Dr. Stephens-92

Norman L. Stephens, Jr., Ed.D.

Do you ever feel like reacting to something you’ve watched on television, read in a newspaper, seen online, or heard someone say in a conversation?  I enjoy reacting, and this website offers the perfect place to do so.  Writing clarifies my thinking.

These are the Reactions of a generalist.  I claim no specific expertise although I benefit from a formal education and seventy plus years of life’s experiences.

My long career in higher education taught me many important lessons.  I started in the classroom teaching the natural sciences and some mathematics, but more recently I served as a college president.  Upon retirement, the Board of Trustees conferred upon me the title President Emeritus.  For that, I am grateful.

If you visit this site often, you will discover that I have many interests, but I consider myself an educator and I write from that perspective.  I believe that education is key to our future prosperity as a society and to our survival as a species.  It might be helpful to share a little about my early life and my formal education to provide a context for my perspectives on these and other issues which motivate my writing.

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I mostly loved school and benefited from nurturing teachers and excellent schools.  My parents and even my grandparents were college educated and hard working people who instilled in me a strong work ethic and the importance of continuing my education.  My dad was an architectural engineer and a graduate of the University of Illinois.  My most influential grandparent graduated from Radcliff where she studied Greek, German, and Latin.  Ironically, the only job she ever held that I can remember was as an office manager for the local branch of the Social Security Administration back in the 1940s.  Among the typical courses I endured while in high school was Latin, and I would not have passed without Grandma’s tutelage and encouragement.  She was also an accomplished pianist and an amazing human being.

Because of my father’s career, we moved from Hinsdale, Illinois to Fort Lauderdale, Florida during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.  This brought me to a critical fork in the road, a time when I made a decision that would change the direction of my journey.

I had many interests while in high school, among them were sports, music, and science.  If we had remained in Illinois, I might have chosen a career in music because that was where I felt my greatest success as an adolescent and early teenager, receiving positive reinforcement from my favorite teachers, my peers, my parents, and other family members.  In 1959, Fort Lauderdale High School did not allow students to participate in the concert band and on the swimming team at the same time, the schedules conflicted.  I had to choose one or the other.  After much consideration and many conversations with my parents, I decided that my musical interests would become an avocation while my academic preparation for college became my primary focus.  I joined the swimming team, but my love of music has only grown as I matured into a young man and throughout my life.  While in college, I often performed with various jazz and rock groups at the local establishments and at the fraternity house.  I can’t say that I benefited much financially from this, as I probably spent more than I earned, at least that is how my father would describe it if he were here today.

Off to the University of Florida I went in 1961 along with a record number of eager students.  It was crowded!  The University did not have enough dorm rooms for all of us.  Some students who had enrolled late were housed in what had been student lounges and study areas on each floor of a dorm.  It was not a particularly good environment for scholarly pursuits.  Well, let me restate that.  The dorm was not a good environment for studying.  I joined a fraternity, mostly because I was motivated to move out of the dorm.  There were 64 young men in my fraternity pledge class that fall.  Only six of us made grades satisfactory enough to remain in the fraternity, or in school, when the second semester rolled around.  I had not set the academic world on fire myself, but I had survived.  In January of 1962, I moved out of South Hall and into the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house on Fraternity Row along with my five new fraternity brothers.  I could write a book about that period in my life.  It would be simply fascinating.

After considering various majors including pre-med, medical technology, and chemistry, I settled on pharmacy and was accepted into pharmacy school at the University of Florida beginning with my junior year.  Although I just described this period of my life in one sentence, it was anything but a smooth educational transition.  During the first year of college, I managed to fail, that is, I earned an “F” in Air Force ROTC!  As final exams loomed during the spring semester of that freshman year, I managed to burn the proverbial candle at both ends, mostly cramming for exams, but too many all-nighters while eating lots of junk is not a formula for success. As a consequence, I found myself in the hospital where I stayed until several days ater finals were over.  I was able to makeup all of my exams except ROTC resulting in that failing grade.  As a result, in the fall of 1962 I decided to join the United States Naval Reserve.  My father had been a Naval officer during WWII, and the Navy was an attractive option. This allowed me to avoid ROTC, a requirement of male students at the time, unless they were in or had already served in the military.  I attended reserve meetings weekly in Gainesville while continuing my studies at the University.  There were also active duty exercises once a year at various naval hospitals and on board various ships until my honorable discharge some years later.  I was a hospital corpsman.  The importance of this experience, or fork in the road along my life’s journey, was that I met someone who influenced my future career choice in a profound way.

