Some of the first words out Paul Hedeen’s mouth when discussing Joanna Sabo are “impossible to replace.”
Having been at MCCC in both administrative and facultative positions for a quarter of a century, the political science professor has earned her retirement. She remains tight-lipped about her age, but she does say that she was born in Wyandotte.
“I came from a relatively-poor family of five kids,” Sabo says. “They’d consider us not upper-middle class anyway. I guess we were a classic middle class of the time.”
Sabo did not have the most direct path into her career as an educator.
“I dropped out of school at age 16,” she says, “and then went back some years later. Found that I wanted to be, initially, a lawyer.”
Then her boss at a Detroit internship intervened.
“My boss talked me out of being a lawyer and he asked me to intern in the educational institute there that was called the Government Educational Institute,” she says.
Sabo found that she loved it and set up several training programs at the institute.
During this, she was still flirting with her original career via training and development for the US Federal Courts, Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C., and Michigan Consolidated Gas.
In 1991, she began her own training and development company, Beyond Interactive Training.
“Like everybody else, the new business struggled at first,” Sabo says, “but it got established eventually and I did that full-time for a few years.
“But while I was doing that – initially to shore up my income, and I had my master’s degree at the time – I sought out part-time teaching.”
Mary Roberti hired Sabo as an adjunct to teach political science at the college in 1992. Sabo still remembers her first class in C222.
“That first fall, vice president Quayle came to campus,” she says, reaching behind her to grab an old campaign sign. “And I actually happen to have one of the campaign signs from the rally that was here right in the middle of the campus. I had my whole first class sign it.”
After that first class, it was a done deal. Sabo happily says that she “absolutely fell in love with college teaching” and she’s been at MCCC ever since.
Her colleagues are certainly quite happy she did.
Kojo Quartey, president of the college, has nothing but praise for Sabo.
“She will most definitely be missed,” he says. “She has been an instructor par excellence at this institution for many years.
“She’s been an integral part of our Study Abroad program and championed the Global Studies division. It’s a very vital part of what we do here at this institution.
“And now that she’s leaving… it’s going to be a missing cog in the works of our institution. She will be missed. She was a very valued individual here.”
Dean of Humanities Paul Hedeen is happy for the political science professor.
“I’m very happy for her, that she’s retiring and moving on to another time in her life,” he says. “She’s going to be impossible to replace.”
“I can say that Joanna is a very hard worker who, when she sets her mind to accomplishing a goal, will get it done no matter what,” professor of History Edmund LaClair wrote in an e-mail.
“She’s worked hard to establish a study abroad program, and the college will continue to reap the benefits of her efforts there for years to come as long as they’re willing to continue to invest in the excellent work she’s begun.”
Professor of Business Wendy Wysocki has worked with Sabo for years.
“I think Doctor Sabo is an excellent professor,” she says. “She’s very much student-centered. She cares about them and works tirelessly to come up with opportunities to help students expand their learning experiences.
“I find that students think she’s very supportive of the things they do.”
There’s a chorus of agreement to that assessment from the students themselves.
“I think she’s just amazing. I really wish I’d taken this class earlier so I could take another class with her!” says Javed Peracha, a student in Sabo’s Intro to Political Science course. “I’m sad that she’s retiring.”
Dakota Henry, another student in Intro to Political Science, concurs.
“As a teacher, she’s very structured. She structures her class very well,” he says. “She does enough of showing and telling to have me understand the topic at hand without having to go back too much before the test.
“I feel like I grasp concepts in class very well and can answer them on the test.
“She’s put a lot of work in to get to where she is now. I respect that – I can see it in her personality and just her everyday self.”
There’s no real secret to Sabo’s success. She just utilized what she knew.
“One of the things I did,” Sabo says, “was I incorporated very live, interactive training techniques that you have to use in business and industry to keep people’s attention, into the classroom.
“It was a unique way to teach politics. A lot of political science and civics professors are just traditional lecturers.”
Things that Sabo incorporated include creating interest groups, forming a mock congress, using quiz games in the classroom, skits to demonstrate a political party’s views, and more. All were designed to help students truly understand the political system.
Seeing the growth in students was so fun and satisfying, Sabo says, that she knew that teaching was what she wanted to do.
However, initially, there was not an opening for political science when Sabo was hired.
“But I also began teaching business classes,” she says, “and I taught Total Quality Management and Intro to Business Management because my master’s was… not in business, but in public administration, which is very similar.”
Sabo soon found herself sitting on a committee that was developing a total quality management degree, whereupon several of her colleagues, including the then-vice president, requested she apply to be the dean of Business.
“So I held that position for three years,” she says, “and back then, if you were an administrator for three years, you could ask to be reassigned to faculty. And I knew that from the beginning.”
According to Sabo, she was candid in her interview for the dean position that she wanted to eventually segue back into teaching, though using her business management skills while she was the dean of Business was rewarding as well.
As soon as there was a political science opening, Sabo jumped at it. William McCloskey, at that time dean of Humanities and Sabo’s colleague and friend, knew of her intentions and hired her for the full-time position.
For Sabo, the most rewarding thing about teaching is simple.
“Transformations,” she says.
There’s no need to hem and haw over an answer; she knows immediately.
“Seeing students transform, such as watching their moments of ‘a-ha!’ when they learn that there’s a lot of myths about politics that aren’t true.”
Other transformations that she enjoys happen when she takes students traveling. Whether it’s to New York City to see the United Nations, or on Study Abroad, a program that, more than any other, has been Sabo’s baby during her time at the college.
