Mendocino College Faculty in Focus: Debra Polak
Professor of English, Debra Polak, grew up in San Diego, CA. She attended the University of California at Berkeley (UCB), and ended up living in the Berkeley area for 15 years, until she accepted the English position at Mendocino College (MC) in 2000.
She earned a B.A. Degree in English at UCB, then worked as Program Coordinator for the East Bay Consortium, a non-profit organization which provided tutoring services and Saturday family workshops for middle school and high school students, as well as a summer program for teachers and prospective teachers. Invigorated by the work she had done, she went back to UCB where she finished most of the work toward a doctorate in Education in Language, Literacy, and Culture.
To pay for her education, Polak held a variety of jobs, including Recreation Director at the Berkeley Family Camp, and Development Director at a non-profit in Oakland. At times she also delivered flowers, moved people, taught part-time at Diablo Community College, and even worked in construction.
Polak says that her desire to teach at the Community College level came, not from an individual, but from the work itself. "While in graduate school, I had the opportunity to teach an English class at Diablo Valley College," she explains, "at a time when I was exploring different career options." She found teaching so satisfying that she knew she had found her life's work.
Polak and her husband had imagined moving out of the city to a smaller town, so when she saw an ad for the English position at MC, she applied. She says she believes MC has become more diverse in many ways since she joined the faculty. As coordinator of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program for eight years, she worked toward building the program and establishing a full-time ESL faculty position; she is proud that the goal was finally achieved in 2009, with the hiring of Ukiah native, Sarah Walsh.
Polak notes that MC is continually developing new ways to help students succeed. This is partly due to the statewide Basic Skills Initiative, she explains, but she credits the local Foundation Skills Teaching and Learning Community (FSTLC) for making the most of the state initiative by providing educational and support services for students, and designing and presenting professional development opportunities for both MC faculty and K-12 teachers in a collaborative environment. As Foundation Skills Co-Coordinator, along with MC Dean of Instruction, Virginia Guleff, Polak has been a leader in this effort, for which MC received the Hewlett Foundation "Leaders in Student Success Award" in 2009.
Polak says the best part of her job is "that I have a chance to re-start and re-charge every semester, and so do the students." She enjoys collaborating with other faculty, as in her work with the FSTLC and as chair of the MC Curriculum Committee, and she appreciates her opportunities to have an impact on the College.
She says the most challenging part of her job is "trying to help students find joy in doing something difficult."
Polak believes most people may be surprised to know that she is the daughter of immigrants, and among the first in her family to attend college.
Polak is passionate about continually improving the ways she serves students. As a teacher, she says she is supportive of her students, but she expects them "to think hard about things."
When she is not working, Polak enjoys family time with her husband, Chris, and their young daughter, Helena. She also enjoys outdoor activities and reading.