By KYLE KERSEY
Kenneth Vorndran has been an instructor at Pima Community College for 15 years, but in the mid ’90s, he found himself at a crossroads.
A veteran Maryland high school English teacher of over a decade, Vorndran had come to realize that it wasn’t a job he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“It wasn’t about the students as much as it was about the systems,’” Vorndran said. ‘“A teacher’s day at the high school level is consumed by hall duty and lunch duty and parent teacher conferences and pep assemblies and, ‘Oh, can you check the bathroom closest to your room between classes to make sure people aren’t smoking?’ and principals reading a book in the summer and deciding ‘We’re going to do everything different this year’… It’s not really a heartfelt thing.”
He needed to make a change.
Initially, Vorndran attended graduate school to become a counselor, but that wasn’t quite right. He changed directions and began attending Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., in 1994. He describes it as his favorite school that he’s ever attended, though this wasn’t the right fit either.
“My oldest daughter was about 2 years old and I thought, ‘I don’t want to have preacher’s kids,’ ” he said, laughing.
However, the experience led to a revelation for Vorndran;: teaching is his ministry. He had already found his cause. He just needed to find his audience.
He found that audience while swinging a gig at a Maryland Community College during the late ’90s. No more parent-teacher conferences, no more checking the bathrooms for pubescent smokers, no more neurotic public school boards.
He received his master’s degree in 2001 from the University of Arizona, having moved to Tucson with his wife to be closer to her family. In the five years it took for Vorndran to earn his master’s degree, he had taught at Amphitheater High School.
Then Pima came knocking. The institution had four writing instructor vacancies. One interview turned into another, and finally, Vorndran found his home.
“He’s definitely more invested in his student’s than any other professor I’ve had,’ said Kevin Olson, a former student of Vorndran’s Writing 102 class. “He’s involved in teaching not just how to write or writing conventions, but in developing his students as scholars.”
In 2009, 30 years after setting foot onto the University of Delaware campus as a freshman, Vorndran earned his doctorate, not as a means of employment, but to finish what he started.
“I remember scaring my adviser,”he said, “because I had everything done. I had passed my comps (a major set of exams that demonstrate prospective graduates’ knowledge in their fields) and I said, ‘You know, I realize that if I don’t finish the PhD, it’s OK. I have the life that I want.’
“And his eyes are getting big, like ‘What do you mean, you’re this close, don’t stop now.’ And I’m like, ‘No, don’t panic. I’m still going to finish, but I’m just giving myself permission to not have to. I’m giving myself permission to let this go if I don’t want to.’ ”
Today, he’s not just one the college’s writing instructors, but the head of Pima’s honors program and the chair of the Arizona State Honors Council. His stewardship of the college’s honors program is perhaps his greatest achievement since arriving at Pima.
Since taking over as the lead honors coordinator, the program has steadily grown, having direct ties to the three state universities; in large part to him being the chair of the Arizona State Honors Council.
The program offers community service and leadership opportunities. who have a 3.5 grade point average or higher and at least 12 credits are eligible for the honors program, and will receive an invitation every semester they are registered at Pima. Students with a 3.0 GPA or higher are eligible to join the honors club. Students who contact Vorndran and sign up for the honors email list will receive an abundance of service projects that they can sign up for and attend, and scholarship opportunities.
Additionally, Vorndran teaches Honors 101, where his students work on a research project. A few of them then present their projects at the Western Regional Honors Conference, a rare opportunity for undergraduate students to present significant research in a formal setting.
However, what Vorndran is most proud of when it comes to the program is the community it has created.
“You get a really good community to belong to,” he said. “You get support of faculty, support of students, support of advisers. It’s just a nice group to belong to because people are dedicated, they’re high energy, they’re interesting, they’re intelligent. It’s the kind of people you want to hang out with. They’re engaged with things…I feel like since 2001, I’ve really been doing what I’m meant to do.”