by Jim Mulligan
As the Tutorial Coordinator, my paid job, I have the pleasure of working with many of the instructors at Reedley College. The relationships I have with the instructors are essential to finding qualified and interested students to become peer tutors. A side benefit is the opportunity to get to know these hardworking, dedicated individuals who help students discover the joy of learning. As a Reedley College alum myself, I know and remember the influence that instructors had on me and my motivation to achieve my academic goals. It was just three years ago that Reedley College welcomed home a veteran chemistry instructor from our sister college, Fresno City. A Reedley-ite through and through, Dr. Kirk Kawagoe chose to make the move to his hometown college after spending about 23 years away. I would argue that a combination of Kawagoe’s deep knowledge of chemistry, his interest in a variety of life’s endeavors, his easy-going attitude, and his accessibility as a teacher garner him praise from many of his students. By the way, he is affectionately known on campus as Dr. K.
Dr. K was born in San Luis Obispo. His father passed away when he was just one year old, and his brother was two years old. His newly widowed mother moved the small family back to the Reedley family farm. She was a licensed pharmacist at the time, but as he described it, the pay back then was not very good, so she worked long hours each day to provide for the family and give the boys a loving home. He remembered, “She would leave early in the morning and come home tired, but still had time to give us a bath and read to us. She often started dinner in the crock pot before she left the house. My mom is one of my biggest inspirations.” Notably, his mother is a graduate of both Reedley High School and Reedley College. She transferred to UCSF for her pharmacy degree. “There were only three women in her class,” he said. “She was a pioneer in many ways.”
The move to Reedley also afforded him the ability to have close connections to his extended family. “My aunts and uncles are also inspirational to me.” Being of Japanese descent meant that Dr. K’s family was relocated to internment camps during World War II. “They grew up in hard times. Being in the internment camps was not easy for them, but I never sensed any anger or resentment on their part.”
Dr. K’s commitment to family and community is still very evident. He has been married to his wife, Jodi, for 30 years. He says, “Maybe my best accomplishment in graduate school was catching the attention of my future wife.” Together they have five boys and one girl, who range in age from 15 to 27. Two of his sons are pursuing doctorates in Agriculture Chemistry at University of California, Davis. Much of Dr. K’s recreational time is spent contributing to the growth and development of his family, and the school and community programs of which they are a part. “I do some coaching for the Reedley Titans and Reedley Little League. I think youth sports is a great way to build character.” He also does quite a bit of amateur photography, focusing on sporting events, some at Immanuel High School, some at Reedley High School, and some at events of the Reedley Titan Football and Little League programs. He says, “My hope is that I can capture and share memories for people to look back on.”
Chemistry, and the art of conveying his knowledge to his students, is his full-time endeavor. He has the credentials and experience to do it right. Dr. K is a Reedley High graduate, where he was a Pirate Pillar, Vice President of his senior class, and chess champ. He was also an athlete, a football player, and in the Big Green Marching Machine. He continued his studies in chemistry at the University of California at Santa Cruz and continued to graduate school, eventually receiving his PhD in Analytical Chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also has real world chemist experience. After his education, Dr. K worked for Ames Laboratories where he studied reactions that take place on metal catalysts for the decomposition of chemical waste. After that he acquired a job at Axon Instruments, a leader in developing equipment for neuroscience research. He remembers, “I was brought on to help develop sensors and equipment related to my research in grad school. That was a great job and we worked together like family—in other words, dysfunctional but supportive.”
Dr. K attributes his eventual interest and career choice as a teacher to many of his experiences and mentors. Reedley High teachers such as Burl Walters, Buddy Heise, and Gary Willems were important role models. Another was a very influential freshman college professor. Dr. K took a course called Teaching Science in the University taught by professor Frank Andrews. He remembers that while Professor Andrews taught chemistry, it was really his passion for human connections that stood out. Groups in the class were assigned to develop and give lessons and assessments. They would then meet informally at Professor Andrews’ house to discuss how the lessons went. Dr. K remembers, “It was a great experience and was really what influenced me to become a teacher.”
As I mentioned in the beginning, I have seen first-hand Dr. K’s ability to relate to his students. I can personally vouch for his ability to connect with students on a level that creates the best opportunity for learning. The current Science Department Chair, Joseph Lin, also sees the positive impact that Dr. K has with his students. Mr. Lin says, “He [Dr. Kawagoe] provides the best Organic Chemistry course experience in our district and of course is one of the most engaging instructors in science.” Students though, are the real barometer. Student Melissa Fujioka sums up the thoughts of many students very well, “The teachers at Reedley College have been amazing, including Dr. K. He has the kind of class you look forward to going to. He engages his students by his real life examples and his sense of humor. Chemistry is not an easy subject, but Dr. K encourages his students to work hard and is always available to work out problems. He has many years of experience in the science field and you go away from his class learning more than just chemistry.”