After graduating from Doherty High School, Rod Thirion earned three degrees, worked in a variety of industries and owned a restaurant/bar in Denver. But while teaching his first class — the first night — at Pikes Peak Community College, Thirion knew he’d found his niche.
Recently, he took time to tell the Business Journal in a live interview about how the once-high school student who didn’t know what to study ended up teaching at both PPCC and UCCS while heading the Department of Business at PPCC. These days, he says, “It’s really fun to be able to teach at two of the schools I went to.”
How did you become involved in education?
After my bachelor’s in economics from UCCS, I worked in private industry for Philip Morris in the late ’90s and early 2000s, owned a restaurant and bar for five years in east Denver, and worked for Aramark before graduate school. Then I earned an MBA and a master’s in computer information systems from UCCS. After taking so many classes, I always thought I’d enjoy teaching at the college level, so I applied at Pikes Peak. They called me. I started teaching an evening class one summer [in 2003], and during the break of the first class, I went outside and called my mom and told her I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. … After working part-time at Pikes Peak for a few years, I became a full-time faculty member in ’07, and business department faculty chair in ’09.
In high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study, so I took a variety of classes at Pikes Peak until realizing I wanted to study business and economics, which is the whole beauty of a community college. Then as a junior, I transferred to UCCS.
What is your role at Pikes Peak Community College?
I am the department chairman for business, finance and management marketing at PPCC. I’m also a lecturer in the College of Business at UCCS. As department chairman at PPCC, I’m responsible for scheduling staff, hiring and managing part-time faculty and advising students with both academic and career advice.
I also chair the business department advisory board, and Greg Welch [senior vice president] from Northstar Bank [Colorado] is committee chairperson. The business advisory board helps with the curriculum as it evolves, based on changing business and community needs. As chair, I collaborate with our transfer institutions where students go to get a bachelor’s after completing an associate degree at Pikes Peak. The vast majority of our students go to UCCS, but some go to Regis University and Colorado State University.
What’s the best-kept secret about PPCC?
Two things: One is the faculty-to-student ratio, which varies, but in the business department is about 18 students to one instructor. And the other is we are the lowest-cost provider in El Paso County for higher education, and we have over 100 degree programs, so there’s something for everyone.
What are some of the new challenges facing community colleges?
An improving economy has an inverse relationship with student enrollment and growth. … At the community college level, we often have to help students rise to college preparatory levels for the three R’s: reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. And federal financial aid guidelines have changed — limiting access to student loans and Pell Grants for some of the beginning three R’s classes.
Where do you hope to see the business department of the college in two years?
Well, we already have great faculty, and we’ve recently revamped the business curriculum, with the help of the business advisory board. Our strategic vision is to grow enrollment as the community needs it and continue our strong transfer agreement with UCCS and Regis University.
How does the business advisory board contribute to the department?
The business advisory board keeps us updated on the needs of employers. I’ve seen a change from 10 years ago, when I first started attending these meetings, when their chief improvement area for new employees was finance — and the ability to understand labor costs and profit and loss [statements]. Since the advent of increased email and text messages, the chief development need is the ability to craft a professionally written business communication.
Which improvement are you most proud of during your tenure?
A department chair’s job is as easy or hard as the quality of his or her staff. I’m most proud of hiring the right people and watching how they’ve improved the overall business department. Since I started at Pikes Peak, I’ve hired about 20 adjunct faculty. And due to their education, dedication and knowledge — I tell family and friends that my job is pretty easy.
(Disclosure: Rebecca Tonn serves on the advisory board for the PPCC Department of Business.)