Growing up in Nebraska, Sandra Hooven benefited from great music programs in her schools. She took up the violin, and was sure she would major in music in college. But that was not to be.
"I loved music, but I just wasn't good enough," she admitted. "I realized that no matter how hard I practiced, music and I were not a perfect fit. I could never envision myself as a concert violinist, and the music theory classes baffled me."
That letdown was also a positive. The proverbial bookworm then focused on her first love: language. She attained bachelor's and master's degrees in English and found a fulfilling career teaching students of all levels and abilities.
Her early brush with academic reality has helped her better understand the challenges new college students encounter. Her UNLV Creates speech is titled "Freshmen Unleashed: Millennials and Fireflies," which references John Steinbeck's essay "Like Captured Fireflies." It will encourage new college entrants to make the most of their college experience and embrace the changes that come with it.
"Sometimes you discover things you don't want to know but that are necessary," she said, when talking about the first two years of college. "It's important for (freshmen) to know that just because one dream dies it doesn't mean another can't be reborn."
Hooven's 40-year career in teaching includes positions in middle school, high school, and community college. For the past nine years she has been a part-time English composition instructor at UNLV. She often gravitated toward teaching in programs for those with the greatest linguistic obstacles to overcome. She doesn't gloss over their need to step up their language skills, but also won't tolerate negative generalizations about the skills and drive of younger generations either.
"I discovered in the course of my teaching experiences that I had a pretty good gift for ... opening my arms to the ones who didn't believe they could do it," she said. "I spend a lot of time with my incoming freshmen talking about how there are no limitations on what an eager mind can do. That's just part of my belief system."
Hooven also edits Wordriver, a literary collection of poetry, fiction and non-fiction submitted by part-time instructors, like her, all over the world. The publication is now in its fifth year. With a love for both great classic writers and up-and-coming voices, she emphasizes encouragement rather than correction when working with students.
She is candid about the fact that some incoming students lack of writing basics can hamper their academic success and add frustration to their undergraduate experience. But she enjoys seeing students gain confidence and find their voices with practice.
"I tell them writing is a combination of accuracy and knowledge of the language, along with the creative inner you," she said. "We have to balance those things in every essay we write.
"The message cannot come across clearly if it's filled with errors. On the other hand, if you're just going through the motions, plugging in rote ideas, the writing doesn't come alive. ... I never want them to write in any voice but their own."
And that seems to be a tune many of her students can follow.