FLCC to Ph.D. Part 4: Open to possibilities

Man standing in archway
Nicholas Knopf ’06 earned honors for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Rochester. /Photo by Eryn Yates

Christina Knopf was a shy 17-year-old who only knew she wanted to write at the time she enrolled. Professor Sandra Camillo thought she would be a good fit for the student aide job in the college public relations office. It became the first stop on Christina’s path toward a doctorate in political communication and cultural sociology.

Her cousin, Nicholas Knopf, enrolled at FLCC to stay local while awaiting a kidney transplant then discovered his love for literature in Deborah Ferrell’s class. In 2019, he was honored for his dissertation exploring the portrayal of physical disabilities in English and American literature.

Woman at podium
Christina Knopf, a faculty member at SUNY Cortland, studies society through comic book superheroes and graphic novels.

Christina and Nick are among the alumni who credit FLCC as the springboard for careers in research. Their stories are featured in the new edition of The Laker Magazine.

Nationally, community colleges get attention for their agility in developing applied programs to meet local needs. Think of courses for wind turbine technicians at two-year schools in the Midwest and FLCC’s viticulture and wine technology degree.

It is not uncommon, however, for students who got their start at community college to pursue doctoral degrees. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that 11 percent of those who earned doctoral degrees in 2016-17 entered higher education at a community college. The proportion was highest in the health and clinical sciences in which 21.5 percent of all those who earned doctoral research degrees started at a two-year school.

Christina entered FLCC knowing only that she wanted to write. “When I was at FLCC, I had no idea that I would end up getting a Ph.D.,” she said.

She tried communications and found video editing challenging, so she switched to liberal arts. After Professor Camillo’s referral, she found a new direction. “Public relations is not a field you are fully aware of in high school. I liked copy editing and playing around with words and layouts,” she said.

After FLCC, she earned a bachelor’s degree at SUNY New Paltz in 2000. Within five years, she had earned her master’s degree and completed her doctorate at SUNY Albany. During her graduate study, she also taught at SUNY Albany and the College of St. Rose. After completing her Ph.D. in 2005, she taught at Genesee Community College and Monroe Community College. She joined the faculty at SUNY Potsdam in 2006 and now teaches at SUNY Cortland.

Cover of The Laker magazine
Christina and Nick are among the alumni featured in the newest edition of The Laker magazine. Click this image to read the electronic version.

Through it all, she let her fascination with the interplay of words and images lead her. While examining presidential addresses related to war, she found a collection of World War II comics about women in the service. “It was just one thing led to the next,” she said. The result was her first book in 2015, “The Comic Art of War: A Critical Study of Military Cartoons, 1805-2014.”

She has written book chapters and articles that examine society through the lens of comic book superheroes and graphic novel characters. “Pop culture artifacts open broader dialogues on civic matters and thus motivate, educate, and connect the public to political issues and systems,” Christina explained. “In American academic contexts, the contribution of comics, and other assorted forms of graphic narratives and sequential art, is often overlooked. But comics have much to offer. They engender a different kind of literacy that improve both verbal intelligence and visual skills while strengthening the mind.”

At SUNY Cortland, Christina is an assistant professor and public speaking director in the Communication and Media Studies Department. Two decades after graduating from FLCC, she says, “I still refer to things that I learned in my vocal communications class with Beth Johnson.”

She remembers, too, “how accommodating the students are of each other” at community college and brings that compassion to bear when working with her own students. “I tell them: You have a fresh start here. Everyone is feeling nervous. Nobody necessarily knows what direction they’re going in and that’s OK. There is going to be stuff you aren’t good in, and that’s OK, too.”

And she tells them to be open to possibilities: “Don’t assume that where you start determines where you finish,” she said.

Diversity and dedication

Nick agrees that the level of acceptance he found at FLCC made the greatest impression on him – though he enrolled for purely practical reasons. “If I hadn’t been sick, I wouldn’t have gone to FLCC,” he said.

Most references to diversity in higher education, Nick added, are references to racial diversity, but community college faculty and staff regularly deal with diversity in life experience and ability. “You will never get a more diverse group of classmates and get a more dedicated group of teachers who meet you where you are” than at community college, he said.

One faculty member allowed students to bring children to class when they had no other option. When a kidney became available in November 2005, his professors give him more time to complete assignments and accommodated his need to work from home.

“They could teach anybody,” he said. “It’s not like people were talking about how tolerant they were. They just went out and did it. I hope I can be as tolerant and as compassionate with my students as those folks were.”

Nick currently teaches a first-year composition class at St. John Fisher called Gender and Popular Culture and a course at the University of Rochester in English for non-native speakers. The latter course is driven by students’ goals; some are foreign-born graduate students who need to refine their English for professional advancements. Others are seeking to communicate more effectively with their children’s teachers.

He hopes to gain a full-time teaching position in higher education or earn a certification to teach in high school now that he has earned a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester. His dissertation on the representation of disabilities in 18th and 19th century American and English literature – including the work of Jane Austen and Ben Franklin, earned the Outstanding Dissertation Commendation 2019 for the Division of Humanities and Humanistic Social Sciences in Arts, Sciences and Engineering at the University of Rochester. He drew parallels between representations of physical disability and flaws in political systems between 1765 and 1825.

Nick credits FLCC faculty for his trajectory. “Christopher Parker spent a lot of time talking to me about books,” he said, adding that David Harmon and Deborah Ferrell later encouraged him to pursue graduate work. Their support and example helped him understand the importance of personal connections in his own development: “Nobody achieves much in isolation. Your talent is the smallest factor in what you can be.”

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Author: Lenore Friend

Lenore Friend is the community affairs director at FLCC and the college's liaison with Finger Lakes TV. Contact her at (585) 785-1623 or Lenore.Friend@flcc.edu.