Yesterday’s drop-out. Today’s teacher
When Lou Rushton hiked into Coos Bay looking for a bus to take south, the 50-state traveler had never heard of this town nor any little towns on the Oregon Coast. He figured Coos Bay was just another step in a long journey. In reality? It was 2002 and Rushton had “crash landed” at Southwestern Oregon Community College.
“I was curious, terrified by the thought of college, but curious about why people enjoyed it,” he said.
Rushton’s experience at Southwestern helped him re-frame his life. It launched him on a learning journey that took him to the East Coast, the Gulf Coast and back again. Two years ago, Rushton landed again at Southwestern, this time gracefully as an assistant math professor.
“This is the magic. It’s the small places. It’s the weird un-thought of places that are transforming people,” Rushton said.
Searching for a way out
High school was never a fit for Rushton. He dropped out at 16 in Cleveland, Ohio, and got a warehouse job. He quickly learned unskilled work was not a path to a good future, so he enrolled in an alternative adult high school degree program by phone, before online education took hold.
Restless, he started traveling. It was in Coos Bay he discovered his love of learning. Rushton needed a chance to dry out from his cold, wet travels. He found a place to stay and got a pizza-making job. Soon, his new circle of friends connected him to the college. His first advisor, Southwestern’s music director, told him to take a science class.
“I remember going home and literally looking them up. We didn’t have Internet yet. I literally got out the dictionary, thinking ‘what are these options?’” he said.
Having the experience I had here transformed my life. – Math teacher Lou Rushton, 2006 Southwestern grad
Geology, physics, chemistry, biology? He picked geology to learn about Earth. Within three weeks, instructor Dr. Ron Metzger noticed Rushton’s work ethic and suggested he become president of the Geology Club.
“I remember thinking, you’ve got the wrong guy,” Rushton said.
Metzger had the right guy.
Learning to teach
“Lou did what students are supposed to do. You show up. You work hard. You ask questions. You show initiative,” Metzger said.
Rushton moved into student housing and became a resident assistant. He participated in activities and tutored. He became Southwestern’s outstanding student that year.
“Some people golf. Some people enjoy bowling. I just enjoyed being in classes, being in an academic environment,” he said.
People told Rushton to teach. After graduating with an Oregon Transfer Degree in 2006, he moved to the University of Oregon and got his bachelor’s degree. He detoured east to St. John’s University in New York, took a teaching fellowship and worked in a Brooklyn high school. He earned a master’s degree in civil engineering, and another master’s and then another. He taught at a community college in Ohio, and figured out he loved teaching.
“He’s a great math teacher,” Metzger said. “He still has the same enthusiasm and gung-ho attitude.”
Nearly 20 years after they met, Rushton and Metzger are equals, and good friends. Now, Rushton is the one inspiring students.
Rushton’s office is next door to the tutoring lab. It is common any day to walk in and see this middle-aged man in jeans sitting beside a student working through math problems. He also tells his story, helping students think beyond today to imagine possibilities.
“I thought my career path wouldn’t have anything to do with math,” said Kaitlyn Heitman, a student in his Math 98 class. “But honestly, Lou is making me rethink that. If I challenge myself a little bit more, I could go into any field I want to.”
Hearing a student say that, has to make a teacher smile.
“Having the experience I had here transformed my life,” Rushton said. “To be a part of that with other future students is just too cool.”