Instructors epitomize high standards, love of learning
They traveled circuitous paths to get to the classroom, but once Seward County Community College instructors Chris Hickman and Hiran Gunasekara arrived, they knew they were where they belonged — and so do their students and fellow educators. That’s confirmed by their selection for recognition at this summer’s NISOD conference at the University of Texas in Austin.
The National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) is a membership organization committed to promoting and celebrating excellence in teaching, learning, and leadership at community and technical colleges.
Dr. Todd Carter, SCCC’s Vice President of Academic Affairs, said both Hickman and Gunasekara fit the description.
“Chris is the consummate student advisor, advocate, and mentor, and Hiran, too, sets high standards for his students and provides the support and encouragement they need to be successful,” Carter said. “When we nominate instructors, we know they are deserving. The process of describing how and why always gives us a fresh appreciation for their excellence.”
“My favorite saying is from Francis of Assisi (who interestingly enough was an inspiration to Louis IX, our own Louie the Saint,)” Hickman said. “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible, and suddenly, you are doing the impossible.”
Hickman logged nine years as an active member of the United States Navy, working as a Machinist Mate. He followed up with 12 years as a reservist MM. When he left active duty, he worked for NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in Charleston, S.C., as an engineering technician in research and development for more than 10 years.
“Then, I went back to school and completed an associate of science. with the intention of becoming an engineer, but I found people more interesting,” Hickman said. “I ended up with a B.S. in Workforce Education and Development.”
His first gig with the new credentials? Hickman taught electricity and control programming part-time, online for eight years. He also logged two decades as an Automation Controls Specialist in Colorado Springs, before moving to Liberal to be a full-time HVAC instructor. Like many of his students, Hickman is familiar with the challenges of working more than one job at the same time, and leveraging many different kinds of work experience to make a living.
“At Seward, I’ve had students who work at National Beef, and come to class with no sleep, or little sleep,” he said. “I think I probably have more compassion for them than I would if I hadn’t experienced this. I remember saying ‘Sleep is overrated,’ when I was working multiple jobs.”
In 2016, Hickman transferred to insctruct in the Process Technology program at SCCC, an industrial division specialization that focuses on food products and fuel products.
“My background has been primarily with commercial and industrial systems, so it’s a good match,” he said. It goes without saying that he’s comfortable putting on different hats as the need arises. Students in his process technology class latched on to the spirit of innovation during the past academic year, experimenting with the production of various type of biofuel, all under Hickman’s unflappable instruction.
“Hickman is a leader in CTE at SCCC,” Carter said. “He has taken a struggling program and transformed it into an opportunity sought out by students and industry. He leads a program capstone assessment project for the industrial technology division, and has had great success in building online curriculum delivery and support.”
Hiran Gunasekara, the SCCC economics instructor who will also receive a NISOD award, brings a similarly varied set of life and professional experiences to his classroom. Growing up in Sri Lanka, Gunasekara attended private elementary and high schools, where he received a traditionally Southeast Asian/colonial style education.
“I always loved the subjects we learned but I could never ask questions,” he said. “The teachers were nice people, but they spoke and you listened, that’s the way it is done there. If you wanted to discover more information, you had to do most of the work on your own.”
So he did. Gunasekara, who was curious about the world, went to work for the Sri Lankan national airline after he completed his primary high school education.
“I was interested in flying, so I signed on as a steward, and I also started taking flying lessons,” he said. As Gunasekara served on flights in and out of 26 countries in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, “I was comparing the people and the cultures everywhere. I always wanted to know what made some countries so wealthy and successful, and others not. I was looking at people, talking to people, and I didn’t see much difference. People everywhere, their intellect and abilities are the same, so it must be the systems they live in that are messed up.”
These firsthand observations led Gunasekara to set aside his dream of becoming a pilot, and enter the field of economics instead. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas San Antonio, worked for the World Bank, and for the foreign ministry in Sri Lanka as a research assistant and economic development professional.
Along the way, he began to teach adjunct classes at nearby colleges, first in Virginia and the Washington, D.C., area, then in Texas as he completed his master’s degree. In the classroom, he provided experiences he always wished he could have had: lively discussions, hands-on projects, plenty of give-and-take between student and teacher.
“Hiran utilizes multiple instructional methodologies and engages students in real world application and experiences,” said Carter, “and his sense of humor and engaging personality makes him a favorite among faculty and staff.”
In her nomination letter, Dean of Agriculture, Business, and Personal Services Kim Zant praised Gunasekara’s innovative and effective approach.
“Hiran works tenaciously with his students to assure they are learning the content. He incorporates new methodologies into his classes, to include converting one class into a hybrid format, implementing an e-book with relevant applications for his business math course, and integrating weekly research article projects. This allows each student the opportunity to gain work related skills in addition to course content,” she stated.
“He challenges his students to actively research new ideas/trends in his economics courses by having them do weekly article assignments. He encourages them to be well-read and knowledgeable,” she continued. “Hiran routinely has guest speakers from industry related to the economic and/or banking fields to expose them to new ideas and innovations. He takes the students on field trips to expose them to industry and to gain networking opportunities.”
Gunasekara networks on campus as well, serving on the academic affairs, diversity, and advisory committees. In his free time, he also serves on the local juvenile truancy board.
Both instructors epitomize the aims of NISOD.
“Recognizing those individuals who have contributed to student success and their colleges’ mission is something we look forward to doing each year,” said Dr. Edward J. Leach, NISOD’s Executive Director. “The extraordinary work of these men and women includes not only what they do for their students and colleagues, but what they do for the communities in which they live and work. We’re honored to be able to play a part in celebrating their achievements.”