by Isabel Loos
At this point in the school year, most students are counting down the days left until summer. For Bob Riesenberg, June will not only bring the end of the school year but also the end of his career. After 23 years at Whatcom Community College as a psychology instructor, sustainability committee chair member, and friendly face around campus, Riesenberg, age 69, is retiring.
When Riesenberg first arrived at Whatcom as the first full-time psychology instructor in 1992, he was told that he must make the new program “respectable.”
“I think we did that,” Riesenberg proudly reported, adding that the program always receives positive feedback from other colleges that students are “well prepared.” As one of Whatcom’s most prominent advocates for sustainability, Riesenberg has done things that he said most universities would find impossible, like helping make a sustainability course a degree requirement for Whatcom students.
Riesenberg grew up on a farm in Cincinnati, Ohio, completing his undergraduate studies at University of Cincinnati in 1967 before getting a masters degree in social work from Ohio State University in 1969. He was a social worker in the USPHS Indian Health Service mental health programs for 9 years, and then got a job at Black Feet Community College in Browning, Mont. where he taught for 3 years. That was his first teaching job, and he said he realized he really liked it.
“That is when I finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Riesenberg said, even though he was already in the middle of adulthood at that point.
“I loved working with people who were trying to build positive things in their lives,” said Riesenberg, adding that it was refreshing after working in mental health to be around people who were moving forward.
After realizing that he wanted to pursue a career as a professor, Riesenberg went back to school at the University of Vermont and graduated with a doctorate in psychology. He then returned to the University of Cincinnati where he taught psychology for 9 years.
“I always preferred the West over the Midwest,” said Riesenberg, adding that he was drawn to everything the Pacific Northwest has to offer. He moved to Bellingham and started teaching at Whatcom while also teaching part time in the human services program at WWU for several years. In addition to teaching at two schools and single-handedly raising four kids, he also worked in the mental health unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital while continually working as an advocate for sustainability.
“He has always served the college in many roles,” said Sue Zuck, administrative assistant to the vice president for instruction. “He is engaged in the college in every way and the people who work here and go to school here.”
Both growing up on a farm with an appreciation for the land and animals and spending time on an Indian reservation heavily influenced Riesenberg.
“That helped form my dedication to the sustainability issue,” he said. “We must value the only planet we’ve got.” Since then, he has worked hard advocating for sustainable behavior at Whatcom. He said that the sustainability committee has two main purposes; first to spread awareness and make differences on campus like having greener facilities, and second, to integrate sustainability into curriculum.
“That’s going to be one of his legacies,” said Guy Smith, communications instructor and division chair at Whatcom. “Bringing it campus wide [was huge], and I know it is near and dear to his heart.”
“He has a passion for sustainability and an ability to bring people and issues together,” said Zuck. The fact that he was able to help make a sustainability course a graduation requirement for Whatcom students is, as Zuck put it, “a really impressive undertaking.” She also added that very few community colleges in the state have anything like that in place.
Riesenberg said he is excited to be teaching the Introduction to Sustainability course this quarter that outlines the practical issues of sustainability. Instead of trying to tell his students how to think, Riesenberg ensures that students are educated about all of the sides of an issue so that they can make their own informed decisions. “And that makes a good citizen. A good democracy,” said Riesenberg.
“I have loved teaching psychology,” Riesenberg said. “ I have never been bored a day in my life on the job.” That is partly because he was always so busy and had tons to think about. “It’s a sadomasochistic way to make a living,” he said with a chuckle, “but an interesting one.” He added that he never disliked coming to work and considers himself very lucky because not everyone can say that about their job.
Riesenberg hopes to continue teaching online as an adjunct faculty member in the coming years. He said it will be the first time in 40 years that he won’t have to be constantly rushing, and he is looking forward to being able to make his own schedule and spend more time doing things he loves, like enjoying the outdoors. Hiking, backpacking, and traveling with his wife are all high priorities for the free time that will come with his retirement. Whatcom is where he met his wife Cathy Hagman, who worked in the social sciences department as well before retiring last year. They got married 6 years ago.
“Two of my favorite faculty members found each other,” said Zuck. “It just makes me so happy.”
It has not yet been decided who will be taking Riesenberg’s place as the new full-time psychology professor. As the chair of the search committee, he has been busy screening applications, conducting interviews, and checking references. The newcomer must fit in to Whatcom’s atmosphere, which Riesenberg said is his favorite thing about the college.
“It is a very pleasant place to be, and it’s the students first and foremost that make it that way,” Riesenberg said, adding that the beautiful campus and caring faculty are just icing on the cake.
It is clear that Riesenberg will be missed by many at Whatcom.
“It’s a huge loss,” said Zuck. “He really formed relationships with everyone he came across in his career. Every encounter I have with him is just so positive.” Luckily, although Riesenberg won’t be as present on Whatcom’s campus, he will still be around the community.
“He’s not really leaving,” said Smith. “This place gets in everyone’s blood… he’s not going to walk away from it. Not completely.”