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Nancy Fernandez: Chair of the IGE Department, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

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Nancy Fernandez didn't intend to become a member of academia; academia originally was thrust upon her. Yet, with a combination of fate, choice, and a smattering of luck, Fernandez has thrived in this somewhat unexpected, yet wildly fulfilling, career.

After receiving her undergraduate degree in American studies from Stanford University, she took a secretarial position with a real estate firm because it was one of the few jobs available in the poor job market and because, she quipped, she could type. While unfulfilling, it was ultimately a learning experience. “That was a really good job because it told me that I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to be in school,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez subsequently began graduate school at the University of California, Irvine, where she went on to obtain her M.A. and Ph.D. from the program in comparative culture. The atmosphere there was geared toward teaching positions. According to Fernandez, advisors automatically assumed that if one was going to graduate school, he or she would go on to teach. Therefore, the students were not introduced to other career possibilities.

Soon, however, teaching became a viable career option as Fernandez became genuinely interested in the field, not because of the great experiences in her educational past but because of the poor ones. Fernandez explained, “Most of my pre-collegiate experiences that stand out are times that I was humiliated by a teacher or times when I was frustrated, trying to learn something and just really feeling stuck.” Especially during college, she would continually study only to receive Bs and Cs in her classes, compounding her frustration.

Her academic breakthrough occurred when she began to see connections between themes, topics, and issues in her college coursework. “I felt like this is important, and if I become a teacher, maybe I can save dedicated students, who really want to learn, the frustration of going through what I did. I can come up with ways to teach that will help them learn how to learn.”

After graduating for the third time, Fernandez once again faced a poor job market. She eventually was able to obtain a part-time position at a community college. After three years there, she realized that her ultimate goal was a permanent position, as she desired the opportunity to affect curriculum and serve on committees.

It was this realization that led her to a one-year position at Brown University, a “gamble” as she called it because she was forced to leave her family and move to the East Coast. However, it turned out to be a gamble worth taking because even though there were only five jobs for which she could apply when her term ended, the experience and knowledge she gained resulted in her being offered a position at California State Northridge, a position she held for 10 years.

One of the classes that Fernandez taught at Cal State Northridge was an upper-division general-education course. “While it was my dream job because I was teaching history, it also created this whole challenge of ‘Why do non-majors need to know about history, and why should they care about it? How do I teach my field to non-majors and make it a meaningful, useful experience for them?’ It got me really involved in general education and the purpose for general education.” As many professionals know, however, even the best of jobs can be soured by tedious commutes. And this one eventually forced her to begin searching for a new job.

Q. What do you like to do in your free time?
A. I enjoy the outdoors a lot. So, vacations are often things like going to the mountains or hiking. I love to go to the beach. I love the outdoors and the wilderness. I have a dog, and I enjoy animals very much. I do enjoy going to museums and the like. Whenever I go to a new city, I always try to take some time to see some cultural part of the city.

Q. Throughout your lifetime, what movie have you watched the most?
A. You know, it's probably The African Queen. It's kind of hard to say because there are a few that I've watched quite a few times, but I'm guessing that it's got to be The African Queen.

Q. What was the last CD you listened to?
A. There is a CD called Oceanophony, and it is a classical piece that has poetry and also music, and it was written for an aquarium. And I was going to take my grandkids to the aquarium, and I really liked this piece-I had heard some of this on the radio, and I thought it was really interesting-and so I bought this, and when we went to the aquarium, I took it, and we listened to it. I think I liked it a lot more than my grandchildren [did].

Q. What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
A. Probably mint chip. I like so many; it's hard to tell.

Q. If you had an extra hour in the day, what would you spend it doing?
A. Yoga. It's just always something I'm trying to make more time for.

With her newfound passion for general education, Fernandez stumbled upon an opening at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona for the position of director (she is now department chair) of the Integrated General Education department. “I read about IGE as a job, and I thought, ‘This is me. If I could write a general-education curriculum, this is what it would be. If I could design a learning environment, this is what it would be,’” Fernandez stated.

The IGE program, which started in 1983, is an integrated approach to general education. According to Fernandez, the program is an eight-course sequence where each class has a theme that builds on the theme before it using differing disciplinary perspectives.

The program is unique, compared to typical general-education classes, in several ways. For example, the courses are community learning programs. This means that everyone sits in a circle; the faculty consists of “facilitators” instead of “instructors;” and classes are discussion based, not lecture based.

Fernandez elaborated on why the last distinction is of particular importance. “Many students are just talked to in their education, and IGE asks students to share with us their understanding, their knowledge. It may be at a different level of complexity from the instructor/facilitator, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.”

All of these factors contribute to Fernandez’s vocal and whole-hearted support of the program. “It is something I really believe in. The capacity of the curriculum to get students engaged in their own learning, excited about it, and to take ownership of it, exposing them to new ideas-I think it’s very powerful.”

Ultimately, Fernandez views education not only as an avenue by which individuals can expand their minds but also as something that will positively modify the manners in which they interact with and view others and the world around them.

“We’re at work, hopefully, eight hours of the day, and we sleep, I hope, for eight hours of the day, but there’s eight more hours in this day. A third of our lives, at least, we are family members, friends, and citizens, and, hopefully, our education can serve that part of our lives.”
On the net:California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

IGE Department

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