Bake a Cake, Balance the Books, and find Inner Peace

by | Mar 1, 2014 | Features

Melanie Russell of Russell Photography specializes in infant and early child portraiture. Based in Russellville and serving the River Valley area, her Facebook page is filled with five star recommendations for both her work and the classes she teaches in the continuing education program at Arkansas Tech University.
Working in partnership with this outreach program of ATU, she promotes these community-wide classes through her Facebook network and relishes the opportunity these classes provide. “It’s awesome to get to interact with the people who I never even knew followed my page,” she explains. “I just had twenty ladies in my last infant and child photography class and they all told me they’d never put their camera in auto mode again.”
The Arkansas Tech Continuing Education program falls under the umbrella of the College of Professional Studies. Having been around for decades, it has evolved to reflect the needs and interests of the local community. Today the program puts out three class schedules a year, offering learning opportunities in everything from computer and business seminars to weekly classes on cake decorating and dog training. A revenue-producing department for the university, the classes are non-credited. The College of Professional Studies pays the community-based teachers a percentage of the enrollment fee and offers these classes to everyone in the community.
Lisa Cochran, director of the Department of Community Outreach and Professional Development, describes the continuing education classes as a community outreach arm of Arkansas Tech. Providing educational opportunities to all members of the community these classes, she says, “are a great introduction to Tech and offer learning opportunities that wouldn’t be available anywhere else.” Referencing popular classes like culinary workshops and recently added options such as power yoga she adds, “I feel like we have some of the best instructors in town.”
Lee Green of Post Winery recently joined the continuing education program, offering wine appreciation classes at the Lake Pointe Conference Center, a property now owned by Arkansas Tech. A graduate of the ATU Parks and Recreation program, Green teaches the Arkansas Beverage Management Course on campus and was approached by the continuing education program about sharing his skills with the wider community. He recently completed his first class, Wines of France, and will soon begin a class on wines of Italy, Germany and Spain.
Most of the approximately twenty students in his class are in their late thirties and above. Some are familiar with wine pairings and others are just learning, he explains. They gather each week at Lake Point to sample hors d’oeuvres prepared by the chef of Post Winery, “pour wine, and talk about  how the wine and the food interact,” explains Green. Afterward, they delve into a discussion of the history, culture, and food of the region. Green describes the weekly event as a “free flowing” class that is dictated by the interests and questions of the students themselves.
Having spent years in Russellville, Green says teaching these classes provides him the opportunity to learn more about the area and interact with people he might not otherwise meet. Noting the unlikelihood of this class in an otherwise dry county, he says he’s been noticing a change in regional attitudes toward wine in recent years. “The fear of alcohol is starting to subside,” he explains. “We’re starting to see a growth in the Russellville community with a more responsible approach to alcohol—as a grocery, as a food, as something we can appreciate but not abuse.”
Looking through the 2014 spring class guide offers readers a glimpse into the growing interests of the community itself and highlights the talents of the Russellville populace. There’s a beginning floral design class offered by Joe Tuner of Cathy’s Florals along with southern and Latin cuisine courses taught by Chef Craig Alderson of the hospitality department. A class called “iPad Essentials” targets seniors who are interested in utilizing this new technology and the class “American Red Cross Wilderness and Remote First Aid” helps students gain skills to be able to respond to emergencies and give care in areas that do not have immediate emergency medical services. There are also online ACT prep classes, an introduction to Quickbooks, and a karate class offered by Tech professor Dr. Nobuyuki Nezu, a native of Japan trained in the traditional Jyoshimon Shourin-ryu style. Classes in Spanish, sign language, and wedding planning round out the offerings. Some of the classes are held on the Tech campus while others take place in a community or business space operated by the instructor. Classes can run anywhere from thirty to one hundred plus dollars. In most cases an additional material fee is added to cover any needed purchases students are expected to make to participate in the class.
Rachel Storment was recently hired as the marketing specialist for the College of Professional Studies and Community Outreach. It’s her job to help spread the word about the classes, develop new selections, and identify potential teachers. Outgoing, resourceful, and passionate about her work, she strives to keep a finger on the pulse of both community trends and needs. “It’s about constantly keeping your ear open,” she explains, “to what’s new, what’s trending.” End of the semester surveys give students the chance to provide feedback about what’s working and what classes they’d like to see in the future.
