Parker councilman Randy Hartless has begun teaching English at Arizona Western College at the age of 61, proving it’s never too late to pursue an education.
After dropping out of Parker High School at the age of 15, it wasn’t until 30 years later that Hartless decided to buckle down and attain his first college degree.
He soon discovered, however, that tackling collegiate classes as a first-generation student would prove more difficult than he thought. Although he had already earned his GED, he went on to rack up over 60 college credits with no clear pathway to a degree. And one of the most challenging obstacles he faced was meeting his upper-level math requirements.
“Despite many years of dabbling in college courses, one huge roadblock that I was completely unprepared for was college math classes,” Hartless said. “I dropped out of high school as a sophomore and went into a low-level job as a dishwasher, so I had no real math education. My Arizona Western College transcripts show that I dropped Algebra twice and earned an ‘F’ once.”
His professor Reetika Dhawan, who is now the AWC Vice President of Workforce Development and CTE, made it her mission to get him through Algebra.
“It was not easy teaching this old dog modern math, but with a lot of studying and Reetika’s tutoring, I finally passed all three required Algebra courses,” he said.
So, it was at the age of 52 that he received his first degree – an associate degree in General Studies from AWC. He was also simultaneously holding the title of AWC District Governing Board President, which gave him the unique honor of signing his own diploma. Hartless represented La Paz County District 1 on the AWC District Governing Board from 2009-2013 and served as the board president in 2012.
Hartless then enrolled in Northern Arizona University’s 90-30 program at the encouragement of then NAU-Yuma Director Larry Gould. He was able to apply 90 of the community college credits he had accumulated towards a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration, which best suited his job at the time as the Executive Director of the Parker Area Chamber of Commerce. He attended school part-time for four years to earn his bachelor’s degree at age 56 and then continued in his educational pursuits to receive his master’s degree by 59.
“I’m not sure I was the oldest person graduating that night, but I didn’t see many my age in the crowd,” Hartless commented.
He still had to wait a few more years to start his dream job though. When Hartless graduated from NAU-Yuma with his master’s degree in English in 2019, his aspirations to become an AWC professor were put on hold as no positions were available. Then the COVID pandemic hit, and the chances of Hartless being hired were bleak.
Thankfully, he was fortunate to already be employed as the Executive Director of the Parker Area Alliance for Community Empowerment, a nonprofit organization that works with kids aged 7-17 and their parents through a myriad of prevention programs. While in that leadership role, he was able to share his story with kids who may be headed down the same path he was.
“I was not ashamed to tell them I dropped out of Parker High School and went on to live many useless, wasted years afterward. It took me 30 years to get back on track educationally, and I could’ve been teaching or doing whatever else I wanted to do in that time. Now I’m the Governing Board President of the same high school district I dropped out of, which may be a first.”
During the summer of 2021, he finally got the call he had been waiting for – the offer to teach English at the AWC Parker Learning Center. Part of his job also includes teaching Zoom classes for students from around Yuma County and beyond.
“When I got that job offer, I was elated. I’m just so grateful to be able to do something I love, even though I didn’t start doing it until I was 61 years old,” he said. “I wanted to be someone that people both young and old look up to and think about as they make their way along their educational path.”
In addition to Dhawan and Gould, two other mentors that inspired him throughout his higher education journey were AWC English Professor Sheryl Drew and AWC instructor Janet Winans.
Drew and Winans sparked his love for writing and urged him to try his hand at writing professionally. Thanks to their prompting, he ended up earning $200 on his first piece for the nationally-circulated Bowhunter magazine. He went on to write many other stories for publications like Hot Boat and Propeller covering local boat races. In 1994, he also applied for a newspaper reporter job with the Parker Pioneer and was hired, despite having no prior writing experience other than his freelance work.
“The thing about teaching English is that it’s really the core competency of writing. I love to write, and I want to pass that love along to others,” said Hartless.