To look back on the career of Linda Lewis is to look back on the history of Southeast Arkansas College and its precursor institutions.
Lewis is the school’s vice president for academic affairs and has served in several capacities at the two-year college over the past 47 years. She will be retiring at the end of May.
The way it was
What was then the Arkansas Vocational School was only seven years old when Lewis arrived to help start a business program at the school, which up until then had focused on auto mechanics, welding and nursing.
“I was still in college at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville when I was hired as a business teacher on July 1, 1966,” Lewis said. “I was at a university function and the state director of vocational education asked me if I was looking for a job. I told her I was and she told me to get in touch with Dr. Leon Tucker, the director of Arkansas Vocational School in Pine Bluff. I did and the rest is history.”
Lewis said that she was a business teacher for her first 22 years at the college.
“When I first started, the business program had just been approved for the school,” Lewis said. “Business school programs had recently become acceptable as part of vocational-technical school offerings. I was asked to help select the equipment for the new program. I got to meet the vendors and developed friendships that lasted for years. It was quite a treat.”
Lewis said that the school’s name change to Pines Vo-Tech coincided with her 1966 arrival.
“We had the latest technology of the time,” Lewis said. “We had a listening lab for shorthand and typing. The students wore headphones and listened to lessons that were on cassette tape, which had just come out. I enjoy business and teaching, so I was able to do both things that I loved.
“I remember when the first employers called asking for employees and how thrilled I was when one of my students was hired,” Lewis said. “And when the employer called back asking for more, I knew that I was doing something right.”
Lewis is proud of the many students she guided to career success throughout the decades.
“Teaching students and giving them a chance at a good life gave me a strong feeling of satisfaction,” Lewis said. “There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the light come on in a student’s head and seeing them able to do so much more than when they came in. It is especially nice when they call years later and tell me that they did better than they expected they would.”
Lewis said that there was a time when being part of a business program meant having lots of typewriters.
“We had so many different kinds of typewriters because we had to make sure our students were trained on all of the models used by businesses that were hiring typists,” Lewis said. “We had the IBM Selectrics as well as manual typewriters.”
Lewis said that the first computers used by the college were RadioShack TRS-80 models.
“It was back in the early 1980s and we had the hardest time getting the purchase orders authorized at first,” Lewis said. “The state’s purchasing department only knew about mainframe computers and not the new desktops, so we had to spend a lot of time getting them to understand what we were trying to do.”
Lewis said that the machines, even though primitive by today’s standards, cost more than $1,000 each.
“We also had to buy printers to go with them,” Lewis said. “We got our first dial-up Internet connection in the late 1980s. At that time we only had a few PCs due to their cost.”
Lewis said that the school’s transition from a vocational-technical institution to a two-year college was one of the more challenging periods that she faced.
“The state legislature passed Act 1241 in 1991 because they believed it would provide more opportunity for Arkansas residents,” Lewis said. “It was in May 1991 that Pines Vo-Tech became Southeast Arkansas College. We had to literally change everything that we did. The state did provide us with first-step guides for implementation of the new system.”
Lewis said that the changeover had to be fully implemented before the start of the fall 1991 semester.
During her tenure Lewis has held a number of posts at the school.
“I was a business teacher for 22 years,” Lewis said. “I became assistant dean for instruction while the school was still a vo-tech. When we became a college in 1991, my title became dean of institutional and student services. I became dean of student services in 1992. I have also served as dean of institutional reporting and public relations, vice president for student services, interim vice president for academic affairs, vice president for academic affairs and student affairs and I am currently vice president for academic affairs.”
Over the past 47 years, Lewis has seen two vocational-technical directors and three college presidents come and go, most recently serving under SEARK president Stephen Hilterbran since the spring of 2011.
Change is good
Lewis said that one of the most appealing aspects of her career at SEARK has been a continuously changing environment.
“There is always something new every day,” Lewis said. “It’s fun to solve problems and I stay excited about what I’m doing. No two days are ever alike. The state legislature has proposed and/or adopted different bills to change the way we offer higher education. As a result, I have had a lot of interaction with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. One of the more recent changes is the requirement to get all academic programs down to 60 hours. This was done to ensure that the cost of an education not be too high.”
Lewis said that transferability of college credits is another big issue.
“We had to develop common course numbers for classes that met the requirements of the Arkansas Course Transfer System,” Lewis said. “It took time, but with this done, students are able to look in the course list and quickly find those with credits that can be transferred to another institution.”
Lewis is proud of the growth of the college during her years on campus.
“We have grown from a few dozen students when I started to over 1,700 enrolled for the spring 2013 semester,” Lewis said. “I have always done my best to provide a welcoming environment for everyone. There were so many students who thought they wouldn’t get to go to college that did because of our affordable price.
“This has been a wonderful opportunity to help people,” Lewis said.
Lewis had a ready answer when asked why she decided to retire this year.
“After 47 years I decided that I hadn’t had a summer off since I was in the 11th grade and this was the year to do it,” Lewis said. “I want my first summer off since 1961. So on May 31, I will be retiring.”
Lewis said that she has several initial entries in her retirement to-do list.
“I still want to stay active,” Lewis said. “I will be planting some flowers and organizing scrapbooks for my granddaughter. I love to travel. I plan to go to the [Jefferson Regional Medical Center] Wellness Center in the morning then sit on the patio and listen to the birds.”
With barely a month to go before she says goodbye to the campus that she has helped to shape into what it is today, one would be forgiven for thinking that all of this retirement talk was just that — talk.
“People keep asking me why I’m not starting to slow down,” Lewis said. “But as long as I’m here and there’s work to be done, I’m going to keep doing it. Dr. Hilterbran has tried to get me to reconsider my retirement, but I tell him that my mind is made up.”