“To watch a student that’s timid, who’s hardly ever left Monroe County, go halfway around the world and become independent over three weeks… those have been the really satisfying moments in my career.”
During her time in the business division, Sabo tried to implement a new program.
“I wanted there to be a joint two-year degree between business and political science in public administration,” she says, “which is a great four-year degree program at all the major colleges: Eastern, UT, Wayne State…
“We could have done a two-year program that at least set students up to get an entry-level job in government. Maybe an entry-level supervision, even.”
She still feels it’s a viable two-year degree. However, the issue lies in the Intro to Public Administration course, which is a sophomore or junior-level course. In terms of transfers, that makes it difficult to make it a course at MCCC.
When asked what she feels her greatest accomplishment is, Sabo cites the Global Studies department, of which she is the coordinator. In her words, it is a “pseudo-department.”
“We now have institutionalized Study Abroad in all our international programs,” she says. “That was a goal before I left. I didn’t feel like I could leave until we did that.”
She is now handing over the reins to the college administration.
“I do hope that they continue to support the program and put the right program in place to keep it going,” she says.
When asked if she’s definitely not going on the 2019 Study Abroad trip to the British Isles, Sabo is clear she never says never.
“It seems like that’s what’s jinxed me,” she says, “because every time I tell myself that I’m not going on a study abroad trip, I find myself on the plane!
“So let’s just say that if I do go on the 2019 trip, it would be as a participant, not as a teacher.”
When asked what her favorite study abroad moment is, Sabo’s fond exasperation is priceless. Apparently, this is a question she gets asked with some regularity.
“Oh, God! There’s so many!” she says.
After a moment’s thought, she finds one.
“The one that I really remember was… There were three young twenty-something Polish guys,” she says, “who took us through an ex-Soviet communist settlement, where the factory was in the middle and all the homes were around it.
“And they were zany! First they took us out driving in these plastic cars the Soviets built. They let us climb all over them and dent them because the dents would just pop right back out. They got on the bus with pickles and handed pickles out to everybody.
“But then, when we were done, we went to a pub and they basically, through humor and experience, covered chapter eight of my textbook! They knew everything about the post-communism environment. So that was one I’ll never forget.”
Aside from going through the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia – the only non-European study abroad trip the college has done thus far – another story she relates is spending some downtime on a trip to Prague.
“We rented paddleboats in the water near the Charles Bridge,” she says. “We spent the afternoon just relaxing and enjoying being in another country. We had a picnic, we sang songs… then we got back in our paddleboats and I had a little music speaker, and we played Frank Sinatra tunes full blast. Everyone was paddling by us and smiling.”
Mary Bullard is an adjunct librarian and occasional adjunct English professor for the college, and accompanied Sabo on the 2017 Study Abroad to Italy and Greece.
“I really didn’t know what to expect, but Dr. Sabo was very organized,” she says. “She had numerous meetings to give us the lay of the land and make sure that we understood the parameters of the trip and the expectations.
“Once we were on the trip, everything was so smooth! We had no problem with our reservations, with the places we visited, or the events we attended.
“There wasn’t anything I felt was lacking.”
Sabo is frank when explaining that one of the only reasons for her retirement is that she’s an outdoorsy person and the climate just isn’t cooperating.
“I loathe winter,” she says. “I can’t do another winter.
“If you plopped MCCC down in a tropical climate, though, I would keep teaching until my dying breath.”
Aside from climate, Sabo feels it’s time to do other things and have some time for herself.
“I’ve also saved like crazy,” she says. “I started my retirement savings when I was 24 years old. People keeping telling me I’m too young to retire, but if you work extra hard and you save extra hard, you know, you can do that.
“But I’m not going to stop working.”
Sabo intends to keep Beyond Interactive Training going and will continue working with MCCC’s corporate community services, so she may pop in now and again. She is also on-staff with the University of Michigan for corporate training and does work with other companies in the area.
“My passions,” she says, “will be outdoor activities and relearning how to play the harp again. I’m excited about that.”
Sabo explains that she picked up the instrument in 2013 and continued lessons for two years before it went to the wayside thanks to work.
“I wanted to play either the harp or the flute,” she says. “It’s kind of like that Buick commercial. My husband says, ‘You couldn’t have picked the one that takes up less space?’
“But I just love the way the harp sounds, and I want to keep challenging my mind. It’s a very difficult instrument to learn. The only other instrument I knew how to play – and was trained to play – was the drums.”
She notes that the drums are very different from the harp in terms of how a drummer and a harpist read music.
“I also plan on doing some volunteering,” Sabo says. “Which is going to be challenging for me because I think when you volunteer you should stretch yourself and do something that’s difficult.
“And as much as I’m at ease around young people, I’ve always struggled being around the elderly. So I’m going to do some activities where I can be around the elderly and stretch myself a little.”
“I can honestly tell you that I don’t have any regrets from my time here,” she says emphatically. “It’s been an absolutely stellar career choice for me. I absolutely love the institution and, believe me, it’s not easy to leave.”
When asked if she has any last remarks for the college, Sabo chuckles, and says she might start crying. But she doesn’t, and instead hands out some final sage advice.
“One thing I would like to say is that folks should enjoy their work,” she says. “Enjoy your work. Come in and know that you work in a place where every May – or sometimes the end of April – you get to see the fruits of your labor walk across a stage.
“Know the difference that you’re making and continue to come to work happy.”