Ryan Sensenig: Teacher, philosopher and relator

Ryan Sensenig, assistant professor of biology at Goshen College, has taught in diverse classrooms, including a night class for expelled students in a trailer and a biology class on a tour bus retrofitted with lab equipment. Sensenig said his favorite teaching style, though, is “those kinds of experiences where the teacher and the student are letting the real world teach them together.”

Sensenig was born in Nairobi, Kenya. When he was a child, his family kept their home base in New Holland, Penn., but he spent most of his childhood from age three to seven, and then two years of high school, at schools for missionary kids in Nairobi, where he first cultivated the strong interest in wildlife and the outdoors that would be instrumental in his development as an ecologist and teacher.

After returning to the U.S. to complete high school and pursue college options, Sensenig felt Kenya calling him back. Two weeks after completing his undergraduate degree at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Sensenig was offered a position as an aid worker at some growing Somali refugee camps in northern Kenya, and for ten months, he returned to his African home.

Sensenig’s return to Africa came at a time when Somalian refugees were flooding to northern Kenya, and it was during his stint there that he recognized the value of education, and began to lean towards teaching.

“I have never found more eager students to learn than in the refugee camp,” Sensenig said. “Education was their ticket to a new life. Every single book and educational opportunity was eagerly consumed. That was their way of getting a job, of trying to leave the refugee camp and trying to get back to something better.”

During his time at the refugee camps after college, Sensenig was exchanging weekly letters with a former girlfriend, a woman named Donna Shenk who he’d been seeing during college.  Shenk, also a child of two cultures, had grown up in Ethiopia, and she and Sensenig began dating when they were colleagues at EMU, though they were broken up during Sensenig’s senior year.

After returning from the refugee camps, Sensenig and Shenk married. He worked briefly for Shenandoah National Park in Virginia as a biological technician in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“That gave me a lot of experience,” said Sensenig, “[but] I missed the daily relevance of how information can change someone’s perspective. I missed interacting with people’s daily lives. I think that drove me to teaching.”

It was then that Sensenig decided to go back to school to get his teaching certificate.  After finishing classes and completing his student teaching, Sensenig landed his first job as a teacher.  The experience transformed Sensenig’s ideas about teaching.

“My first job was teaching six students who had been expelled from school in night classes,” Sensenig said.  “Class started at 7 [p.m.] and went until 10 [p.m.].  The class was taught in a trailer off campus, because the students were not allowed on campus…”

“I learned two things in that event,” he continued. “One, you’ve got to relate to your students on a personal level.  By the end of that time, those students and I had a really respectful relationship.  We saw through each other’s stories.  They saw me as less of a teacher and I saw them less as delinquents.  It was a difficult experience, but in the end it really struck me how important personal relationships are in an academic setting.”

Sensenig’s respect for relationships is evident in his teaching.  He often tells his classes to “not let their education get in the way of learning,” to emphasize the importance of experiential and social learning in addition to classical book learning.

“I’m so convinced that we desperately need one another,” Sensenig said, “and how to do that in an academic way is a big goal of mine.  Learning how to talk the language that helps us communicate between what can be our narrow world views.”

Occasionally Sensenig’s classes are interrupted by the muffled giggling of Isaac and Mara, Sensenig’s adopted Kenyan children. The pair are sometimes dropped off at the classroom by Donna when she has other things to attend to.

These two 6 year olds, like their parents, are children of two cultures, adopted from Kenya while Sensenig was doing his doctoral research studying the large herbivores of the African savannah.

“I can’t imagine having a family any other way than we did,” said Sensenig.

Within a month of the Sensenigs’ arrival in Kenya, Isaac and Mara had moved out of the orphanage where they’d been living, and moved into a house in the bush with the Sensenigs.  Just before the adoption, Mara became extremely ill, and her survival was not at all ensured.  The orphanage told the expectant parents that they could still choose to adopt another child, but a parental attachment to Mara was already etched on the young couples’ hearts, and they refused.  Mara survived, and the family that was two upon returning to Kenya came back to the states as four.

After completing his Ph.D. in ecology at the University of California at Davis, Sensenig turned again to teaching.  He teaches environmental science classes at Goshen College, and takes whole classes of students to Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center to conduct field research and gain some of the hands-on experience that he values so highly.

Teaching most likely won’t be the end of the line for Sensenig though.  His interest in research, and in maintaining his family’s connection to the African continent, may one day take him back to Kenya.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself, it’s that movement is important to me,” said Sensenig. “I still want to do research… I want to use the tools of science to help people understand their biases and how the world works.”

Written by Chase Snyder

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