Recognition often comes when you least expect it. After all, one can spend years chasing dreams, scrupulously defying odds, proving naysayers wrong and still come up short. But when the time comes, it's often when you least expect it.
"I really didn't expect to win," 30 year old Holly Gruhlke said at her office in Stickney Hall on a windy May day.
She's referring to the Educator of the Year Award bestowed upon her by colleagues at Dickinson State University.
"As an educator, receiving the Distinguished Educator of the Year really means a lot to me," Gruhlke said. "Teaching is my passion, and I am blessed to have such an amazing group of people, faculty, staff, and students, to share that with at Dickinson State University. It is an honor to receive this award particularly because it is peer-selected. Having them recognize my contribution is humbling."
Each year DSU selects one outstanding educator of the year, singling them out for recognition of excellence in higher education. This year, it was Gruhlke's turn to receive recognition.
Gruhlke is an alumnus of DSU, completing her undergraduate studies at the university where she now teaches. She received her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a minor in Human Resource Management from DSU in 2008. She then went on to earn her Master's in Business Administration from the University of North Dakota in 2011.
"I anticipate completing my Doctorate in Business Administration in 2017," Gruhlke said.
This summer she is completing her dissertation for her doctorate in business administration from Wilmington University, a research institution in New Castle, Del. Coupled with the recent award and the near completion of her doctorate, and a 3-year-old son, Jackson, Gruhlke says she is living the dream.
Gruhlke attended high school in Wolf Point, Mont., but grew up on an organic farm and ranch near Oswego, Mont.
Gruhlke is mentored by two former educators of the year, Kostas Voutsas and Debora Dragseth.
"When Holly joined our department a few years ago, you could see that she had a lot of spirit and energy," Dragseth said. "She really connects with the students very well."
Dragseth has been Gruhlke's mentor for six years.
"You have to be nominated by someone, and it's an anonymous nomination," Dragseth said. "And then you fill out an application, just talking about your strengths, and then there's a committee that chooses each of the award winners. The committee is made up of the award winners from the prior year. So next year for example, Holly will be part of the committee that chooses next year's award winner."
Gruhlke won the award for the Outstanding Teacher of the Year for the College of Education, Business and Applied Science for the 2015-16 academic year and was supposed to be a part of the committee that selected this year's DSU Educator of the Year Award. Due to her nomination for the Educator of the Year Award for the 2016-17 academic year, she was not allowed to be a part of the committee.
Gruhlke's favorite part of being an educator is working with the students, she said.
"I enjoy being an active participant in their academic and professional success," Gruhlke said. "Although it is tough to say goodbye when they graduate, I enjoy hearing about their successes as their careers progress. It is fun to celebrate when they are accepted into graduate school or receive an offer for their dream job. To be a small part of their journey is amazing."
DSU President Thomas Mitzel presented the Educator of the Year Award to Gruhlke at the annual ceremony.
"In terms of the Educator of the Year Award, what we are here to do is educate our students at the best possible level," Mitzel said. "The people who do that are our faculty members. They are with the students almost every day in the classroom, they're mentoring outside of the classroom, they're advising, they're doing projects, they're doing research with the students. They're much more than a teacher."
Mitzel likes to tell people teaching at a small liberal arts institution will probably be the most difficult job they will ever have, but one of the funniest and most gratifying jobs they will ever have.
"The Educator of the Year Award, which we give, is extremely highly coveted," Mitzel said. "The person who receives that award has earned it by doing ideals that almost surpass what is humanly possible. ...She was an extremely strong candidate. She exhibits all of the ideals that one would hope that we have for that particular award. I would say that as a university we are lucky to have her with us. The students love her, and she works very well with the students, and she does great as a DSU community member as well."