By Tim Meehan
For the past 17 years, Dr. Eliza Bigham has watched her senior-level Human Development 497 class culminate in an evening project presentation in front of parents, friends and community partners.
Each semester’s presentation, which she refers to as the course’s “Research Conference,” is unique for its content as well as its presenters. This fall semester’s event featured several projects on teacher appreciation and inspiring teachers.
What surprised nobody in attendance was that nearly every student pointed to their retiring professor as the true inspiration in their academic and professional careers.
“Her encouraging words were so important because this semester is the last one for most of us,” said senior Jessica Garcia, who was part of the Advocacy for Students with Special Needs group. “She told us to trust the process, which we learned to do. Now we know to trust the process to help you get to your ultimate goal. She’s a great teacher, and I’m sad this is her last semester at Cal State San Marcos. She has impacted so many students. We’re definitely going to miss her.”
Jacqueline Chalico’s “Inclusion” group worked under the YMCA Curriculum category of projects. She left no doubt about the inspiration for the assignment.
“Throughout the entire project she was the head of guiding us toward the right path and making this program even possible,” Chalico said. “She gave us advice on ways to better implement certain activities. She’s just a great teacher.”
Bigham went to graduate school to earn her license in psychology, but fell in love with teaching when she filled in for one of her retiring professor’s statistics courses. Seventeen years later, she has developed an acclaimed senior project that is extremely popular for any student going into a field in which they want to help people.
“Human Development is a major that brings the best, brightest and warmest people together,” Bigham said. “They’re a really special population. They really want to go do something to help out. It’s been really special for me to be able to spend almost 20 years with these types of students. It’s such a gift.”
Students worked in groups in three categories – SOLE Effects, YMCA Curriculum and Voice For Heroes. Each category worked with a community partner from North County to help develop real-world curriculum and they presented their work during the Nov. 26 event at the McMahan House.
Within each category were specialized projects. The SOLE Effects projects centered around creating two 15-minute activities intended to be presented in a ninth-grade health class. The topics covered were stress control, teamwork, developing mind and body, empathy and passion/purpose.
The YMCA Curriculum groups focused on developing staff trainings for professional development. They touched on topics such as the importance of volunteerism, self-development, project management, communication, developing others and inclusion.
“When I was growing up, the YMCA is where I went a lot,” said Erin Nafarrete, whose group project was entitled Inclusion. “The dedication and the inspiration that every staff member or volunteer has is like a pay-it-forward kind of thing. You get inspired by that kind of stuff. You want to help a kid by being a mentor.”
The evening concluded with the presentations in the Voice For Heroes category. Video projects were presented that identified people (and service dogs in one group) who have inspired others to make positive change. Voice For Heroes is a nonprofit organization founded by music recording artist Amy Scruggs.
“They did an incredible job getting to the heart of what it was they were doing,” Scruggs said. “I was so happy to see they found what they wanted their message to be, created it, found the right people to interview and did a great job delivering that empowering message that gave us all awareness for each one of those topics.”
One group, the Heroes for Human Needs, looked to bring attention to campus resources for students who didn’t know they existed, such as mental health resources, food and financial security.
“What we discovered is that the campus has many resources available, but they aren’t being used,” said Victor Pringle, who is also a disabled veteran. “We hope to spread the word that if you know about these resources, you’ll share them with your fellow classmates.”
Cougar Care Network is an on-campus inclusive resource intended to improve student success, retention and persistence. It is located in the Dean of Students Office inside University Student Union.
“We didn’t even know what Cougar Care Network was until we went out and did the research,” Ruby Garcia said. “For me personally, I wanted to see what I could help people with. What is something I know that others don’t know, and what is something others know that I don’t? Lacking basic needs is something people need to know more about.”
Other groups in the project focused on teacher appreciation, inspiring future teachers, advocating for service dogs and advocating for children and high school students with special needs.
The advocacy for students with special needs group traveled to nearby Vista High School and met with the Buddies Club, which introduces the student population to the many benefits of meeting and working with special needs students. Diana Lopez and Shaina Lilly were part of the Buddies Club before coming to CSUSM.
“What we found in our research was that a lot of people said they would be interested in volunteering or socializing with special needs students but were scared of being disrespectful, saying the wrong thing or acting the wrong way,” Lopez said. “But what we found is that you just have to go for it. There’s no right or wrong way. They’re people at the end of the day. Just like we want to interact with others, they do as well.”
One member of the Inspiring Teachers group had a personal experience with a teacher who inspired her in many ways.
“She was the most compassionate person you’ve ever met,” Amy Concha said about her best friend’s late mom, who was a teacher in La Mesa. “She was the most motherly teacher and everyone would always go up to her and give her a hug. She made such an emotional impact on students and fellow teachers. So when I was thinking about an inspiring teacher, she was the first one who came to my mind.”
Bigham’s immediate retirement plans are to help care for her 92-year-old father. Her future is uncertain, but it’s a safe bet she’ll be doing something to make the world a better place.
“It’s with mixed emotions that I say goodbye to this chapter and go spend some years not thinking about the future and just thinking about my dad and my family for a while,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I’m going to allow that to be what it is when it’s time for it to be.”
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