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CISCO Celebrates 20 Years with Tech

February 15, 2022 - “I was an emotional wreck,” said Jim Elkins,Mr. Elkins being hugged by former student CISCO Networking Academy instructor at North Technical High School, as he described his feelings during the 20th-anniversary celebration he planned and hosted for his program in October 2021. 

Elkins joined SSD in 1999 as an instructor at West Tech, teaching a sophomore business course. When West Tech closed, he was asked if he would be interested in helping launch a new networking program at North Tech. Elkins earned three CISCO certifications, CCAI, CCENT, and CCNA, and was prepared to keep learning when the program officially began in January 2001. He has continued to build his knowledge, also teaching as an adjunct professor at St. Louis Community College, St. Charles Community College, and Lindenwood University.

When Elkins decided he wanted to acknowledge the program’s 20-year milestone, it was a different world. He had hoped to host the event in 2020 but had to delay a full year due to the pandemic. 

“The pandemic nearly crushed me,” he said. The toll of attempting to keep his students' spirits up and keep them engaged was quickly becoming too difficult to bear. Elkins’ teaching style thrives on engagement, and its absence had a tremendous effect on him personally.

One of the ways in which he had encouraged his students to connect to their school community prior to remote learning was through water sales. Each day, two members of his program would be responsible for selling bottled water to classmates and staff by visiting classrooms and offices on campus. The funds generated by these sales supported the CISCO Networking Academy in a variety of ways and helped cover some of the costs for the anniversary event. “That interaction is so important,” said Elkins, “and the absence of that connection was really hard on me.”

Of the 85 guests at the CISCO event, 58 were former students there to celebrate that connection while enjoying food and each other’s company. Many alumni took to the podium and shared their experiences, often crediting Elkins for playing a pivotal role in their lives. 

Alexa Carrol, a network engineer in SSD’s technology department and 2019 graduate of the program, called Elkins “our cheerleader,” who never let us watch an opportunity slip by. Carrol said she was shy and reserved when she started the course, but Elkins helped her get out of her comfort zone and hone her networking skills. “I even had my first interview in his class,” she said. 

“To me, the thing that stood out the most was that students from every year and background had the same experience with Jim,” said Tom Wors, a 2006 graduate. “He was a father figure that cared about us as people and students.” Elkins’“father figure” description was repeated frequently throughout the event, with his own son speaking to the audience about how proud he was to have shared his Dad with so many students.

Inspiring and heartwarming stories were shared by many of the attendees, representing alumni from 2002 through 2021. “A lot of us were crying by the end of it,” said Carrol. Attendees overwhelmingly listed technology-based professions in their RSVPs, but that is not how Elkins would measure his success. “He took an interest in us and saw our potential when we may not have seen it ourselves. Even those who took the class and discovered it wasn’t for them, he made sure we all learned something that would help us later.”

Sally Difani, administrator of community partnerships for SSD, felt that “this event was billed as a 20th anniversary party, but the former students who attended turned it into a tribute to Jim Elkins.” She said Elkins has created a program that holds students to very high standards but where they are also supported and encouraged to follow their dreams. “It was very moving to hear student after student describe Jim's impact on their careers and their lives,” she said.

“They shared so many little things that I didn’t realize mattered,” he said. “I’m goofy, I tell bad jokes, I dance! We would do ‘life talks,’ and I’d talk about soft skills and communication. And they really listened, and it mattered. We all need to hear that, to know we are making a difference.” Elkins credited the event with reinvigorating him post-pandemic. Hearing directly from former students that he had an impact on was “the best night of my professional life,” he said, the emotion audible in his voice. “And I learn so much from my students. I learn how to be a better person and how to be a better teacher. What else could a teacher want?”