Those Who Can, Teach
For the past 40 years, Iris Cook
, GSAS ’82, has taught at Westchester Community College, one of 30 community colleges affiliated with the State University of New York. In all that time, she has still not been able to figure out why community colleges are considered nontraditional.
“The first two years of a liberal arts education are replicated exactly in a community college,” said Cook, the Joseph and Sophia Abeles Endowed Chair for Biology at Westchester and chair of the school’s Department of Biology. “About sixty-six percent of our students [go on to] complete their bachelor’s degree.”
While the community at Westchester does include nontraditional students, students who return to college following a change in career or to finish their degrees, Cook says community colleges like Westchester offer students a high-quality and affordable alternative to four-year colleges.
“The community college serves a number of interests,” she said. “One is a student who wants a four-year degree but starts out at a community college, then transfers into the upper junior and senior levels. Another population [is interested in] career programs intended to be completed in two years.
“I have students who come from a tremendous variety of backgrounds. In the past two years, about half of the students in my class were born outside the United States. There are diverse populations in ethnicity, diverse populations in background and diverse populations in age.”
This diversity is what makes teaching at a community college so rewarding, according to Cook. But with it comes a variety of student needs.
“On one level, I see students who are more highly motivated in community college than at four-year colleges. On another, students are more in need, because they do have to make up for language deficits or gaps in their own preparation.”
These gaps offer Cook a unique pedagogical challenge. While maintaining the standards set forth in her syllabus, she must also adapt her lesson plans to meet the specific needs of individual students.
“Teachers need to know their stuff,” she said. “You have to present all the possibilities to your students. You have to bring everything into the room. Let them see what’s there. Let them play, let them work with [a lesson]. You have to have the ability to stimulate the higher-end students as well as the students who are less well-equipped.”
While earning her doctoral degree in biological sciences at Fordham in 1982, Cook continued to serve as a member of the faculty at Westchester Community College. She also ran an extension program in medical sciences at the University of Bridgeport, which she ultimately managed for 20 years, granting more than 150 degrees to students there.
Today, she chairs Westchester’s biology department. “I have eleven full-time faculty members,” she said, “and about forty adjuncts. This semester, we’re running one hundred and seventy-three courses.
“We also run a number of extension centers. We’re very busy.”
Throughout her career, Cook has won a number of prestigious teaching awards, including the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Faculty Service. In 2006, she was among the first community college faculty members within the SUNY system to receive the Distinguished Service Professor Rank, the highest honor the university system bestows on its faculty.
More recently, she was invited to deliver a lecture on women and higher education at Oxford University as the Joseph and Sophia Abeles Endowed Chair for Biology at Westchester.
Cook credits Fordham with helping her hone her pedagogical skills. In addition to her hours in the library, she also spent time at the head of a classroom as an adjunct professor at Fordham’s evening division.
“Learning to relate well to all kinds of people is the most important thing a school can do to help prepare students for my kind of role,” she said. “I think Fordham has done this very well for years and years. You can even see it in the graduate school student cohorts.”
Since arriving at Westchester, Cook has worked to bring to the college the diverse and flexible learning atmosphere she encountered at Fordham.
“What your responsibility as a professor turns out to be is helping students relate your information to every other piece of information in the world. And you can only know that and do that if you’re really well-versed in your discipline. There is no substitute for learning.”