If Erin Whitford were grading her 20 Under 40 nomination, her mom would likely earn top marks not just for grammar and focus, but accuracy.
In recommending her daughter for the honor, Suzan Marks wrote, “To Erin, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing it with excellence. Erin is dedicated to the service of others. Whether it’s in her career, at church, in volunteering or with her family, she finds a true fulfillment in serving others well.”
Whitford got slightly choked up hearing those words.
“Moms are supposed to say that, right?” she said, before adding, “I couldn’t have said it better myself. All those things are important to me.”
Whitford has parlayed academic success as a student at Angelo State University into a career in the classrooms of Howard College. She is an assistant professor of English at the San Angelo campus, where she seeks to teach her students the power of effective written communication. Additionally, she serves as division co-chair of the General Studies program, overseeing some of the offerings in Howard’s core academic courses.
Whitford calls herself a “traditional nerd,” saying she has long loved learning and the challenge of earning A’s … so much so that it prompted her to pursue teaching in a college setting at age 22, shortly after earning her master’s degree.
That experience standing at the front of a classroom – a night course in English – eight years ago represented a steep learning curve, both for the pupils and the professor. Because they were contemporaries, Whitford worried how her students would respond to her.
Youthful in manner and in appearance, down to her dark bangs and pierced nose, she has since come to see her youth as a blessing.
“It lets me connect with them,” she explained. “I think they feel there’s not as much of a chasm between us. There’s still a level of respect, but I think they find me more approachable.”
Whitford further serves Howard College in its Faculty Senate and as a mentor to first-generation college students. She helps the latter navigate what they often view as a bewildering and intimidating setting, encouraging them with assurances they belong.
“That’s one of my favorite parts of my job – that individual connection and making sure people are living up to their potential,” she said. “So many of them don’t know what that is.
“Reaching out to people who feel they don’t have a place to belong is near and dear to my heart – making sure people feel included, that they have somewhere to go and people to belong to.”
That’s easy, she said, at a place like Howard College. Her colleagues sincerely and actively care for one another and for their students, she said.
“I joke that if they’ll keep me, I’m not going to leave,” Whitford said.
“There are so many things I love about teaching. … But the light bulb moment is really the special part of teaching – when you encourage those students and then they get it.”