Dave Zwonitzer has been an instructor of Philosophy, Humanities and English at Laramie County Community College for 41 years, making him the longest-serving faculty member at the college. Over the years, Zwonitzer said he has noticed shifts in many aspects of LCCC, both in physical and in operational styles.
Zwonitzer said he began at LCCC as a part-time English instructor in 1977. The next year, he made the transition into a full-time instructor for English and Philosophy. Since 1977, LCCC has changed a lot.
“When I started, we had four buildings total,” Zwonitzer said. “Everything was on a much smaller scale.”
Since 1977, LCCC has expanded from three buildings to 22 and enrollments have risen from just under 2,000 students in the 1977-78 academic year to just above 3,000 students in the 2017-18 academic year, according to LCCC’s website.
“It was much more intimate than it is now,” Zwonitzer said. “The overall enrollment was smaller but we had fewer classes and fewer teachers. I think average classes were around 25 students.”
Zwonitzer also said that when he began his teaching career at LCCC, non-traditional students outnumbered traditional students by more than half. Now it’s the opposite.
As the campus continues to expand and the enrollments increase, Zwonitzer has been observing certain characteristics about how the education system has been evolving.
“I think right now we’re simply going along with the crowd and that can always be dangerous, but especially so when the crowd doesn’t know what it’s doing,” Zwonitzer said. “I would like to see it (the college) seriously rethink its role in education and that would mean seriously rethink what education is supposed to be and how we fit into that.”
Now that LCCC has hit the half-century mark, the next 50 has the potential to drastically change how secondary education is tackled. Zwonitzer said his vision for the college in the next 50 years will require a lot of courage.
“In some ways, LCCC should be at war with the rest of the education system and in some ways, be objecting to what’s going on in our culture and society,” Zwonitzer said. “Traditionally, that was one of the most important functions that colleges had, they were a vanguard, they were a needed element in our society to keep our society and culture honest.”
Zwonitzer said it’s been difficult for him to watch as the education system has turned its back on its original role. In the midst of this, he said that it’s rewarding for him to help students fight back against the trivialization of learning and in turn, the trivialization of what it is to be human.
“In some ways, I feel like my career is just starting and I can see it in the classroom,” Zwonitzer said. “So, when you feel like you’re really getting good at something, you don’t get burned out, you want to keep doing it. Right now, I want to teach for as long as I can.”
Zwonitzer’s enthusiasm and passion for teaching can be seen through not only his words, but through a former student’s as well.
Charles Detheridge, a former Wingspan editor, is also a former student of Zwonitzer’s, and he has taken four of his courses, two of which he took twice.
“It took me four years at LCCC to really feel comfortable and happy with where I’m at in my life,” Detheridge said. “That’s with the help of branching out and meeting new friends and having great instructors like Dave (Zwonitzer) and Jason (Pasqua).”
Detheridge said that Zwonitzer and Pasqua helped him to not be afraid of taking time to learn more than what’s expected. Detheridge said that Zwonitzer inspired him to take on more experiences at the college and that it’s OK to not have his future completely mapped out.
“He is always honest and has a deep-felt consideration for the understanding, education and well-being of his students,” Detheridge said. “He is upfront about helping us any way he can but won’t let his openness of being friends get in the way of criticism in making his learning environment better for everyone…it helps us learn that sometimes criticism, in a way, comes from real and honest friends that want you to succeed and he wants that for his students.”
Zwonitzer’s impact moves beyond just his pupils. Leif Swanson, an English instructor at LCCC, said that he was drawn to Zwonitzer right away.
“(I) heard a lot of great things about his teaching and how he connected with students,” Swanson said. “How he cared about students, how he engaged students. We formed a friendship right away.”
Almost 29 years have passed since Swanson began his teaching career at LCCC, and he’s seen firsthand what Zwonitzer has meant to not only the college but his students.
“To the students, he’s been an invaluable resource,” Swanson said. “He’s also given a lot to faculty at the institution. There are a lot of faculty who have turned to him for advice and mentoring. He’s given to the college and has stayed with the college when times were pretty lean.”
The resounding theme of making an impact applies to not only former student Detheridge but to Swanson as well. Swanson said students have told him about the impact Zwonitzer has had on them.
“I think his best qualities include his connection with students,” Swanson said. “He’s changed a lot of lives. A lot of students have approached me and have really praised his teaching and the difference that he’s made in their lives personally. He’s touched more lives than he’ll ever know.”
The impact that both Detheridge and Swanson describe translate into what Zwonitzer said is the most rewarding part of his career: Working with students and seeing them learn and change.
“To see that you’ve been a part of someone learning something, that you have even a small part in someone’s life changing because they appropriated a new insight about themselves and how they live, who can ask for anything more than that?” Zwonitzer said.
Making a difference in a student’s life, whether it be during the semesters they attended with Zwonitzer or 30 years down the road, makes for some of his favorite memories that he has made during his 41 years at LCCC.
“When I get a call or a letter from someone that took a class with me 30 years ago and they say, ‘I had no idea what you were talking about that day in class but it never went away and now suddenly, I know what this means.’ It’s like wow, OK, it worked,” Zwonitzer said. “I never take full credit, they were the ones that did it but I was a part of that happening and those are always favorite memories.”
Zwonitzer said that he wants to keep teaching as long as he’s able to and as long as he can practice education as a profession. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about his ideal retirement, which is alongside his passion for learning and quenching his curiosity about the world.
“My ideal retirement would be, have enough wealth that I could do whatever I wanted to do,” Zwonitzer said. “That would basically mean going wherever my curiosity leads me and spending as much time there until my curiosity on that thing was done with me.”
Swanson said that he thinks Zwonitzer is the perfect example of a lifelong learner and it shows through his wishes for an ideal retirement. As Zwonitzer said, he wants to keep teaching as long as he’s able to and that’s what Swanson hopes as well.
“He still has enthusiasm, the excitement, the energy to continue to help shape minds and improve lives,” Swanson said. “I hope he stays 40 more years.”