Virginia Harris did not plan to be a teacher. As a Cal State Long Beach student in the 1970s, she was on track to go to medical school. But college opened her eyes to more than career aspirations when she took up the mantle of activism. Education and career objectives took a backseat to the priorities of inequality.
Throughout those years she spent a lot of time participating in walk-outs, sit-ins, demonstrations and carrying picket signs. Protests of the Vietnam War were intertwined with racial tensions.
“The entire decade of the 70’s was a distraction to my path into the medical field,” says Virginia.
She found herself immersed in community organizing and became a strident member of the Black Panther Party. Organizing efforts helped provide breakfast and lunches to disadvantaged children. The Black Panther Party persuaded businesses to donate groceries and shoes to children, and the Chapter provided after-school tutoring programs for students struggling academically.
Virginia went to Mississippi during the 1987 elections to help thwart a Klu Klux Klan threat to disrupt the elections there. Without realizing it, Virginia’s activism brought to her the very skills and understanding that would make her such a beloved teacher.
“Being a community organizer helped me in being an instructor because it allows me to be open to hear what the needs of people are, to be considerate of what people need and not feel that my program or what I want done is the only way to do that,” says Virginia.
Sonia Candelas, a previous Business Administration program student who now works at SJVC, says, “I always was inspired by her and wasn’t shocked when I found out how much of a voice she had in the Civil Rights Movement. Her work with Rosa Parks shows that anyone who is willing to put in the effort will do great things.”
Virginia draws much of her personal and professional inspiration from her mother, Hazel, who instilled in her a strong sense of justice. Virginia’s daughter, Karrie, keeps her grounded, and Mrs. Rosa Parks, as well as Elaine Brown, Chairman for the Black Panthers during part of that tumultuous decade of the 70s, are also strong influences.
A year ago, after seven years at the University of Antelope Valley, Virginia became an instructor for the Administrative Health Care Management program at the Lancaster campus. As a formerly licensed Emergency Medical Technician who still feels the pull toward the clinical side of medicine, Virginia knows the importance of impressing her AHCM students with the full impact of their career choice.
“The administrative side of a medical practice is what keeps the office running and gets the bills paid,” she says. “The front office is the hub, and preparing students to work in that position is really exciting for me.”
While students are hard at work learning medical terminology, billing and coding procedures and patient scheduling protocol, Mrs. Harris makes sure that there is plenty of fun to go along with it.
“There is lots of laughter in my class,” she says. “Students are really floored when they find out that I am 61, and that tickles me. I believe I’m still young at heart and carry myself that way.”
Virginia has a couple of ways to relax that might give her students pause. She likes to unload a little lead at the firing range. Shotgun, rifle or pistol, she enjoys building her skills and her own brand of relaxation.
Until she broke an ankle, she also enjoyed skydiving. “I promised my daughter, Karrie, that I would stop if I ever got hurt.” Good news for Virginia’s mom, too.
Virginia also likes to do crossword puzzles – in ink. “My whole focus is keeping my mind sharp as long as I can. I will never stop learning and believe that we should learn something new every day.”
She makes sure that happens by taking classes along the way. “I am a perpetual student and will take any class to enhance my skills, whether administrative or clinical,” says Virginia.
Virginia has lots of motivation to push herself to greater heights of education and accomplishment.
“My students motivate me,” she says. “They are the reason I get up in the morning; that I get here on time. I want to see the future, and I see the future in them.”