Before They Were Educators: Dr. Mark Couture

Hola, ¿cómo estás? Te damos gracias por la lectura.

If you can read that, you might have taken Spanish with Dr. Mark Couture, associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages at Western Carolina University.

Couture grew up in northern Michigan in a small town with one stoplight. Once his dreams of sports glory ended with a broken ankle, Couture took up bass guitar and was in a band by the time he was a junior in high school.

“It’s normal to think in high school that you will be a rock star,” said Couture, “but as I entered college, I was a little more clearheaded and focused more on my studies.”

Called “Super Spartan” by his sixth grade social studies teacher, Couture followed in the footsteps of almost his entire family and attended Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., after graduating from high school.

“Michigan State was the only school I applied to, and I was accepted. Growing up, I can remember listening to football games on the radio and once in a while we would drive to East Lansing to watch a game,” said Couture.

As an undergraduate, Couture was an interdisciplinary studies major, which was a mixture of Spanish language, history and international studies. Oddly enough, Will Peebles, director of the School of Music at WCU, was Couture’s advisor during this time.

“Initially, I thought I would study engineering because my dad was an engineer. It wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t have done well as an engineering major, but I was more drawn to the humanities type courses, and my parents never put pressure on me to do otherwise,” said Couture.

Couture continued to pursue his musical endeavors while an undergrad, participating in another band and taking some music classes. With such an nonspecific major and excess musical aspirations leftover from his younger days, Couture was unsure as to what his future career would be.

“My mother’s side was completely education; my grandmother was teacher, my grandfather was a principal and on the board of trustees at a community college, my sister and brother are teachers. As a senior in college, I toyed with the idea of becoming a high school teacher and applied to the program but was too late. Then I decided to attend graduate school,” said Couture.

Having decided on continuing his education at Michigan State in preparation for a career in higher education, Couture had only to decide on what he would study.

“As a freshman in college, my RA was a Mexican-American and he took me to a Hispanic party in Lansing,” said Couture. “It was so different from the parties I was used to back home that just had a keg of beer and blasted Led Zeppelin. There was good food, Spanish language, and dancing. I had to learn the lingo so I could fit in.”

After earning his Master’s in Spanish, Couture was accepted at Michigan State, UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University as a PhD candidate. He eventually decided on Duke, citing financials as a key factor in his decision.

While living in Durham and studying at Duke, Couture had never heard of WCU until the men’s basketball team won the SoCon Championship in 1995. Soon after, Couture was hired on to his first teaching position at WCU.

Once at WCU, Couture was pleasantly surprised by the caliber of students.

“There were many students [at WCU] that could have easily cut it at Duke,” said Couture.

Couture also had to adapt to the type of students that he taught.

“At Duke, if you teach a Spanish class, there would be 20 students, and two would be from North Carolina. At WCU, only one or two of those are not from North Carolina,” said Couture.

Couture’s admiration for his students is not one-sided. Many of his students have commented on how outgoing and funny he can be in the classroom while still keeping the class focused on the Spanish language and academics.

“I think I’m a pretty laid back guy, friendly and that my classes are fun. You walk down hallways, and the students don’t always look happy sitting in class. I like to use humor and tell jokes,” said Couture.

Couture’s style of teaching is a product of his personal and professional personalities.

“Teaching to me is a little bit like acting. Who you are in the classroom isn’t who you are at home. You go in and do the thing you’ve prepared to do. In private, I’m a bit more introverted and shy,” said Couture.

Couture is also very active outside the classroom, sitting on the board of directors of a farm worker advocacy group called Vecinos, which means “neighbors” in Spanish.

“Vecinos is a nonprofit organization that provides health care and business assistance to local farm workers,” said Couture, who has been associated with Vecinos for eight years.

Couture has also done a lot of bicycle riding, including a month-long bicycle pilgrimage up and down Japanese mountains to visit monasteries, travelling with Dr. Leonardo Bobadilla from WCU’s department of psychology, a former “Before They Were Educators” subject. Couture rode around Lake Michigan and also across France. He said that he saves money by commuting to campus by bicycle.

Along with shooting hoops in Reid gym (although, Couture admitted that it has been a while since he’s done that), Couture also plays saxophone on the campus radio, an instrument that he played in the band as a kid and that he picked back up when he came to WCU.

Having been a WCU faculty member for over a decade, Couture knows a thing or two about loving his job. In fact, for students who may be doubting their major or career choice, much like Couture himself did in his early years of college, he has some advice:

“Don’t take a job for the money, but be happy with the job that you have. There’s no substitute for a job that you like. Also, don’t narrow yourself to one thing. Sometimes when you study things, it may not seem practical, but if you know a lot of things, it helps with perspective.”

“To paraphrase Dr. Samuel Johnson: ‘When you are young you have the energy to read eight or 10 hours a day. Take advantage of that. Get some reading done. The energy level won’t be the same.’ I think I did that as a graduate student. Nowadays, I read a tenth as much,” said Couture.

Amateur rock star and athlete, “Super Spartan,” teacher and Catamount are all aliases of Dr. Couture, a man who many have come to know as a dedicated faculty member and mentor.

Couture served as chair of the department of Modern Foreign Languages for five years, but Couture and his students are both happy that he is back in the classroom full-time, where he can make the most difference in the lives of his students.