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Roger Peters Distinguished Professor Award: Dr. Ron Estler

Dr. Ron Estler is a Professor of Chemistry.

Dr. Ron Estler is a Professor of Chemistry.

Fort Lewis College Professor of Chemistry Dr. Ron Estler’s impact at Fort Lewis and, more importantly, on his students is profound. His close relationships with his graduates provide evidence of his impact on them. He continues to stay in contact with many of them long after they’ve left FLC. His ability to change the lives of those he teaches was recognized with one of the highest honors an educator can receive: the 2009 CASE Colorado Professor of the Year award.

All of his contributions almost didn’t happen. Growing up in an industrial town in New Jersey, Dr. Estler didn’t envision a college education in his future. He didn’t think he could do it, nor did he think his family could afford it. It wasn’t until one of his math teachers heard his plans and stepped in.

“She grabbed a hold of me and she said one sentence that I’ll never forget. ‘We’ll just see about that,’” he recalls.

That experience has, in large part, shaped the kind of teacher Dr. Estler is today. He recognized that he set his own expectations way too low and it took a teacher he respected to make him aim higher. That’s exactly what he tries to do with his students today.

“I want kids to be able to learn on their own and when they hand in assignments to me, I want them to be very proud of that assignment,” he says. “So I want them to have very high expectations for themselves and get to that point. Invariably, some students walk in the door like that. Others, the real success stories I would say, are the people who find themselves here at Fort Lewis College. They find that, hey, I can do this. I never thought I could and you sit back and watch them take off. That’s what I find most rewarding.”

It’s not hard to see that what Dr. Estler, along with the rest of the faculty in the FLC Chemistry Department, is doing is working. Fort Lewis ranks high for the number of graduates who go on to earn doctorate degrees in chemistry. That may surprise some people who don’t necessarily associate a liberal arts education with great success in science, but Dr. Estler sees things differently.

“Learning how to learn, learning how to deal with people in different fields who may not speak your own language, your own vocabulary, is very important. So I’m a big fan of the liberal arts experience because you’ll have to learn in different ways, you’ll have to be able to communicate to people who don’t know your vocabulary and get your point across.”

One remarkable example of this idea is the story of one of Dr. Estler’s former students who grew up in the tiny town of Crawford, Colorado. This student thought that she would come to FLC, earn her degree and then go back home to Crawford. That all changed under Dr. Estler’s mentorship.

Dr. Estler recalls taking this student, along with other of his students, to a respected scientific conference where some of his students would present their research to some of the greatest scientific minds in the world. Through Dr. Estler, this student from tiny Crawford was able to communicate her work so well that she won an award for her research project. Dr. Estler will never forget what happened later that evening during a banquet at the conference.

“I turned my head and I saw a group of very famous Russian laser physicists toasting this young lady at her table. She turned immediately beet red, was totally embarrassed, but after the meeting she came up and she said, ‘I’ve decided I’m going to graduate school.’ I said, ‘you know what this means, don’t you,’ and she said, ‘yes, I do. It means I won’t be going home.’”

This student did not have high expectations for herself in regard to education or her future. Fortunately, Dr. Estler saw the potential in her and helped her see the ability within her. This student would go on to earn her Ph.D. and now lives and works in Albuquerque.

Dr. Estler often thinks back to that math teacher that set him on the path to where he is today. It is extremely gratifying for him to be able to be the teacher for his students who can change their lives.

“I often wonder, if it hadn’t been for that one person, what my life would be like and I can’t imagine it being better,” he says. “There’s no way. I have the greatest job in the world.”

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