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Former students who returned as Westminster faculty talk about why they decided to teach at their alma mater

Initially, it was the beautiful campus tucked away in the middle of the eclectic Sugar House neighborhood that made them fall in love with Westminster College — but their life experiences and a desire to make an impact on those who came after them are what brought them back years later to teach at their alma mater.

For some of the four Westminster faculty members who were once students here, the desire to teach at the college was a natural and obvious fit. But for others, the path through higher education presented its own challenges and teaching wasn’t as clear of an option.

However, one thing they all have in common is an overwhelming sense of nostalgia from their time as students at Westminster and a sense of duty to give back to future generations.

Conor Bentley, the associate director of alumni relations at Westminster, attributes the desire for alum to come back to teach largely to the many mentoring opportunities they have with students — including the Alumni Mentoring Program (AMP), Take a Griffin to Lunch and Gold to Grad.   

“Alumni really seem to enjoy it, and the people that were students at one point that were in a mentoring program as a student then come back,” Bentley said. “When you ask them, ‘Hey would you like to be a mentor for this program?’ they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I had a great experience; I would love to be a mentor’ and they can kind of pay it back, you know, the experience they got as a student.”  

Lesa Ellis, Class of ‘98

Lesa Ellis, a neuroscience professor at Westminster College, in a 2003 photo and article in The Forum welcoming her back to campus (left) and teaching in the Meldrum Science Center on Feb. 1 (right). Ellis, now in her 15th year as a professor, started out at the school as an English major and a non-traditional student in the ‘90s. (Photos by Hope Bloom)

Lesa Ellis, a neuroscience professor now in her 15th year at Westminster, first worked in the college’s psychology department and eventually helped create its neuroscience department. But before that, she started out as an English major and a non-traditional student, beginning her undergrad in 1994 while in her 30s.

“I had teenage kids,” she said. “I was not at all a traditional college student. I started as an English major because I thought I wanted to write novels. Then I started taking some psychology classes. I loved it.”

As a student with more than 15 years of adult life experience, Ellis said her time as an undergrad was generally less stressful than that of many of her peers — except for the time during May Term of her junior year when she became ill with a serious type of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease.

“They were having a hard time diagnosing it, and I was almost dead, and then they found the right medication,” she said. “I was in the ICU for a long time, and it actually made me think a lot about how I’ve just got to go for it. And so it made me just throw everything out there and be like, ‘I’m just going to apply to all these graduate schools all over the country and go wherever I end up,’ because you never know with life what’s gonna happen.”

This challenge certainly influenced her career path, Ellis said — as did one of her mentors, Patricia Eileen Gay, a former psychology professor at Westminster and an experimental psychologist and psychopharmacologist. She introduced Ellis to the study of brains and encouraged her to pursue psychology and teaching.

“She’d write little notes on my exams,” Ellis said. “I mean, the first time I ever thought about being a professor was because she had written on my midterm, ‘You have a really good mind for this. Have you ever thought about being a professor?’ And it was absolutely mind-boggling to me that somebody wrote that because I never had seen myself that way.”

Ellis graduated from Westminster in 1998 with a Bachelor’s of Psychology and went on to get  her master’s and Ph.D from the University of Oregon.

While she was finishing her dissertation there, Ellis saw an opening in the psychology department at Westminster and decided to apply. She said she remembered what it was like to be a college student and wanted to bring that experience into the classroom.

“I think if I were to teach middle school or high school, there’s so much that those teachers have to do that are based on a lot of regulations, rules and testing and so on,” Ellis said. “With teaching college, especially at a place like Westminster, I just feel like I have so much more freedom to develop classes the way I want to and try new things.”

Ellis said she has stayed at Westminster as a faculty member for so long because it became her “home.”

“It just was the place where I felt like I belonged,” she said. “I got a lot of encouragement and mentoring and I think that’s still what makes Westminster so special for students.”

Carlos Linares, Class of ‘01

Carlos Linares, a management and marketing adjunct professor at Westminster College, graduated from the college in 2001 (left) and has since returned as a faculty member. Linares experiments with lighting and camera techniques while taking his own professional headshot using a timer feature on his camera (right). (Photos courtesy Carlos Linares)

Throughout his 11 years working at Westminster, management and marketing adjunct professor Carlos Linares has taught a variety of courses, including international marketing, international management, strategy and globalization and global business strategy.

Originally from Nicaragua, Linares moved to Rose Park, Utah at the age of 10 with his parents and two younger brothers. In high school, he was the student body president —  a path his two younger brothers followed, as well.

But after graduating from Granite High School, Carlos was kicked out of the University of Utah twice.

“I was there on a full-ride scholarship and I lost it because I didn’t have the maturity to really succeed in school,” Linares said. “Most of my time, unfortunately, at that time, I wasted socializing with friends and partying and just really my focus was not in school. And as a result, I was kindly asked to leave and so I did that, twice.”

Despite struggling to stay focused during his first few years of higher education, starting in 1993, Linares said he became extremely motivated and hyper-focused on his goals and career path by the time he enrolled at Westminster in 1998, where he was a full-time student and worked a full-time job.

“While some might see failure as perhaps a low point in their life, I kind of saw it as a catalyst in my life that really helped me get back on my feet and pursue and continue, and now I’m looking at my Ph.D program,” he said.

Linares’s opportunity to teach at Westminster came in 2007, at the same time he was leaving a position with the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He said teaching higher education was the next step he wanted to take.

“What most motivates me to teach college students is that, as corny as it might sound, is I get to touch the future,” he said. “I kind of see it as we’re training tomorrow’s leaders and that’s really exciting for me. I think Westminster’s reputation amongst other colleges and universities really sets itself apart from others.”

