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Willingness to Learn Led James Tierney '08 to Life in Improv, Business and Teaching

By Kenneth Stratton '19 TUESDAY, MAY 7, 2019 - 12:00 PM WNE100

“I chose WNE because of the bowling team; true story,” said James Tierney ’08. While he came for the bowling – one of the top 16 programs in the country at the time – Tierney found much more at Western New England, setting him on the path to a busy life in improv, business and teaching.

In his second semester, Tierney took an economics class with Professor Michael Enz, which he said changed his life.

“I was a math major and I had never really thought about how math could connect to other parts of life through a social science,” Tierney said. “The class was a calculus-based economics class which made me realize it was something I wanted to do,” he added.

Tierney explained that he went into undergrad prepared to one day become a teacher. It was something he’d wanted to do since the days of playing school with his sisters in the basement.

As an undergraduate, Tierney was involved on campus in Student Senate and other activities, thanking Maureen Keizer and Ian Martin for their guidance. He also secured a position with the Investments division at MassMutual in Springfield, now on a path more focused on finance. Tierney came away with a lesson he still shares with his students today.

“During the interview process I really clicked with my supervisor and I was honest about my willingness to learn,” Tierney said. Tierney explained that of the six candidates who interviewed, he was the only one not currently majoring in finance. “Later on, he told me he’d rather hire someone willing to learn than someone who thinks they know it all. I tell my students this story every semester,” he said.

Tierney would move across the country after graduation, landing in California. He explained the move wasn’t easy, adjusting to a new life and struggling to keep in touch with family and friends. While working as a teaching assistant through his graduate studies at University of California, Irvine, Tierney began to tutor high school math and economics as well.

“Soon I realized teaching and being a business owner was what I truly wanted to do, not be a researcher. That’s why I left the PhD program I was in and opened the [tutoring] company,” Tierney said. While the company he started is no longer operating, he does still tutor from time to time.

Over the next few years, a confluence of factors both personally and professionally left Tierney considering what his next move would be. Eventually a full-time teaching position opened up at SUNY Plattsburgh, about 20 miles from his parents in upstate New York. He applied, got the job, and with his girlfriend/future wife Kim, moved back east. After about a year at Plattsburgh, Tierney would make another change.

“I had been doing some consulting work for WW Norton Publishing on a new textbook that was coming out by Dirk Mateer and Lee Coppock. Dirk was a lecturer here at Penn State at the time so I got to know a bit about the position. He then left and encouraged me to apply, even though I wasn’t sure if I was qualified,” Tierney explained. “Again, I went into the interview honest about my qualifications and my willingness to learn from others. I was offered the job and we decided to move again,” he recalled with enthusiasm. Penn State and Western New England provide two distinct college experiences, differing in size and atmosphere, but Tierney sees advantages to both.

At Penn State, classrooms are so large Tierney might never meet all of his students, where Western New England’s great advantage are the personal connections made between students and professors. Then again, because Penn State is so large, Tierney and students benefit from large labs and research, such as the time when Tierney, his wife and a friend developed the app, Pets I’ve Met, a virtual scrapbook of life’s furry friends.

Tierney explained that he’s always looking for new ways to relate economics to the lives of his students. He’s developed several projects over the years with that goal in mind, such as Bazinganomics, where he relates economics to the television series, The Big Bang Theory.

“I also try to keep up with my personal blog whenever I find something I think is interesting,” Tierney added. “Currently I’m working on a new Webster called Bad Econ Tweets to take tweets from politicians and show what’s wrong with them,” he said.

But Tierney’s work doesn’t end with students and economics. He’s also collaborated with colleagues to bring his love of improv to Penn State. After what started as a small group of faculty members meeting weekly to do improv, Tierney and colleagues now offer classes, workshops and perform three times a month. Today, Tierney’s also running the successful improv company he started, Happy Valley Improv.

The former Western New England student says he’s continuing to grow as an educator. For one, he’s become more compassionate; understanding that his assignments might not be priority #1 for his students. But he’s also continuing to grow as a husband. He and his wife have just bought a house in downtown State College, PA, and are settling into the community, hoping to “put down roots.”

“I have no idea what comes next but staying in State College, teaching economics, and running an improv company seems to be a pretty good life,” the ever-busy Tierney said. He reflected a bit more on why and how he’s always juggled so many interests and projects throughout his life. “I’m a first gen college student and my parents had to work very hard to provide for me and my sisters. They always wanted to make sure we had what we needed and allowed us to participate in extracurricular's. I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t work hard every day of my life,” Tierney said.