EXCELLENCE - His students call him "interesting," "knowledgeable" - even "brilliant." Chris Nielsen is the 2010 recipient of Rend Lake College's Faculty Excellence Award. CLICK HERE for a larger image.
INA, Ill. - When Chris Nielsen was laid off by Old Ben Coal Mine in 1991, he did what many like him did. He went back to school at Rend Lake College. Nineteen years later, he is still there.
The 53-year-old professor in the division of applied science and technology has been named the 2010 RLC Faculty Excellence Award winner. Each year, only one faculty member from each community college in Illinois receives this award, making them candidates for the statewide 2010 Outstanding Full-Time Faculty Member Award, which will be presented at the Illinois Community College Trustees Association’s annual awards banquet, June 4, in Springfield.
“It was my education,” Nielsen said of being hired as a part-time instructor at RLC in 1991. “I was fortunate enough to have gone to college right out of high school. It was the education I had that allowed me to transition careers and do a lot of what I have had the opportunity to do.” He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
When he first started teaching electrical retraining in the coal mining program at Rend Lake, many of the faces looking back at him in class were people he worked with. That isn’t so much the case anymore. But their stories are the same. Just like when he started, his students today look to him for skills they can use in their current job or valuable training they can use toward a new career. What they do with it beyond the classroom is his reward for teaching, he said.
“These students go on to find productive employment in maintenance departments and engineering departments all the way from Continental Tire to Toyota and Caterpillar. They are all over the place,” he said.
In a letter nominating Nielsen for the award, Applied Science and Technology Division Chairman Terry Wilkerson wrote about consistent leadership, dedication and work ethic.
“Chris has an uncanny ability to reach his students on a level that not only facilitates learning, but also a sense of accomplishment,” Wilkerson stated. “His sense of duty and loyalty to his students and the education they receive is unparalleled on campus.”
Some words students used to describe their teacher were “interesting,” “knowledgeable,” even “brilliant.”
“He deserves it,” said Greg Dillon of Walnut Hill. “He’s a good teacher. He’s an excellent teacher, actually. I’m 40 years old and he can still teach me.”
Nielsen said he was shocked upon getting the news that he had been selected as the winner of the Faculty Excellence Award at RLC.
“When you name the people who have received it over the years – Bill Dill, Gary Wade, DJ Johnson – it’s a big honor to be considered in the same classification as those guys.”
They were his mentors when he was the new guy joining the ranks as a part-time coal mining instructor in 1991, and as a full-time instructor in August of 1992. Things have changed a lot since then. There were as many as a dozen instructors devoted to industrial electronics and maintenance technology when it was two separate programs. The two merged, and as his colleagues retired, the full-time faculty pool slimmed down to Nielsen and Dave Smith, who has also retired but still teaches welding as a professor emeritus. Over time, the coal mining program that was once RLC’s biggest vocational program went away. Nielsen took the reins of industrial maintenance, which now houses three certificate programs and two degree programs, all the while thinking the college would still benefit from some mining courses.
“I always thought it would be great if we could offer ventilation classes and roof control classes,” he said. “Now, we are doing just that.”
The once-displaced miner who became a teacher has come full circle. Nielsen, Wilkerson and Mining Technology Instructor Dave Colombo work as a team to make the college’s revitalized coal mining program a success. With grants and additional support from local industry, RLC’s coal mining technology program has a new 20,000-square-feet home with a unique indoor mock mine. The program uses state-of-the-art equipment to train students, like a continuous miner from Joy Mining Machinery, a power center purchased with Department of Labor funding, and cutting-edge welding booths. The latest project on the horizon is a new mine rescue safety training facility, which broke ground last week.
“I think we’ve turned out to be a pretty good team,” Nielsen said. “Everybody plays their part and does their thing.”
According to Wilkerson, Nielsen has been a key member of the Applied Science and Technology faculty, and was like his “right hand” when Wilkerson took over the duties of division chair in 2008.
“Chris has been nothing but supportive and truly a team leader when many others might have created obstacles rather than work to move the division forward,” Wilkerson stated.
In addition to progress in the mining tech program, Nielsen has been instrumental in many major accomplishments at the college. He served as president of the faculty union for a decade and just recently handed the position over to a new president, Trish Bennett-Minor, who served as the union’s vice president for a year. He helped develop a training partnership with Continental Tire North America in Mt. Vernon that helps transition graduates into a new career. He served as a committee member for the Higher Learning Commission’s reaccreditation visit in the 90s, and took on a much larger role as co-coordinator of the recent visit where RLC was awarded a maximum 10-year accreditation.
One of his biggest strengths is recruiting, he said. Nielsen visits area high school campuses on a regular basis and sponsors an annual contest in which local high school students visit the college and use their technical knowledge to compete for scholarships to RLC.
Nielsen lives in Herrin with his wife, Raylene. They have a daughter, Elizabeth, who is an RLC alumnae and attends the University of Illinois. The Nielsen family is going to have a big Spring, he said. Raylene will retire from her position the Herrin Unit #4 school system and Elizabeth will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. “She has been tremendously supportive,” he said of his wife. “We are excellent partners.”
Nielsen was officially recognized as RLC’s 2010 Faculty Excellence Award winner during an on-campus ceremony, Friday, in the RLC Theater. Also recognized at the ceremony were the college’s 2010 Outstanding Staff Award recipient Brenda Garvin, seven retiring employees, those who have reached landmark years of service and the inaugural RLC Assessment Award selectee, Kay Shaw.
Joining Nielsen in the running for the statewide award are Julie Barclay (Nursing, Spoon River College), Faith Brenner (Information technology, Richland Community College), Chris Browne (Cosmetology, Kaskaskia College), Dr. Wendy Brown (Biology, Danville Area Community College), Roberta Christie (Mathematics, Shawnee Community College), Joanna Christopher (English, John A. Logan College), Joanetta Copeland (Child development, Malcolm X College), Vickie Culbertson (Business / Office occupations, Carl Sandburg College), Eric Dietmeier (Business / technology, Highland Community College), Julia diLiberti (Humanities, College of DuPage), Dr. Terry Fencl (Speech and theater, Triton College), Brent Goken (Communication and public relations, Illinois Central College), Dr. James P. Grice (Biology, Morton College), Terri Hilgendorf (English and literature, Lewis and Clark Community College), Cheryl Hutchison (Medical assistant, Southwestern Illinois College), Thuong Jongky (Biology, Heartland Community College), Steven J. Kifowit (Mathematics, Prairie State College), Dr. David Kuester (Speech and theatre, Illinois Valley Community College), Ellen B. Lindeen (English, Waubonsee Community College), Jaime Long (Speech, Kishwaukee College), Karen McConnell (Health occupations, Southeastern Illinois College), Glen Mazur (Electricity/electronics/ wind technology/energy & power, Joliet Junior College), Jill Russell (Culinary management, Elgin Community College), Janet Scott (Reference librarian, McHenry County College), Dr. Richard Stacewicz (Social science and history, Oakton Community College), Nicholas Thomas (Music, Moraine Valley Community College), Dr. Theresa Till (Nursing, Lincoln Land Community College), Julie Weishar (Speech communication, Parkland College), Jeff White (Biology, Lake Land College), Timothy Wilhelm (Electrical technology, Kankakee Community College) and Frank Zera (Criminal Justice, College of Lake County)