Before They Were Educators: Dr. Todd Collins

Lawyers. We call them for their legal expertise and their concise speaking ability; we call them when we are in need of advice. Would you call a lawyer about your next term paper?

If so, you are probably a student of Dr. Todd Collins, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University.

Born and raised in Mt. Airy, Collins had high aspirations for his future from the time he was a young man.

“I knew that I wanted to go to law school and political science is one of the best majors for pre-law students,” said Collins, explaining his choice to study political science as an undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill.

For Collins, the study of government and politics had always been something that interested him. The unique blend of history, law, psychology, sociology, and philosophy cultivated an enticing field of study for the young pre-law student.

After graduating as a double major in political science and philosophy, Collins enrolled in the UNC School of Law, where he graduated his Juris Doctor.

Collins recounts his time at Chapel Hill as some of the most enjoyable years of his life.

“You get to know so many different people and there are opportunities that you will never have again in your life,” said Collins, noting his involvement with pre-law associations, the philosophy club, and orientation counseling.

Collins also served on the campus honor court, which held hearings involving academic fraud, along with working as a resident assistant for most of his college career.

On being a resident assistant, Collins said, “It was a great opportunity to be involved in the college community and help pay for school at the same time.”

After graduating from the UNC School of Law, Collins did the practical thing and became a lawyer, focused mainly in criminal law. However, Collins found the career of the practicing lawyer a monotonous one.

“There were many things I enjoyed about practicing law and being an attorney can be a great career, but you can also get into a position where you are doing the same types of cases over and over again,” Collins said. “Besides, I always enjoyed studying the law and legal theory more than the practice of law.”

Collins compared his time in criminal law to that of a real estate attorney, in which one would be practicing real estate cases day in and day out.

In particular, Collins found the emotional strain of practicing tough cases hard to bear outside of the courtroom.

“In criminal law you often deal with some very tough cases such as child abuses and murders, and you often see the worst in people,” Collins said.

To sum up the life of a criminal lawyer, Collins said, “Nobody calls their lawyer to tell them they are having a good day. This gives you a chance to help people, but it can sometimes be tough to leave other people’s problems at work and not have it influence you outside of court.”

Longing the freedom to study what truly interested him, Collins enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Georgia in hopes of entering the post-secondary education field after graduation.

As a graduate student at UGA, Collins was afforded an opportunity to teach classes. He recalls that his years in the courtroom helped him feel comfortable in front of students, but that he still had some learning to do as far as teaching the material was concerned.

“At first I felt like that I had to know everything and had to go over everything. Once I realized that the classroom is a learning environment where students can learn from the experiences and opinions of each other, class became more enjoyable,” Collins said. “I really enjoyed classes where students came prepared for class and we could just have a conversation about the issues. I still enjoy that.”

With his Ph.D. in hand, Collins began the job hunt in 2007 and knew that he wanted to start his career at Western Carolina University, the college that his own father had graduated from in the 1960s.

“My father was the first generation in his family to go to college and it was a struggle for him to afford it. Without some help, he would not have been able to pay to go to college,” Collins said. “WCU was very important in his future success, and his ability to raise his family. So, in many ways I owe a lot to WCU, even though I didn’t go here.”

Now in his fifth year of teaching at WCU, Collins has enjoyed the freedom to research all of his interests and curiosities.

“If I want to do research on free speech this month, and criminal law next month, and then start a project on freedom of religion, I can do that. Being a professor gives you the freedom to continually learn about what ever interests you,” Collins said. “There are very few jobs in the world that share this aspect.”

Along with the liberty of the profession, Collins also enjoys helping students recognize the merits of all sides of an issue and forming their own opinions.

“The best thing for me is when a student comes into class absolutely sure of the way the world works, thinking they know all the answers. Then, over the semester we see that very few questions in political science are so black and white,” Collins said.

Collins has also appreciated the people and places in and around Western Carolina University, saying that one of the most enjoyable aspects of his job are his colleagues in the department of political science and the great group of students that Western attracts.

“WCU does a great job of mixing the large university experience with some of the attributes of a smaller liberal arts college. This is a place where you can get to know your professors,” Collins said. “Many bigger schools you are a number on a spreadsheet. Here, I like that individual students do matter.”

For Collins, his colleagues and students at WCU, along with the beautiful locale, are all added bonuses to a career he chose for the freedom to continue his quest for knowledge. The school colors don’t hurt either.

“I’ve always kind of liked purple and now I have a legitimate reason to wear it.”