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MSU alum Ben Hawkins went from French language enthusiast to Kentucky’s French Teacher of the Year

Ben Hawkins PictureBefore Ben Hawkins (Class of 2005, 2009) made a career out of teaching French in the classroom, he initially planned to learn the language to make one of his dream travel destinations much more enriching.  

"I began to dream of going to France one day to Paris and visiting all of the well-known monuments and sites that captivate the passions of so many world travelers. You know, like the Eiffel Tower, of course, or the Louvre or Notre Dame, all of the reasons why Paris is still the number one most visited city in the world. And I always said to myself that if I ever got to go there, I would want to be able to communicate with the native speakers that I would inevitably encounter on such a trip," Hawkins said. "I wanted to be able to have authentic and multifaceted conversations with real native speakers and not stick out like a sore thumb like a stereotypical tourist in trying to go to these amazing places."  

What started as a French middle school class for fun became a passion that kept growing along with his education, eventually leading to graduating with a bachelor's degree in French from Morehead State University and later a position as the French teacher at East Carter High School in Grayson. Now, Hawkins is being recognized for his abilities as an instructor as this year's French Teacher of the Year for Kentucky by the American Association of Teachers of French – Kentucky Chapter.   

"I am beyond humbled, honored and appreciative to my colleagues for choosing me to be this year's recipient of this award, and I will be forever grateful to all of my teachers, mentors, students (both current and former), their parents and colleagues who have all been such huge blessings in my life and allowed me to do what I love, who have each helped me to become the teacher I am today," Hawkins said.  

Hawkins grew up in Erlanger and after initially gravitating toward French in middle school, he studied it more extensively in high school and traveled to France for the first time the summer after his senior year. He decided to come to MSU after a trip to campus his junior year for a one-day drama workshop cemented his decision due to the beautiful campus and the quality of theatrical performance put on by the students. He was initially undecided on his major but took French 101 during the fall semester of his first year under the instruction of the late and long-time Professor of French Mary Jo Netherton (Class of 1966).  

"When Mary Jo introduced herself to us, that she had been teaching at MSU for 35 years, I thought to myself, 'I wonder if she taught my high school French teacher?' I couldn't wait to ask her after class, to which she replied, 'Oh yes, I remember Doris (Strilka, Class of 1965)! She was my first student-teacher during my first year at MSU,'" Hawkins recalled. "Mary Jo always called herself my 'grandmother in French,' something I will cherish always."  

While Hawkins was taking every French class possible at MSU, he still decided to declare himself an art major and wasn't sure how he could parlay his French language knowledge into a job. One time when Netherton was out of town for meetings and conferences with the Kentucky Institute for International Studies, she tapped Hawkins to substitute-teach some of her French 101 classes.  

"There I was, passing out papers Mary Jo had left for her students to work on, beginning class that day, just following Mary Jo's lesson plan like I was supposed to, and then suddenly, I just stared at the back wall of the classroom for a couple of moments that felt like several minutes. I was having an epiphany," Hawkins said. "I was thinking to myself, 'I could do this for a career. And I would enjoy it!' I snapped out of the epiphany, ecstatic, and couldn't wait to tell Mary Jo that I was going to change majors to French education."  

Hawkins graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in French in 2005 and landed his first job as a French teacher for Fleming County Schools that same year. He later became a middle school teacher at Rowan County Christian Academy from 2006 to 2007 before returning to MSU to earn a Master of Arts in Secondary Education, 8-12 in 2009. It was a degree he earned while starting his current job as the French Teacher for East Carter High School in 2007, a position he has held for 15 years.  

In his classroom, Hawkins prides himself on immersing his students in the French language and culture while prioritizing his relationships with students and making the material as engaging and entertaining as possible. He believes having the ability to speak a second language, French or otherwise, is only going to benefit students in the long run.  

"Monolingualism is one of America's defining characteristics, sadly, with approximately only 20% of the population being able to communicate in more than one language. Even if you wouldn't use a world language a majority of the time while working in your current field, having the skill to communicate in other languages brings a multitude of benefits, not the least of these having enhanced and advanced communication skills in your first language," he said. "It's a proven fact that studying another language and using it often reinforces your own communication skills and abilities, no matter what language you are speaking at any given point in time."  

From being inspired by the language of a country an ocean away to being recognized as one of the best French teachers in the country, Hawkins admits the journey from a childhood interest to a fulfilling career was made possible by becoming an Eagle.  

"MSU connected me to so many new people, new experiences, new places, new knowledge, skills and even wisdom that enriched my life to heights and levels I had never expected," he said. "I am who I am today because of MSU. There's no separating my current status and quality of life from the influence and impact that MSU has had on me."  

To learn more about foreign language programs at MSU, visit www.moreheadstate.edu/study/languages or contact the Department of Communication, Media and Languages at 606-783-2134 or cml@moreheadstate.edu.  

College can change lives and communities. Higher educational attainment increases tax revenue, decreases unemployment and even improves health outcomes. Learn more from the KY Council on Postsecondary Education at kyhigheredmatters.org.