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Professor emeritus receives honor
for contributions to field of chemistry
Nov. 8, 2013
Harry Hajian may have retired from his post as a chemistry professor at the Community College of Rhode Island in 1993, but that doesn’t mean that the 85-year-old Narragansett resident isn’t still active. In fact, a lifelong dedication to advancing chemistry education recently earned him the honor of being named an American Chemical Society (ACS) Fellow for 2013.
He and his wife, Claire, traveled to Indianapolis to attend the induction ceremony in September, earning Hajian what he jokes was “his few seconds of fame.”
But there’s no doubt that the award was much deserved, and his accomplishments in the field will surely last longer than a few seconds. Hajian, who began at the college when it was called Rhode Island Junior College in 1965, worked as hard outside of the classroom as he did in it, putting together a new chemical technician program that ushered in a new round of opportunities for students wishing to break into a growing field. Not long after, the ACS heard about his work and tapped him to join a writing group to put together a national chemistry tech curriculum.
“At the end of the third year of work, in 1972, a completely different textbook was published by the ACS, and that was used nationwide until the end of that decade,” said Hajian.
But that wasn’t the end of his impact on chemistry education in Rhode Island and well beyond – the ACS continued to rewrite the curriculum and volumes of textbooks as the field evolved throughout the years, which all showed “a certain amount of success nationwide,” said Hajian. “I believe there are still remnants of that being taught at the [Knight Campus in Warwick],” he added.
Hajian’s work for the ACS throughout his career was strictly on a volunteer basis, and he fit travel and writing and editing in between teaching classes at the college. Hajian said making the commitment was a natural fit for him because of his passion both for the field in general and for education in particular.
“In the field of education, there are many people like me who work hard because of their love for the discipline and wanting to reach out to the public and to their students and create an environment where learning can take place. I think that’s what motivated me to become involved not only on the national level, but at CCRI,” he said.
While Hajian said he couldn’t recall a single “a-ha” moment that led him to pursue a career in teaching, his older sister, also a teacher, served as an inspiration for him. After he returned from the Korean War and finished his graduate education while working in a variety of business fields to support his young family, he returned to another long-simmering moment of inspiration when he walked back through the doors of his old elementary school in the West End of Providence. There, observing a class, he decided that teaching was the way that he’d reach out to other people, making a difference in their lives through education.
That desire to make a difference was ultimately what led Hajian to CCRI, he said. “I liked working with a population of people who were looking for second chances and interested in doing something with their lives so as to build a good foundation for their future – not only with good jobs, but as good citizens,” he said. “Many of the students were older, with weak backgrounds in the sciences, but they were very substantial students.”
His work with these students – many of whom were lacking the foundations that four-year college chemistry majors took for granted – inspired Hajian and colleague Thomas Witfield to take a new approach in the classroom, integrating theory and lab work instead of teaching them separately. He said he saw great success in this endeavor, and it helped to inform the work that he eventually would do for the ACS and its national curriculum.
“It was different than what everybody else was doing,” he said.
Hajian also spent time traveling the country as an “ambassador” talking to chemistry faculty at two-year colleges about how to best teach the science to their students, as well as authoring and presenting a report in Washington, D.C., called “The Tomorrow Report” based on his findings.
“It brought more attention to the discipline of chemistry to the general public and impacted how chemistry was taught at universities, four-year colleges and two-year colleges,” he said.
Chemistry isn’t Hajian’s only long-term love, though; he still makes time to play tennis every week. An avid player since his undergraduate days at Providence College in the 1940s, he re-established his regular tennis playing when the field house opened at the Knight Campus and they put in lines for tennis courts.
“I started playing tennis at the college around 1973, and I’ve never given it up. It keeps me in good shape,” he said, noting that he still challenges CCRI tennis coach Raymond Carr at least once or twice a week on the courts.
“It’s a delightful time to be healthy and active,” he said.
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