Jason Vargas owes it to a very special mentor that he is now teaching math at Colorado Mountain College. Dr. Elena Marchisotto, the director of the developmental math program at Cal State University - Northridge where Vargas attended college, recognized his potential and encouraged him to pursue teaching.
"She thought I would make a good teacher and convinced me to go on," he said. "If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be teaching at the college level."
Vargas' gift for teaching was recognized when college administrators and staff crowded into his math class recently to surprise him with the campus, as well as the collegewide, full-time faculty of the year award.
Every year, each of Colorado Mountain College's seven campuses, as well as the college's department of online learning, can nominate adjunct and full-time instructors for the faculty of the year award. From those honorees, senior administrators then select a single collegewide award recipient in each of the two categories.
Vargas will also be honored, along with full-time faculty of the year from state's 14 other community colleges, at an awards luncheon in Denver this month.
"You're an incredible teacher," said Joe Maestas, the college's vice president for Glenwood Springs, Spring Valley and Carbondale, when surprising Vargas in his classroom with the award. "You not only teach, you live it and want to spread the gospel of math."
After various guests had spoken about the instructor, Vargas said, laughing, "You guys just totally raised the bar for this class."
That bar has already been high for Vargas's courses. Much of his success in the classroom has been attributed to his passion for math and his ability to take a difficult, and often dreaded, subject and turn it into an enjoyable and fulfilling learning experience.
One student wrote in a course evaluation, "Mr. Vargas has an enthusiasm that radiated throughout the classroom. I would want to learn math any day from him. He is engaging, funny and knowledgeable."
Vargas said he limits lecture time so that his students can actively learn and practice the skills in the classroom, while he's there to help them. Because he played baseball at Cal State, he uses examples from his athletic background.
"I try to relate math to sports," he said. "Math is a skill that needs to be developed through hard work and practice."
The math instructor keeps a busy schedule between teaching year-round, serving on campus committees and providing extracurricular opportunities for his students. Vargas stages a Math Awareness Week each year in April for CMC math students in Spring Valley, Glenwood and Carbondale.
He calls the week a "labor of love," as every year he aims to collect more than $1,000 of donations from local businesses to cover the cost of prizes. Events include competitions like Math Jeopardy, The Amazing Math Race and an Equation Bee, and winners are recognized on a plaque outside of Vargas' classroom.
"It's really rewarding to teach students who want to learn," he said. "And I enjoy that I learn something from my students."
Vanessa Caranese, an adjunct instructor in science, has a knack for knowing when her students understand the material or when they need more help.
"It's like she has a certain touch for teaching," said Linda Crockett, instructional chair in Glenwood Springs. "She really understands our students."
Caranese moved to Glenwood Springs in 1998 and said she "fell into teaching." She has a bachelor's in geology and a master's in environmental science from the Colorado School of Mines, but had not taught at the college level. Before she started teaching at Colorado Mountain College in 2010, her father gave her some good advice.
"He told me to think about my favorite professors and do what they did," she said. "So I picked and chose things I liked from the teachers I had."
It was only appropriate that her dad, Mike Carney, would see her accept the award as adjunct faculty of the year for the local campus. Her parents, along with college administrators, surprised her during one of her evening classes.
For the evening classes she teaches in physical geology, environmental science and environmental geology, Caranese draws from her expertise in her daytime job as a natural resource specialist for the Bureau of Land Management. Since she works with the energy and extractive industries, she said she can answer students' difficult questions on topics like mining or natural gas deposits.
And she weaves in her own stories to illustrate key topics. When she traveled to the Galapagos Islands for a week, she brought back pictures and material to share with her class.
"I still try to make my classes hands-on," she said. "I'm always trying to come up with ideas to meet that goal."
Erin Beaver, associate professor of communications and humanities, is in her fourth year of teaching at Colorado Mountain College - and her recognition as the full-time faculty of the year for online learning marks the second time she has received the honor.
Beaver taught her first online course at CMC in 2010, and her online literature and creative writing classes have become extremely popular.
"I tell students I'm not trying to make everyone a 'New Yorker' essayist," she said. "How we think and how we communicate is something that everyone can use in any walk of life."
Using a variety of online tools such as meetings on Skype, online discussions and videos, and Google Hangout, she works to get her students to open up and feel comfortable in the online environment.
Co-workers and students point out that Beaver goes the extra mile to give individual feedback to each and every student. In addition to setting up online meetings with her students, she even arranges in-person meetings if she can coordinate logistics.
"Education is about relationship-building and it's about helping people grow and find that next step," she said.
"Erin Beaver reflects the commitment and dedication that we value at CMC," said Dr. Kimberly Harding, a professor of biology and last year's collegewide full-time faculty of the year. "She displays an outstanding level of awareness and engagement with all aspects associated with being a faculty member. I have heard from many students that she is one of the best teachers they have ever had, and if it was not for her, they would not have succeeded."
Before working at CMC, Beaver taught at a Missouri community college and sixth- through eighth-graders at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She now splits her time between the local campus and online learning, which she said she enjoys.
"One of the reasons I'm committed to community colleges is the rich diversity we have and the types of students we have," she said. "They all come with their own story."usan Kipfer, developmental education