Decades of dedication: CMU's longest serving professor places emphasis on the present

Spanish professor, Norma Richardson poses for a photo while making quesadillas for new spanish major students in Pearce Nov. 12. "When I see students in class together, I hope they see what an opportunity this is for them," Richardson said. (Daytona Niles/ Staff Photographer)

Norma Richardson’s philosophy of focusing on the present is far more important to her than her status as Central Michigan University’s longest-serving professor.

She has traveled around the country and been everywhere from Costa Rica to Japan, but 46 years ago, she began teaching at CMU and has been here ever since.

In 1967, CMU's 75th anniversary, she began teaching on a campus that looked a lot different than it does today.

“The library has completely changed,” she said, for instance. “Everything used to be in a card catalog.”

About the time Richardson was hired, Judson Foust was finishing his nine-year stint as president of the university, and about 9,500 students were taking classes on the 460-acre campus.

“Everything evolves, and that is a good thing,” Richardson said. “I’m not in favor of every change, though – like rising tuition.”

The cost of a semester hour was less than $50 during Richardson’s first years at CMU. While enrollment numbers and tuition rates have steadily risen since then and the campus has expanded in both physical size and reach, Richardson believes at least one thing has yet to change.

“It’s always been about giving students opportunities,” she said.

Decades of work in the field of foreign language, literature and culture studies have given her a unique perspective and approach that can only be shaped by years of experience.

“When I started, there was a focus on simply learning the language, but now we emphasize culture,” Richardson said. “It has become a lot more interactive for students.”

In many ways, technology has influenced the way we learn more than any other factor, which is why “keeping current” has become ever important, she said.

“The change in communication has allowed cultures to connect in a way that has never been possible,” Richardson said.

At the same time, she says her favorite things about teaching are often lost in the realm of online learning.

“Some of my best memories are as a teaching student at the University of Iowa years ago,” Richardson said. “It was exciting to just be sitting in the same room with students of all different cultures from all over the country.”

The same still holds true today.

“When I see students in class together, I hope they see what an opportunity this is for them,” Richardson said.

About 15 years ago, she took the opportunity to become a student again, setting course to earn her doctorate. The experience did not test her expertise in the field as much as it tested her ability to fight through life’s low points.

While juggling between teaching classes and working on her degree, Richardson developed ovarian cancer, a cancer with traditionally low survival rates. Treatment caused her to lose her hair, and she wore a wig to class so students would not know about her condition.

She said she remembers an expert telling her that chemotherapy would cause a decline in her cognitive ability. She said she felt like telling her, “Well, lady, I am actually finishing a dissertation right now.”

In 2001, after beating cancer, Richardson earned a Ph.D. in Spanish Language and Literature from Michigan State University.

“When I look back, I do sometimes wonder how I did it,” she said. “But, you just do it.”

It is all a matter of mindset, according to Richardson: “If you’re looking at the downside, then you might not get up,” she said.

Today, Richardson said she takes life one year at a time; careful not to miss the present by focusing too much on the past or future.

Richardson has traveled the country and been everywhere from Mexico to the Dominican Republic, but has always found her way back home.

“I will stay in Michigan for the rest of my life,” Richardson said. “I can watch the beautiful Chippewa River flow right by my backyard. Where else would I rather be?”

After half a century’s experience teaching and a lifetime of savoring life’s proudest moments and surviving the toughest, Richardson’s advice to others remains simple: “Believe in yourself, and help somebody else.”


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