Lauren Dickens’ career path as an educator began with a pizza party in the economics department.
During her first year at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Dickens took “Principles of Microeconomics” with Susan Feigenbaum, curators’ distinguished teaching professor emerita, and loved it. Feigenbaum invited Dickens to a pizza lunch with economics faculty and graduate students, where she found a community.
“I was completely enchanted,” she said. “I use that word in jest, but it’s not that far off. It was the collegiality among professors and the camaraderie among the students in the program. It felt homey and made this big place feel like a small school.”
She changed her major to economics that same day and embarked on a career that led her from the UMSL College of Arts and Sciences to St. Charles Community College, where she was named dean of health and technical sciences in April.
She described her career journey as simply taking opportunities as they came along. When the St. Louis native finished high school, she planned to go to college but hadn’t selected a major. She went to Webster University and later to St. Louis Community College–Meramec before becoming an associate manager at PacSun.
She enjoyed the work but didn’t want to spend her entire career in retail, so she decided to enroll at UMSL.
“It was an all-in thing,” she said. “I went from working full time and taking a couple classes to quitting my job and enrolling in a full semester of courses. It was a quick decision. In December, right around Christmastime, I enrolled in a general business program to see where it would take me.”
That major landed her in Feigenbaum’s class and her first time in a large lecture hall. The way Feigenbaum conducted classes left an impression on Dickens.
“It was my first experience watching an instructor up on a stage teaching,” she said. “I was amazed at the regard she had for her students, making sure we all knew that she noticed us and she cared if we were physically and mentally present in her classroom.”
After Dickens chose to major in economics, Feigenbaum recommended she enroll in the BS/MA dual degree program, which allowed her to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in five years.
In spite of warnings from family and friends that the program would be difficult, Dickens couldn’t pass up the opportunity. She credits UMSL resources like the Writing Center and Economics Resource Center for providing the support needed for success.
While pursuing her degree, she worked as a teaching assistant, conducting a one-hour online supplement class focusing on economic topics in the news, and was involved with the National Council on Economic Education and the National Association for Business Economics. She was also given the opportunity to proctor tests, lecture and help arrange conferences.
But it was working with students at the ERC that helped her discover her passion for teaching.
She recalled tutoring a student who had trouble with formulas and modeling supply and demand. Dickens compared the process of modeling with making solar system models in elementary school.
“The intention is to show the relative size and order of the planets,” she said. “It’s not to show all of the constellations and the force of gravity. We’re simplifying it so we can see the tendency or isolate something so we can make a meaningful prediction.”
As she continued working with the student over the course of a few weeks, she discovered she looked forward to her shifts at the ERC.
“It occurred to me then that I was excited about reading other people’s research and news articles to make connections with the theory and working with students to help them see the relevance,” she said. “What didn’t excite me was writing one of those research papers.”
Following graduation, Dickens accepted a position teaching advanced placement micro- and macroeconomics at St. Louis University High School, where she enjoyed the work for five years. But when a faculty position came open at St. Charles Community College, she took the opportunity to work closer to home.
She was one of two people in the economics department, and when the department chair retired, she became the chair by default – a role that exposed her to a different side of higher education.
“I learned so much about what was happening on the back end and about decision-making,” she said. “It was the kind of things I appreciated so much as a student – student support and initiatives, maintaining program integrity and reputation, the importance of balancing the general education core with workforce and community needs.”
Two years later, a change in leadership led to her promotion to dean of her division, which included math, science, business, computer science and agriculture. In her role, she advocated for faculty and wrote a grant that helped fund the agriculture program.
Dickens then transitioned to the Office of Corporate and Community Development, where she focused on bridging noncredit short-term training and certificate programs with earning an associate degree.
In April, restructuring changed her role to dean of health and technical sciences, where she supervises nursing, health sciences, technical sciences and more. She regularly puts the concepts she learned at UMSL into practice.
“I had conversations in labor economics classes about what happens if the supply of labor declines,” she said. “Now I’m able to take that theory and translate it into an argument for why we should institutionally be investing in technician-level programs, or these economic models will play out where we’re not going to have the labor supply to maintain the infrastructure we’ve established in the United States.
It doesn’t undervalue the traditional pillars of education. All those things are still very important. We all need to be good communicators and well-rounded and exposed to diversity in thought.”
Dickens is amazed that her career has led to technical science even though she’s not mechanically inclined.
“I get to be on the cutting edge and learn about new technology that is being used in the classroom, like automated software to teach hydraulics and pneumatics,” she said. “I never would have thought I’d be researching that for a manufacturing program.”
She stated that her path has been formed through taking advantage of opportunities she never expected, even those that led to failure. She strives to challenge the students and faculty she leads to develop grit and resilience and look for new opportunities.
“It’s OK not to know exactly what the path is going to look like,” she said. “If you’re open to allowing yourself to see what the connection is, what the relevance is, you might be surprised by what you learn and what interests you.”