An Interview with Bettsey Barhost

Bettsey Barhost was born and raised in St. Louis, Mo. She completed her bachelor’s degree in speech and drama at Fontbonne College, taught fourth grade for a semester, them married her college sweetheart Alan. They moved to Peoria when Alan was hired by Caterpillar Inc. Barhost taught at St. Thomas Grade School, and later at Richwoods High School.

She joined the Illinois Central College (ICC) faculty in 1971 as a part-time speech instructor while simultaneously teaching business and professional speech at Bradley University. She advanced to assistant professor of speech and forensics at ICC, and to interim director of the basic speech program at Bradley, where she earned a master’s degree in speech and drama.

When Alan was transferred to Geneva, Switzerland, they moved there with their two children Jeff and Jill. Barhost taught at the International School of Geneva and Webster University Geneva, and earned a master’s degree from Webster.

They returned to the United States in 1986 and Barhost again joined the ICC staff. She earned her doctorate in educational administration from Illinois State University in December 1997, and was recently promoted to the position of vice president in charge of planning and information services. She’s a member of the National Association of Presidential Assistants, American Association of Women in Community Colleges, Illinois Women Administrators, ICC Faculty Forum, Women in Management, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce Child Care Committee and others. She was a finalist for ICC Teacher of the Year award, and American Association of University Women nominee for Outstanding Young Women in Illinois in 1972.

Education has played a major role in your life. When did it first catch your interest?

Ever since I was a first grade student I loved school. To this day, I love the smell of books and schools. As a child, I would help the nuns prepare for the opening day of school, and they’d give me free Holy Cards, which I would trade. During each level of school, I just knew for certain I’d like to teach the level, and I knew I could teach it better than someone else. I was always organizing the kids on the playground or in my neighborhood to play school, put on plays or parades, or form clubs.

While in high school I participated in speech team, plays, cheerleading, newspaper, student council and numerous other activities. I was awarded a speech/theater scholarship and knew I wanted to teach speech to high school students.

My dad was a born teacher, having taught flight instruction during World War II, so perhaps I came by this desire naturally. My advisor at Fontbonne College and my advisor at Illinois State University also served as role models for me.

Your career path seem circuitous. Tell us about this.

My career path is similar to most other women’s, particularly those with children. I call it walking the fence-balanced between family, career and committees. From the time I married Alan until the children were launched, I gave more of my attention to my family than to my career. But I never gave up my career goals. I continued to work part time to keep my foot on the career ladder, yet relegating this part of my life to “second shift” duties. As the children grew older, I was able to assume greater career responsibilities and I earned two master’s degrees. When our youngest child, Jill, went to college, I enrolled at Illinois State University for my doctorate.

What are some of your experiences overseas?

Going to Switzerland was a wonderful experience, but sometimes we forget it wasn’t all fun. Living overseas requires a certain amount of perseverance. It’s different than merely traveling for a relatively short time.

Although Switzerland is highly developed country, there were still many problems to overcome, such as language, culture, inconveniences, food availability, and absence of family. The most obvious is language.

In some ways, the people are jealous of Americans. We have so much and take it pretty much for granted. We come by the nomenclature “ugly American” rather easily, for some of us are truly obnoxious. As a whole, we have a tendency toward tunnel vision, seeing only our own perspective and being unwilling to investigate other points of view.

I knew we would be living in Switzerland perhaps three to five years, and had to decide how I was going to take advantage of this time. Our children were in school and easily became incorporated into their new environment. And, of course, Alan was immersed in engines and business travel.

Many spouses chose to learn French, ski or travel. I decided to further my career, not only by earning another master’s degree, but by becoming part of the teaching community.

What’s involved in being able to teach in a foreign country?

It would seem a simple matter for an American teacher to get a job teaching. Most countries make it difficult for foreigners to get a work permit, but I had perseverance. Every single day for a week before classes started, I sat in the outer office at the International School of Geneva, asking if some kind of job was available. Then I would go home and eat Swiss chocolate until I recovered from rejection.

At last an opening for a secretarial position became available. I had secretarial skills, but little did I realize the European keyboard is not arranged the same as the American keyboard. I took a typing test, which was a disaster. I told the headmaster that my skills really were in teaching.

Tell us about your experiences at Webster University in Geneva.

Ironically, Webster University Geneva is an extension of Webster University headquartered in my hometown of St. Louis. From my American perspective, the Geneva branch was shortchanging its students in the management/marketing programs due to the absence of a business communications curriculum. Coupled with my desire to return to the classroom, this presented a challenge for me, so I secured a college catalog, syllabus and texts from the St. Louis campus during home leave. Using this information to develop five courses, I presented my proposal to the Geneva director. The communications program became integrated into the Geneva curriculum, and I was given the opportunity to teach all five courses. Students from more than 70 countries participated in this program which is still flourishing today.

Because of the diversity, it was truly fascinating teaching in Geneva. For example, cultural differences made it impossible for many of my women students from the Mideast to even talk with their male counterparts outside of the classroom. This limited the opportunity for extracurricular teamwork. In addition, I occasionally had students from warring countries together in the same class, such as Israel and Palestine, Iran and Iraq, Sunni and Shihite Lebanese.

