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October 25, 2000

From Fighter Pilot to Prof

Teaching, says first-year Calvin professor Terry Etter, is one of the toughest challenges he has ever faced. How tough?

Consider that Etter entered the Air Force straight out of college, spent two years learning how to fly a Phantom F-4 fighter jet (at the time the most sophisticated jet in the world) and then went to Vietnam where he flew 200 combat missions in the span of one year.

Consider that he went on to be a VP for Human Resources at two different businesses and also spent seven years working on men's ministries projects on a national level.

And still he looks back at his first two months as a Calvin professor of business and he shakes his head with a wry smile. "I've found the transition a very humbling and demanding experience," he says. "It's been every bit as challenging as any business project or position that I've held in business."

Yet he admits that his varied background has prepared him for the task he now faces. "My career path," he says, "has taken on no consistent pattern. Yet each experience has prepared me for the next. And cumulatively what I've done has led me, I believe, to this point."

Etter also believes that his real-world experiences ultimately will benefit his students. "I hope I can develop," he says, "(as a teacher) to a point where I'm an integral part of these young students' lives.

Etter already has brought some of the principles of business to his classroom. In both of the classes he's teaching this semester he has the students sit in teams. He encourages them to be accountable not just to him, but also to each other. If team members are absent he asks the team to follow up, just as co-workers would follow up with each other were one to miss an important meeting.

He also is staying connected to local business and industry, so that his experiences in practical business applications will remain current. After Etter lost his job working in men's ministries for the Christian Reformed Church he took on two major consulting projects: first with State Farm and then with locally based Gordon Food Service. He plans for such relationships to continue.

"I think one of the strengths I bring to my work as a teacher is this hands-on work with business," he says. "My hope is that my students will benefit from that too." Already Etter is partnering with Zondervan Publishing. His marketing class is working on marketing projects, using actual book titles in progress. At the end of the semester the students will present their projects to senior management at Zondervan.

Etter's work at Calvin as an educator combines interests he began to develop already as a doctoral student when he earned his Ed.D. degree at the University of Illinois in organizational development with a dissertation on integrating technology into the workplace. His prime focus was looking at how education can be used to help employees respond to changes in the workplace, including technological changes.

"As organizations become flat," he says, "and more decision-making authority is invested in people across the company the organizational culture becomes more and more important. And top leaders need to be able to define and articulate the corporate culture."

Articulating the corporate culture at Calvin for his students is exciting for Etter, whose wife Rosemary works in Admissions for Calvin.

"Teaching at a Christian college is a profound experience," he says. "I was led to Christ when I was in my 30s, after a period of real struggle. When I got out of the Air Force I no longer knew how to define myself. I was a fighter pilot; that was who I was. Then I didn't have that anymore. I was really searching. And God found me. I was discipled by a Christian businessman. Now I have an opportunity to not only teach, but also, hopefully, disciple others. Of course, that's part of the challenge too."

If the past is any predictor chances are good Etter will meet the challenge.

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Contact Phil de Haan.