Brian Kloppenborg ’06 credits Hastings College math and computer science professor Dr. Mark Hall for saving his career.
After graduating from Hastings College with a major in physics and minors in math and computer science, Kloppenborg entered graduate school with the aspiration of becoming an astrophysicist. After one year of demanding coursework, his first attempt at the Ph.D. qualifying exam came up short.
With his dream seeming dissolving before his eyes, he called upon his mentor, who inspired him to “ignore the ridicule that comes with such an event, put my nose in the books and do what I needed to do to be successful.” Over the next year, Kloppenborg followed the advice and not only passed his second attempt at the qualifying exam, but also produced his department’s first publication in the prestigious scientific journal “Nature.”
“If it weren’t for Mark’s thoughtful advice, I probably would have ended my graduate career,” Kloppenborg said. “If I could go back and thank him for one thing, it would be that single conversation.”
Kloppenborg’s story is just one of dozens that demonstrate how Hall bettered the lives of his students during his 21-year career as Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science. Those student success stories are part of the lasting legacy Hall leaves behind as he retires this spring.
An unexpected hire
Hall began teaching at Hastings College in 2001 after working for a decade at institutions in Thailand. He had moved to Bangkok in 1991 with his wife, Ju, an international student who studied in the U.S. on a scholarship that required her to return to Thailand and teach for several years.
His return to the States is “a rather interesting story,” he said.
“When we decided it would be good to come back to the U.S., I applied for jobs. But I did not apply to Hastings College,” Hall said. “In fact, Hastings College was not advertising a position in math at the time.”
Instead, he applied to Wesleyan College but was turned down because he didn’t have a master’s degree in computer science.
Months later, Hastings College received a last-minute notice that one of their math and computer sciences professors decided to take a job in industry. They posted the position but struggled to find someone.
“They were really getting really worried,” Hall said. “Then, the mathematics department chair from Hastings went to a conference and met the department chair from Weslayan. The Hastings professor told him about their hiring challenges, and the Wesleyan chair suggested they contact me.”
The match worked for Hall and the college, and Hall decided to stay long-term because “I felt like I just fit in well,” he said.
‘Absolutely excellent educator’
It takes a certain level of a nerdiness to mesh with an academic mathematics department, but Hall’s personality works well for the task. He’s a soft spoken, deep listener who takes time to think before he responds — though he’s no stranger to cracking a geeky joke when the mood strikes.
“He’s somebody you’d expect to be among the leading cast of the show ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ not only due to his intellect but also his ability to connect with real people,” Kloppenborg said.
Those traits served Hall well in the classroom, where he aimed to meet every student at their level. He wasn’t afraid to slow down a lesson or double back on a concept if he noticed his students looking confused.
Kloppenborg recalled a programming class where, after discovering students just weren’t picking up the programming language, Hall abandoned the textbook and wrote a completely new lesson from scratch.
“He tried again and again and again to help us understand how it actually worked. In the end, we just didn’t get it,” Kloppenborg said. “His plan wasn’t working, so he took the feedback and adapted in real time. That’s a very clear indication of an absolutely excellent educator.”
Hall approached math and computer science — two fields often feared by students for their rigor and challenge — as anything but frightening.
“A lot of students who start computer science drop off after that intro to computer science class. Either they are intimidated by the code or all the moving parts,” said Alex Eisele ’15, who majored in computer science. “With Dr. Hall, I never got that feeling. He didn’t make it feel like it’d be a huge mountain to climb.”
Gratified by student success
Hall kept an open door policy, and he welcomed students over lunch to work through lessons. Thu Nguyen ’19 used many of those lunch sessions to independently study abstract algebra.
“I met with him two times a week to cover those materials, and he’d give me a lecture. While he was talking, he’d write notes down for me. I still have those notes today,” Nguyen said. “At times when I feel lost, I look at them and think, ‘Dr. Hall spent a lot of time and effort to help me. I can’t choose to give up now.’”
Nguyen enrolled at Hastings College as an international student from Vietnam. She said Hall’s experience teaching in another Asian country helped her feel more comfortable and confident. Outside of class, they traded tips for where to find the best Thai and Vietnamese food in Nebraska.
Now, she is on track to complete her masters in mathematics this year. She plans to follow Hall’s footsteps and teach.
“He gave me the confidence that I could achieve my goals, that I could go further in my career,” she said. “I wish there were more professors like him around the world. He would help his students to not only get the degree but to feel confident, which is something you can bring to your whole life.”
Eisele also said the lessons he learned from Hall benefited him long after he graduated from Hastings College. Whether computer science skills or simply a humbled outlook on life, Hall changed the way Eisele approached his career.
“Within math and computer science, he taught me how to focus on writing code at a higher level. Learning the bigger picture has helped me think about writing code at an even higher level now,” Eisele said. “Beyond that, he helped me realize that it’s important to be humble about your strengths and your weaknesses. I don’t think he explicitly said that, but I just understood it by watching the way he carried himself.”
Now a software developer for Goldman Sachs and member of the Hastings College Board of Trustees, Eisele said Hall’s mentorship “really gave me the fundamental foundation I needed to perform well on the job.” Eisele said he stays in touch with Hall, often grabbing lunch with his former professor when he visits his alma mater. He still remembers the little ways Hall worked to make his students feel comfortable, because he cared about them on a personal level.
“Every test day we had with him, he would bring in these green candies from Thailand. Every time I see them now, I attribute those to him,” Eisele said. “These days, we don’t talk much about school anymore. We just catch up about our lives.”
Student success stories like Eisele’s, Nguyen’s and Kloppenborg’s represent the most rewarding part of the last two decades for Hall. He said he finds a lot of gratification in watching students learn and grow.
“That really makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m doing something useful,” he said.
His mentorship and caring for his students did not go without recognition. In 2008 and 2014, he received the Faculty Achievement Award, which honored his demonstrated achievement in teaching and was based on nominations from students, faculty and staff.
In retirement, Hall said he and Ju plan to stay in Hastings. They’ll expand their vegetable garden, and he’ll take on projects around the house, including some small woodworking tasks. They also plan to make frequent visits to family and friends in Thailand, and hope to visit their son, Kris, in Austin, Texas, more frequently, too.
“Now that we have more flexible schedules, we can actually spend a few months every year there,” he said. “And it actually works out very, very nicely because Thailand is in the tropics, which means in the winter when it’s snowing here, it’s rather pleasant there.”
By Mallory Gruben ’18