Uhlendorf retires after 29 years

This year NVU Johnson will be saying goodbye to Karen Uhlendorf, professor of Environmental and Health sciences, as she retires after the spring semester. She has been teaching at NVU Johnson for 29 years and hopes to stay a part of the community after she leaves.

The long relationship with Johnson State College, and now NVU, began with her first visit to the campus.
“I think that really kind of sealed the deal for me,” Uhlendorf said. “I still remember this really clearly. It was during my interview here. I walked from one building to another unaccompanied at one point in the day because I had already been around, I knew where I was going and there were students walking down the pathway. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know them, but they just smiled and said ‘hello’. When I was at the university campus at that other place, nobody did that. It just felt welcoming. I feel that every day working here, it’s like family.”

Uhlendorf acknowledges that she has been fortunate, finding both an enjoyable professional home and a vocation reflecting her love of the outdoors, which started at a young age. “I grew up in the Bronx, New York, and people don’t think of outdoor education coming and happening there,” says Uhlendorf, “But even there, I remember playing outside in the empty building lots and finding trees to walk on and make shelters and forts in, and, you know, do things that kids do outdoors.”

Her family had a summer home on Long Island, so she spent her summers swimming and fishing and doing outdoor activities with her family.

As a student, she loved hanging out in the gym and was on all the teams she could be. She made good friends and felt comfortable in the area. She was also a part of a leader’s group at her high school, which introduced her to teaching as she got to help the teacher lead activities.

During her undergraduate studies in Physical Education, the department required her to do an outdoor education practicum in the Adirondacks. That’s where she fell in love with teaching in the outdoors.
“I went back until they wouldn’t give me any more credit for any more courses,” Uhlendorf said. “I went back like a student leader, or what we would call the equivalent of a teaching assistant, and then eventually, after graduation, as a staff member.”

Her first official teaching job was in Long Island, where the school had an outdoor education program, but unfortunately, it was not as popular at the time (1970’s). She is thankful that she ended up where she did when she did, because she has always been able to teach outdoor education alongside physical education.
Her interest grew and she went on to get her masters in outdoor education, so she would have both the PE background and the Outdoor Education background.

Eventually she went for her doctorate, which was technically in Physical Education, but most of her coursework and eventually her dissertation blended the two areas together.

“I’ve been here for 29 years, but I’ve been a professional educator for 44,” says Uhlendorf, “and really, for pretty much all of that time, with a couple of brief time outs, I’ve been doing both outdoor ed and traditional phys. ed., and I just see that they have a lot in common.”

When she got her degree, she went looking for a higher education position, and when the job at Johnson popped up, wanting someone with experience in both areas, she was more than happy to oblige. She also was in love with and had connection to the area, spending most of her life in New York, upstate New York and Maine as well as other parts of New England. She felt right at home.

Uhlendorf played a big role in creating the Outdoor Education major at NVU-Johnson. Margaret Ottum, a former NVU- Johnson professor of environmental sciences, had foresight that outdoor education would be a popular area of study in the near future. She urged the department to find a faculty member who could develop the major. When Uhlendorf arrived, they were looking for someone who could take on the classes, and after a couple of years she was helping to build the curriculum.

The degree was officially launched in 1997.

Uhlendorf said she will miss many aspects of being a professor. “The interactions with young people keep you young,” she said. “It’s a very rewarding kind of work to be constantly exposed to the different individuals and all the things they b

ring to the table. You won’t necessarily be rich and famous, that’s for sure, but you will be rich inside.”
Uhlendorf says she looks forward to focusing more on her other passions in retirement. She hopes to get back into painting and drawing and other arts and crafts that she hasn’t had much time for during her time as a professor. She also hopes to expand her garden and do some reading for pleasure as opposed to for work.

She thinks that she would also like to travel again in the future, especially to New Zealand.

Uhlendorf’s retirement leaves the Outdoor Education program, which will be undergoing considerable transformation next year, in the hands of only one professor, Brad Moskowitz. Her retirement, he says, will leave a large void, as Uhlendorf has played many important roles during her long tenure.

“She contributes an incredible amount of time and effort and coordination into everything she does,” he said. ”She hired me. She was the chair of the committee that searched for my position and offered me the job and I’ve been working with her pretty darn closely for almost 20 years.”

For Moskowitz, perhaps the single most striking aspect of his colleague’s role lies directly with her primary passion, teaching. “She definitely has high standards and high expectations for everybody she works with, including the students who are sometimes challenged by her,” he said. “She can be tough, yet, it’s like the tough love approach. I think she really, really cares for the students.”

Outdoor Education major Tyler Plante would agree. “She introduced me to many fields of study I can pursue—things like kayaking, climbing, and ropes course leadership.” said Plante. “She wants us to succeed and will do whatever she can to help us achieve that.”

Plante noted that among his outdoor skills, the most valuable things he learned from Uhlendorf were to put others first, accept their skills and accommodate to their needs. “She has inspired me,” said Plante. “She’s taught me that through hard work anything is achievable.”