.
“I refused to apply for a teaching job at another college,” she said.
Eighteen months later in fall 1995, Cuyamaca announced a tenure-track position in math and Nichols spent more than 70 hours preparing her application, writing and rewriting her responses to 11 essay questions.
“When the college offered me the position, I was filled with gratitude,” the Alpine resident said. “I knew I would be able to provide the quality of life I wanted for my sons, and the big bonus -- I would be able to pursue my passion while giving back to the Cuyamaca community what the college gave to me.”
Nichols’ teaching innovations have set many remedial students on an accelerated path to successfully complete a university transfer-level math course. The state awarded the college a $1.5 million Basic Skills Initiative Transformation Grant in March, a grant-writing effort led by Nichols. She was also instrumental in the college last month receiving a nearly $2.6 million grant funded through the U.S. Department of Education’s Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program.
The nomination form for Nichols’ Outstanding Faculty Member award describes the math teacher as “relentless” in her pursuits and also highlights her tireless efforts toward student success. Academic President Alicia Muñoz said she has made a huge impact on students being able to complete degrees and for many to transfer to universities.
Nichols is characteristically self-effacing about the praise heaped upon her.
“I have been a pain in the hind quarters in my unyielding quest to implement accelerated learning in math, English, and ESL at Cuyamaca,” she said. “I feel that I should apologize to every college constituency. And now, they’ve encouraged me by giving me this award.”
English instructor Lauren Halsted’s first job out of college was as a freelance writer for Surfing Girl Magazine – fitting for someone who’s been hanging 10 from the time she was a kid growing up in San Juan Capistrano. These days, with her busy teaching schedule at Cuyamaca College and two young children, she’s had to cut back her daily surfing to about once a week.
Hired as an adjunct faculty member in 2005, she became full-time in 2008, melding teaching with service on numerous committees.
Like Nichols in the math department, Halsted has been at the forefront of Cuyamaca’s accelerated learning initiatives, since 2011. Over the years, she has helped shepherd English acceleration by writing curricula, leading workshops and creating a UC San Diego extension course-preparing educators to teach accelerated classes. Halsted also started a mentorship program at the college and served on the English subcommittee of the East County Education Alliance, a partnership between the college and local high school districts.
“I have always loved the community college because it symbolizes the promise of education,” Halsted said. “We really are the place of opportunity and second chances for so many members of our communities.”
Aspiring to become a writer and teacher, the Orange County native earned her bachelor’s in English from UC Santa Barbara and after a three-year writing stint at the surfing magazine and the Tahoe Daily Tribune, she returned to school for a master’s in English literature from San Francisco State University.
She moved to San Diego in 2005, becoming an adjunct at CuSan Diego Mesa, Cuyamaca, Saddleback and Palomar colleges.
“I quickly fell in love with Cuyamaca because of the people here—our students and the faculty, staff, and administrative team,” said Halsted, who in 2011 earned her doctorate in education from San Diego State University’s Community College Leadership program. “It truly feels like a family here, and I am honored to work with such amazing people every day.”
Arabic instructor Aklas Sheai does her best to make her Cuyamaca College students feel at home from the moment they walk into the classroom. From the welcoming sound of their native language to Sheai’s daily practice of bringing Middle Eastern snacks, the roomful of mostly Iraqi refugees appreciate the effort.
Sheai, who immigrated as a Chaldean refugee along with her husband, son and daughter in 2005, graduated from Cuyamaca and became an adjunct instructor in 2008. A repeat winner of the Outstanding Adjunct Faculty Award from 2014, her contributions to the college have been many, not only as a popular instructor, but also as a counseling office test proctor, peer adviser and translator, and producer of an annual stage extravaganza showcasing the Middle Eastern culture.
“Her dedication is beyond imagination,” one person wrote in nominating Sheai for the faculty honor. “She puts her heart, mind, and soul into the teaching profession. She is also able to have students from various religious and ethnic backgrounds to work together to promote a cultural understanding through the expression of arts.”
A former teacher in her native Iraq with a bachelor’s in statistics, Sheai worked with the United Nations, but after receiving death threats for being regarded as pro-Western, she sought refuge in the United States. Currently pursuing her master’s in ESL/Bilingual Education, she calls her teaching position at Cuyamaca College her “dream job.”
“Getting recognized by my colleagues for the second time filled my heart with joy and my eyes with tears as I heard my name announced,” she said. “This recognition was not only a reward for my work on campus, but also a token to keep me going to serve this campus and its students. I love Cuyamaca and being part of this family of inspiring educators.”