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Harper lands teaching post after 15-year journey

When 43-year-old Marilyn Harper first walked into a classroom at Pellissippi State Technical Community College 15 years ago, she had no intention of taking any classes, much less becoming a college instructor.

Ten years after graduating from PSTCC with an Associate of Arts degree, she has fulfilled her dream of returning to the college as a full-time Spanish instructor.

Harper’s association with PSTCC began when her son, Jeff Hacker, enrolled for the Spring 1990 semester a month after the family moved to Farragut from another state. Since Jeff had cerebral palsy, Harper went with him to classes, taking notes and assisting with transportation. “It never occurred to me at the time that I could take classes too,” Harper said.

“While I sat in on my son’s classes, something unexpected occurred. I discovered I loved learning. I looked forward to whatever they would study next,” Harper said. “He had wonderful teachers who made the material so interesting.”

She also found herself helping other students with their work.

With a strong interest in learning stimulated, she took a class herself the following semester. “I didn’t have much confidence at first. I had been in an abusive marriage for twenty-seven years and didn’t see a way out,” Harper said.

After successfully completing the first class, she took two more the next semester. Then, she took Spanish. “It was like I fell in love. It just came alive for me,” Harper said. “I had this insatiable thirst for learning the language, learning how to say new words.”

She started to believe she could achieve a degree at PSTCC. “I saw a beam of hope; a way to earn a living. I began to believe I could support my children and myself. I started feeling good about myself — that I could achieve something.”

Harper said she had some teachers who were very supportive and encouraging. “There are a lot of things about Pellissippi State that helped me develop confidence in myself,” Harper said. “It was the catalyst that opened up a whole new world for me. That’s why I have a lot of love and respect for this place.”

Harper said it’s also why she eventually wanted to come back to teach at PSTCC after teaching high school for a few years. “I want to help other people like me who don’t have the confidence that they can do certain things. I want to share what had been given to me when I was there,” she said.

Once Harper developed the confidence that she could become a teacher, she began to make plans to finish an associate’s degree at Pellissippi, then earn a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate in Spanish at the University of Tennessee. Although she didn’t know it at the time, she also would also earn a master’s degree in education.

Achieving her educational goals was challenging in many ways. Besides having a son whose condition required a great deal of care and a young daughter to raise, she also had to finance her education. “ I did work-study and tutored. Grandma left me one thousand dollars. I also earned Pellissippi State Foundation scholarships.”

When she graduated from PSTCC with highest honors in 1994, she received several awards, including the Foreign Language Department’s Aca-demic Award, the Presidential Award as the college’s outstanding student and a $1,500 transfer scholarship.

Harper enrolled at UT, and her son joined her a year later. She still faced many challenges during the next few years, including a year of required student teaching at Farragut High School. “The internship at Farragut was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I learned so much. By the second semester, I truly felt like I knew what I was doing,” she said.

Part of what made the year so difficult was balancing family responsibilities with school. “I had just gotten divorced, moved to Sutherland Avenue with the kids and was taking twelve hours of classes plus the internship,” she said. “And I was still my son’s full-time caretaker. I don’t know how we made it through that year.”

Harper explained that while she had a house in Farragut that was convenient to the internship, her daughter was enrolled in a high school in Fort Sanders and her son was still at UT. Her solution to rent the house and move to student housing made a more difficult commute to her internship but made it easier for the kids to take the bus to their schools. ”We shared a six hundred-square-foot apartment for two and a half years, and made it work,” she said.

After earning her master’s degree in 1998, Harper taught Spanish at Powell High School for six years. She taught at PSTCC part-time in the evenings for three years before being hired full-time in August.

Harper said one of her goals as an instructor at PSTCC is to develop relationships with her students. “When I left Powell High School to teach here, I was afraid I would miss the bond I made with the high school students. But I’m able to do that at Pellissippi. Some of the students are adults, but they all have the same life concerns.”

She added, “Making that personal contact is at least as important as teaching; students knowing that somebody really cares about what’s going on in their lives, no matter what their age. We’re not dealing with robots.”

Another goal as an instructor is passing on the love of Spanish to her students. “I just love watching people learn the language and get excited about it. Learning about different cultures. When the light goes on and they understand the concept — it’s very exciting,” she said.


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