Online classes for future Respiratory Therapists come with reality check
As a faculty member for SJVC’s online Respiratory Therapy program classes, a big part of Julie Sahlin’s responsibility for preparing her students for their careers includes some straight talk about real-world challenges both in school and in life. Her views and advice are not all from her extensive education and work experience.
Her best guidance comes from her own life experiences.
“I dropped out of high school at seventeen and ran away from home to get married,” she admits. “I wasn’t pregnant, just stupid.” Her parents made it clear there was no ‘revolving door’ available for her return.
As a young wife of a husband in the military and, a year later, mom to son, Jonathan, she knew that with no work experience or even a driver’s license, she would never get a decent-paying job unless she went to college. She launched her higher education quest at a local community college, where she was dropped off on her first day, without knowing how she would get back home. She trusted herself to figure it out.
After the first semester Julie transferred to a university on the military base. While she took classes year-round, she also worked part-time at the university recruiting and registering students. She completed her Bachelor’s program by the time she was twenty-one years old, the same year she earned a driver’s license.
It was 1991 and the recession landed hard and so had her marriage. She began her job search as a single mom. But there were few jobs for those with degrees but no work experience. She finally landed her first serious job as an Assistant Manager for a chain clothing store. Not exactly the prestigious position she had hoped to capture. “You fold clothes, you scrub toilets, you get ready for the sales,” she remembers. “You can’t be too good for anything; you do it all.”
Over the next few years Julie made a few job changes that always brought new opportunities to learn and grow. She was a Financial Coordinator for a dental office and then managed a practice for mental health counselors. “Each job allowed me more flexibility than the job before,” she says. “It wasn’t misspent time, just layering the ‘cake’ of experience.”
It was a cake she decided could use a little more frosting. She began her Master’s degree program in 1998. “I had something to prove,” she admits. “Because I had been a high school dropout, I wanted to do one better than my siblings.”
One day she would use all these stops and starts, trials and errors, to counsel her students, especially those who have little family support or no one to look up to. “For a lot of years, I begrudged having to be my own hero,” Julie admits. “I had to find it on my own when I didn’t get what I needed. I tell my students all the time, ‘Do not lose the opportunity to learn what not to do, who not to depend on. Your bosses, your family; don’t miss the opportunity to let them educate you – if only in what not to do.”
Julie was just completing her Master’s degree when she and 12-year old Jonathan welcomed Trevor to the family. She balanced her studies with a busy home and work life. “I would read my textbooks to him out loud, as I did with his brother when I was in school. We connected by the sound of my voice.”
Just after completing her Master’s degree in 2001, Julie taught a hybrid ground and online Business Communications class to a handful of students. She was not terribly familiar with this relatively new online learning option, but was intrigued. “It was flying by the seat of my pants, no training; but I figured it out. The next position I taught was exclusively online.”
In 2014 Julie was invited by a previous colleague to join the San Joaquin Valley College Online campus team. Dr. Pat Fox, Corporate Director of eLearning, was recruiting talented faculty for online class instruction. “She is the best boss I’ve had anywhere,” enthuses Julie. “A lot of changes were needed, and I was going to get to be a part of that change. A lot of growth has happened.”
As an Online faculty member Julie instructs Respiratory Therapy program students in such subjects as Health Care Management, General Business and Human Resource Management. As a Subject Matter Expert (SME) Julie also develops the content for some courses. She is in her element.
Julie wants to bond with each of her students. “Whether they are not understanding terminology or having trouble finding day care, I enjoy every opportunity to connect with my students. If a student is struggling, it’s our (faculty) responsibility to reach out and work with them. If I don’t have answers, I will find resources within SJVC, such as Career Services Advisors who set up student externship and work with soon-to-be grads to help them with employment. Our Dean of Student Services and Academic Coaches are creative problem-solvers.”
Julie takes her role in students’ lives very personally. “I make sure the students know I care about them. That connection needs to happen before I can teach them. Students need a comfort level before they’re able to interact and ask questions. Establishing that communication has to happen from Day One because you only have students for 5-weeks. They need to feel comfortable enough to do their best.”
Their best does not always come forward. “It’s always disappointing when there’s a student I can’t reach,” says Julie. “When they’ve dropped the ball for whatever reason, and I can’t get them back. I see so much in them and for them, and I know there was a time when they did too. What was so powerful that made them change that image of themselves?”
It is difficult to watch someone walk away from their ambition, their dream of success. “I want them to know that they are capable of more than they think they are,” says Julie. “Somewhere inside all of them they can confront that ‘inadequate’ image. They wouldn’t have signed up if they didn’t think they could reach that goal. I remind them of the confidence they had in themselves and that it is still there – they just have to tap into it again.”
Julie knows this because she was one of those who had to self-correct a mistaken path. “I’m one of those people who – except for dropping out of high school – follows the rules.” And she does everything she can to meet the goals she sets for herself.
Authenticity is important to Julie. She appreciates every moment of her life experience, good, bad or ugly. You might even say she celebrates those less-than-perfect moments and holds them up as another valued cake layer of life. To make that point, she created a Facebook page “Keeping it Real with the Lowlight Reel”. Not ‘highlights’, but those not-ready-for-primetime pictures that can tell an even better and more honest story.
“You hear guru people like Brene’ Brown or Dr. Phil talking about people just putting a highlight reel of their lives on social media. They aren’t providing a complete picture of their lives. I just thought it would be fun to post the bad pictures. A lowlight reel showing pictures of my grey roots, things like that. I don’t think I’m changing anyone’s life and the feedback is lighthearted. It’s just a chance to smile and remember that what is important is authenticity.”
It is just Julie, keeping it real for everyone.
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