I always knew I wanted to major in chemistry. However, my career path was not as clear. At first, I was going to be a pediatrician, but I learned rather quickly that medicine was not the right path for me. After medicine, I began a major in secondary education. I felt like teaching would give me the same opportunity as medicine to share my passion for science while helping others. For two years, I happily pursued this path until one day, walking down the hallway of the brand-new science building, one of my professors asked me a question. â€œHave you ever thought about teaching at the college level?â€ This is one of the few moments in my life that I can clearly identify as God speaking to me. Teaching college had never crossed my mind, but by the end of the day, I was looking up potential graduate schools. By the end of the week, I was â€œjustâ€ a chemistry major again (with a physics minor). And at the end of my junior year of college, I had a new path that ultimately led me to The Ohio State University. I never doubted Him or His influence at that moment.
Graduate school was not always easy, but I knew I was supposed to be there. As cliche as it may sound, I found myself in graduate school. I also found lifelong friends, met my husband, and solidified my love of teaching. In my last year of graduate school, I began my teaching career as an adjunct professor at two liberal arts institutions. I briefly considered a post-doctoral research position, but in the end, it was not for me. I was set on a job at a four-year, primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), and felt the teaching experience was more important.Â Â loved every minute of my job at these first two institutions! There was not one day it felt like work.
When my husband finished his degree, his postdoc position took us to Connecticut. I took a position as an adjunct at a nearby community college. Though I was always interested in teaching at a PUI, community college had never crossed my mind (nor was it presented to me) as an option. I am so fortunate that our move allowed me the chance to reconsider. I fell in love with the students (who were focused, determined, fun, and represented a variety of ages and cultures), the environment (small class sizes and intimate campuses with a focus on success), and the variety (a two-year school has more turnover which means more students to serve). However, when I started applying for tenure-track positions, I was still focused on that four-year PUI.
And then I was offered my dream job as a tenure-track professor of physical chemistry at my alma mater (replacing the very professor who asked that fateful question years ago when he retired). I was overjoyed and convinced my job search was over when, later that week, my husband was offered his dream job, located two and half hours away from mine. So we prayed and the answer was revealed to us fairly quickly. I cried (for days) not because I didnâ€™t agree with the turn in the path but because I knew it would be so hard to tell my mentors/friends that God was leading me elsewhere. He was leading me back to a community college.
I have found my place at Morton College, a community college in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, where I am a tenured instructor of chemistry. I love my job! I teach fundamentals of chemistry to nursing students and the general chemistry sequence. I can introduce my students to research through projects they design and implement. I have worked with students who were told they could never succeed in science, only to watch them get accepted to pharmacy school and graduate programs (including one student in the chemistry graduate program at OSU).Â Outside of the classroom, I have opportunities to serve the campus through a leadership position on the faculty assembly, participating in course-, program-, and campus-level assessment, and working towards better equity practices so that all students are given the same opportunities for success.
Recently, I tried something new and helped write a grant proposal which was funded. I serve as the coordinator of that grant in addition to my teaching. My path to community college teaching gave me the opportunity to try new things and develop my skills. I am lucky that my community college continues to provide those opportunities for growth. However, I would not be here today without the people I learned from and worked with on my journey. I am forever thankful to them, and to God for trusting me on this path, even as I stumbled along the way.
In closing, a few words for the emerging scholars reading this.
Undergraduate Scholars: You do not have to have it all figured out today. My path changed multiple times when I was in college, and again when I had finished graduate school. And I am still learning that I am not alone. I taught a college success seminar this semester, and brought in speakers from multiple careers. Their number one piece of advice was to try new things. Take a class that interests you, even if it isnâ€™t needed for your major. Do multiple internships at different locations. Talk to your professors, parents, friends and ask them about their journey.Â Â Â And of course, pray.
Graduate Scholars (especially those interested in academia): Community colleges were rarely, if ever, a part of the â€œjobs in academiaâ€ or â€œhow best to help your studentâ€ discussions when I was in graduate school. If that is still the case, I would encourage you to add them to the discussion. They are a great option for those whose passion leans more towards teaching than research. They provide opportunities for professional growth. But most importantly, even if you end up at a four-year institution of any level (PUI, R1, etc.), there is a strong chance that you will have community college students in your upper-level courses when they transfer. These students are often overlooked, because they were never a part of the conversation. Letâ€™s change that! Finally, good luck as you finish your degree and move onto the next phase.
Fellow Faculty Scholars:Â I hope you are doing well. Multiple years in a remote or hybrid or masked/in-person world has been tough. I pray that you are taking time to care for yourself as I know you are working tirelessly to give your students the best learning experience possible. Feel free to reach out. I love connecting with and learning from my colleagues!
I have learned that Godâ€™s plan may not always speak to you in obvious ways like a roaring wind or earthquake; instead, you may hear it in the quiet, like a whisper (1 Kings 19:11-13).Â For me, it was in a simple question, asked while passing in the hallway.Â I am so glad I listened.
About the author:
Sara Helmus (she/her) has been teaching chemistry at Morton College, a community college in the Chicago suburbs, for nine years. She received her PhD in physical chemistry from The Ohio State University and her Bachelorâ€™s from Millikin University. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she serves as the MC-SUCCESS STEM Grant Coordinator and is a member of multiple committees including the Womenâ€™s Empowerment Conference, Illinois Equity and Attainment, and Academic Assessment committees. She is also the co-advisor of the science club. When not working, she loves to read, watch movies or do puzzles with her husband Jonathan, and take hikes with Jonathan and their Siberian husky, Siko (see-ko).