2017 Inspired2Educate Winner: Michelle Hoffman


Michelle Hofmann, Lecturer
California State University, Northridge
North Hills, California

A simple penned statement that sits in a frame on the wall in my home office underscores the value of setting and moving toward goals. It reads: “The jump is so frightening between where I am and where I want to be . . . but because of all I may become, I will close my eyes and leap.”
I fell in love with the words in early 2003 during a visit to Oxnard, Calif., with my mother. At the time, there was a lot to fear. I was 38, about to give birth to my second daughter, and walking my mother through the last year of her life. Knowing someone is dying gives you a chance to say good bye. But it doesn’t make the fear of that loss any easier to bear or the time leading up to that final breath any less chaotic.
With no time to spare, my mother and I set a host of goals in 2003. We had some great adventures during our lifetime as mother and daughter, and that final year was no exception. I couldn’t stop the inevitable outcome. Still, accomplishing the goals we set in that final year provided a treasure trove of photos and memories that eased the heartbreak death left behind when he swept through the hospital room and took my mother away forever Oct. 11, 2003. I was broken indeed. But as the holiday season yielded the rustle of wrapping and the sound of my children’s laughter, I had few regrets about the previous 12 months.
Before my mother died, we talked about my goals for the future and wrote them down on the page of a notepad that sat near the phone, next to her hospital bed. Graduate school was on the list. Time passed. Six years came and went. I wrote newspaper stories about real estate. I drove my kids to school. I made dinner for my husband. I traveled to South Africa, London, and Europe. I had another child, a son, in May 2008. Then in June 2009, I found that list of goals tucked in the folds of an old journal. As I read down the list, I struck a line through the entry that read, “Call CSUN about graduate school,” and picked up the phone. The following month, I completed the application for graduate school.
The story illustrates why I so strongly believe in the power of setting goals.
Graduate school was part of a bigger plan to realize a personal dream toward a professional goal and branch out from mainstream journalism and chart a new course, teaching. My thesis was conferred on Aug. 26, 2011. Three days later, I walked into a classroom.
To be honest, I never fancied myself a teacher. I am a journalist through and through. But I never stopped feeling indebted to my first journalism professor, Rob O’Neil. I was a deli waitress with a dream to be something more when I met Professor O’Neil in spring 1994. The semester had started when the L.A. Pierce Community College counselor suggested I enroll in journalism 101–the equivalent to Journalism 102, which I was teaching prior to teaching speech communications at California State University, Northridge.
At 29, I honestly thought myself too old to start college. During my first class, I sat next to Ruby Nichols, 76. Clearly, a larger plan was at work, so I just kept showing up. So did Ruby. In fact, she and I exchanged Christmas cards every year until she died a few years back.
By 1999, I had secured my associate and bachelor degrees and was working for a parenting magazine. I started writing about real estate in 2000. Each time I saw Professor O’Neil after leaving Pierce in 1996, he would say the same thing: “When are you going to go back to school and get your graduate degree and teach a journalism course.” I would always return with: “Rob, you know that I’m not a teacher. I’m a journalist.”
Still, the prodding got my attention. And in coming out of the dark time after my mother’s death, I thought I’d trust the professor who changed my life and give teaching a go. I’m glad I did. In many ways, teaching feels like coming home. Professor O’Neil was right; I am a teacher. I love everything about teaching at CSUN. But most all, I love the students, watching them grow, seeing them move from fear to hope to joy to the realization that they can be and are so much more than they ever thought possible. In many ways, their stories are my story. I see myself in them. And I am moved to do my best to pay back a gift freely given to me by a remarkable man, a humble teacher.
It’s hard to know how to thank the people who change your life. But every day and in every way, professors at campuses across the nation and around the world change lives. Still, many don’t get accolades from former students. So to you, I say, “Thank you, professor.” What you do makes a difference today and tomorrow. Thank you, professor. What you give forever changes how they feel, how they remember, and why they give back. Thank you, professor. You may not always feel it, but you are a hero. Thank you, professor.