Overall, Linares said it’s been rewarding to teach at his alma mater.

“It’s great to see what accomplishments our alumni and adjuncts have achieved, and to me it’s a source of pride to see what others have achieved cause it’s like, ‘Hey we went to the same school; look what they’re doing,’” he said. “So share that knowledge — don’t just keep it.”

Sarah Pike, Class of ‘10

Sarah Pike, now an adjunct professor in Westminster College’s communication department, stands with communication professor Christine Seifert at commencement in spring 2010 (left) and re-creates the photo on Feb. 1 (right). Pike is one of four faculty members at Westminster who once attended the college as a student. (Photo by Hope Bloom)

Sarah Pike, an adjunct professor in Westminster’s communication department, has taught a public relations class at the college every fall since 2015. Before that, she “fell in love” with Westminster as a student in 2006 and graduated in 2010 with a degree in communication and a minor in English.

The mentorship she received from faculty members also encouraged Pike to teach, she said — particularly from Christine Seifert, a professor in Westminster’s communication department.

“She’s someone that I will forever be grateful for and she’s become a really good friend of mine now,” Pike said. “If I could be half of the teacher that she is, that would be like… she’s just the best of the best in my eyes.”

After teaching during her graduate program at Iowa State University, Pike realized she wanted to be a full-time faculty member and began pursuing her doctorate at Texas Christian University. She moved back to Salt Lake to teach at Westminster when she finished her coursework there.

“It was a natural fit to teach at Westminster,” she said. “When they reached out to me, it was an instant ‘Yes.’ Of course I wanted to. I had some adjunct professors when I was a student at Westminster and this is just me projecting, but I hope that the fact that I attended Westminster and I can in some way relate is helpful.”

Ultimately, Pike said she can’t picture herself doing anything else.

“I’m committed anywhere I teach, but I think teaching at my alma mater is just different,” she said. “It has a special layer of meaning for me. I mean, I’m just a super nostalgic and sentimental person anyway, but being on campus is like home to me.”

Matt Riding, Class of ‘12

Matt Riding, an adjunct instructor for Westminster College’s principles of advertising course, teaches class in the Dick Science Building on Feb. 1. Riding graduated from the college in 2012 and is one of four faculty members at Westminster who once attended the college as a student. (Photo by Hope Bloom)

Three years after Matt Riding graduated from Westminster with a master’s in communication in 2012, he found himself back in the classroom — this time as an instructor for the college’s principles of advertising course.

“When the faculty asked if I was interested in this class, I was looking at an opportunity to really morph my own professional development — just to get better at presentation skills, preparation, leadership and just to do something outside of work and to maybe help students with my own professional experience,” Riding said.

But once he got involved with teaching, he found it to be “a nice escape.”

“When I’m in the classroom, I really just feel like I am focused,” he said.

Riding said he thinks he had an inherent interest in teaching because his parents both worked in public education. His mom was a teacher and his dad worked in administration.

He experienced his first taste of instructing when he worked as a ski and snowboard instructor throughout his undergrad program. He’d hoped to get a job snowboarding with sponsors but said he ended up instructing at Park City Mountain Resort instead.

“That’s where I ended up getting my marketing job,” he said. “So through happenstance, I was working at the resort and had a reputation as a good worker and they just hired me on full time in marketing.”

After working for the resort for several years, Riding said he joined the graduate program at Westminster when he felt he had plateaued professionally. But because he didn’t have to work throughout that entire graduate school experience, he said he felt a desire to give back to other students.

“That’s kind of the way I try to structure my class, too, is thinking about the process and experience I’ve had and give students insights,” Riding said. “I almost feel like it’s a little bit of teaching but it’s also a seminar/workshop in some ways. But in some rights, I just felt like ‘Well, I have an opportunity to share real-world experience and hopefully set some students up for success if they’re interested in this field.’”

Embarrassing Stories

“I drove to Vegas with friends during finals week for a Spice Girls reunion tour. We literally drove there, went to the concert and drove back. It was amazing, but I barely prepped for some of my finals. I don’t think I did very wonderfully on my math final.” -Sarah Pike

“I’ll be honest I don’t think you can get away with much at Westminster just by the nature of every class being smaller but there have been a few times at Utah State in bigger classes where I did fall asleep.” -Matt Riding

“we were doing a case on marketing Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to the philippines” Linares said, “so I dressed up, I was designated, somehow got chosen as the cow and so I had a cow costume on but I couldn’t see out of it very well so when I came into the classroom, when they introduced me, I couldn’t see, so I tripped over the desk. I might have even tripped over my professor..He was just aghast, he was just laughing his head off, I mean he couldn’t keep it together, it was so hilarious and I couldn’t see anything out of that damn outfit. That costume. But we got an A, so it was well worth the embarrassment of wearing that . It was udderly embarrassing” -Carlos Linares

“There is a photograph of me in existence where I am lounged across the hearth of the fireplace in Nunemaker wearing a toga. Well, Nunemaker used to be kind of just this general space, it wasn’t the honors college, or anything and the psychology students were having a toga party because I don’t know, silly movies and togas and whatever. And so we all wore togas. Maybe somebody dared me to do that, I can’t really remember how I got up there and why but there is a picture of it. It was a fun night.” -Lisa Ellis

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Hope is a senior communication major with a passion for technical writing and an interest in human resources. In her spare time, you can find the Salt Lake native fire dancing, off-roading or hanging out with her two cats, Storm and Cadaver. She is eager to enhance her reporting and writing skills as a staff reporter for The Forum.

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