Jorge L. Hirmas was earning a six-figure salary at Unisys Corp. consulting and outsourcing firm’s Rancho Bernardo office when he decided to take early retirement and become a teacher.
His inspiration: Juan Necochea, a professor at Cal State San Marcos’ College of Education.
“Juan is a very unusual individual, and a superb teacher,” said Hirmas, who now teaches science and history at Rancho Buena Vista High School. “He helped me in my midcareer transition from the corporate world.”
Necochea, 53, joked that Hirmas was the first of his students to be older than he is. But, for Necochea, who as a boy followed the crops in Imperial Valley, Riverside and Escondido, there are no boundaries to learning and all things are possible.
“The primary role of an educator is to inspire students and connect with who they are , take them to places they think they couldn’t go themselves,” said Necochea. “It’s a lot of hard work , becoming the person you are supposed to be. It’s exciting and magical. You have to love what you do. This has been an amazing journey for me.”
The Mexicali native never imagined that he would grow up to be a decorated educator with a Ph.D., two master’s degrees and four credentials.
Then, on Nov. 16, Necochea received the 2008 Harry E. Brakebill Distinguished Professor Award, presented annually to a Cal State San Marcos faculty member who demonstrates outstanding contributions to students, his or her academic discipline, and to the campus community.
“Juan was a very popular choice for Brakebill,” said Janet McDaniel, a professor of education at Cal State San Marcos, who won the honor in 2004. “Everyone in the College of Education is quite thrilled with this.”
The Amazing Journey
Nechochea received most of his early schooling in Calexico, where he spent much of his youth. He went on to earn his undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees as well as his professional credentials at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
But becoming a teacher was not on his radar screen until he was a junior in college.
“I had to do something for the summer, so I got a job teaching water safety and swimming,” Nechochea recalled. “It was my first teaching job, teaching little kids and adults. I thought this was fun , the idea that a kid was scared of the water and a month later was swimming and jumping into the water, and I had helped this kid overcome the fear of water. I thought, ‘I can do that for a living.’ ”
He realized then that he wanted to make a difference, and “teaching was one of the best ways to do that.”
But Nechochea doesn’t consider the current emphasis on test scores to be of value.
“When I measure success, I ask, ‘How inspired are my kids and how motivated?’ ” he said. “Part of the problem with educators is this focus on test scores. They forget that teaching is about human relations, inspiring and motivating kids. They can’t imagine how much harm they are doing to kids , taking the life out of schooling.”
Nechochea is especially concerned with motivating young Latino males. In addition to his other duties, he serves as executive director of Encuentros Summer Academy, which encourages Latino boys to pursue higher education.
“Schools have a difficult time dealing with males , all males, not just Latino males,” he said. “But the culture and language make it worse. Once you get a bad boy label, it’s hard to recover from. It’s not a matter of motivation.”
Encuentros Summer Academy, run by the nonprofit Encuentros, 501, and held at Cal State San Marcos, is designed to encourage Latino boys to finish high school and go on to college.
“There is no question the experience is transformational,” said Nechochea. “There is no question in my mind that they will go on to a university.”
Nechochea also is the principal investigator for the College Assistance Migrant Program, funded through the U.S. Department of Education and designed to help students who are migratory or seasonal farm workers or their children; and is director for the Center for the Study of Border Pedagogy. Located on the Cal State campus, the program’s mission is to improve schools in borderlands , about 100 miles on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, said Necochea. The center collaborates with the Universidad Iberoamericana Tijuana, and Sistema Educativo Estatal from Baja California.
“It’s an amazing thing,” said Necochea. “Some conversations are very powerful and help educators learn from each other what is happening on both sides of the border.”
A New Path
Hirmas, now in his second year of teaching, also credits Necochea with being “a great networker.” His mentor arranged for Hirmas to participate in the National Educational Computing Conference in 2006 in San Diego, giving him the opportunity to propose a method for teaching history in Spanish, using the latest technology.
“What a fantastic experience , and it was all due to Dr. Necochea’s encouragement, connection and vision,” Hirmas had written in a letter of support to the faculty awards committee, considering Necochea for the Brakebill honor.
“He makes his classes fun,” said Hirmas in a recent interview. “He keeps us all in sync. I learned about values and people from him.”
Hirmas said that he especially appreciates the way that Necochea shared his “real life experiences” with his students. It helped Hirmas, who was “struggling, making the transition from a six-figure salary to a teacher’s salary.”
“My wife said I needed to see a psychiatrist,” Hirmas joked. “But I always wanted to be a teacher, since I was a kid. I thought, ‘When I’m dying, what do I want to be remembered for? Did I work in the corporate world or was I an influence on students?’ ”
The Music Man
McDaniel gives Necochea high grades for being an entertaining educator.
“He is a storyteller,” she said. “His own background leads him to have a bank of wonderfully inspiring stories about the potential for success among students from humble beginnings. He motivates and inspires his students to go beyond what they thought was possible in life. He is a jewel in our crown. He is always very genuine. There are no canned messages.”
But there is music.
“When he is doing some kind of workshop and presentation at a faculty meeting, he starts with a song,” said McDaniel. “He will play a CD and give us a copy of the lyrics or put them up on a screen. Sometimes I have to sit back and chuckle. ‘What we do for Juan!’ No one else could get a bunch of university professors to sing.”
The songs always carry a message about what he wants to convey at the particular gathering, said McDaniel.
“A song he really likes is about a dream, where there are no borders, no barriers, and faith that anything is possible,” she said. “We are all together in brotherhood. It might sound corny, but this is uniquely Juan. He can pull that off.”
McDaniel considers Necochea not only a wonderful professor of education.
“He is a wonderful person. It is a pleasure to work with him,” she said.
Name: Juan Necochea.
Titles: Professor, California State University San Marcos’ College of Education, and executive director of Encuentros Summer Academy.
Family: Wife, Maureen; son, Alejandro, 19; daughter, Rosalia, 29.