Even though I served on the cabinet of the director of the campus and was promoted several times, it was necessary for me to continuously reapply for my work permit to be able to work in Switzerland. But as I looked out of my office window at the breathtaking view of Mt. Blanc, this inconvenience became insignificant.

How else did your Switzerland experience affect you?

Although each of us in our family had a work or school environment, our other world could be likened to a caterpillar’s cocoon-or perhaps “the Caterpillar cocoon.” Following through with the symbolism, I do feel we emerged from this experience as people with a more open perspective about people of other cultures.

Since those of us temporarily living there did not have immediate access to our extended families, we adopted each other as family, and now have friends scattered across the United States and around the world.

One recent result of this network was an invitation to spend a week in Amman, Jordan, with a friend who now represents Canada as its ambassador to Jordan. We stayed at the Canadian official residence and observed diplomatic life firsthand. I was fascinated with the security systems, army guards, and the ceremony associated with diplomatic life. We also had the opportunity to attend some official functions and meet diplomats from around the world.

You and your husband were involved with the Cursillo religious movement here in Peoria. You then helped organize Cursillo in Switzerland. How was it received?

Alan and I and several other Caterpillar couples from Peoria were involved in the States with the Cursillo movement. We missed this part of our lives so decided to establish a group in Switzerland. The Peoria organization was our sponsoring agent. Fr. Tom Henseler and a group from Peoria went to Geneva to establish to Cursillo groups. The Cursillo community formed there was such a beautiful experience because it involved Christians from around the world coming together. Cursillo grew rapidly in Switzerland and continues to flourish today in both English and French.

The Peoria group traveled to Hong Kong and organized a Cursillo community there with the help of Caterpillar couples. It is truly amazing to think of the impact the Peoria Cursillo has had in other parts of the world.

You’ve been a traditional and nontraditional student. How do these experiences differ?

As a traditional student, school is the primary focus, with your social life running a close second. I encourage parents of community college students to let students be students, even though they usually live at home. Even many of our traditional students have job responsibilities and this dilutes the priority of school.

As a nontraditional student, well, it can be very exhausting. Family, home, job and the community add such pressure, you can seem absolutely weighted down. I had to learn to say no to a great many of things, even little things I enjoyed doing. Giving parties, wrapping gifts, sewing, fun shopping, doing lunch-all were put on hold each time I became a student. However, I drew so much strength from my family and friends who encouraged me, especially while studying for my doctorate. It was during these years I learned the love and care we give each other is what truly matters.

I was continually fortified with notes, e-mail, and passing conversations bearing such messages as “There is life after your dissertation,” “Will this help finish your project?” “Slow go is better than no go,” and “Winning isn’t always finishing first. Sometimes winning is just finishing.”

What is special about the community college, and why do you seem so at home at Illinois Central College?

The community college is just that-it truly serves the total community, not merely a selected group of young people. Some of us have our own internal slogan about the college-“Sooner or later we’re gonna getcha.” Barring the nonacademic vocabulary, it is true. We offer programs for all ages-from little children in child care through programs for our “senior class” and everyone in between.

The community college unequivocally makes a difference in so many lives. Quality education at an affordable price is a reality and opens doors to remarkable futures for remarkable people. The majority of our students remain in central Illinois, so we know were continuously building and refining the infrastructure of our communities. Each of us, faculty and staff, realize a sense of purpose, for we know we’re dealing with fragile lives striving to reach beyond today’s limitations. Our new slogan is, “Imagine the Possibilities!”

What are some myths about community colleges?

Community colleges continue to work very hard to move from the undeserved nomenclature of “stepchild of education” and gain the respect they rightfully deserve alongside four year institutions. Perhaps some of this came about because many community colleges began, for economical reasons, in unused high school rooms, and frequently were taught solely by high school teachers. So the became “high schools with ash trays.”

Community colleges have proven their worth: more than 50 percent of those students attending colleges across the country are registered with community colleges. Our graduates have proven themselves as they take their place in communities as doctors, lawyers, engineers, nurses, CPAs, electricians, CEOs of business and industry, dental assistants, welders, government officials, and so forth.

In our showcase for high school students we purposely discuss four myths: community college is not a real college because anyone can be accepted, community college students aren’t smart enough or can’t afford a four-year college, an associate’s degree is worthless, and there’s nothing to do socially at a community college.

I’ll respond beginning with the first. Yes, the community college has an open door policy and anyone can register for most classes that do not have a prerequisite. The community college provides a second or third or fourth chance to people who do no do well academically in high school. However, to earn a degree or certificate, or just pass the class, students must meet the rigid standards required by institutions of higher education. For some students, it is imperative for them to begin by taking remedial classes that are not counted toward degree credits. It’s fascinating watching students who had little academic self confidence to develop into A and B students and to go on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees.

The myth that community college students aren’t smart enough or can’t afford a four-year college is false because many of our students prefer a community college. In many ways their decision is smart and economical. Some students are not ready to move from the protected high school environment into self-discipline of the college structure with an additional strain of living away form home. Adjusting to the intense social structure adds trauma to the situation for some. And some students have family obligations, friendships, or a job they would like to keep for a while. The first two years of college with its basic requirements are the same at two-and four-year institutions.

