By Melissa Trevizo
When Dr. Karen Hattaway set foot on San Jacinto College’s Central Campus, NASA was still prepping to send a man to the moon. Her career as an English professor spans 48 of the College’s 60-year history, making her the most senior faculty member on staff.
Fresh out of the University of Oklahoma (OU) with her master’s degree, Hattaway was looking to start her career. Her husband, David, held a chemical engineering degree and accepted an offer at the Deer Park Shell Refinery.
“I had never been to Houston before,” she said. “I was working for the OU office of advanced studies, but I hadn’t found a job in Texas yet. I heard there was a college in the area, so I called to ask if they were in need of teachers.”
When Hattaway placed the call, it was commencement day 1969. With most of the staff busy preparing, Dr. Thomas Spencer, San Jac’s first president, answered the phone himself.
“Dr. Spencer told me that there was a local candidate for the job, but I was welcome to come the following Monday to interview for the position. After my interview, I thought I’d never hear from the College again,” she said.
Checking the mailbox one last time before leaving Oklahoma, she discovered a letter from San Jac offering her the English professor position. In fall 1969, 25-year-old Hattaway began teaching English Composition I to the growing student body.
“We were gaining about a thousand students a semester,” said Hattaway. “As a new teacher with 40 students in each class, I was overwhelmed but encouraged by great mentors.”
Veteran teachers helped Hattaway navigate not only the College’s culture but also relationships with department chairs and other administrators.
“Faculty mentors help to create a sense of community. I’m so grateful to the ones who have mentored me — and to have served as a mentor many times over the years myself,” she said.
Finding her place at the College, Hattway helped start the first English as a second language (ESL) courses at San Jac.
“The College has always been reflective of the community, and we saw a need for ESL classes,” she said. “In the first cohort, we had 28 students from 16 countries with various levels of competence.”
Many of Hattaway’s ESL students were international students, with both language and cultural challenges.
“We were teaching them English with cut-out photos from Montgomery Ward catalogues and homemade worksheets we created ourselves,” she said. “We also helped them assimilate to a completely foreign environment.”
Besides her ESL work, Hattaway also helped create an early version of the honors program.
“Several of our surrounding school districts requested that we offer an honors option for their graduates,” said Hattaway. “We started with English and history, and the program blossomed from there.”
In 1983, Hattway earned her doctorate from Rice University, thanks to encouragement from colleagues.
“I thought there was no way I would get accepted to the program,” she said. “I didn’t think I would pass the GRE, I didn’t have the money, and I was too old.”
To her surprise, she passed the GRE exam and received an acceptance letter to the Rice program. Soon after, Hattaway won a Delta Kappa Gamma Society International scholarship, which covered the program expenses.
“There were no more excuses at that point,” she said.
In 2015, Hattaway was selected by the League for Innovation in the Community College to author the prestigious “Cross Papers #18,” an in-depth monograph that has shaped teaching strategies in many of the nation’s community colleges. She has also directed the Eisenhower and Teacher Quality Grants, which brought together Galena Park and Sheldon ISD teachers to improve student learning.
With nearly 50 years of experience, Hattaway still loves teaching, even though the technology and generations of students continue to change.
“Teaching is the only profession where what is created never goes out of style or wears out. Education is forever,” she said.