Christian Tetzlaff teaches at a technical college because he wants to give people the skills that helped save his father’s life.
Tetzlaff, Lanier Technical College’s motorsports vehicle technology program director, was one of several award recipients honored at a Lanier Tech awards luncheon Wednesday in Gainesville.
“The work that we do changes lives, and not just the lives of our students, but of their children and their children’s children not even born yet,” said Ray Perren, Lanier Tech president. “We create opportunities on a generational basis.”
Tetzlaff received the college’s Rick Perkins Award, a Technical College System of Georgia honor that recognizes outstanding instructors at each of the system’s institutions. Other finalists included radiologic technology instructor Nikki Gilbert and mathematics instructor Jeffrey Schrader.
Tetzlaff thanked all those involved for the award, and discussed how he came to teach at a technical college.
“It really starts way before I was born, in 1961 in Germany of all places,” he said.
In 1962, an 18-year-old East German boy who was a welder chose to risk his life by crossing the Berlin Wall to escape into free West Germany, Tetzlaff said.
He made it, but was penniless and homeless, so he found his way onto a ship that was headed for Wilmington, N.C.
“When he got off the boat, he was still penniless and still homeless, and now — oops — he also didn’t speak the language,” Tetzlaff said.
As soon as the boy got off the boat, he walked to the nearest construction site and met the foreman. In the very broken English he learned on the journey, he told the foreman he was looking for work.
“The foreman asked what he could do,” Tetzlaff said. “And he said, with one of the few words he learned on the ship, that he could weld.”
This boy was Tetzlaff’s father.
“That’s why I teach at a technical school,” he said. “In a unique form of education, we actually have a direct line to someone’s success, security and freedom. What we teach are skills that are necessary in life. And when we teach that, it goes directly from the classroom to the career.”
Proof of this was evident in the Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership finalists.
The award is also a program through the technical college system, which honors a student at each of the system’s institutions. This year’s winner was Karen Ballew, and finalists included James Hammond, Caitlin O’Hara and Tonya Sheets.
Ballew said she decided to go back to school after her mother told her she was meant to work in health care.
Her mother deserted her when Ballew was just 7 years old. More than 30 years later, she got a call that her mother was ill.
“I retired, moved to Florida and took care of my dying mother,” she said. “It was the countless hours at her bedside that taught me the value of nurturing and comforting. And I learned I have a passion for caring for others in their time of need.”
Ballew said through research, she found the Technical College System of Georgia and chose to attend Lanier Tech.
She graduated last year as a certified nursing assistant, and is back in school pursuing a degree in health sciences. She said she hopes to one day study occupational therapy.
The GOAL Award can help her do that. Ballew received a check from DeVry University for $26,500 to go toward earning her bachelor’s degree.
“I knew starting over at the age of 43 would be difficult,” she said. “But the flexibility of continuing my education was important to me, and Lanier Technical College made that possible.”