There’s a piece of paper taped above Carol Swartz’s desk that reads, “To love what you do and feel that it matters — how could anything be more fun?”
It’s an apt description of Swartz’s feelings toward her job as director of Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College of University of Alaska-Anchorage. In June she’ll have been at it 30 years, working with a passion that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Swartz has been the recipient of several prestigious awards, including the Governor’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities in 2012 and a University of Alaska Meritorious Service Award in 2013. This year, she adds another to the collection — the Alaska Adult Education Association’s John L. Hulbert Award for outstanding long-term contribution to lifelong learning.
Swartz is good at deflecting praise.
“It’s so humbling and so gratifying. Like, really? It’s from someone from somewhere else? I’m at the End of the Road here,” she says.
But her boss wasn’t surprised.
“The award is quite an honor and well-deserved,” wrote Gary Turner, director of the Kenai Peninsula College, in an email. “…She is relentless in her support of adult basic education, GED preparation, ESL and other similar programs that make a huge difference in not only people’s lives, but in our communities.”
Swartz’s colleague Michael Hawfield, who teaches history and political science at the college, agreed. “The most evident and outstanding aspect of her leadership here is her connection to the community,” he says.
That community connection was what got Swartz into education in the first place. When she came to Homer from Oregon in 1980, it was to take a job as a clinician and co-director of what was then called the Community Mental Health Center — since retitled “The Center.” While she was working there, Swartz and a group of other women formed what is now South Peninsula Haven House to help combat domestic violence and other issues affecting women in the community.
Through her work at those organizations and on the college’s community advisory board, Swartz says she came to realize that education is the key to solving all manner of social ills.
“Education to me became really not an effect but a cause for strengthening communities and individuals’ lives and wellbeing,” she says.
So when she was offered the job as campus director in 1986, she took it. And the projects for which she’s now being honored began right away. A few months before, Swartz had applied for a grant from the state to develop adult basic education programs at KBC, which itself was only a few years old. With the funding the grant provided, she spearheaded GED, English as a second language and citizenship programs that the college continues to offer today.
The programs were created at a time when Homer’s population was exploding with newcomers. As it does now, adult basic education helped new residents integrate into Homer society and develop the critical thinking and basic math and writing skills they needed for all kinds of jobs, from fishing to starting a business.
The programs also provide a social network, Swartz says.
“People very much understand the concept of, you go out to eat and that’s social, you meet at people’s homes. Food is very social activity, but learning together is as well,” she says. “And learning about something new together is very enhancing for friendship.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, KBC’s adult basic education program served 60 or 70 people a year. Now, as more people are getting their high school diplomas, it serves around 30, Swartz said. That’s out of around 400 people on the Southern Kenai Peninsula who are taking classes in person at the college. The other half of the 771 students enrolled are dispersed around Alaska, taking classes online.
Many of the students showing up to class today are coming for another of Swartz’s focuses: lifelong learning.
She thinks her generation of Baby Boomers has embraced lifelong learning in a way her parents’ didn’t.
Back in the day, people worked to support their families and didn’t take classes in their free time, she says. Now, people in Homer sign up for five-week seminars or go to lectures by visiting authors for all kinds of reasons — to keep their minds active, to get out of the house in the winter, to gain background knowledge for their job or purely to learn something new.
Other lifelong learning opportunities at the college come outside the classroom.
One of Swartz’s most popular projects at KBC is the annual Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, which she was integral in starting in 2002. Over the past decade and a half, the conference has gained a national reputation as an opportunity for writers from Alaska and elsewhere to share ideas and work with prominent literary figures from around the Lower 48.
There are a lot more places for people to get involved with lifelong learning in town today than when Swartz first moved here. Back then, the Pratt Museum and the college were some of Homer’s only cultural centers. The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies was formed not long after she arrived, and Swartz had a hand in that, too, though she’s slow to admit it.
Now, anyone looking to learn something new can head to the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, the library,
any of Homer’s several art galleries or even Hospice of Homer, which sponsors lectures and lends out books.
Swartz says that’s great — the more opportunities there are for people to broaden their knowledge, the better they’ll understand their community.
“Ultimately, the role of the campus is to engage people at the micro level of what’s going on with the learning process in the classroom, but to take it outside the classroom or workshop or building and be engaged in the natural environment,” she says. “It’s very much an ecosystem.”
In the future, Swartz hopes the college can continue to adapt to meet the community’s needs. In particular, she says she wants a physical space for vocational programs like welding and maritime technology. And she’d like to be able to add more programs like the Writers Conference and Semester By the Bay — things that bring people to Homer specifically to learn.
She’s grateful to the people of Homer as members of a community that values learning, she says. There are only six full-time faculty members at KBC, but the campus is able to offer around 100 classes a semester, thanks to community members willing to donate their time and expertise.
“That’s the strength of why this campus grew in the ’80s and ’90s in adult education. It’s that people wanted to share,” she says. “It’s a community of learners as well as teachers.”
For those learners and teachers, the AAEA award provides a chance to beam appreciation back toward Swartz.
“Community collaboration is her mantra,” says Asia Freeman, who teaches a painting class at the college. “No one lives it and works it more profoundly than Carol.”
Annie Rosenthal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.