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Seven Things to Know about the 2022 NEA Higher Educator of the Year

Meet Bonniejean Alford!
Bonniejean Alford
2022 Higher Educator of the Year Bonniejean Alford

Bonniejean Alford, a writer, editor, blogger, podcaster, publisher, photographer and super fan of musician Richard Marx—not to mention an instructor and union leader at Illinois’ College of DuPage—has been named the 2022 NEA Higher Educator of the Year. The $10,000 annual award is funded by the NEA Foundation and presented by NEA’s National Council of Higher Education.

  1. A photo of a dying South African child changed the trajectory of her life. In 1988, when Alford was a 12-year-old eighth grader, she first saw Sam Nzima’s 1976 photograph of a Black boy named Hector Pieterson, shot by White police during Soweto schoolchildren’s anti-apartheid protest. In the photo, Pieterson hangs limply across the arms of an older boy. “I remember thinking, ‘what is wrong with the world?’” recalls Alford. She learned about the international human-rights organization Amnesty International and began organizing anti-apartheid letter-writing campaigns and boycotts—first in middle school and eventually in college. Today, as a union leader and advocate for her colleagues and students, Alford still has that what-can-I-do-to-help attitude. “If you’re going to oppress or discriminate, I’m going to call you out!”

  2. She thinks you’re beautiful. And she wants you to think it, too. Alford is an adult survivor of childhood rape. Her assailant was her father. On top of that, she is also the survivor of her mother’s disdain. “My mother told me I wasn’t good enough to follow my dreams,” Alford recalls. “She told me I wasn’t good enough to be a writer.” Alford was a brilliant child—at not quite 2 years old, she read aloud Charlotte’s Web to her dogs—but also a lonely, sad one whose surroundings were dark and mean. These childhood experiences shaped her attitude as an educator. “I call my students ‘beautiful’ every chance I get. I call them ‘brilliant,’” she says. “Even if they fail a test, it doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant! I had a student a few years ago who did fail my class—she just couldn’t get the work done. She came to me later and said, ‘I know I failed your class and I’m sorry about that, but you made me feel so much more confident about myself!’”

  3. She is an inventive, innovative teacher. “From teaching family through the lens of The Walking Dead to using fairy tales to teach sex, gender and power…she has found ways to shape the material [so that] students see the real world, rather than an academic one centered on theory,” wrote Clara Rogers-Green, the College of DuPage colleague who nominated Alford. (The zombie TV show is great material for budding sociologists, says Alford. “Imagine you wake up from a coma, and while you’ve been sleeping, a virus has killed 95 percent of the population? How do you shape your life, in terms of family and friends?”) Alford’s view of teaching is that she’s simultaneously a learner. “I’m not a teacher who thinks I’m there to spew knowledge at them. They spew back!” she says. “If I haven’t learned something every day in the classroom, I’m doing it wrong. I don’t know everything.”

  4. There was a student who died, and he taught her everything. In Alford’s first teaching experience, more than 20 years ago, she taught religion to second graders. One of them was named Kevin Ballantine. Alford and the Ballantine family grew close. She marveled at the way Kevin’s parents unconditionally loved their children and supported Kevin’s dream of becoming a high school chemistry teacher. “He wanted to change lives and help kids to be the very best they could be,” Alford recalls. But, at age 20, Kevin was diagnosed with leukemia. He was dying and he knew it. “Even as he dealt with his own mortality, I watched him care so much for the people in his life,” she says. In blog posts, Kevin urged his friends and families to use their time wisely, to live out their own dreams, and to care for one another. “If he’d been able to realize his purpose as an educator in the classroom, I can only imagine the good he would have done,” says Alford. Ten years after his death, Kevin’s positivity still fuels her. “He absolutely shaped who I am as a teacher, and how I am in the classroom.”

  5. She is a podcaster, a poet, a publisher—and much, much more. After 22 years in the college classroom, Alford is turning her attention to other projects. In 2020, she started a publishing company, called Parking Lot Press, aimed at making under-represented voices heard. Her inaugural author is a young woman with Williams syndrome. “What’s shocking to me is that kids with disabilities, people with disabilities, are seen as incapable. She’s brilliant! She’s just brilliant different!” This year, Alford also is launching a non-profit, called Some Pig Enterprises (get the literary reference?), that will work with educators, parents and students to redefine beauty, build self-esteem, and end hate and bullying. She also owns her own company, called Alford Enterprises, where she helps other writers tell their stories.

  6. From the start, she’s been a union member. As adjunct faculty members, Alford and her colleagues get paid about a third of what their tenured colleagues earn. (Even the most experienced College of DuPage adjunct professors can’t make much more than $30,000 a year for a full-time course load.) These are people who need to bargain collectively and speak with a strong, unified voice—and they do. “What’s kept me going, what’s kept me teaching, is the union,” says Alford, who is a vice president in the College of DuPage Adjuncts Association and serves on the bargaining team. “I don’t want to let my colleagues down. I don’t want to abandon them. We’re fighting for better retirement, for better access to unemployment benefits, for better pay across the board.”

  7. Her message to other higher educators is this: “We are all important to the educational process. All of us,” she says. “I want my colleagues to remember to be themselves—to be authentically themselves—to challenge the system and push their limits. I know we get tired but push it! Do everything to challenge your students and yourself and grow in the process.”

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.