Dr. Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens: a life of Art, Literature, Language and Education
Though she grew up in Springfield, Ohio, she and her family have always tended to orient themselves to Michigan, where she was born and went to college. She never expected to live in Kentucky, the state where her grandfather, a great admirer of Berea College, was born and raised. It has now been a year since Dr. Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens came to Berea College’s Center for Transformative Learning (CTL), initially to revitalize faculty development offerings as Scholar of Teaching and Learning, and then eventually to direct the unit.
She is also part of the College faculty as an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature. Coming from a family of teachers, Dr. Ortquist-Ahrens traces her fascination with teaching and learning back to her early school days, though she insisted throughout college that the one thing she would never be was a teacher. She developed an interest in educational development later in her career path.
Hope College, a small liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan, was where she began on the path of higher education to which she has adhered. “Since my father was a professor at a small college, what I valued most and what I always expected to do was to go to a small college. Moreover, he was from Muskegon, Michigan, and he had actually gone to Hope, so going there gave me a chance to know a part of his family that I did not know very well.”
As a child and throughout her college years, art was the field that Dr. Ortquist-Ahrens adored. “I generally liked making things. I liked painting, I liked drawing, and I have always stayed active with some sort of crafts or other creative work.” She was also interested in language and cultural studies. In 1983, she graduated with English and French majors and an additional 30 hours of coursework in art.
After completing her undergraduate studies, Dr. Ortquist-Ahrens headed to Indiana University to pursue a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, a field which gave her the chance to combine multiple areas of interest, including visual arts, literature, language and film. During her graduate school years, she specialized in Film and Mass Culture Studies and in Germanic Studies, taking courses in French, Italian and a little bit of Hebrew along the way. She taught Modern Literature and the Arts, Film Studies, English Composition and German at Indiana University, and she worked for eight summers as an instructor and later a course administrator for a TRIO-funded college bridge program for first-generation college students. It was this teaching that stayed with her and that felt most vital. While finishing her dissertation, she worked with graduate teaching assistants at Indiana State University’s Center for Teaching and Learning and discovered the field of educational development. “Now, I consider my major career to be educational development, more commonly known as faculty development. It gives me a chance to work with, learn from, and support faculty from across the disciplines in finding ways to foster learning,” Dr. Ortquist-Ahrens said, “but, I also like the chance to continue being a faculty member myself and to work closely with students.”
Miami University, where she taught German as a Visiting Assistant Professor, was her first destination after completing her Ph.D. However, she chose not to spend more than a year at Miami. “Miami was a very good school, and I thoroughly enjoyed teaching there. However, I really missed faculty development, which I began to recognize as my real calling. The department at Miami invited me to stay for a second year, but I decided instead to pursue a career that combines both being a faculty member and working with other faculty members through doing educational development work.”
In 2002, she moved back to Ohio, to establish a Center for Teaching and Learning at Otterbein University. There, she was also able to teach writing, German, and interdisciplinary studies, and she was awarded tenure and promotion in 2009. At Otterbein, Dr. Ortquist-Ahrens offered workshops, organized visits by prominent pedagogy experts, introduced a robust professional learning community program, visited classrooms to provide feedback when professors requested an additional set of eyes and a sounding board, and engaged in hundreds of individual teaching consultations. She also fostered faculty interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning, supporting the development of faculty members’ projects and the dissemination of their work through conference presentations and publications.
A decade later, Dr. Ortquist-Ahrens was at a point that was “ripe for change.” A colleague called her attention to an opening at Berea College, a place she had first heard about as a child from her grandfather. “At first, I insisted I was not on the job market, but the more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued as I realized that Berea College shares some characteristics with Earlham College, where my husband had taught, and which we had really treasured,” she says. “So, my husband and I looked into it and saw a new direction that seemed rewarding. We were compelled by the institution’s mission, the commitment of the faculty and staff we met, and the sense of community we believed was possible here. We were finally convinced to make the leap after we met a few times with Berea students, both during my interview and when my husband Thomas came back with me to visit. It was the students who made the decision easy and who continue to be the best thing about being here.”
In July, 2012, Dr. Ortquist-Ahrens joined Berea College as Scholar of Teaching and Learning to rebuild institution-wide faculty development offerings through the Center for Transformative Learning. While she holds faculty status and teaches through the English Program and General Studies, her responsibilities in the first year were largely with new and continuing faculty of the college. New faculty programs are a particular priority. “Before school starts we conduct a two-day orientation. This orientation helps the new faculty to come together, get to know each other and become an effective cohort. The group continues to meet twice a month throughout the academic year for a New Faculty Seminar. These programs help new faculty to learn about the culture. What are the things that make a small college much different than a large graduate institution? What features, such as the labor program, are unique to Berea? What are the values that are held dear in this institution and how do they show up in the way we work with students? How can we teach effectively to support student learning? These are the issues we try to address in the orientation and the seminar.” In addition, her office organizes workshops, teaching and learning lunches, reading groups, midterm assessments of teaching, professional learning communities and more. The award of a large multi-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, part of which is earmarked to support faculty development programming, will open up new possibilities as well in the coming years.
As of July 2013, Dr. Ortquist-Ahrens has assumed the position of Director of the entire Center for Transformative Learning. This position poses the challenge of combining all four components of the Center — faculty development, peer consultation, internships, and career development — in a way that provides students with a complete package of support from the moment they set foot on campus to and beyond their departure after graduation. “The combination of faculty development and peer consultation is not unheard of, but it is not a prevalent model,” she says, “however, what is less common is to combine these units with career development and internships. There are no models to speak of, so the challenge for us involves figuring out what it is that students need at different moments in their college career — when they come in, on their way through, and when they move on — and then working to identify creative ways to collaborate and to make connections between areas — inside the CTL and beyond — that are typically kept separate. Finding the right mix might be a challenging task, but it is worth the effort if it creates coordinated support for the overall success of Berea students, particularly in helping them land on their feet after graduation.”
Her career path seems to indicate that Dr. Ortquist-Ahrens is made for a life in higher education. During the thirty-five years she has spent in the world of academics, she has been a student, a teacher and a support behind both, gathering all the essential perspectives for a complete higher education experience. As a faculty member of Berea College and Director of the CTL, she is harvesting this experience to provide a beneficial service to the college community.