A calling fulfilled: Math professor Kim Harris participates in her final Charlotte Commencement

The emotions that come with commencement — fueled by pride, feelings of accomplishment and anticipation of a new chapter — are not unusual for students and their families. The same holds true for faculty members as they watch their students graduate — or embark on their own new adventures. This spring, this is the case for Kim Harris ’19, an associate professor of mathematics education in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, who will retire from Charlotte at the end of the academic year after 39 years.

Kim Harris with students at a past commencement“I’m the undergraduate coordinator for mathematics, so I advise a great number of the math majors and get to know so many of them,” Harris said. “For years, all the departmental coordinators would help organize the graduates and shake their hands as they walked into Halton. I haven’t helped with the lineup lately, but I still visit them before they enter the arena to say hello and congratulate them. I must look like someone’s mother, because I’m crying alongside them.”

Harris arrived at UNC Charlotte in fall 1984 with a doctorate from the University of Georgia. An Alabama native, she completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Auburn University. To put action behind a lifelong-learning mindset, she added a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Charlotte in 2019.

During a career that spans four-decades, Harris served on virtually every departmental and University committee conceivable, including two terms as Faculty Council president in 2004-05 and 2007-08.

Spring Commencement — Harris’ final graduation ceremony — will be a family affair. Her third cousins Natalie and Noah Harris, from Apex, North Carolina, are 49ers; the latter will graduate this week with a degree in math and systems engineering. Kim Harris volunteered to be the nomenclator at the ceremony for the Lee College of Engineering so she can call out Noah’s name. Natalie Harris, a business analytics major with a minor in statistics who is a student worker in the Mathematics and Statistics Department, graduates in December.

A passion for teaching

Harris, who started her career teaching high school math, exudes a passion for preparing new generations of mathematics instructors. Among her favorite Charlotte experiences was teaching a class for elementary education majors at Nathaniel Alexander Elementary School.

“I had my own classroom that I decorated, and I would spend a half-day teaching my students there,” she said. “Occasionally, I was approached to fill in for a teacher, so my elementary education majors would help me and work with the kids. I filled in for virtually every grade level. It was an amazing experience. My students would come early and visit other classes for observations. They were immersed in the environment of an elementary school.”

Harris’ commitment to providing math teachers what they need to excel extended into the community through workshops for math teachers and building valuable relationships with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other area school systems. Through it all, she has watched Charlotte flourish. Since she arrived, enrollment has more than doubled, and those early-year classes with 10 to 15 students gave way to lecture halls filled with up to 100 eager faces. In addition to calculus and math education classes, Harris started teaching a history of mathematics course about 15 years ago. She was surprised to discover one student was the son of a former math education major.

Reflecting on her impact on the lives of multiple generations of students she taught and advised, Harris views her time as fulfilling a God-given mission.

“The part I am going to miss the most is the contact with students. Not just me making a difference in their lives, but them influencing me,” said Harris.

She noted that being a college student is difficult, especially with what they’ve experienced in the last few years, navigating COVID, learning online, being in large lecture classes and living away from home, often for the first time.

A former student reflects on Harris’ impact

Misty HathcockMisty Hathcock ’85, ’91, ’92, ’96, ’04 is a 49er for life. A former elementary school math teacher, Hathcock eventually completed an Ed.D. and is on the faculty of the Cato College of Education. She first met Harris as an undergraduate student and knows firsthand how she influences her students’ lives and why so many stay in contact.

“Dr. Harris has impacted my life in so many ways! First, I became an elementary math teacher because she inspired me. I learned so much from her as my math education professor. She helped me to discover a love of math in me that I never realized,” said Hathcock. “Kim has been a part of my life almost as long as she has been at UNC Charlotte. She has so positively shaped the lives of countless students, faculty, staff and alumni over the years, that she leaves a lasting legacy that is unmatched.”

During a recent retirement reception for Harris, Hathcock announced the establishment of the Kim Harris Scholarship for Math Scholars in honor of Harris’ outstanding achievements, innumerable contributions and lasting impacts on math education and the Mathematics and Statistics Department, the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and the University.

Making a difference

For Harris, being a college professor has been a calling. “I have been students’ teacher and their mentor, and this office has been a safe place for them to come — to cry or fuss or get angry or share the good and the bad. I have plenty of students with problems that I can’t do anything about. But I tell them, ‘Before you go anywhere else, let’s talk about the situation and how you’re going to approach it,’” said Harris.

“I hope students will remember that I cared about them. During the pandemic, I ended my virtual lectures by telling them, ‘I love you guys,’” she continued. “I really hope our students always feel like the math faculty members care about them, their progress, where they’re going. I wanted to make a difference, and I think I have.”