From South Africa to the High Plains

A passion for biology and learning, and, he would later find, teaching, led Dr. Kenwyn Cradock on a journey that began in his homeland of South Africa. It finds him now in the high plains of America, where what began as an assistant professor position led all the way to serving as chair of the biology department at Eastern New Mexico University.

Born and raised on the east coast of South Africa, Cradock completed the majority of his education in that area. His father, who worked as a pharmacist, and his mother, who worked as a nurse, encouraged him from a young age to spend time in the outdoors and explore the natural world. This influenced him greatly and piqued his interest in its scientific study. He earned his undergraduate degree double majoring in plant pathology, the study of plant diseases, and entomology, the study of insects, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he also went on to complete his master’s degree in plant virology.

Cradock said that it was his advisor at UKZN taking a job at a university in the United States that pushed him to look beyond where he was. It was this inquiry that brought Cradock from South Africa to the United States. At the age of 25, and having only traveled outside of his home country once before, Cradock packed his belongings into two suitcases, boarded a plane, and moved his life across the world. The move landed him at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio where he earned his PhD. While conducting his research at OSU, Cradock had the opportunity to get involved with teaching.

“I discovered I actually enjoyed it,” said Cradock. “I was mainly responsible for working with non-majors [there] and discovered I really enjoyed working with non-majors in terms of helping them appreciate why science is important even if you’re not majoring in it.”

Cradock shared that until moving to the United States, he had never been exposed to the idea of a non-major. In South Africa, there is no such thing. There’s no general education component to degree plans. He said that it was one of his mentors at OSU that helped shift his perspective on the topic.

“When it comes to the big issues as it relates to science – even if every scientist went up there and voted and advocated for whatever it was that was on the table – we’re still a small community,” said Cradock. “Most science is funded through public moneys. So if you want people to support what you’re doing, you can’t keep it locked in the ivory tower with a whole bunch of esoteric language and, you know, kind of make it like Hogwarts where you have to have all the special language and passwords and all that to get in to access the information. That’s not productive for either side. We can’t be all mysterious about what we’re doing. We have to be able to communicate what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, why it’s important and why people should care. And I think that’s true of any discipline, not just science.”

It was this perspective that fueled Cradock’s passion for teaching and, in part, what led him to ENMU.

After completing his research at OSU, Cradock said it was time to find what he called a “real job” and it just so happened that ENMU was hiring.

As he considered his options, Cradock shared that location was a factor in his decision. Though he said it may surprise some, the environment and area of Eastern New Mexico appealed to him – in particular, its short distance to mountainous areas. Concerning ENMU as a university, Cradock shared that he was initially impressed by the university’s focus on teaching, but not to the exclusion of research.

“At the larger R1 schools in particular and also at the R2’s to a degree, the focus is on research and that’s where faculty get their credit and gain advancement is through their research programs, not really on their teaching. Whereas, Eastern was, you need to be a good teacher, and you need to engage with your research. I really liked that approach,” said Cradock. “As I’ve spent time at Eastern, I’ve found that is not just stuff they put on the brochure. There is genuinely a culture at Eastern that supports advancing students.”

Based on these merits, Cradock chose ENMU and moved to the Portales area from Columbus. In the 15 years since this move, Cradock has advanced from assistant professor at ENMU to his current position as chair of the biology department while also serving as a full professor of biology. These positions come with a wide array of responsibilities, including setting up semester schedules, ensuring the appropriate faculty members teach the appropriate courses, providing guidance, support and formative feedback to new faculty members and essentially keeping the department running smoothly, along with much more. But at the core of it all, Cradock’s main objective is helping students.

“How I view my position is to help students find where they need to be,” he said.

And it’s this outlook that makes Cradock’s job rewarding.

“Having seen students develop from freshman to graduating seniors and then onto careers, professional school, graduate school, wherever, that’s really, really rewarding.”

Currently, Cradock is busy teaching and keeping the biology department running, virtually.

“It’s been a steep learning curve for everyone,” said Cradock in response to ENMU’s virtual semester. However, despite the challenges, Cradock has remained positive.

“It’s easy to focus on the negative and the challenges, but I think when this is said and done, people will be able to say, ‘Look I was successful in completing my degree, completing these courses, in this virtual environment.’ On the faculty side we can say, ‘Look, we taught this way. We can now really talk to the pros and cons, and look for opportunities where we might actually enhance what we were doing before.’ So I think there are some silver linings; I think this is resume building. Although no one asked for it, there are skill sets that are being built by students and faculty that we wouldn’t have built otherwise, and I think that could be useful down the road.”

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