December 12, 2005
Posted online January 7, 2005
Veteran starting second career as a
By Pete Rosenbery
CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Standing in front of a classroom is the
last place Cleo D. Robbins envisioned himself after graduating
from high school.
Now, as he prepares to graduate from Southern Illinois
University Carbondale on Dec. 17 with a bachelor's degree in
elementary education, the 42-year-old military veteran and father
of three knows the classroom is his calling.
"I feel self-fulfilled when I am working with them,"
Robbins said during a break at Marion Junior High School, where
he is a student teacher. "I'm doing something that
matters for the world. I get more out of working with them than I
think they get out of working with me."
It is that same drive that transformed the 20-year U.S. Air
Force retired master sergeant from a "quiet, disorganized
daydreamer" who disliked school as a child into a
non-traditional high honors college student. Along the way
Robbins moved his family 1,000 miles to pursue a dream –
now helping sixth-grade students master language arts, science
and keyboarding classes.
Robbins "has got it more together than just about anybody
who walks in my door," said Robert L. Simpson, Robbins'
academic advisor in the College of Education and Human Services.
Simpson answered Robbins' initial telephone inquiry about
SIUC more than one-and-a-half years before Robbins started
classes in May 2003 and has advised him since then.
"He's known from the start what he has wanted to do.
He's never been afraid to dig in and do what needs to be
done," Simpson said.
Education wasn't emphasized when he was growing up, said
Robbins, who graduated from Pekin High School a semester early in
January 1981 because he wanted to get out of school. He first
moved to Arkansas where he lived with relatives and worked as a
lumberjack in a sawmill, but returned to Pekin about a year later
to work in a sawmill there.
At 19, Robbins joined the Air Force, starting as a radar
technician; he ultimately decided to make the military his
career. While based in northern Maine, he heeded a friend's
advice to attend classes provided at the radar site by the
University of Maine at Presque Isle. It was there that Robbins
enjoyed initial academic success in a subject he disliked as a
youngster – language arts. That also was the point at which
Robbins started thinking about career choices for life after the
A few years later, while stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base
in Louisiana, Robbins began working as a parent volunteer in his
oldest son's kindergarten class. He tutored students in his
son's classes individually three days a week, kindling his
desire to become a teacher.
"That is when I really got hooked on it. It became my
goal then," he said.
Robbins earned two associate degrees from the Community
College of the Air Force, and finished his last four-and-a-half
years in the military teaching classes in effective writing,
public speaking and team dynamics to mid-level enlisted
Robbins contacted and researched numerous universities
beginning about three years before his discharge. At 37, he had
"no idea" what was involved in becoming a college
student, but he also wanted an environment that was safe and
healthy for his family.
When he began calling, some universities questioned why he was
calling so far in advance of becoming a student and
"wouldn't give me the time of day." That didn't
happen at SIUC, however, Robbins said.
Simpson "told me A to Z here's what you have
do," provided a likely time scenario for graduating as a
full-time student, and offered advice about the local area,
Robbins said. The family traveled from Colorado Springs to visit
the area about a year before he enrolled.
"I may not be in school if it wasn't for Bob
Simpson," Robbins said. "When you have a family
… you can't dilly-dally with this whole thing. I had
to know what was happening before we left and came here. He just
made it so possible."
Robbins and his wife, Patricia, live in Carterville. Derek,
18, is a freshman at John A. Logan College; Drew, 13, is in
eighth grade at Carterville Intermediate School; and David is in
kindergarten at Tri-C Elementary.
Robbins said his family "really sacrificed" in terms
of money and family time. He recalls a family meeting he called
during his first semester at SIUC because of his concerns that he
was neglecting the family. Robbins suggested finishing out the
semester, getting a job and doing "something else because I
thought they were suffering with my time
But Patricia Robbins, who works at SIU Credit Union in Marion,
provided reassurance, emphasizing that the decision was one the
family had made together and they were sticking with the plan, he
As he prepares to graduate, Robbins is confident this decision
is one he didn't "stumble" into, such as the
sawmill or military. Recalling his own school experiences Robbins
said his drive is to help his students. Robbins sees positives
even on those days when interactions with a student might
initially be discouraging.
"I know I am the one who is supposed to be giving to them
but that's just not how it works," he said. "I get
fulfillment from them."
Robbins' cooperating teacher, Jenna Fletcher, said she
recognized the first day Robbins' walked into the classroom
he will be a good, highly sought-after teacher. A male elementary
education teacher with a middle school language arts endorsement
is not very common, but Robbins "also didn't sit back
and wait for you to ask him to do something. He just jumped right
in and started doing it," she said.
Robbins also brings a different perspective to the classroom
than other student teachers – some who are 20 years younger
– because of his life experience and having his own
children, she said.
In turn, Robbins credits Fletcher's contribution to
helping him realize his teaching goal. The support he received
from her is "exceptional," he said.
"She provides the best of both worlds," he said.
"She allows me the opportunity to plan my own activities and
lessons but she is always there to ensure the students'
learning isn't negatively affected by my
Robbins graduates with other December College of Education and
Human Services graduates in 9:30 a.m. commencement ceremonies at
the SIU Arena.
Robbins was a Highest Honors in Elementary Education
scholarship recipient in May. Non-traditional students are highly
motivated, said Simpson, and in many respects are easier to work
with. They are highly motivated and better time managers, he
Academic advisors also want to provide students with as much
information as possible.
"If every student was like Cleo Robbins my job would be
too easy," he said. "I've tried to take care of him
but he has done such a good job taking care of himself he made my
Providing high-quality, comprehensive undergraduate
education is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building
Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is
following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.