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Column

GUEST COLUMN: College will point you in the 'rite' direction

A new chapter in life’s adventure awaits at institutions like Sauk, thanks to gifted teachers and students

David Hellmich
David Hellmich

I was in a high school English class reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain when I first learned the concept “rite of passage.” Huck’s adventures with Jim on the Mississippi River teach Huck important truths about himself and society, resulting in a transition for him, a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.

An important rite of passage for me did not take place on a grand river adventure, but in college because of a few brilliant and committed faculty like Dr. Roger Gustavsson, a professor of philosophy and religion. He taught me the importance of focus when reading (his assigned readings were so difficult I would read one page an hour) and exactness when speaking and writing (I wrote drafts of questions before speaking in his class because he was famous for questioning students about what they meant by their questions). Thanks to him and other professors like Dr. Sedlack and Dr. White, I went from being an intellectual novice to an inquiring young adult who had a much deeper understanding of myself and the intellectual rigor required to be successful.

Decades later, including more than 3 as an educator, I have profound gratitude for what those professors did for me, and I know professors like them are fundamental to the academic experience all students should have in college.

This gratitude is a reason I am proud to be at Sauk Valley Community College, where brilliant faculty have that same commitment to teaching and hold students to that same rigor I experienced as a college student.

A case in point is Dr. Jim Chisholm, professor of physics at Sauk.

Jim is a self-described “child of the 1980s” who grew up dreaming of space shuttle missions and learning complex scientific concepts by watching Carl Sagan’s television show, “Cosmos”. He was a triple major – physics, astronomy, and integrated science – at Northwestern University in Evanston, and spent a summer at Harvard University and NASA doing research. For his doctorate at the University of Chicago, he studied early universe cosmology, which culminated in his dissertation, “The Clustering of Primordial Black Holes.” His love of this area of science is so deep, he continued researching it during a 2-year post-doctorate fellowship at the University of Florida.

Yes, Jim is a brainiac theoretical physicist like Sheldon Cooper on the “Big Bang Theory” sitcom. Unlike Sheldon though, Jim has superb interpersonal and communication skills that he uses to be a master educator.

Jim moved to the Sauk Valley with his wife, a professional classical singer working on her doctorate, and their son after Jim had been a tenured professor at Southern Utah University. He and his wife wanted to get back to the Midwest, and Jim wanted to be at Sauk because he loves teaching.

“Coming to Sauk from the university, I’ve seen no drop in the quality of students,” Jim said. “In fact, it’s just the opposite.”

One such student is Arabella Chamberlain, a home-schooled student from Dixon, who majored in physics at Sauk and graduated with high honors. She is studying physics at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and plans to get a doctorate in astrophysics and eventually be the first person on Mars.

According to Arabella, “Professor Chisholm is an amazing teacher because he inspires. There’s never a dull topic in his classroom. His lectures always include exciting demonstrations, and his assignments include clever puns and amusing tidbits. I’m really grateful for the time I had him as my professor.”

Students like Arabella might not come to Sauk knowing an intellectual rite of passage awaits them, but with professors like Jim Chisholm, that’s exactly what they get as long as they put in the work.

Note to readers: Dave Hellmich is president of Sauk Valley Community College, rural Dixon.

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