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Meet the New VPAA: Dr. Jeffrey Alexander

vppa dr. jeffrey alexander
Rebecca A. Eckland

Dr. Jeffrey Alexander is no stranger to the kind of success that students at TMCC seek. A lifelong learner, educator, historian, and leader, he brings years of experience to the office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs where he is looking forward to new beginnings. “It’s exciting to be here because there is a chance to see how the work we do at TMCC makes an impact on students,” he said. 

Although he’s made a point to visit all the TMCC locations so far, he looks forward to meeting with instructors and students on a more individual basis as the college resumes in-person operations July 1 and several in-person classes for Fall 2021.  For Alexander, meeting with students and encouraging them to pursue their educational passions is at the heart of how he helps them to achieve their goals and dreams. After all, that is how he discovered his passion for Japanese history, culture, and industry: a topic that directed his scholarship and within which he has authored several books.

Originally from Toronto, Alexander majored in history and took all the courses they had to offer in the subject. One day, a professor asked Alexander why he was taking so many history classes. Alexander admitted that a class focused on the Pacific War, the United States and Japan had narrowed his interest from history in general to Japanese history. Although that college didn’t offer any official classes on the subject, that professor nonetheless offered him the books in his library that covered that topic and later, helped to create a direct reading course for Alexander. 

“One thing led to another... and I finished up that degree and went to Japan,” Alexander said. The experience would not only be transformative but also one that continues to inform his approach to supporting student success. He cited a 2020 article “The (Not-So) Secret-Way to Attract Majors to Your Department” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education to help explain the powerful, yet simple result of encouraging students who demonstrate aptitude, promise, and drive. 

“Basically, the article said the secret to finding more majors is to ask them,” he said. “It isn’t complicated. The person who authored the article, who was a professor in Political Science, said that he just asked his students: ‘what are you doing here?’ sort of like that professor asked me long ago. Helping students to notice their own potential can be the key in helping them to find that path forward.”

Making Things Their Own

The year following Alexander’s graduation from college, he lived in Osaka, Japan teaching English to children aged 5-15 three nights a week and tending bar at a high-end jazz bar. “[All of that] was a great way to get my feet on the ground and to learn about the country and the people,” he said. The experience would eventually lead Alexander to a graduate program in History with a specialization in Japan at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, where he earned a Master’s and then a Ph.D. 

He taught at UBC before relocating to another teaching post at the University of Wisconsin at Parkside where he would remain for eight years, teaching classes on the History of Japan, China, World History, as well as several writing courses. During this time, he also authored three books on Japan’s history, including Brewed in Japan: The Evolution of the Japanese Beer Industry

“That study, like other work that I’d done on Japanese consumer products, manufacturing and sales, really examines how the Japanese went about making something of their own. As products made their way to a new place, people gradually adopted them and learned how to make them, first by traditional methods, and then by more or less making it ‘local.’ Beer was no different,” he said, explaining the evolution of the product was also influenced by history, traditional brewing methods, events like the World War, trends and others, suggesting that even something as germane as beer can carry a kind of cultural identity that is unique to a specific country and yet simultaneously referential. Beyond beer, however, Alexander’s work has also examined the Japanese pharmaceutical, illegal drug, and whisky industries as well as drug and alcohol abuse. 

“Those were really interesting projects. My last foray into solo author work involved a lot of translation. Going to Japan to get materials was a lot of fun, but coming home and sitting at your kitchen table for three years translating it was a big commitment,” he said. “When the project was done, it was fun to talk about my work, but in the end, it started to feel self-serving. That’s why I decided to move to administrative roles because I wanted to help and support others through servant leadership. It’s not about me. It’s about what the college can achieve, especially for students.” 

Supporting Student Success

Alexander comes to TMCC from Pueblo Community College in Pueblo, Colorado where he served as Dean of Arts and Sciences. “I went from a four-year world to a two-year world, and I found that those two worlds are very similar… much more similar than they are different,” he said.

Among his many contributions to student success included the implementation of Guided Pathways, Open Educational Resources, and increasing enrollment in STEM majors among Hispanic students. His former institution, which historically has served Hispanic students and has held Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) designation for 25 years, was able to secure a grant thanks to Alexander’s efforts from the National Science Foundation (NSF) called “Improving Undergraduate Education in STEM” (IUSE) that was used to fund strategies to encourage Hispanic students to declare and persist through STEM degree programs.

Although the initiative included typical messaging and outreach methods through social media and printed materials, at its core was a series of STEM Career Event Nights that featured professionals in STEM fields who had come from humble beginnings and found their professional calling in (sometimes) unlikely ways. 

“Our students heard from people who became engineers, math instructors, and computer scientists. One fellow even worked at a lottery in Colorado, because he was a ‘numbers guy’,” said Alexander. “There were all these fantastic stories, and the punch line was never that they found a successful career. Instead, it was that they had come from middle-class backgrounds and farming communities... and the students were really encouraged by these stories,” he said. The events were well-attended, with more than 100 students per night. Two years later, the data reflected the success of the initiative: the number of Hispanic students with STEM majors at the college doubled.

Another initiative that supported student success was the implementation of Guided Pathways. Chiefly an advising tool, it nonetheless helped students to navigate their college experience with efficiency and clarity. “The days of reading a 300-page catalog, especially on a phone, are gone. Very seldom does anyone try to find their way through a catalog like that,” he said, explaining that Guided Pathways are a curated path through particular degree programs that chart the course to graduation and that can easily fit onto one printed page. 

“These pathways help students to see that a lot of areas, certainly in the social sciences, the arts, humanities and even sciences and CTE programs, too, have a lot of similarity in the first two semesters. Sometimes that is general education content or general content germane to different areas in that field. Helping students to see that helps them to finish that course work, so even if they change their mind [about their degree program], they don’t have to back up and start from zero,” he said. 

Guided Pathways also helped students to understand career outcomes and transfer opportunities that wait for them after completing a degree program at a community college. “And that’s really the goal, is to help students to see what comes next,” he said.

While there are many introductions that still need to happen as TMCC returns to in-person services, Alexander is looking forward to getting to know the TMCC community as well as the surrounding area. A snowboarder and outdoor enthusiast, Tahoe’s proximity to the college was also a great perk of moving to Reno, he said. 

But it’s stepping into TMCC’s classroom spaces that interest Alexander most. “I love to visit classes. I learn new things almost all of the time. Sometimes I learn that what we were taught in college isn’t taught anymore; the old theories from back in the day have been updated quite a bit, and that’s interesting, too,” he said. “We have so many arenas at the college where we truly impact students.” 

For more information about the office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs, contact them at 775-673-7090.