By Stephanie McMillen
Steve Cunningham, professor of English as a second language for academic purposes (EAP), didn’t always know he wanted to be a teacher.
“When I graduated from high school, I thought I wanted to pursue a career in science and math,” Steve said. This led him to earn a bachelor’s degree in paper engineering – a branch of engineering that is used for converting renewable raw materials into valuable products – and a minor in math from Western Michigan University.
After graduation, Steve jetted off to Belgrade, Yugoslavia to study abroad – something he had wanted to do throughout his undergraduate experience. He spent the next four years there studying forestry in relation to the paper industry, and mastered the SerboCroatian language.
“[I] became fascinated with languages and foreign cultures,” Steve added, and while he was there, he tutored students in English to earn extra cash.
This, Steve shares, is when he discovered his passion in life – teaching. “There is no satisfaction greater than knowing that I am having a part in helping a student reach his or her goals and [opening] doors for a better life,” he said.
When Steve returned to the U.S. in the early 1980s, he pursued his new-found passion by enrolling in a Master of Arts program at Michigan State University, where he was formally trained in teaching English to speakers of other languages.
“Upon completion of my master’s degree, I accepted a four-month, temporary teaching position at Ferris State University, which lasted for 12 years and saw my job evolve through a number of responsibilities,” Steve said.
While there, Steve went from teaching English, to advising international students, to recruiting international students, to becoming the director of the Intensive English Program, and finally, director of international programs for the university.
After some time, Steve found himself wondering how he had drifted so far from his passion of classroom teaching. He then “made a conscious decision to redirect [his] career back to the classroom,” and in the fall of 2000, was hired into a tenure-track position on Valencia’s Osceola Campus.
“Having worked in three major sectors of education, a public university, a proprietary school, and a community college, I can truthfully say that the community college is the best place to work in education, hands down,” Steve exclaimed. “The support that I receive, the opportunities to grow professionally, the difference I am making in the lives of my students, and the focus on learning have all combined to make this the ideal job for me.”
Steve’s passion for life-long learning is contagious, said Kathleen Plinske, president of the Osceola and Lake Nona Campuses.
“It is clear that [Steve] believes in his students and their ability to be successful,” Kathleen continued. “We have the pleasure to learn about different regions of the world vicariously through Steve, and his students benefit from his experiences living in different countries and cultures and hearing about his adventures first-hand.”
Last year Steve was selected as a Fulbright Scholar to conduct English teacher training at a Russian university. “The experience was very rewarding and professionally reinvigorating for me,” Steve said. “I have returned to my classroom with renewed energy and a desire to keep challenging myself professionally.”
Recently, Steve challenged himself by stepping outside his area of expertise and his discipline to complete an endowed chair project. Using funding from the Tupperware Corporation Endowed Chair in Community Quality, Steve traveled to Cuba to meet with a Cuban artist and acquire some of his original artwork for the college. Steve believes that bringing art into the Valencia community can inspire students and broaden their cultural understanding. You can learn more about Steve’s endowed chair project by watching the video below.
Reproduced images of this art, along with other scenes from Cuba, are now on permanent display as one of several murals that embellish the hallways of Osceola’s buildings.
“Giving students a challenge, raising the bar, helping them overcome adversity, and seeing them through to successful completion are the things that really motivate me and make me want to come to work each day,” Steve said.
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