After over 40 years of teaching at Orange Coast College, art history instructor Irini Rickerson will celebrate her retirement with a last lecture saying goodbye to the college.
When reflecting on her time as OCC, Rickerson said she sees her retirement coming at the perfect moment given the heated political climate in the country.
After disagreeing with comments Rickerson had made about President Donald J. Trump during a lecture, a student a few years ago filed a complaint with the Coast Community College District, she said.
Upon learning of the student’s grievance, Rickerson said she met with him and after a short conversation was shocked to learn what the student really wanted — a hug.
“So, I hugged him. He needed a mom and I’m a mother,” Rickerson said.
While her reaction to a student who had attempted to have her fired might seem atypical, Rickerson said she sees it as in keeping with her larger life philosophy.
“The bigger life lesson is to be kind, to care about others, to really care about this beautiful planet,” Rickerson said. “If you do not have a passion for humanity, then why are you here in some ways?”
Joseph Ahearn, a 22 year-old construction management major said that it was outside the classroom that Rickerson had the biggest impact on his life.
Ahearn said that he had previously hated school and hadn’t planned on completing a degree until he took one of Rickerson’s classes.
He also said that with Rickerson’s guidance he has been able to navigate personal challenges like health problems and homelessness.
“If I hadn’t met Irini [Rickerson] I’d probably still be pissed off and not enjoyed my life. I probably would have killed myself,” Ahearn said of Rickerson’s positive impact in his life.
Now, Ahearn has become involved with Rickerson’s AIDS benefit, plans on pursuing a master’s degree and is learning to speak Greek.
Throughout her several decades at OCC, Rickerson said she sees her relationships with students as the most rewarding part of teaching and that she is still constantly learning from her students. According to Rickerson, the best classes are when people want to be involved and actively participate.
“The classes are different, and it doesn’t always happen but my God, [when it does] I could be teaching until I’m 100 for free,” she said.
Born and raised in Athens, Greece, Rickerson studied art history and architecture at the University of Florence in Italy from where she graduated summa cum laude and eventually received her doctorate.
It was while in Florence that Rickerson met her future husband who she described as the stereotypical California surfer dude.
While visiting California for the first time, Rickerson began to sit in on the courses her soon-to-be husband was taking at OCC.
She returned to OCC in 1978 to teach and was tasked with developing a history of architecture curriculum.
In 1990, Rickerson began teaching full time as well as becoming the director of the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion — a position she held for the next 13 years.
It was also in 1990 that Rickerson began hosting an annual AIDS awareness benefit that has raised $200,000 in the past 30 years.
Rickerson said the impetus for the event was the death of her former student Aaron Jones.
After receiving a call from Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach informing her that he wanted to see her, Rickerson visited Jones every day for the last month of his life.
Before his death, Jones spoke of a desire to bring AIDS awareness to OCC.
“All those years, I never went back on my promise. I did the AIDS benefit for 30 years,” Rickerson said.
Since she is doing her last lecture this year, Rickerson said she fears the benefit won’t continue after her retirement.
As Rickerson looks to her own future, she said she is excited to spend more time with her books, her research and her young grandson.
Throughout her career, Rickerson received numerous awards but said she was most honored by receiving the Lifetime Friend of the Students Award from the Associated Students of Orange Coast College.
“I thought that this was the best thing any professor can get… because it was from the students and you’re a professor for the students,” Rickerson said. “It was such a big honor because we have so many wonderful teachers.”
Part of her last lecture event will be a discussion of her upcoming archeological projects in the Greek Isles and will be held in the Robert B. Moore Theatre on March 13 at 7 p.m.
While her event “Mysteries of Archeology” is her last benefit lecture, Rickerson insisted that her relationship with the college is not ending and plans on returning to give free lectures about her ongoing research.
Rickerson said that it has been the feeling of family that has made her time at OCC so special.
“Really the most special thing is the togetherness, that people care and support each other,” she said.