UW College of Education e-news
September 2009  |  Return to issue home

Alumni Profile:
Verna Ness, International Teacher at Age 75

Verna Ness
Verna Ness

We caught up with Verna Ness, College of Education alum, just before she jetted from the U.S. to Turkey for her next teaching assignment. At 75, Verna will bring her years of experience as a teacher to her next adventure at Gaziantep University.

Hi Verna, thanks so much for talking with us. Before we delve into the details of your Turkey adventure, could you give our readers a little background on you? For example, what brought you to teaching? Why are you passionate about the profession?

Well, thanks. I’m Verna Ness and I’ll be 76 in October. I graduated from the UW in 1956 and I was an English major. In my senior year I decided I should do something practical and took education courses for a teaching certificate. I did my student teaching at Hamilton Middle School (Seattle). Post-graduation, I got my master’s from Mills College in Oakland. My first teaching job was at a new high school in Sacramento, Calif. The California requirements are somewhat different from the Washington requirements so I did correspondence courses at Berkeley and Sacramento State, after which I got my California credential too.

But, as it turned out, I wanted more knowledge so I came back to the UW and got my doctorate in English literature in 1967. I’ve taught in several places—at the high school level, substitute teaching in Seattle to help with my doctoral studies, and at community colleges in Washington and in California at the American River community college. I also worked for the Fred Hutchinson cancer research center as an editor.

One day, when I was 60, I decided to do something different with my life.

It was the early 1990s and a friend of mine was interested in an English teaching program in Japan. I had a background in teaching and was still teaching part-time. So, I went back to school and the College of Education had some very good courses in methods of teaching English as a second language. It's quite different from teaching English as a first language…James Vasquez was my teacher.

Eventually, I saw an ad in the paper to teach English in Korea. The recruiter interviewed me here and I went to Pusan to teach at a “hakwon” or after-hours school. We taught children, businessmen and Korean women. One particular group of Korean women insisted on calling themselves the ‘Housewives Group,’ which probably wouldn’t happen in the United States. Before I left for Korea, I was tutoring as a volunteer for the ESL department at the University of Washington, and one of my pupils was a Dr. Fei, who had been a medical doctor in Shanghai and was working for a biotech company here. I told him that I was going to Korea for a year and he said, “Maybe after Korea you would like to go to China?” I said, “Maybe I would.”

Dr. Fei wrote to a colleague at a medical college in Hunan province in China and I did end up teaching in China after Korea. Then a job came up through Teachers of English Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) for teaching in Turkey in 1998–99. I taught there for a year, after which wanted to move closer to be part of the fascinating city Istanbul. So I found a job closer to the city. I had originally been teaching literature, including a couple of graduate seminars, and then I began teaching engineering and business students, including business writing.  I also taught in the “hazerlik." At English medium universities, sometimes students don’t pass the test to understand English at a college level, which means they study in the “hazerlik” for a year in order to bring their English up to an acceptable level.

While there I toured all around—to Spain, Portugal, Syria, Egypt. But my mother died after two years passed, so I came home to settle her estate, travel, and do some voluteer work. Then I began teaching again full-time at Green River Community College and at Seattle Central.

In 2008, there was a dip in enrollment at the college and I, along with others, were laid off. So I applied for teaching abroad through the Department of State English Language Fellow program I’d heard about. You have to pass a four-page physical exam, submit lesson plans and more. My choices, at the end, were Alexandria or Gaziantep. I really liked Turkey, so I took the Gaziantep offer. And that’s were I’m at.

You know, I told someone recently, I think about what Helen Keller said, “Life is a great adventure or nothing.”

Its true. Whatever you do, do it with your heart, do it 100%.

So true, so true. And now you are about to embark on this teaching position in Turkey through the state department. Could you tell us a little about Gaziantep, the city in Turkey where you will be teaching, and Gaziantep University?

Gaziantep is a city of 1.2 million. It’s close to the Syrian border and to Cyprus, a lovely place. It has wonderful Roman mosaics…apparently it goes back to Neolithic times. There have been settlements there for thousands of years.

Gaziantep University offers a B.A. in English and American Language and Literature but the main thrust, as with many universities, is in engineering and business.

I will be teaching in the “hazerlik” program, and this first semester I’ll also be teaching Readings in American Literature, 17th Century English Literature, and English fiction. We will certainly be busy.

You certainly will! Anything else you’d like to share with us?

I’d like to see more people stay around and teach once they pass 60 or 65. A lot of people think, “Oh, 65 and I’ll be able to retire.” I did other volunteer work as a retiree, but I think that people should look into teaching or volunteer teaching. Playing bingo at the senior center has its limitations.

For seniors, there are lots of good agencies in Seattle that can give you advice about restarting your career or starting a new career and keeping in touch. For example, the UW and other schools have courses to refresh your skills.

To quote another one, “Follow your bliss.” That was Joseph Campbell.

Think to yourself, “Do I really want to retire?”

Thanks for sharing that advice, Verna. Bon voyage! 

September 2009  |  Return to issue home

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