‘I want to be that kind of teacher’
It started with a love of math.
From rural Maryland outside Baltimore, young Dr. David A. Ruth set his professional sights on education, and he has taken his place as the fifth president of Northampton Community College. He replaces Dr. Mark Erickson, who held the job for 10 years, and is also a product of the system he now leads.
“I had a very positive experience with my middle school and high school math teachers,” Ruth said in a recent interview. “I said, ‘I want to be a high school math teacher just like you because you made it seem, not easy, but understandable. I don’t want my students to be afraid of me and my subject matter. I want to be able to make a difference as a math teacher.
“Hagerstown Community College was a very reasonable alternative to going to a four-year institution. I never even thought about it. I knew exactly what I wanted to do throughout my younger years.”
Ruth front-loaded his schedule so that by the time he transferred to Frostburg State University for a five-year program, he completed it in four years. “I did it for affordability and was able to do it in a much more efficient manner.”
While at Frostburg he was told his natural facility as a resident advisor would serve him well in a career in student affairs. He found a graduate program with free tuition was available at Lehigh University in 1990, and two years later he’d decided math didn’t add up and pursued higher education.
“I never taught a single day of high school math in my life,” he laughed. “You don’t grow up saying ‘I want to be a dean of students.’ You don’t even know what that is when you’re in high school. I stumbled into higher education.”
Ruth did teach college-level math at Drexel University for many years while also working in administration, eventually attaining that strange “dean of students” title.
Mark Erickson was Ruth’s dean when he was at Lehigh, and Ruth saw a great opportunity to return to his roots and work with a respected mentor as vice president of NCC. “I was like, ‘Oh, Bethlehem! I get to go back to the Lehigh Valley.”
When a colleague said it would be hard to return to four-year school administration after working at a community college, Ruth wasn’t worried. “I love it here. I love the mission, I love our students, I love that we work in the community. You can see the impact that this place makes on students and their lives every day and I wouldn’t imagining leaving.
“Why would I want to go back?”
Ruth is adamant community college was an important part of his success, and it can be just as important to his students today. “I’ve experienced aspects of the higher education world as a student and as an administrator and never once did I look back and say, ‘Had I not gone to community college I could have done this or that. I finished faster; I made it all the way up to Ph.D. It wasn’t like I had a second-rate education.
“Here we have residence halls, campus activities, clubs. You don’t just put your money in the meter, go to class and go home. When you’re here you’re engaged. We’re a two-year college with a four-year feel. That resonates with me.”
Previous administrators have done great work, he said, and which he plans to continue by taking a fresh look at enrollment, possibly rebranding the Monroe campus and marketing the Fowler Family Southside Center differently. Community college should not hold a stigma as the 13th grade or student’s last educational option. It should be the first option.
Pure in his advocacy of NCC’s advantages and culture, he said, “From my experience, non-traditional students are terrified in the classroom. All you have to do is encourage them. Don’t be afraid of this, you got this.
“We’ll do this together.”