A Soul on Fire: My Story of Denise Strohmayr

Professor Denise Strohmayr has made an impact on the RACC community.

By Raymond Coffin Jr

Most professors are very good at their jobs. Most of the time, teaching comes natural to them. Often times, they are extremely intelligent in the area in which they teach. Sometimes, a professor will come along who is funny, outgoing, and very likable, who puts a smile on your faceand makes learning seem fun for everyone. Occasionally, a teacher may come along who possesses more than one of these traits. Rarely does a professor possess all of these characteristics. 

Then someone unparalleled comes along. Not only does that individual possess all of these traits, there is something additional. Something that can never be taught, with an energy infectious to all, something only found within the very best. Lying dormant within is the power to inspire, the power to motivate, and the power of belief, just waiting for someone to access this unique power. These professors not only believe in their students with sincerity, but they make their students believe in themselves. One of these gems is Professor Denise Strohmayr. Levels beyond the whole package, she embodies everything it means to be a great professor, and she goes above what it means to be a great human being. Denise and I would come into each other’s lives at the exact time I needed her the most. The impact she would have on me would be nothing less than profound. 

I grew up on the north side of Philadelphia for the first 31 years of my life. I was overweight, easily influenced, freckle-faced, and red-headed. This was not a winning formula to make become popular, and so I became a follower of the pack. Whatever my “friends” deemed acceptable, I did. Drinking and smoking eventually led to drugs. There are three destinations that come along with that lifestyle: prisons, institutions, and death. And I have been to two of the three on numerous occasions, and the third place, death, was knocking on my proverbial door, my final destination.

On January 19, 2017, a doctor by the name of Michael Stanley performed emergency brain surgery on my left temporal lobe, and he physically saved my life. This was a direct result of the reckless lifestyle I had embraced. And so I narrowly escaped with my life, and dodged the bullet of death. I woke up in the ICU ten days later, seventy-three stitches in my head, and my father at my bedside. There are some things in life that just stay with a person forever. The look in my father’s eyes at the moment of my reawakening is one of them. 

So here I was, being transported to Reading Rehabilitation Center where I was expected to stay anywhere from three to six months, or possibly longer. I couldn’t read, couldn’t write, and couldn’t speak. I could barely walk. my father and nurses had to help me shower; I was humiliated — not because he helped me shower, but because I was ashamed I put myself in this position. Even though my cognitive faculties were absent from by being, my mind was fairly intact. 

One night in the hospital, I recalled something I heard at 18, when I was in a drug treatment facility: “To get the life you’ve never had, you have to do the things you’ve never done.” 

It was time to get to work. I made a promise to myself that I would enroll at RACC as soon as I re-acquired the basic skills of reading, writing, and speaking.

From that moment on, I worked feverishly to conquer the task of writing my name. Over and over again. Eventually, I would graduate to writing sentences. Gradually, my fragmented words became a resemblance of English. And with time, these too, became sentences. Upon my discharge from the hospital, I was elated to be home, but something was a little off. I didn’t know what, but I felt different. I then discovered I had severe social anxiety, and could not make it through a simple trip to the grocery store without being overwhelmed by fear. I was diagnosed with major depression and social anxiety disorder. This was not at all conducive to my plans of enrolling at RACC. 

After a few months of delay, I decided to bite the bullet and enroll at RACC. However, the extensive therapy I was doing all year began to take its toll on my psyche. My confidence was wavering inside a fragile mind, and for the first time, I began to doubt myself. The brain is a complex and intricate existence  — one that would change me from a confident man full of assurance, into an insecure, fractured person, who was one failure away from abandoning everything. An angel was needed in my life at that very moment in time. And that’s when I met Denise Strohmayr. 

I hobbled into class on that first day, supported by crutches and a heavily bandaged right knee, a physical representation of my weakened mind and fragility. But Philadelphia had made me a good actor, to never show weakness, so I could put on a fake a smile and simulate happiness so well it could land me an academy award. Then, Denise had walked into the room and made eye contact and greeted everyone. She was a high volume, chatty woman, with poofy hair straight out of the 1990s, and I instantly liked her. On that very fragile first day, I became illuminated by her energy. A person knows and feels when someone is passionate about what they do, and I could immediately see that she genuinely cares about her students. She has an infectious energy that began to rub off on me; she made me feel welcomed. 

As a few weeks had passed, I looked forward to her class the most. I enjoyed hearing about her life, about her two children, Max and Morgan, and her husband, George, whom she had met out in California. Denise has two degrees, an M.A in Organizational Management, and a B.A. in Speech Communication, and wow, it showed. She talked up a storm! But it wasn’t meaningless chatter; there were lessons to be learned in her stories, and I listened intently. Although she commands a classroom with authority, she spoke to each one of us on our own levels, and that’s what sets her apart from her peers. Denise reminded me of the cool mom other kids wanted to be around, she was fun, and made learning equally enjoyable. She spoke with a comforting grace, and I continued to feed off of her energy and passion. 

But life happens. I sunk into a deep spout of depression. I went a couple of classes without even making eye contact with her. Not out of spite or rudeness, but because I simply could not. In hindsight, I may have been ashamed. Denise had given us her passion and energy at full force day in and day out, and I couldn’t bear to look at her through the eyes of depression, in fear that that, too, might rub off on her. But, as only Denise can do, her passion would force me to get involved in class because I felt I owed her at least that much. I remember sitting there looking at my desk, looking at her, and I smiled, a deep genuine smile, not on my face, but in my heart, and laughed out loud, on the inside.  

From that time forward I knew that I was going to be fine. Denise had reassured me that I was college material, something that I needed to hear from someone else other than mom or dad. She taught us real-world useful materials about learning styles and teaching methods, the importance of adapting in college, and student loans and borrowing smartly. Her passion and enthusiasm for her students in unchallenged and unrivaled. No therapy or psychiatrist could have possibly given me what Denise has given me, the power to believe in myself. This power she freely gives to anyone with the heart and mind at accept it. Using College Success Strategies as her medium, Denise is changing the world. I know this to be true, because she has changed mine. 

Postcript: 

Denise Strohmayr is an award-winning professor of ORI-103, College Success strategies. In 2017, before she came to RACC, she was teaching an another institution when a RACC employee encouraged her to apply to the college, stating: “RACC needs you, and you need RACC.” These words would resonate with her, and over time they would reveal their deeper meaning. Denise has had a profound impact on our school, but our school is also having an equally profound impact on her. She is continuing to grow as a professional, a wife, and a mother, on top of the wonderful person she already is. Her soul has become ignited and burns with a passion visible for all to see every day. She is blessed to be at RACC, and RACC is equally blessed to have her.

I set out to do a profile of Denise in honor of what she has done for me. During the interview, it became increasingly clear that the impact she had on me was far greater than I had ever imagined. RACC is full of professors and faculty just like her, she is not alone. My wish is that every student finds their own Denise Strohmayr.



Categories: Campus Life, Commentary, Staff Profiles

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2 replies

  1. Raymond- Great inspirational story!

  2. Wow! Raymond Coffin Jr is a remarkable writer! This should be published widely to recognize both Denise and Raymond’s contribution to the spirit of RACC.

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