From the cotton fields of Arizona to a boyhood spent in Uganda, the four Grossmont and Cuyamaca College instructors honored by their colleagues this fall took unpredictable paths to the two East County colleges.
Each was introduced at convocation as the year’s standout faculty.
Grossmont College math instructor Irene Palacios received the full-time Distinguished Faculty Award, and Computer Science and Information Systems instructor Julie Hansen was chosen the adjunct (part-time) winner of the same award at the El Cajon school.
At Cuyamaca College in Rancho San Diego, English as a Second Language instructor Manuel Mancillas-Gomez earned the Outstanding Faculty Award for full-time faculty, and English instructor Robert Stafford was the adjunct winner.
“I always look forward to the announcement of winning faculty,” said Chancellor Cindy L. Miles. “Without exception, they represent the best qualities of commitment and caring in their interaction with students. They take great pride in the progress students make and they find satisfaction in knowing that as educators, they make a difference.”
“My personal journey is just one example of a life profoundly changed by access to higher education,” said the math teacher with 19 years on campus.
Palacios and her mother emigrated from Mexico to the United States when she was 2 to live with her mother’s parents in Arizona. Palacios’ grandfather was a migrant fieldworker, following seasonal work in Arizona and California.
As a child, Palacios worked the cotton fields during the summers, waking up at 4 a.m. and laboring in 110-degree heat. By 15, she was working a graveyard shift as a restaurant server.
In school, Palacios said she was bullied by classmates and punished by her teachers for speaking Spanish. She found her refuge in math.
“Math class became my escape – it was my happy place,” she said.
Although a scholar in high school, she never thought of continuing her education until a biology instructor told her matter-of-factly that she was going to college.
As her high school valedictorian, she was able to attend Arizona State University for free. A support program for first-year students from underserved communities was key to her success and she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in math from ASU and a master’s degree in statistics from Colorado State University.
The support she received in her own education led Palacios to begin working in 2016 with Grossmont College’s Via Rapida First Year Experience program, creating peer mentoring and embedded tutoring programs.
Palacios’ other contributions to the college include designing and creating the college’s first online statistics course and becoming the college’s de facto guru for online education.
She is also credited with bolstering the Math Student Center as its coordinator, efforts that have brought her other plaudits, including Innovator of the Year last spring, and the Division Teaching Excellence Award in 2011
“Irene Palacios is a rare individual and a committed professional, dedicated to Grossmont College and to her students in her capacity as a mathematics instructor,” said Janet Gelb, the college’s distance education coordinator.
Palacios marvels how education transformed her life and strives every day to pay it forward by helping students progress.
“I never thought I would be fortunate enough to work at a college that honors diversity and inclusion as much as Grossmont College, she said.
With an accounting background in the corporate world and jobs that have taken her around the globe, Hansen made a midcareer switch to begin teaching.
In addition to an introductory Computer Science and Information Systems course in information technology at Grossmont College, she teaches accounting at Miramar and Mesa colleges and San Diego State University.
A CrossFit athlete, Hansen’s equally high energy approach to teaching is popular and her creativity in engaging students and introducing data analytics to Grossmont’s CSIS program have garnered praise.
She developed a “Shark Tank” experience in which students are grouped into teams to pitch proposals to a group of judges at the end of the semester.
“After seeing results of what Julie accomplishes, now all the other faculty want to do this,” said Clifton Quinn, department chair. “She is energetic, positive, helpful, and absolutely shows that she very sincerely cares about her students and co-workers.”
Colleagues who nominated Hansen for the adjunct Distinguished Faculty Award said her innovative ideas like creating applications and assessment tools to gauge students’ progress have contributed greatly to the CSIS program.
Hansen’s early efforts helping the department’s transition from print to digital textbooks and teaching material brought her recognition as a trailblazer.
She represents Grossmont College in the San Diego Community College Computer Consortium, an active networking and information-sharing venue for technology instructors throughout the region.
Born in Tijuana, Mancillas-Gomez moved as a teen with his parents and five siblings to Otay Mesa, but continued attending high school in Mexico. The day after he took his last high school final exam, Mancillas-Gomez registered at UCLA for the 1967 summer quarter.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Latin American Studies from UCLA and his master’s degree in teaching English from Grand Canyon University, he is now an English As a Second Language instructor at Cuyamaca College.
He worked eight years as an adjunct instructor before getting a full-time contract in 2014.
Mancillas-Gomez draws on the memories of his own challenges as a product of Mexican schools transitioning to UCLA as he helps the mostly Iraqi students he sees in his classes.
Cuyamaca College’s shift to accelerated learning in which students are no longer delayed by remedial classes in math, English and ESL also appeals to Mancillas-Gomez’s sense of justice.
As one of the key designers of the new accelerated ESL program at Cuyamaca, Mancillas-Gomez devotes hours outside the classroom to promote what he regards as equity for students across the state. He travels monthly to Sacramento to serve on committees addressing reforms to remedial education.
“I believe it is a highly transformative model in which we are not only teaching skills, but also empowering students for success,” he said. “I see many colleges in the state where these changes are sadly not happening because of the lack of the strong leadership such as we have at Cuyamaca College. Transformative processes work best when multiple agents collaborate and have a dedicated conviction for change.”
The son of educators, Stafford said teaching wasn’t in his plans early in life. But from his boyhood years spent in Uganda, where his parents taught for the State Department, the teacher’s life was ingrained in him and he witnessed the satisfaction that imparting knowledge can bring.
“Really teaching somebody something they need is a joyful experience that few other others can match,” said Stafford, who first worked at Cuyamaca College in the mid-1980s as a tutor for students with learning disabilities.
While a student at San Diego State University, he continued tutoring at the college and eventually became the interim coordinator of the Tutoring/Assessment Center.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in writing from San Diego State University, he returned to Cuyamaca College in 2006 as an adjunct English instructor.
“Robert Stafford has really gone above and beyond his role as an adjunct faculty and has become an integral figure on our campus who wholeheartedly engages in activities outside his regular teaching duties to make our students, his department and college better,” Academic Senate President Kim Dudzik said.
In addition to serving on the Academic Senate, Stafford has served as one of a trio of leaders heading Cuyamaca College’s accreditation cycle. He was also recognized for his work on equity grants and for serving as the faculty advisor to the LGBT Youth Group.
Stafford initially came to Cuyamaca College to work under Sam Turner, the first chair of the English Department, who continued to support and mentor him as he explored career options.
“He sent me off into the world with an invitation back to teach when I was ready,” Stafford said. “I have gone off from time to time, but this is a place and job that I love so staying away is difficult.”
Stafford said the people and the data-driven aspects of Cuyamaca College are what he appreciates most.
“We’re getting at the real reasons students succeed and fail, and we’re building in interventions to help students stay in school and succeed,” he said. “This is huge and it’s having a huge impact on student success.”