University Communications

The Newsletter for Marshall University    May 11, 2011

Profile: Connie Zirkle

Connie Zirkle has a great fondness for the Chinese proverb that says, "Birds sing because they have a song,” and she’s translated that to her own life by focusing on figuratively singing a song rather than dwelling on darker moods.

“It keeps you from getting involved in all kind of craziness,” the Program Assistant II in Psychology and adjunct faculty member in Sociology, admits. And the mantra has helped her through good times as well as some tough ones. It took a lot of hard work and a few hard knocks along the way but she’s proud of where she is today and what she’s accomplished through grit and determination.

Born in Huntington to a father who was career Air Force, she lived the life of a "military brat,” traveling from state to state wherever her father, both a Korean War and a Vietnam veteran, was stationed. The family lived for a time in North Carolina and New York before they relocated just in time for her senior year of high school at Fairland High School in Proctorville, Ohio. 

Despite all the multiple schools she had attended, Zirkle was an honor student who was offered a scholarship at the Ohio State University. Possibly because of all the traveling the family had done over the years, her parents weren’t ready for her to go away quite yet and they urged her to stay home for a while.  Computer science, which was still in its infancy, sounded intriguing, so she signed up to attend a keypunch school to learn the basics. That training led to a job at St. Mary’s Hospital in Huntington and eventually, because coworkers were taking jobs at Marshall,  she followed them in 1974, working in the computer center as a data entry clerk. That lasted until 1977 when she took time off to be with her sons, Christopher and Jesse. Except for some brief temporary work, she remained a stay-at-home mom until finally returning to Marshall full-time in the psychology department in 1985. And with her return to Marshall came the determination to get a degree.

“When I came to work here it was always with the intention of getting a degree,” she says. “I was now a single mother, fitting in classes however I could.” But her perseverance paid off handsomely when she graduated summa cum laude with a Regents Bachelor of Arts degree in 1996. An M.A. in sociology followed in 1999 and that degree would open doors she hadn’t even thought about. “I began teaching sociology classes almost immediately and I found I love teaching. Being able to do it part-time is ideal. I actually started out in psychology but then took a sociology class and something just clicked. I realized that the difference between the two fields is basically how you view the world. In psychology you are looking at it from an individualistic approach, but with sociology it’s not about me or why I behave or who I am, it’s about looking in from the outside rather than taking the personal inside perspective.”

However, her path to earning her degrees was not without some rocky patches. As her family’s first-generation college student, Zirkle was determined to do well and make them proud. “It was very difficult to get those degrees but it was a labor of love for my master's. I had found my niche, I had found my focus, I knew what I wanted to do.”

In the midst of her undergraduate studies, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. But with her usual forthright manner, she tackled her condition head on and refused to let it halt her life plans.  With her indomitable spirit, she doesn’t wait for circumstances to overwhelm her, she just takes them on.  “I am a survivor, I don’t focus on it. I’m a good old Appalachian tough girl," she says proudly. In fact, she has put the whole experience so far behind her that she has to search her memory for the year she was diagnosed.

Teaching part-time is ideal for her because it allows her to focus on the psychology department, where a lot of exciting things are taking place, she says. The program is an extremely complex, diverse one with very busy faculty who do both research and clinical work in addition to teaching, she explains. “We have the APA [American Psychological Association] accreditation coming up, so there is a lot of work preparing for that. The psychology doctoral program, which first began to admit students in 2002, is very successful. In fact, our first student to officially graduate from the program is now the president of the West Virginia Psychology Association. Many of our graduates have established themselves well in their careers.  I really like dealing with our students. In fact, l keep in touch with many of our students, both undergraduate and graduate.”

Then there are the three psychology clinics, one on the Huntington campus, one located in Dunbar near Marshall’s South Charleston campus and a newer, smaller one located on Rt. 60 near Huntington. ZIrkle has great admiration and affection for the psychology students, particularly the graduate ones who are fulfilling their clinical requirements. “The psychology graduate programs are very complex--we’re training professional to go out and work in underserved areas, as rural communities are our focus. The students work in many communities for their internships.”

These days, much of her free time is taken up doing grandmotherly things with Zoe, six. Her grandaughter,  along with Zirkle’s son Christopher, lives with her and the menagerie of birds and rescued special needs dogs that make for a very lively household.  Son Jesse currently is a student at Ohio University.

The birds have a special place in her heart, particularly Raicho, a macaw that has free rein of the Zirkle household. “Raicho is the Japanese word for thunderbird,” she explains. “They’re really intelligent; they have the same level as a five-year-old child. I got him when he was six weeks old, when I was grieving over the death of my beloved Great Dane, and he’s actually the same age as my granddaughter ... they’ve grown up together. He sits on my shoulder when I’m working on the computer. We talk to each other and sometimes he says things he shouldn’t! Sometimes we fight about things ... there are times I think we need couple counseling,” she says laughing.

Raicho is joined by a bevy of other birds -- parakeets, canaries, four cockatiels and two lovebirds. Her love of her feathered friends was so great Christopher built her an aviary, but she says she has fewer birds now so all of them except Raicho reside in cages “I’ve always liked birds, they brighten up your day. Nothing can make you feel better than to come home and be greeted with a song. Their song tells you they’re glad to see you.” And the birds keep a watchful eye on the dogs, mostly deaf ones. “I found that deaf dogs are usually put down so I’ve tried to rescue as many as I can.”

Zirkle is quick to give credit to Dr. Lynda Ann Ewen, a retired sociology faculty member, who inspired her and was the mentor who set her on the path to teaching. “She molded me; she really gave me encouragement to do what I thought I couldn’t do,” she says. “I was afraid of public speaking and she asked me to co-present with her at a meeting of about 100 women at the state Capitol. Our topic was stereotypes of Appalachian women and I was scared to death to speak before a group. But she encouraged me and I did it. She got me over the professional hurdles and gave me the courage to stand up before people. I hope I can mentor people like she did.”

Now after more than 25 years at Marshall, Zirkle reflects, “ I love the people here, they’re my family. I’ve always liked a challenge, but I like to compete with myself rather than with others. I can shine here.”  

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