Every weekday, Mike Petersen packs a bag with 3-D objects, a spiral notebook, flashcards and fake plastic money and heads to Wake Tech Community College.
Over the past eight years, Petersen has spent more than 4,000 hours tutoring Wake Tech students in math, science, social studies, reading and writing to help them prepare for the GED, a group of high school equivalency exams. He has also tutored students who don’t speak English as their first language.
In November, Petersen received the U.S. President’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a prestigious national award recognizing volunteers who have spent more than 4,000 cumulative service hours over their lifetime.
“I really like doing this, and my hope is that perhaps others will become interested in doing this kind of thing after hearing about the award,” said Petersen, 66.
He was among 13 volunteers with Wake County’s Wake Adults Volunteering Educational Services program who were given the President’s Volunteer Service Award, a lower-tier honor recognizing those who donate more than 100 hours a year.
“Volunteers like Mike are the lifeblood of Wake Tech, and we really can’t thank them enough,” said Laurie Clowers, vice president of communications and public relations at the school. “They not only help our students improve academically, but they also offer vital support, encouragement and inspiration. The hours they give as tutors and mentors each year make it possible for us to have a much greater impact on the lives of our students.”
During the 2015-16 school year, Petersen spent 745 hours tutoring. The next-closest award recipient donated 270 hours.
“My approach is to try to find out what they do know and then work forward from there,” Petersen said of students.
He often uses tangible items to illustrate abstract problems. For example, when teaching students about the Pythagorean theorem, Petersen points them to ladders leaning against a wall or loading ramps to provide a visual picture of the mathematical concept, which states that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
The 3-D objects he brings to sessions, including cones, cylinders and cubes, help students further grasp the ideas he’s trying to teach.
“Most people aren’t just born good at math,” Petersen said.
Before he retired and began tutoring at Wake Tech in 2008, Petersen worked for IBM for more than 30 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in math and computer science with a physics minor. He has a master’s degree in computer science from Purdue as well as a master’s in business administration from Marist College.
After working in New York and Indiana after college, Petersen moved to Raleigh in 1987. An interest in adult literacy coupled with concern about the state of higher education in the United States inspired him to start tutoring.
“I love doing this,” Petersen said. “The award didn’t make any difference.”
Madison Iszler: 919-839-4952; @madisoniszler