More similar than different

A teacher who cares!

There isn’t much depth to the typical student-teacher relationship in college. The student comes to class, the professor teaches. The student passes or fails, on to the next semester.

Few teachers have the time to grow a deeper relationship with their students, developing a more informal relationship with them and extending their help to outside the classroom. One of those professors who do, though, is Melissa Behunin.

“One of my favorite aspects of teaching is getting to know so many amazing humans,” says Behunin, professor of education at AWC.

Working for progress

Behunin’s popularity among students has come with ten years of service here, both inside the classroom and generally around the campus. Her contributions include sustainability activities, such as programs for recycling and reducing energy consumption, as well as major efforts for the acceptance of the LGBTQ community on campus.

As a devoted advocate for civil rights, Behunin has helped establish safe zones around AWC and has trained hundreds of people on their use.

“I have educated people about LGBTQ and creating a safe invisible space so people feel welcomed on campus,” says Behunin. “ One of my contributions is making that more visible.”

But her contributions go further than progressive political views and starting up clubs. With the help of her rather unorthodox approach to psychology, she has, for example, been able to teach her students the importance of focusing on positives rather than negatives.

“We’re all more similar than different.” Behunin says that is her biggest lesson of all, something she came to understand at a very young age due to an irregular childhood that she describes as “adventurous.”


The stars her ceiling

To most, her childhood may seem rough. Though her parents worked hard to provide for their four children, the family still struggled and oftentimes found themselves homeless.

“I grew up extremely poor, but didn’t know it,” Behunin says. “I grew up having adventures and thought I was rich because the stars were my ceiling when I was sleeping outside.”

The uncommon was common to her, and she didn’t realize how different her childhood was till she was much older. For instance, while her family lived with her grandmother, her uncle who is a diagnosed schizophrenic, also lived with them.

“My unconventional upbringing probably showed me that we’re all the same and we just need to be loved,” she said.

And that statement defines the two apparent constants in her life – unconventionality and love. In all her activities as an educator, from young children to college students, she can’t seem to avoid unconventionality. As for love, though the term can be interpreted in many ways, Behunin clearly uses it define the happiness and joy that she has been able to find in her life and that she hopes to bring to others.

In her classes, she hopes to better people’s lives by getting them to focus on positivity and growth. Through volunteer yoga sessions, she hopes to bring the scientifically proven happiness to both the elementary school kids she teaches and the inmates at the detention center.

Focusing on strengths

Originally, she studied math and physics, but after receiving guidance from a professor she switched to family studies at the University of Utah.

“It’s all about looking at strengths, and not necessarily weaknesses which are the focus of psychology and sociology,” Behunin says. “For so many years that’s what we focused on, what’s wrong.”

She was intrigued by going against the grain and focusing on positives. She loved the program and later accepted a faculty position at the university.

But Behunin wanted a sunnier change in her life, and she and her husband Benjamin moved to Yuma after she was offered a teaching position in psychology. The couple now work together as professors at AWC, a situation she describes as “amazing.”

“It’s so nice because he is similar enough in his educational background,” she says. “I’m more efficient because I have a lifeline.”

She feels lucky because it’s easier to coordinate taking care of their three children, and notes that their bike ride to work feels like a vacation.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Behunin

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