Faculty Awards: Douglas Vardakas

By Eric Devlin
Physics Instructor Douglas Vardakas stands with Dr. Chae Sweet, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost at Commencement. Vardakas was named the 2024 recipient of the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award. Photo by Dave DeBalko

Physics Instructor Douglas Vardakas stands with Dr. Chae Sweet, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost at Commencement. Vardakas was named the 2024 recipient of the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award. Photo by Dave DeBalko

Douglas Vardakas will be the first to admit he’s someone who likes to have goals.

The Physics instructor at Montgomery County Community College is constantly looking to reach objectives that he sets out to achieve whether it be in life or in the classroom. For example, as a long-term goal, the 62-year-old from Hatfield still has a goal to earn his doctorate. As a short-term goal, he is finding ways to teach students in his Physics classes about modern concepts in Physics discovered during and after the time of Einstein.

Yet there’s one achievement Vardakas recently attained that he didn’t plan for at all.   

At this year’s Commencement ceremonies, Vardakas learned he was named the recipient of the 2024 Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award. The award recognizes full-time faculty whose teaching is intellectually stimulating, accessible for all students, and demonstrates a commitment to the well-being of students both inside and outside of the classroom.

“It’s a bit overwhelming; I never expected it in a million years,” he said of the award. “As I’ve given it some thought, I’m able to digest it. It tells me maybe I’m successful at what I’m trying to do, which is teach. As I think about it a little bit more, maybe I am doing things right. The only reason I’m here is to teach and I’m excited if that’s what’s happening.”

Vardakas started at the College in 2015 as an adjunct instructor, after working for more than 30 years at IBM, beginning when he was 20 years old.

“I wasn’t the greatest high school student. I didn’t get into school at that point. After high school, I wanted more,” he said. “I enjoyed math and electronics, so I went to RETS Electronics School in the Radnor area and did I did well. I graduated at the top of my class. I’m a kid at this point, 19 years old. I had hair three quarters of the way down my back. I was kind of a rebel.”

IBM representatives were scheduled to come to campus to interview students to begin working at the development labs in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. On the day of the interview, there was a huge snowstorm, which prevented them from coming. While Vardakas hadn’t planned on interviewing for the job at the time, a faculty member at his school suggested he throw his hat in the ring anyway and go up to Poughkeepsie to interview.

“‘I also recommend you cut your hair,’ he said to me,” said Vardakas, “and I did.”

He nailed the interview and just after his 20th birthday in April 1982, Vardakas started his career at IBM. While there he completed a two-year degree from Dutchess County Community College by taking classes at night. Then he enrolled in the Mid-Hudson Valley Degree Completion Program from New York Polytechnic University (now New York University). The program was an arrangement between IBM and Marist College, NYU, and Syracuse universities to help students seeking a degree in electrical engineering provided they passed an entrance exam.

Believing he was finished with school, Vardakas and his wife, Maureen, moved back home to Philadelphia to work at IBM’s campus there. However, unbeknownst to him, one of his professors at NYU, Engineering Professor Donald Hunt, reached out to the dean of engineering at the University of Pennsylvania about accepting Vardakas as a graduate student.

“He invites me to his office,” said Vardakas. “He goes ‘You’re accepted. If Don recommends you, you’re accepted.’ This was in the summer. ‘You’re good to go in September, just send an application.’”

By 1992, he finished his master’s degree from Penn and continued working for IBM through 2018, when he decided he’d like to begin teaching Physics as an adjunct instructor. Luckily MCCC had an opening.  

“The professors at Pottstown Campus interviewed me and before I got home, I got a call to be ready to start Wednesday,” said Vardakas. “That’s how I got started at the school.”

In 2020, he retired from IBM after 38 years and accepted a full-time teaching position in the STEM department at MCCC.

“Sharing my experiences with students and nurturing their educational and professional growth became my mission,” he said. “Fortunate to secure a full-time teaching position, I now have the privilege of inspiring the next generation of STEM leaders at Montco.”

During Commencement, Dr. Chae Sweet, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost, read from the student nominations that helped Vardakas to receive the Lindback award.

“In their nominations students noted that instructor Vardakas is one of the most interactive, enthralling, kind and respectful teachers I have ever had,” read Dr. Sweet. “He is very knowledgeable in his area of teaching and watching him teach is truly poetry.”

“All of his classes are fun and exciting,” she continued. “Every class is meaningful, and I can confidently say that in every class, I learned something. He makes sure to use interesting, applicable examples to work through, as well as having demonstrations and props for the more complicated topics.”  

Vardakas said he was overwhelmed by his students’ words.

“I’ll keep doing the same things I’m doing which is constantly changing things up. I’m constantly trying to learn new techniques to teach the student population. Again, I feel blessed. For the family I have, to have the opportunity to teach and keep teaching. I’m overwhelmed and blessed. I felt this way before this award. It feels like a validation.”