Denise Coté, Ph.D., was 27 when she started at Henry Ford Community College in Detroit.
“I had dropped out of high school, was a first-generation student and I worked a ton of hours to support myself,” she said. “I was a typical community college student. I worked full time at night and went to school full time during the day. I studied, ate my meals and took a lot of naps between classes in my car in the college parking lot.”
During her second semester, Coté struggled with her first research paper. She didn’t have the experience from high school and felt so intimated that she decided to do something else with her life if she could not successfully finish the paper.
Thankfully, her supportive professor suggested that she meet with a librarian.
“The librarian taught me how to find and use information resources, how to synthesize materials and how to learn more efficiently—and I found all of this to be really fun,” she said. “This incredible librarian helped me figure out that being a good student is a skill that I could learn. Thankfully I was a decent writer so I got an ‘A’ on that scary paper and could not wait to write the next one. After that great experience, I hung out in libraries instead of parking lots.”
Coté then transferred to the University of Michigan, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English majoring in Renaissance poetry and graduated with honors. Having supported herself as a bartender and waitress for many years and cleaning houses on the side, she dropped the latter after excelling in the English program and started doing freelance writing work for a large publisher of encyclopedias as well as small research and writing projects for her professors.
Her writing experience helped Coté secure an assistantship to the Dean of Libraries at Wayne State University, where she determined what her career path should be.
“I experienced how librarians could help students find their confidence, develop critical thinking skills and that they could be scholars, no matter the discipline,” she said. “My position was invaluable because the dean assigned me with writing grants, drafting journal articles and proofreading the books that she authored. I learned so much about educational research and the scholarship of library and information sciences.”
Her work, as well as a master’s degree in Library Science, prepared Coté for her first job as a librarian at College of DuPage, where she was the College’s first Resident in Community College Librarianship. She also began working with a student population that always attracted her.
“I came from a family of union mechanics, factory workers, clerical workers and truck drivers, so my career goal coming out of my master’s degree was to serve career and technical (CTE) students. I was beyond lucky to get assigned to the CTE programs in my tenure-track job at COD,” she said. “I have always endeavored to give our CTE students a full college experience by emphasizing that they will be more successful in their courses and in their future professions by being successful researchers and critical information consumers. I also focus on the rights of workers with my students and provide information on occupational safety and OSHA guidelines for all of my programs.
“Since labor unions were a big part of my family life growing up, I also became active in the faculty union from my first semester at COD. This greatly pleased my family—a union job was a good job.”
Coté understands the financial concerns facing students and how this can be a barrier to success. She also knows how hard faculty work with their students to help them overcome many challenges. Because of this, she makes sure students have access to the materials they need.
“When I took a Ph.D. in Education, I conducted my dissertation research on faculty attitudes toward open educational resources. My current professional focus is to promote open scholarship at COD and to help faculty leverage high-quality free course materials to replace expensive textbooks. I dearly hope that my work on textbook affordability will give all students an equal chance at achieving their goals.”
In turn, Coté is inspired by her students as well as the faculty who work with them.
“I remember how incredibly hard it is to change your life through education,” she said. “I am also motivated by my fellow faculty who work tirelessly to help students be successful and are dedicated to the constant improvement of teaching and learning at the College. I’m very proud to be part of this work and to be a professor at COD.”