The third myth, that an associate’s degree has little value, is certainly not true. Just look around this community and you’ll discover Illinois Central College graduates in every segment of the work force. We have business and industry leaders calling and begging for our students. Many are hired before they even finish their program of study. Our vocational courses are planned with assistance from people working in these specific occupations.

The myth regarding a lack of social opportunity depends solely upon the desires of the student to become involved. No, we don’t have fraternities and sororities on campus. But we do offer numerous clubs and organizations, particularly the QUEST program for transfer students and honors courses for outstanding students. If a group of students has a special interest that has not been met, new groups can be organized with our student activities coordinator.

Our women’s basketball team won two national championships and our women’s softball team won one national championship. The men’s basketball team placed in the national top three. Our volleyball, baseball and golf teams consistently compete at national tournaments. We encourage student involvement in activities, because it’s been proven that students so involved do better academically in college and their communities.

We are very proud of the mission of the community college. It has a definite and much needed place in the community and we have no intention of becoming a four-year college.

Why is the community college such a good bargain?

Let’s say an individual wants to become an engineer with a dynamic corporation. The least expensive way to achieve this goal is to attend Illinois Central College for two years at a total cost of approximately $3,000 tuition, and transfer to the University of Illinois, a prestigious state institution, at about $8,000 for the last two years. So for a total of $11,000 over a four year period, or an average of $2,750 per year, a student can attain a degree from one of the country’s top engineering schools. Tax monies supplement both the community college and state university, thus making this a most economical path for achieving a prestigious degree.

Information received from four-year colleges and universities tell us our transferring students do better than students who entered those institutions as freshman. ICC students have the advantage of faculty with master’s and doctorate degrees, rather than having teaching assistants teach classes. Our small size allows faculty to know students as individuals, not as Social Security numbers.

You’ve taught at international schools in your travels. What are your observations about differences in approaches to education?

The United States school system is the most egalitarian. We provide more opportunities for success. We encourage lifelong learning and anticipate four or five career changes. For example, when I taught in the British school system, at 15 years of age students were required to take the “O” levels, tests that determine if they will ever be able to become professionals or will enter technical schools. This is true in other countries also, most at even younger ages.

Another distinction is in pedagogy style. The majority of European universities give long, written tests not once a semester, but it is not corrected. Thus, students lack comprehension about how well they may or may not be doing in school until they take the yearly final exam.

The third obvious difference is that in the majority of cultures other than our own, there is very high respect for faculty and education in general. Teachers have high pay and high status.

What changes do you foresee in education in general and the community college in particular?

With continuous advances in technology expanding diverse learning opportunities, I foresee more individualized programs of study. With strong intake advisement and coordination of delivery systems, we could work outside “the proverbial box” and create advantageous degree or certificate program for our students. Earning credits is proof of proficiency, a measurement qualifying people for special tasks. However, coming to campus at traditional times is not always convenient for our clientele, many of whom must take into consideration their family, work that may require travel, or perhaps physical disabilities.

We already offer a multitude of delivery systems that include group or individual learning, distance learning via fiber optics, correspondence, cassettes, television, Internet, weekend college, and minimesters. We endeavor to serve students according to their needs.

Before your recent promotion to vice president in charge of planning and information services, you were executive assistant to the president at ICC. What was the best part of that job?

Teaching has been the foundation of my career and it has provided a great sense of accomplishment. My view was focused on my students.

My view of the college and its impact on individuals and the community expanded considerable. Working with Dr. Thomas Thomas, president of Illinois Central College, I became involved with the pulse of the institution and the community. This position provided a global perspective. Dr. Thomas mentored me through my doctoral degree, and was the ideal mentor as I became more involved with the challenges of academic administration. Being responsible for computer and information services and marketing services put me in touch daily with every department of the college.

Possibly the best part of the job has been working for a board of trustees that cares about students. Every decision is based on the question, “What is best for the students?” I like to think I help make a difference in people’s lives.

I know why people who receive an Academy Award go on and on thanking others. It is those others who help make accomplishments possible. I have a staff that gives more than 100 percent to the multitude of tasks to be accomplished.

What’s your greatest frustration on the job?

My greatest frustration is finding the time and energy to accomplish all the tasks that could be done. The staff at ICC tries hard to address the needs of the community. Because there are so many ways we serve-from credit classes to Neighborhood College to Distance Learning via television-we are sometimes frustrated trying to keep all these balls up in the air simultaneously.

What has given you the greatest satisfaction?

Well, as I just said, it’s not easy, but seeing our technology program continue to advance has been very satisfying. Of course, we’re not out of the woods, as technology changes constantly and people need to be continuously trained for these changes. But seeing all those beautiful computers up and running and being used by students, faculty and staff is just great. Our board of trustees was, naturally, very supportive of our goal to secure significant funding for this task to bring our institution to the cutting edge of technology. Our students must be prepared to immediately become part of the highly competitive global work force, and providing technical skills is a necessary part of this. TPW