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Morrisville State College Professor Perseveres Despite Disability, Becomes Teacher, Receives Distinguished Faculty Award

MORRISVILLE— If given a different path and the chance at a different career, Joe Coppola would choose to walk the same road again to get to where he is today.

His rewarding career as a teacher has been filled with triumph and achievements, but his journey to the classroom hasn’t been an easy one.

Coppola has dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a reading disorder characterized by difficulties with learning how to decode at the word level, to spell and to read accurately and fluently.

Writing legibly on the chalk board and correcting students’ papers because he can’t sort out numbers and words are some of the struggles Coppola, an associate professor in the Electrical Engineering Technology Department at Morrisville State College, faces on a daily basis.

While it has taken him longer than most to get to where he is today, Coppola, of Fayetteville, has persevered, turning his disability into a catalyst to success permitting him to accomplish his dreams—among them, obtaining his bachelor degree.

It took 20 years.

Coppola went on to get his master’s degree, become a professor and win this year’s Distinguished Faculty Award at Morrisville State College. It will be a dual celebration in the Coppola home. His wife, Elaine, is this year’s recipient of the Library’s Distinguished Service Award at Syracuse University.

The Morrisville State College Distinguished Faculty Award is presented to a faculty member who has displayed professional growth, personal and professional achievement, and has provided outstanding service to the college.

“Joe consistently participates in the life of the college,” Chris Cring, Dean of the School of Science and Technology, said, “whether it is helping other faculty, serving on committees, or looking for creative, effective applications in the classroom to broaden student understanding and discovery.”

Coppola will receive the award during the college’s 97th commencement on May 17 and will serve as one of the grand marshals of the ceremony, which begins at 1 p.m. on Drake Field.

It is an honor he finds difficult to describe.

“It is humbling,” Coppola said. “I share this honor with many other professors who are dedicated to teaching here at Morrisville.”

Coppola has devoted himself to Morrisville State College for 12 years, but teaching wasn’t anything he ever pictured himself doing.

The Rome native struggled through school, lacking motivation and earning poor grades, sometimes pretending to understand things other students grasped easily in the classroom. He didn’t realize he was dyslexic until he was in college.

During college, Coppola wavered between career choices, considering theater, among other majors, before following his interest in and exceptional knack with electrical and mechanical devices and machining.

“I was always fascinated with technology and took apart more things than I should have in my lifetime,” he said.

Obtaining his bachelor degree also took longer than anticipated because Coppola had to do it part-time while working full-time jobs.

No matter where he worked, he always found himself in some sort of teaching capacity.

“I aspired to be many things, but I always seemed to gravitate in the teaching direction,” Coppola said. “One day the light came on and I decided teaching is what I want to do.”

In the classroom, Coppola challenges his students—to become better listeners and better friends, to become more inquisitive and motivated, and to become better students. And he tries to instill perseverance in them to motivate and help them deal with obstacles that threaten to hold them back in life.

He has an additional secret to helping them learn.

“I try to guide my students to be critical thinkers and self-starters,” he said. “I generate interest and motivation in them so they can forge ahead and become self-reliant.”

Coppola’s dedication to students in their academic and extracurricular pursuits is further evidenced by his classroom efforts, such as developing a robot for students to work on to enhance learning opportunities.

He’s also reached out on campus as an active member of various committees, including the campus judicial board, faculty congress, and academic affairs. He also assisted with program and course development.

In his community, Coppola has worked with the Fayetteville-Manlius School Board Advisory Committee on Gifted Education, serves on the Manlius Historical Society Program Committee and has served as advisor to the Science Olympiad Team in the Fayetteville-Manlius School System. His volunteer efforts include doing blacksmith work with the Manlius Historical Society Museum and volunteering for Citizens Learning in the Community.

He is also a member of the Technical Alliance of Central New York (TACNY), the Engineering Technology Association (ETA), and the Mycroft Holmes Society of Syracuse, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting awareness of Sherlock Holmes.

Coppola earned an associate degree in engineering science from State University College of Technology at Canton, a bachelor degree in industrial engineering from SUNY Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome and a master’s degree in computer engineering from Syracuse University.

Although Coppola, 60, is nearing the age to consider retiring, it isn’t in his cards yet.

“I can’t imagine my life without my students and Morrisville,” he said.

But when the day comes, Coppola won’t sit idle. He is planning to continue his machining interest and become a clockmaker.

Morrisville State College offers more than 75 bachelor and associate degrees and options. Considered to be one of the most technologically advanced colleges in the nation for its ThinkPad University program and wireless technology initiative, the college was the first in the nation to comprehensively replace landlines in residence halls with individual cellular phones. Morrisville State College was also chosen as one of the top five colleges in the nation for campus activities by Campus Activities magazine.

The Morrisville State College Norwich Campus offers associate degree programs in accounting, business, computer systems technology, office administration, liberal arts transfer, nursing, early childhood, criminal justice and human services to south central New York residents and employers. Students may also apply coursework to other associate or bachelor degrees at the main campus.