By Lauren Herman
Editor’s Note: This blog post is the third of a five-part series profiling women leadership in the Sacramento region. It serves as a prelude to our upcoming event, "This Changes Everything: WOMEN." These women were selected based on their contributions and participation in their community and industry. By means of this series, we hope to broaden our understanding of what constitutes a leader and provide a platform for ideas worth spreading.
Professor Kristina Casper-Denman: Instructor, Student Advocate, and Listener
Professor Kristina Casper-Denman is a star in her own right. As an Anthropology and History Professor at American River College (ARC), she is dedicated to teaching community college students inside and outside the classroom. Known as the “EFG” (Educational Fairy Godmother) by her friends and colleagues, Professor Casper-Denman is celebrated for her ability to teach, but, more importantly, for her ability to listen.
Over the past 18 years, Professor Casper-Denman has served as an instructor, mentor, student club advisor, and active faculty member within numerous ARC campus centers and committees. It is no surprise that she has numerous campus awards under her belt – ARC Associated Student Body Instructor of the Year, ARC Foundation Faculty Award, and ARC Associated Student Body Club Advisor of the Year.
Despite her numerous accomplishments, such as recently earning a doctorate in Native American Studies from U.C. Davis, my interview with Professor Casper-Denman centered on her students rather than herself. She spoke with pride of the lessons and stories she has learned from them.
These stories signify her commitment to listening and understanding her students, to not only help them pass their courses, but also help them obtain their dreams. She keeps in contact with dozens of her current and former students to let them know that they are not alone, they are remembered, and they have someone in their life who believes in their dreams.
Professor Casper-Denman’s students are an inspiration to her, just as she wants to be an inspiration to them. When I asked her what motivated her to go back to graduate school to earn a Ph.D., her answer was straightforward. She answered, “If my students can do it, why can’t I? I want to show them that anyone can reach their dreams. Often, you just need someone to share those dreams with.”
When asked by a colleague if she would seek a professorship at a university, Professor Casper-Denman’s answer was absolutely, “NO!” Despite her professional achievements, she continues to work toward being the best instructor she can be at the same community college that helped her find her passion – teaching and helping students realize their calling in life.
The Interview: Professor Casper-Denman's Ideas Worth Spreading
TEDxSacramento: Why did you choose your current career?
Professor Casper-Denman: I ended up teaching by mistake. After working at California Regional Primate Research Center in the infectious nursery at U.C. Davis, I was ready for something new. The job broke my heart. My husband told me about an available adjunct instructor position at American River College. When I applied, my only experience was teaching Sunday school, and I had a fear of public speaking, but I have taught there for almost 18 years. There is something about the student body; its diversity, including age, ability, gender, and experience, is unlike any community college I have visited. I am honored to work there.
TEDxSacramento: What motivates you to push forward during difficult moments in your career?
Professor Casper-Denman: The most difficult part of my career is not job stability; it is whether I am serving my students to the best of my ability. I get feedback from my students every semester. I ask them, “What do you need from me? You can ask me anything.” I have learned that students need help outside the classroom. They ask me all types of questions - anything from how to navigate college to advice on life decisions.
When I think about these students, I know that I am fortunate in so many ways. Some are homeless, returning to school after a long absence, or struggling with mental illness. What I have gone through in my life is nothing compared to the things that my students overcome everyday. They give me a reason to serve them. If they can overcome the many struggles that I have witnessed, I can approach life with humility and thoughtfulness in ways that make me a better instructor.
TEDxSacramento: What advice do you have for others in your field?
Professor Casper-Denman: Years ago we [faculty at American River College] talked about how to be better instructors. American River College prioritizes professional development for instructors. I think all instructors should seek ways to improve and better help our students. The minute we [instructors] stop reaching to be our best, the minute we stop serving our students, we fail our students. Instructors forget that improvement doesn’t mean you are bad; it means you want to be better.
TEDxSacramento: Does anyone in your field inspire you? If so, who and why?
Professor Casper-Denman: Students expect me to be inspired by the big names [in Anthropology] - Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall. I am inspired by the students who work within their communities, not by the big-name researchers. There are so many Native American students, whom I have worked with at U.C. Davis, who are revitalizing ceremonies, bringing economic development and preserving languages within their communities. You probably do not know their names, but there are many unknown individuals who learn, go back and are able to solve their communities’ problems. These people inspire me.
TEDxSacramento: What do you like most about working in the Sacramento region?
Professor Casper-Denman: What I love about Sacramento is that it is not only a Capital City, but also a home to diverse communities and opportunities. There are extended families, a large immigrant population, and a diversity of food options. I never had this where I grew-up [on the East Coast]. You can eat around the world just by visiting the restaurants on Broadway.
Sacramento has so much to offer – fresh fruit and vegetables at the farmer’s market, community theatre, and nature. You can walk from Folsom to Old Sacramento and see deer; what other region offers that? There is a huge Native American community as well. The diversity is amazing!
TEDxSacramento: What is your favorite TED talk? How do the ideas of this talk impact your life?
Professor Casper-Denman: I think Rita's Pierson TEDTalk, “Every Kid Needs a Champion,” is important because it challenges how we think about education. We think of education in different categories, including University, community college, K-12, and pre-school, but I think it is more than that.
As Rita points out, education should be defined by personal impact, building relationships. I think she is right to ask, if we give up now, who will be there for our students later. Teachers should remind themselves that we were once that problem student. Educators who are burned out should watch this talk and consider that the most difficult students are often the most wanting and deserving students.
TEDxSacramento: If you have the opportunity to speak on the TED Stage, what would be your idea worth spreading?
Professor Casper-Denman: I think the most important issue that I can speak to is the importance of non-linear careers. Most of us will never have a lot of money, like Bill and Melinda Gates, to fund massive projects that we hope will change the world. It is important to give back everyday no matter what you do whether it’s signing a petition, reading an article or the news, or sharing your ideas with others. Be a life-long learner, educate yourself, and take responsibility for what happens in the world.