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Teaching What They Practice

Students discuss the profound impact of living and learning alongside North Park’s “practitioner faculty,” part-time instructors who bring their unique, full-time industry experiences to the classroom. Three of these professors explain why they won’t soon be quitting their day jobs.

Keith Bakken

When undergraduate nursing student Ashley Waddell C’2010 found out she needed to take a course on health policy and politics, she admits she was anything but enthusiastic about the prospect. “I told myself I would go into it with an open mind,” concedes Waddell, who has wanted to be a nurse her “whole life,” and even started interning at a local hospital in high school. Nonetheless, she adds sheepishly, “It was a class I had no desire to take.”

For many students like Waddell, the right instructor can make a world of difference—magically transforming the most routine and ordinary of subjects into passions to be pursued. Now, as a recent graduate, Waddell acknowledges her professor, Keith Bakken C’85 G’2006, did just that.

The director of physician services at Holy Family Medical Center in Des Plaines, Ill., Bakken has more than 25 years of experience in nursing—which includes more than a decade in healthcare administration as well several years teaching and practicing medicine as a medical missionary in Africa. He’s held his current position at Holy Family, a hospital in the Resurrection Healthcare System, for five years, and has taught at North Park for more than two.

Bakken is also one of dozens of professional, “practitioner faculty” who work full–time in their respective professions and serve part-time as professors at North Park University. Elsewhere known as adjuncts, these part–time teachers make up about 50 percent of undergraduate faculty nationwide, according to a 2009 survey in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Their task is no less daunting than any other educator’s—to effectively engage students and help instill a vision for life beyond graduation. But they do so by bringing their own real–world industry experiences, in real time, to the classroom, so students can readily see the relevance of what they are learning and how it can be practically applied.

“Many universities look to their adjuncts and lecturers as a source of innovation in classroom teaching,” notes Mitchell Weisberg in a November 2009 issue of the Chronicle, elaborating on the journal’s survey. “Because of their exposure in the world of business, adjunct faculty members are exposed to and comfortable with leading–edge technologies and methodologies long before those tools make their way into academic research.”

Waddell, who is originally from Chicago, transferred to North Park from the University of Iowa in part because of greater opportunities in the city, but also because she valued North Park’s smaller class sizes and strong nursing program. “I appreciated being more than just a number to my professors,” she says.

She found Bakken’s enthusiasm for nursing as it relates to legislation to be contagious, and his stories of serving abroad as a medical missionary, inspiring. “I never thought that by being a nurse I could have such a big impact on politics and medical policy,” she says, describing one assignment where she and her classmates had to write letters to an Illinois state senator about healthcare issues. Bakken later invited the senator to class to discuss the very issues the students addressed.

“Professor Bakken was very knowledgeable about how to use nursing in a political context—from how to go about talking to a congressman to how we, as nurses, could make a difference by promoting an agenda and even helping to pass a bill. His ended up being one of my favorite classes.”

Waddell even signed up for her own three-week medical mission last summer, working at a clinic in Zambia, because of her professor. Although she wants to stay in Chicago and apply her nursing degree at a homeless shelter, community center, or hospital, she also knows, “I want to go back on another missions trip—soon.”

Bakken couldn’t be more impressed with the commitment of his students, or more surprised about his own influence and the turns his career has taken. “I really like the model of a practitioner/teacher, and the concept of building into your lectures stories from work, but I didn’t know if I was cut out to be an instructor,” he confesses. “It’s something I could have never expected. Back when I was in school, the whole notion of men going into nursing was not an easy one, but I knew that was what I wanted to do. . .Caring for people was in my blood.”

He got his start working at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s in Chicago, but his calling to teach evolved a little differently, when his pastor encouraged he and his wife, Laurie (Elowson) Bakken C’84, to consider going to Africa to help run a nursing school in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). After raising funds and spending a year in Belgium learning French and being trained in tropical medicine, the couple served for two years as nursing instructors with the Evangelical Covenant Church in rural Zaire.

“There was so much intense physical need and deep poverty, illness, and disease . . . it was overwhelming,” Bakken recalls. “It was hard to feel like we were making difference. But God showed me the exponential power of teaching. I taught 30 nurses, and to see them graduate and then go on to help others was so rewarding.”

Catherine Demczuk C’2010 is another of Bakken’s students who was inspired to go on a Global Partnerships trip to Zambia after hearing about his international nursing adventures. “I believe the practitioner faculty, especially within the School of Nursing, really contribute to the student experience profoundly,” she says. “I know that Professor Bakken gave me the extra push toward this experience, which was unforgettable.”

It’s a ripple effect Bakken looks forward to witnessing for years to come, and one of the reasons he has no plans to stop teaching anytime soon. “It’s not only a supremely fulfilling career, it’s a wonderful way to make a difference,” he says. “My former students are still bringing health and healing to their communities. And I get to see it in Chicago and all around the world.”

Keith Bakken