Dr. Hanna Norton: A Lasting Impact

Supportive is consistently coupled with the word “faculty” by our student body at Arkansas Tech University. Sometimes these relationships make such an impact that their byproduct propels philanthropic action.

No better allusion exists on the ATU campus than the relationship between Dr. Hanna Norton and Sarah Beth Phillips. Phillips notes that she “expresses her gratitude daily” for the impact that Norton has made in her life—an impact that began in August 2004. Not many days go by that Norton and Phillips haven’t exchanged a text or had a conversation.

“Dr. Norton had a reputation for being no-nonsense and setting high expectations for her students,” said Phillips. Initially intimidated by Norton’s reputation, Phillips dedicated herself to the academic rigor for her major and wanted to make Norton proud. A pivotal moment that fueled this tenacity occurred late one evening while she and a group of students were in the library practicing for a presentation.

“Hanna walked in…I struggled to regain my composure and blinked back tears of shock and thankfulness that she was voluntarily spending personal time to help us,” Phillips said.

Norton’s impact on her students was not just academically; she also instilled in them “life skills” and the tools needed to succeed professionally. Phillips, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, was encouraged to embrace a critical life lesson: failing gracefully.

“I remember receiving a “B” on a paper I did not proofread as much as I should have—and being devastated,” recalled Phillips. “[Norton] said she knew I would be upset with myself, but that it was a good lesson to remember to double-check all my facts and work.”

At her core, Norton’s commitment to her students’ success is fueled by a passion for strengthening the grit they didn’t know they possessed. “If you incrementally teach them, they’ll suddenly realize how capable they are,” Norton explained. “It’s fun to watch that light bulb ‘turn on.’”

Norton’s gut told her from the moment she completed her interview at Arkansas Tech 19 years ago that the students at the university were different than those at various other institutions. According to Norton, “[The students] came up to me after I taught a class [during my interview process] and asked me questions—I was looking for a place that I could become part of a community, both on and off campus.”
She found that at ATU.

After spending her first nine years as a faculty member, earning promotion and tenure, Norton became department head and then transitioned into her first role in administration. She served as the assistant vice president for academic affairs from May 2011-June 2015 over the nascent online college, eTech, and she became dean of the College of eTech in July 2015. While Norton adjusted to her new administrative role, Phillips actively planned to honor the professor who had given her so much during her undergraduate years.

In the spring of 2012, Jayne Jones (former vice president for development at ATU) received an email from Phillips detailing her desire to create a foundation scholarship in honor of Norton. Jones was surprised to hear from the young alumna. “Sarah Beth was such a young alum and already mindful of [the need] to give back,” Jones explained.

Phillips wholeheartedly believes in this connection she’s established with her university. “When financial strain [or] worry is lessened, students are better prepared to succeed academically…in my experience every bit of aid is beneficial,” she said.

When Jones delivered the news to Norton of the scholarship created in her honor, Norton was in shock. “I was surprised and deeply honored. As a student who worked so hard to perform well in class, the scholarship is as much a testament to her as it is to me,” said Norton.

Her experience as dean of the College of eTech and the students she’s encountered in recent years—many of them nontraditional—have challenged Norton to reflect on what it means to be an educator. At the end of June 2018, she returned to a faculty role and the assistant director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

Phillips, now an academic advisor and adjunct professor in the Department of Professional Studies at ATU, relishes the lessons she learned from her mentor and applies them in her daily work advising students.

“For me,” concluded Norton. “I want to keep trying to make a better product. Because [the students] deserve it. They deserve to be served to the best of our ability. So they can get a job, can pay off their debt and better themselves.”

Today, it’s hard to know who inspires whom more between Phillips and Norton. The two appear to foster a truly symbiotic relationship: each reminding the other to never settle.

by Liz Chrisman for the Tech Action, Spring 2020