Jimmy Atencio knows the diesel technology program at Northeastern Junior College (NJC) all too well. That’s why it was an easy decision for him to make when he was asked to step into the shop in the Spring of 2011 and fill in for a teacher who had fallen ill and simply couldn’t continue. That was three years ago. Today, Atencio continues to direct the program as well as teach and mentor the students. For his success at this, his faculty colleagues chose him to receive the Star Performer Award this year.
This award goes to the individual on campus who has been teaching three or fewer years, who is showing the most potential to become a really great instructor. Atencio fits the description plus some.
Perhaps part of the reason Atencio has been so successful as an instructor is because he’s been there and done that. He’s a product of NJC’s automotive program, an over the years, he’s successfully started, operated and sold a business within the agricultural and construction sales and repair industry. Having run this business, he learned what makes an employee a positive asset. He knows well the set of skills that a diesel tech needs to know in order to be extra valuable and most employable.
Growing up on a ranch in the San Luis Valley, Atencio graduated from Centauri High School in 1979 and that same year got a scholarship and came to Northeastern Junior College and enrolled in the automotive program. “Orville Piper made a visit to my high school. He was the first guy I met from Northeastern,” Jimmy remembers. “He persuaded me to come to NJC. I’d heard good things about the school and I wanted to get away from home so this is what I did. I chose automotive technology because I liked cars. After college I worked at a White Tractor dealership and that’s when I found out I would much rather work on big diesels. As it turned out, because I’ve always liked the bigger stuff and since I grew up in an ag community, I wanted to continue to be part of an ag community.”
Atencio says that when he got to Sterling, he quickly met Don Fender and Jim May, two other instructors in NJC’s Automotive Program. “These three guys taught me a lot,” Atencio says, referring to Piper as well. “They were great instructors and great mentors for me, especially Jim May. You could tell they really loved what they were doing and they really cared about those of us who were in the program and they wanted us to learn what we needed to in order to really succeed. For me, returning to the classroom is in part, a way for me to give back to a college that really helped me succeed. I want to follow in their footsteps.”
After graduating from Northeastern, Atencio worked at the White Tractor dealership for four years then came back to Sterling to work for a Massey Ferguson/Bobcat dealership where he was employed for 10 years. According to Atencio, it was in 1993 when a great man and the owner of the dealership, Gean Cucarola, died. “When Gean died, I decided to step out and start a company here called Ag Teck Repair Inc.,” Atencio explains. “After seven years, I decided to take on a partner that had an extensive back ground in Ford and Case equipment.” The partners quickly outgrew the old building and moved into a bigger location south of town and the two became a Kioti Tractor and Bobcat Equipment dealership. With the success he experienced here, Atencio opened another dealership Montrose. He would eventually sell these businesses after 18 years and looked forward to what he considered retirement. “I very much missed the customers and friends that helped me build my business over those years,” he admits.
Longtime friend Kent Wright, who went through the NJC Auto Program with Jimmy had retired from teaching at Northeastern in the automotive program. Wright was also the director of transportation and energy programs which meant he had also overseen the diesel program. It was Wright who recommended to the current program department chair Jason Hazlett to ask Jimmy to help fill in for Harv Rober when he fell ill. Rober was teaching diesel technology for the college. Hazlett followed the recommendation and invited Atencio to step in and teach the remainder of the semester.
“I remembered what an influence Jim May had been on me,” Atencio says. “And I knew first hand, from years of experience not only working on equipment, but hiring others to work on equipment, what these students need to be taught to be really valuable out in the field, so I said yes,” Atencio’s original intent was to just fill in for part of a semester. But, fortunately for NJC, it has resulted in his now stepping away from retirement and beginning a new career in teaching which he is totally delighted to have.
Since taking over as the full-time instructor and director of the program, he’s made a number of really positive changes at the shop. He’s come up with some brilliant teaching tools. “My teaching style is probably a meat and potatoes approach,” he says, “I think humans are, for the most part, hands on learners. You can explain and draw and show film over and over to teach a process or a skill, but until a student gets to actually see how something works, to be able to touch it, tear it apart and put it back together, they may not truly grasp the skill.”
To facilitate this learning approach, Atencio has built at least two dozen actual work stations in the shop. Each represents some component of diesel related equipment and they all have moving parts that allow the students to see exactly how they function. Atencio has gone as far as cutting windows out in various areas of each system allowing a student to see what’s happening inside the unit as it moves. Most of the work stations fire up and run just like they would on the actual vehicle. “The students can take them apart and put them back together as many times as they want,” Atencio notes. “If they struggle with this, then I can show them right then and there how to make it work.”
Atencio says he has decided he really loves teaching and he aspires to be as good as Jim May one day. “I’m not sure if Jim May understands the power he had in my life and in so many other students’ lives,” Atencio wonders. “I had several good instructors, but he was a great teacher and friend and what he taught me served me well and allowed me to be very successful in life. I want to follow in his footsteps and provide something similar to the students I teach.”
Atencio just returned from the 2015 Technology Maintenance Council’s Annual Meeting & Transportation Technology Exhibition convention held in Nashville. He went there representing Northeastern, rubbing elbows with representatives from the large trucking and equipment companies such as Penske and Fed Ex. He made the trip hoping to open some doors for job opportunities for Northeastern’s diesel technology graduates, but to also create an awareness of his program’s need for donated equipment to be used as teaching tools. The college currently has equipment for the students to work on, but much of it is very dated. “The technology has changed, everything from plug-in diagnostics to GPS, and continues to change and we have to keep up with it,” Atencio notes. The best way for students to keep up with it is to have current models to study and learn on. He encourages any local repair shops and dealerships to come to the program any time and let him know what needs to happen to better serve their needs. “We can help them by producing quality employees they can help us with program involvement and teaching tools and technology,” Atencio said.
Regarding technology, Atencio has received his ASE certificates in diesel technology and even as a fairly new teacher, gladly took on the challenge for his program to be one of the four pilot programs at Northeastern to be using the iPad as a learning tool. Atencio quickly discovered that while many iPad applications and text book formats have been developed for the gas engine, very few, if any are out there for the diesel technology. That is making utilizing the iPad somewhat challenging. However, Atencio has embraced the tablet. He encourages and helps the students in his program to make videos of repair techniques as they learn them so that they can refer back to them again and again. “We have a ways to go with this, but it is so important to embrace the technology, to understand it,” he said.
How will Atencio judge his success as a teacher? “My reward will be when I can visit with students who have been through the program and I can see that they are having good success in life working in this industry,” he said. He notes that the field placement rate for Northeastern’s diesel technology students is currently at 99 percent, including the few female students who he has taught in these last three years. Atencio is busy recruiting a new class for Fall 2015. He is making contact and visits with a number of high schools in this region.
Atencio knows the importance of big rigs and tractors and likes working on them, but he also admits to loving cars, especially muscle cars. He has a collection of them that he tinkers with when he has some spare time. He likes to play his electric guitar loud to rock and roll to unwind. He also enjoys an occasional trip to the mountains with the two most important people in his life, his wife Lorri and daughter Tawny.