When a student walks into University of Idaho Honors Program Director Alton Campbell’s office, they are greeted with a joyous, southern “hello” and offered tea from a selection he keeps stocked near an electric kettle.
No matter how busy the director is, his door remains open to all, and his smile never fades. Adorned across the office walls are photographs of current and past students, all with a different story.
Former Dean of Students Bruce Pitman was one of the first individuals to see Campbell’s ability to relate with students.
Pitman worked at UI for 42 years, and during his career developed a deep friendship with Campbell.
“I heard about a young faculty person who had a real heart for students and an interest in student success, and that guy was Alton Campbell,” Pitman said.
Pitman invited Campbell to be part of the Idaho Road Show, where a crew of UI staff and faculty traveled across Idaho for about 10 days and met with students to talk about their first year at UI.
Campbell participated in the Idaho Road Show for 10 years, moving from one assignment to the next, while also working with his students, Pitman said.
“Not everyone can do that,” Pitman said. “Partly because of the time commitment, partly because you have to expose yourself in a very open way to students. Alton stepped out of that role and did a lot more.”
Campbell’s career began at UI in 1983, as a professor teaching and researching wood history. He eventually became the associate dean for the College of Natural Resources from 1993 to 2007.
It was during this period that a high school senior from Indiana named Mindy McAllister received an unexpected postcard from Campbell encouraging her to look into UI’s College of Natural Resources.
“I still remember he used a green pen,” McAllister said. “It was that impactful, I remember the color of ink he used.”
McAllister said she never heard of UI before and she had already committed to another school until she read the note. McAllister and her father traveled to Moscow prior to spring break of her senior year.
Campbell was their personal tour guide for the day and showed them all across campus as well as a special place that McAllister said she would never forget.
The place is known as Idler’s Rest, a small nature conservancy property located at the base of Moscow Mountain. With a beautiful cedar grove and peaceful setting, it didn’t take much for McAllister to realize where she wanted to go to school, she said.
“Somebody cared enough about me to make that connection for me, to make me fall in love with this place,” McAllister said.
Today, McAllister holds the position of student services coordinator for the honors program, and Campbell still remains her biggest influence, she said.
“He’s absolutely what got me here as a student, and why I am in this position now,” McAllister said.
In the following years, Campbell transitioned to the College of Graduate Studies as the associate dean and became the associate director for the UI Honors Program in 2008. In January 2014, Campbell was named director of the honors program.
Once Campbell became the director, the number of honors program members moved from 387 students in fall 2013 to 468 in the fall 2014. Admission numbers are continuously increasing to an all-time high of 538 students in fall 2016, according to the UI Honors Program Enrollment table.
Campbell also took the initiative of creating the Honors Things That Matter discussion groups and fire-side chats, where visiting faculty talk to students about a particular subject, Campbell said.
Campbell’s students appreciate his hard work, as he has been noted as the most inspiring faculty mentor by more than 50 students who have received the Alumni Award for Excellence, Pitman said.
Pitman said Campbell has a wall of plaques that he has gathered over the last 33 years. He said they were given to him based on his profound impact on students.
This year, senior Alyssa Ertel, a Goldwater scholarship award recipient, noted Campbell as her inspirational mentor when she was nominated for the Alumni Awards for Excellence. She said Campbell’s role in her life was incredibly influential.
“He’s really had an immeasurable impact on my life,” Ertel said. “And having a faculty member believe in you in those really challenging moments that every student faces is the most incredible thing someone can do for someone.”
Ertel applied for the Goldwater scholarship during her third year at UI, and she said she wouldn’t have done so without Campbell’s encouragement.
“I think that has been a common theme me entire education, is Alton believing in me more than I believe in myself,” Ertel said.
Ertel said when she told Campbell that she chose him to be her inspirational mentor for the award, Campbell emailed her to tell her that he was grateful and knew how many individuals she could have chosen other than him.
After seeing the response, Ertel smiled and shook her head. She said he had no idea what kind of influence he had on her life as a student.
While students and employees have the utmost respect for the director, Campbell said he feels his work has been fairly ordinary. His students have brought him joy, and he said it’s given meaning to his life.
“I enjoy the challenge of getting up every day and having something to do and something to try and contribute and make the world a little better, and that’s through students, and through all the other things I do,” Campbell said.
As Campbell reflected on his 33 years at UI, he said he thinks back to where he was in North Carolina before he came to Moscow and is grateful for how his life turned out.
“It’s just hard to believe that a little kid from North Carolina, who grew up on a little tiny dairy farm could ever have gotten a Ph.D. and then have been a professor and have been the director of the Honors program of all things, can you imagine?” Campbell said.
Lindsey Heflin can be reached at email@example.com