In addition to paying close attention to these surveys, she says she often follows developments on the popular website Pinterest to identify potential new classes, noting an increased interest in homemade wedding invitations, for example.
Dean of Professional Studies, Dr. Mary Ann Rollins, has been overseeing the continuing education program since the 1980s and is familiar with the changing trends and needs. For years the courses focused solely on hobbies and language classes, she explains. But with the rise of technology and the growth of the industrial community in the region the program now offers day-long professional and business seminars for members of the business and industrial communities. Older students frequently request classes on technology and basic computer use and small business owners want to learn about website development and bookkeeping software. In recent years she’s also seen a growing interest in yoga and other forms of fitness.
Joy Murphy of Dance of With Joy Enterprises has been with the program longer than anyone.  “I’ve been teaching with the department for thirty five years,” she laughs. “Since I was 18 years old.” She speaks to the changing trends, noting that in the 1980s her country and western dance classes were incredibility popular. “I even taught a disco class,” she says, laughing. These days she offers a popular midday yoga class that is popular with ATU staff and faculty. “They are looking for a midday break to stretch, renew their mental attitude, and challenge their physical needs so they can wake up their day,” she explains.
Tara Dacus of Roots Yoga Space is one of the newest instructors to enter the program and offers a power yoga class once a week for both beginners and experienced yoga practitioners. “I came to yoga from a sports injury,” she explains, “but I found a lot of benefits from yoga. It relieves a lot of stress, helps your range of motion, and makes you a more powerful person.” She’s only been teaching yoga for about eight months and just started at Tech this semester. “Working through the College of Education is great,” she explains, “because it’s such a good avenue for reaching all ages of people because Tech is such a place for that,” she says. “Not only are there professors there, but also college students who are away from home and get to experience the community and learn more about Russellville and what is great about the town. The classes connect Tech to community at large,” she adds.
Director Lisa Cochran says the continuing education office tries to keep popular classes in the docket while also offering something new each year. “We don’t want to be redundant just because we have offered it over and over,” she explains. “Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. It’s just the nature of the beast, she adds.
“People often approach us,” she continues, “looking for an avenue to teach.” At times the teachers bring their own following and in many cases are able to access the continuing education program as a springboard for their own small business. Cochran is also part of a statewide group of continuing education professionals that bounce ideas off of each other to develop new classes. “We have so much talent in our community it’s crazy,” she adds. “Some of the teachers that approach me and show me their credentials and I’m just blown away, honestly.”
Trinity Woods of Sweet Sensations Wedding and Special Occasion Cakes offers regular classes in 3D and sculpted cakes. She’s been teaching what she refers to as the “sugar arts” for about four years now, and her Mommy and Me Cupcake Class is one of the most popular on the schedule. She first started making cakes, she says, when her daughter was getting married and wanted a large cake that was out of their price range. “I bet I could make that,” she mused. “Looking back it was probably pretty hideous,” she laughs about her first creation. But over the years others asked her to make their cakes and she slowly improved her skills and began marketing her talents.
In 2010 she won a trip for a private session with Buddy Valastro of the TLC program, Cake Boss. “When I won that contest I realized, hey I’m pretty good,” she explains. “My policy has always been to say yes, I can make that, and then figure out a way how.” The popular Mommy and Me Cupcake Class hosts children age three all the way up to teenagers. “Anybody can take it,” she says, “and you get to spend some one on one time with your parent.”
Recalling her most recent sculpted cake class, Woods says she loves spending time with the wide diversity of students who sign up for her classes. “No one in the class had made a sculpted cake before and they were all nervous and didn’t think they could do it,” she says. “About a third of the way through they started seeing all the details coming together. Something clicked on their faces and in that instant they all were experiencing that joy of, hey I can do this. I am creative and I am talented.”
You can learn more about the continuing education and professional development classes at Arkansas Tech by calling the department at 479-498-6035 or by sending an email to You can also visit them online at and following them on Facebook at Arkansas Tech Department of Continuing Education. A complete listing of classes is available for download online.

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