Rice University Lecturer Deirdre Hunter was honored with an Alumni Faces of 2017 award from Onondaga Community College, one of her alma maters. The award recognizes outstanding graduates who “have achieved recognized success and made significant contributions to the betterment of society.” Hunter graduated from OCC in 2002.
“I feel really humbled by this,” she said. “I moved to Syracuse, New York when I was 18, and I wasn’t college bound. In high school, I thought I would go to college, but I made some choices that altered my path. I thought then that if you don’t go to college when you’re 18, you don’t get to go. I didn’t know you could get a second chance.”
OCC, she said, gave her that second chance. She’d been working at a medical waste processing plant, and thought earning an associate’s degree would put her on a path to being a plant supervisor. She had no idea the degree would alter the course of her life. Hunter would go on to graduate from Syracuse University, and later earn a doctorate at Virginia Tech. She joined the Rice faculty in December 2016, where she co-teaches ENGI 120: Introduction to Engineering Design and ENGI 350: Needs Identification and Design Implementation.
“All along the way in my education, I had faculty who helped me see beyond what I thought I could do, and showed me my next steps. That’s one of the reasons I chose to start teaching.”
Throughout her teaching career, she has tried to create what she calls “a small classroom” environment for her students, giving them a place where she knew their names and their strengths. When she came to Rice, she was struck immediately by the fact that the University makes that setting a priority.
“It wasn’t just me, or a few of my colleagues,” she said. “Everyone here has that commitment to developing personal relationships with students and helping them succeed.”
Hunter’s classes give her students experiential learning opportunities. She said that teaching the engineering design course has helped her develop as an educator, even as she’s encouraging the next generation of engineers. The class requires that students tackle real-world problems, many of them presented to Rice by local industries, and encourages them to find solutions and build design prototypes. Hunter said the process encourages students to try different things as they search for solutions, but it also made her aware of the preparation she needed to bring to the classroom.
“Sometimes, I might not know the answer to something,” she said. “I may not know how a particular thing works. So, I have to learn that, and by encouraging students to try something new, to see how to find a solution, I’m discovering right along with them.”
That sense of discovery is part of what encouraged her to develop ENGI 350.
“This is kind of the bookends around the introduction to design class,” she explained. “With ENGI 120, students receive a problem to work on. Here, they’re talking with clients and observing workplace settings, to identify problems that a client might not know exists. So, they need to identify a need that could be solved with the design of a device or process, which is something they’ll encounter in their careers.”
Hunter said that watching students work and having interaction with them are two of the things she loves about being at Rice. With an office in the OEDK, she has a front-row seat to watch as students progress on design projects.
“I love how driven they are,” she said. “They’re taking tough classes, but they get so engaged and involved. That’s exciting to watch as a professor. And I love being able to be part of their learning process.”
Hunter hopes to continue to inspire her students the way her professors inspired her. She knows her path to teaching is somewhat unconventional, but she also knows that her experiences shaped her and gave her a valuable perspective to share with her students.
“I’m not sure that many people who go on to get Ph.D.s and work at prestigious institutions get their starts at community colleges,” she said. “But I always include OCC on my résumé and I’ve always talked about it. That’s where I got my start.”