Dr. Donald Altieri was also a hospital corpsman in the same Naval Reserve Unit in Gainesville.  Coincidentally, he was also the chairman of the science department at P. K. Younge Laboratory School and a doctoral graduate of the College of Education at the University of Florida.  He was several years older, married with children, a extraordinary role model, and an exceptional science educator.  In addition to teaching me how to be a hospital corpsman, he opened my eyes to the possibility of a career in education.  By this time, I was in Pharmacy school, but I was not happy with that academic pathway.  It might have been the required accounting class or all the memorization, but I was not particularly enthusiastic, so I began exploring other possible majors.  As a pre-pharmacy student, I had taken many challenging and interesting science courses and I loved chemistry and physics, but especially organic chemistry in which I set the curve.  At the time, one of my chemistry professors tried to persuade me to change my major to organic chemistry.  I would have, but unfortunately it was too late to make such a change.  There was a foreign language requirement for chemistry majors that was not part of the pre-pharmacy curriculum.  Changing my major in my third year of college would have delayed my graduation, perhaps by as much as two years.  This is where my friendship with Don Altieri changed my life.

At his urging, I visited Dr. Ned Bingham in the College of Education.  He headed the science education department and was delighted to help me explore my academic and career choices.  It so happened that Congress had authorized the NDEA (National Defense Education Act) Title IV which included doctoral fellowships.  This was a result of the post-Sputnik emphasis on science and science education.  It was also the time when the State of Florida established a system of colleges (then called junior colleges) bringing higher education closer to the people, making college more accessible and more affordable.

There was a great need for science teachers, and I happened to come along at just the right time.   I was admitted to the new program designed to prepare faculty, in my case science faculty, to teach in the new Florida Junior College System.  As it was new, I was one of the first to be admitted, allowing for considerable flexibility in designing my program of study.  Like pre-pharmacy, there was no foreign language requirement.  Instead, I took more physical, organic, and biochemistry along with several other science courses including genetics, microbiology, physiology, and even some astronomy (because I had an interest).  I also studied psychology along with the calculus, statistics, and computer programming.  The accelerated nature, allowed me to complete my masters degree at the same time that I would have completed a bachelors degree in pharmacy.

In my doctoral program, I received guidance from an interesting and rather distinguished committee chaired by Dr. Bingham, along with a professor of biochemistry, and a professor of social science statistics.  It was an interdisciplinary group for sure, representing three different colleges and majors within the university.  To my advantage, they barely new each other.  My research focused on the scientific basis of learning theory and memory, and how that could translate to designing college science curricula and facilitate effective science teaching.  Several of the advanced biochemistry courses that I took were in the College of Medicine where I studied along with graduate and medical students.  My goal to teach a science in one of the new Florida junior colleges truly excited me.

With the financial support of the NDEA IV Doctoral Fellowship, I completed the required coursework in 1968.  In the fall of that year, I joined the faculty in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the new Clearwater Campus of St. Petersburg Junior College. During my early career at the college, I taught general and organic chemistry, environmental science, earth sciences, and biophysical science, among many other sciences and mathematics courses.  I enjoyed teaching many different subjects, particularly at the introductory level.  I liked teaching science to the non-science majors because I could see their eyes open to new ideas, an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the universe.  I learned more science through my teaching than I had ever learned in my courses when I was a student, but college was where I learned how to learn.  I learned more about the educational enterprise through my professional experiences as a teacher, administrator, and later as a college president, but that shall be the subject for another time.

It took another three years to complete my research and write my dissertation, and I finally earned the doctor of education degree in June of 1971 on the same day that my oldest son, Ryan, was due.  He cooperated and arrived two weeks early.

My formal education ended more than four decades ago, but my real and important education continued, and still continues.  We are constantly learning as we journey through life.  The year 1971 represents an important milestone and an accomplishment that allowed my personal journey to proceed as it did.  Along the way, there have been other important milestones marking significant opportunities for my further development as a husband, father, educator, citizen, and now as a retiree.  My life seems to have flown by, a true indication that I am having fun along the way, perhaps more fun that should be allowed.

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