[This article first appeared in the Orange County Register on February 3, 2016.]
When Merri Lynn Casem joined Cal State Fullerton as an assistant professor of biological science in 2000, her new office sparked old memories. She’d spent many hours in the very same room – on the other side of the desk.
The office previously belonged to Marvin Rosenberg – an influential faculty mentor to Casem when she was an undergraduate student at Cal State Fullerton. She jokes that before she came to CSUF, “I didn’t like science, and I didn’t want to be a teacher.”
But when she took her first biology course, something clicked into place. She was hooked. A few semesters later, she was asked to assist as a peer mentor in the lab for a botany course, where her love of teaching was ignited.
“My career was completely guided by my experiences here,” she says.
Casem, now a full professor as well as a member of the Academic Senate Executive Committee, is one of about 250 Cal State Fullerton faculty members who also received an undergraduate or graduate degree from our university, then went on to earn doctorates at other institutions, from the University of Nevada to Virginia Tech.
This unique group of faculty members is represented in every college on campus, as well as University Extended Education and Athletics, and ranges from newly hired lecturers to professors who have taught here for more than four decades.
Their journeys are as diverse as they are, but many of their stories mirror that of Casem. For Zia Salim, assistant professor of geography, it was a community college professor who fueled his passion for geography and in whose footsteps he wanted to follow.
“He had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at CSUF,” Salim explains, “so I decided that’s what I wanted to do, too.”
Beena Ajmera, assistant professor of civil engineering, met Binod Tiwari during her very first class on her very first day of school at CSUF. Professor Tiwari ended up becoming the single greatest influence on Ajmera’s studies and her career, encouraging her to become involved in undergraduate research and present at conferences and eventually becoming the co-adviser on her doctoral thesis.
“I always felt like he was looking out for me,” she says. “I still do.”
As provost, I am grateful to hear stories like theirs – not only because they shed light on the power of faculty mentors, but also because they speak to the strength and depth of our campus community.
When asked why they chose to come back to teach at CSUF, many of our faculty alumni echo librarian Jie Tian, who earned her master’s degree in American studies here and then went on to study in Illinois and work in New York before returning to Fullerton: “Somehow, I was still searching for a place like home. CSUF was that place for me.”
“As a student in anthropology,” says Barbra Erickson, professor of anthropology and a CSUF alumna, “I felt part of a family, part of a real community of student and teacher scholars. I try to do things as a faculty member in the same spirit that I encountered as a student here.”
As former students themselves, these faculty members offer valuable perspectives on curricula, program history, coursework and student life. Many went on to pursue other degrees or opportunities before returning to Cal State Fullerton, bringing back fresh ideas and skills to enrich their deep institutional knowledge.
“I love this campus to the very bottom of my heart,” says Barbara McDowell, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from CSUF and spent 26 years on staff, including 18 years as director of the Women’s Center/Adult Reentry Center. She is now a lecturer in the Department of Human Services.
Like so many faculty alumni, she is dedicated to paying it forward.
Now, instead of receiving the beneficence of faculty mentors at pivotal moments in their educational journey, they have become those mentors for the next generation of teachers, scholars and citizens. They are living role models for what all CSUF students can aspire to achieve.
“I like being able to show my students that it’s possible,” says Ajmera. “If I can do it, so can they.”
It’s a privilege to welcome our former Titans back into the fold, and to know that they continue to represent Cal State Fullerton through their commitment to excellence, and in doing so accelerate the dreams of our students and the rewards to our community.