The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) division at Thomas Nelson has had had four deans in the past 10 years. The search is ongoing for No. 5. There also have been a number of interim deans in that time.
However, when Beth Dickens was named the division’s associate dean last month, it was more than just a promotion or filling a position.
“She’s a stabilizing force, so whatever leadership comes in above her, she will balance that for the benefit of the division,” said Ursula Bock, the Dean of Communications, Humanities & Social Sciences, Arts, Business at the College.
Bock has worked with and known Dickens since 2010, when the latter was named the academic assistant coordinator. Bock said Dickens is a great fit for her new position.
“She’s even-tempered. Nothing seems to faze her. She accomplishes enormous amounts of work, always has a positive attitude,” Bock said. “She’s outgoing. She can connect with just about anybody.”
Dickens readily admits her first position at the College prepared her for the new role, but she said another key was her experience in the Air Force.
She was specifically referring to her final assignment, as the commandant of the Airman Leadership School when she was stationed in South Carolina from 2006-10.
“That was one of my greatest achievements, to be in charge of my own school,” she said. “I think that prepared me for my job now at Thomas Nelson. That job was kind of like being a dean or a VP over a division.”
In both positions, she’s able to do what she loves.
“Teaching education for me is a passion,” she said. “It didn’t just start here at Thomas Nelson. My degree is in education, and I’ve always known I wanted to teach, or I wanted to be an educator in some aspect.”
Bock has not seen Dickens teach in a classroom setting, but she has been in numerous meetings with her where her teaching style has been on display.
“I have seen her offer instruction in the context of information delivered at adjunct meetings, and she has a very engaging and lively way to present information,” Bock said. “She’s a very energetic instructor.”
It’s been was an unusual route for Dickens. She grew up in western New York, and earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Buffalo State. Working in elementary and middle schools wasn’t for her, and she wanted to get out of Buffalo, so she enrolled in the Air Force. During her 25-year military career, she added two degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, as well as a master’s degree from Webster University in Missouri. Her time in the military included a stint at Langley, and she was impressed with the area.
“I like Virginia, and I had been here for 10 years,” she said. “I knew I wanted to move back here.”
She’s looking forward to the challenges that will accompany her new responsibilities, even if she doesn’t know exactly what the latter will be until the new dean is named.
“I think for me, the biggest challenge would be …,” she said before a long pause, “to be honest I don’t know what that will look like until our new dean gets here. I don’t know if it will be a challenge getting to know that person. Hopefully, our goals and visions for this division will align. That’s probably the biggest challenge. Whatever it is, I’m ready to face it head on.”
The challenges might be unknown, but she does know what she wants to accomplish.
“My goal or mission again is to assist the dean when they get here, to follow their vision, whatever it is,” she said, adding she’s confident her vision will align with the new dean’s.
One thing she wants to continue to do is help the instructors with the transition to online teaching, especially the adjunct faculty who have little experience in that area.
“There are a lot of adjuncts that had never taught online,” she said. “They were forced to go online because of the pandemic.”
Dickens says helping them with professional development and classroom management is important.
“Just to be there, just to be an advocate for the adjunct faculty,” said Dickens, who is an adjunct herself and has taught at the College for almost 10 years.
She’s long been impressed with the relationship community colleges, especially Thomas Nelson, have with the military. She wants that bond to continue.
“To be able to assist the military people that come through, that’s just amazing,” she said.
It means a lot to her, maybe more than most, when military personnel, either active or retired, stop by her office or make a connection in class.
“I think the community college mission is so important,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s more important than a four-year university because everybody has their dreams, their desires, what they want to see.”
But she said community colleges are extremely important when students don’t know what they want to do.
“I recommend and talk about Thomas Nelson all the time,” she said a few hours before participating in a college discussion for parents at her church.
Bock pointed out Dickens’ role as a co-representative, and advocate, of the mid-level managers group at the College. The two also have been on a number of committees together, and Bock expects that to continue.
“I look forward to continuing to work with her,” Bock said.
One of the things Dickens likes about her new role is its title. She said her previous title of Academic Assistant Coordinator often confused others.
“A lot of times, when I told people outside of Thomas Nelson my title, they didn’t know what that was,” she said.
There’s little confusion now. She has had trial runs of sort as she’s assisted the four previous deans she has served under, and has been holding the division together since February.
“I learned so much over these last six months.”
While her current title is important, she hopes it’s not her last.
“To be named that, have that title, that means a lot to me because I do aspire to become a dean one day, or higher,” she said.