Bringing students to the next level is his passion
Math, Science, and Physical Education Dean Luke Dowell did not always see himself as a good math student. It wasn’t until Dowell entered high school that he began to think of himself as someone who could do math.
“I vividly remember having both types of experiences in the math classroom,” Dowell said. “The one where you feel dumb, and can’t do anything to find the right answer. I was a student that, when somebody told me I was good at math, that really changed and inspired me. Then I had the experience where you are good at math and get made fun of for being a nerd. ”
Decades later, Dowell says the two extremes continue to inform his work in education.
“In college and grad school, I continued to experience both. There were times I felt, ‘I can’t get this,’ and had to keep at it. No matter what level, you’re going to hit something that feels impossible, and if you keep going, later you will wonder why it seemed hard in the first place.” As an instructor, Dowell pointed out, the goal is to raise students to that second place.
“There’s this misperception that a faculty member’s job is to simplify difficult concepts. It’s exactly the opposite. A good instructor takes a student and raises that student to that level of understanding, so the concept is no longer difficult,” he said. “An excellent instructor gets the student to be able to handle more complicated thinking.”
A Colby native, Dowell’s journey through academia illustrates that process. For the first two years of college, he stayed close to home, attending Colby Community College. His instructors at CCC advised him to take “as many math and science classes as I could, so I could go on to earn a math degree along with the education requirements —and they were right,” he said. Dowell graduated Kansas State University in 1992, with a math degree in secondary education, and married his wife, Tanya, a month later. A former accountant and instructor, she now fills the position of Director of Human Resources at SCCC.
“When we finished college, she had an accounting job in Liberal, so that’s where we came, and I was able to start as a teacher at Liberal High School,” Dowell said. Initially, the couple set a three-year timeframe for their stay in the community. But the jobs were good, and through the jobs, Dowell said, “we got to know people, and put down roots.” They also had a family — Daniel, now a senior at K-State, Nathan, also a K-State student, and Abbie, a seventh-grader at Eisenhower Middle School.
Dowell , too, continued his education, earning a master’s degree from Fort Hays State University in 2000.
“That was before all the distance-learning options,” he said. “I drove back and forth in the summer and on Saturdays to complete my master’s.” Dowell learned more than pedagogy from his studies; he noticed his college professors seemed more relaxed and focused on teaching math than he was able to be at the high school level.
“That appealed to me,” he said. “High school instruction is intense, and there are a lot more behavior issues to address.”
Thus, Dowell made the move to SCCC, where he has continued for 19 years. In 2008, he was appointed division chair. As part of an administrative refocusing process, Dowell’s title changed to “Dean” in the summer of 2016, a shift that involved more than a new name. He no longer carries a teaching load, which leaves time to focus on support to the instructors, and connections in the wider community and across the state.
“The change has allowed me to see how the college works on a bigger scale, and to collaborate with other divisions,” Dowell said. One example is a new math class for students whose first language is not English. The project grew out of a conversation with Director of Adult Education and Interim Dean of Industrial Technology, Travis Combs, in which the two deans realized many ESL students are highly educated in math subjects.
“Some of them have high-level degrees from their home countries, and they understand the concepts for higher math, they just don’t know the words in English,” Dowell said. “This could be a way to encourage them to start working on a college degree here on campus.”
That responsiveness to the individual is a mark of good education, and a strength at SCCC, Dowell said.
“Our students see the world differently than we do,” he said. “They come from all kinds of experiences and backgrounds, and what motivates them is often different than what we would expect. It can be a challenge to figure that out. Having said that, we still have the opportunity to see students attain the impossible, whether for them that is a math class, a degree, or going on to become a doctor, a pharmacist, an engineer.”
Dowell has lost count of the students who he has worked with, although he remembers their faces, names, and stories.
“I’m doing what I envisioned. I’ve always enjoyed helping people, and that’s what you do as a teacher. As a dean, I continue to have a chance to do that daily with this team of fantastic teachers and the students they instruct. For me, it’s all about helping someone move from Point A to beyond their wildest dreams — that’s awesome.”