Shawn Athanasios has been at Georgia State for less than a year. But his classes are already making a reputation for themselves. They’re about letting students express their beliefs, building healthy conversations and creating an environment where each student feels confident in sharing their view, even if it’s different from others.
Although, officially, he’s a professor for human communication and public speaking courses, it’s fair to say that all his students have learned a lot more than just structuring a speech.
Who’s the guy in the velvet jacket?
Athanasios and his brother were raised by their maternal grandmother, who took them all around the world. From ages two to 17-years-old, they lived in Laos, Ghana, India Egypt, and then landed in California, where Athanasios became the first one in his family to finish college.
Tasting different professions, he took on acting, delivering small roles for a series, and then spent a year in South Korea teaching English to young students while also applying to graduate school. He received a full ride at New York University (NYU), where he completed his Master’s in human communication, studying “conflict management, thinking habits, emotional intelligence” and similar concepts that he likes to sprinkle into the current classes he teaches as well.
From then, Athanasios taught at NYU, Pace University and other institutions in New York before moving to Georgia in 2016 to support his wife, an aspiring actress, and raise his two children.
Not class, but therapy
There’s something fundamentally different – and endlessly enjoyable and fulfilling – about the way Athanasios chooses to run his classes. Ask any of his students and it becomes apparent that most don’t ever skip. It’s not a class to dread, and definitely not a class that requires cramming information last minute for an upcoming test – mostly because there are none. In his public speaking course, Athanasios has chosen not to give tests. Why? He said he’s not a fan.
“The reason why I teach public speaking and why I enjoy it so much is it’s an experiential class and as long as they’re up there doing speeches, doing a group presentation on the chapter, [being engaged], creating outlines, I test them,” he said.
Most importantly, he’s taken on an innovative and refreshing practice of ‘doing class’, one where the students actually…talk.
In a time where perhaps it most crucial, Athanasios instills in his students a respect for other’s opinions, through phrases like “you can have your truth, and I can have mine, and they can both be right.”
Nick Marblestone, public speaking student, said that is what makes his class different from all the others.
“Professor Athanasios has this uncanny ability to get students talking about the most controversial issues, all without stepping on anybody’s toes or offending anyone,” he said. “I have been a part of discussions in his class [that] I wouldn’t imagine going well in any other class I have ever had. But somehow, he pulls it off.”
The ability to create discussions and allow students to talk about their beliefs without a “fear of being called a name or judged by others” is what makes this class different, according to Marblestone.
And that’s what Athanasios wants you to understand before leaving his class. A big part of the conversational style that dominates his class time comes from students posing their different perspectives on real everyday issues they all come face to face with. Some of these issues include inequality, social movements like feminism, war, the current U.S. political climate, and family affairs that students struggle with.
His public speaking class kicked off in the beginning of the semester with introductory speeches, where Athanasios encouraged his students to share what makes them who they are. And it seemed like no one was hesitant to talk about their dark past, craziest adventures, or the tragedies that shaped them into who they are today.
“He taught us about how we have a voice, and it is unique to us. Since we have a voice, we are entitled to have an opinion,” student Josh Larsen said. “That was kind of mind-blowing to me because I never heard it said like that before.”
Students said it’s that accepting atmosphere that allowed them to grow the comfort they now have around not only their professor, but their peers as well.
“The first assignment we had was a speech on we we are. The assignment gave me an opportunity to share who I am and some of the struggles I had. People in the classroom were able to talk more freely about topics that seemed to [be] avoided in most of my other classes,” Larsen said. “The conversation came up because people were able to voice their opinions without the feeling of being judged.”
And making those personal life connections is what will help students understand the concepts of the classroom better.
“[Students’] voices are shut down –they’re told what to think, how to think. When they come to my class, I want to know what you believe –remember there’s no right, there’s no wrong,” Athanasios said. “Present your argument and your point of view, and I want to hear what you think. Do you know how many students have told me, I’ve never been asked that before?”
Student Sherry Crawford said the class has taught her exactly that: to express her opinion and think outside the box.
“He allows his students to speak freely and express their ideas, and in turn helps them process their ideas in a broader sense,” she said.
Stepping into Athanasios’ class is nothing short of a shift in mindset. Disagreements without aggression, supportive and healthy debates, and an immeasurable satisfaction of an open mind makes it not a class, but an experience.
We asked Athanasios what accomplishments he’s most proud of. He said:
- First and only person to date to graduate College in my family. (California State University, Northridge). Paid my own way. Worked 35 – 40 hours and week with a full class load.
- Full ride to NYU and stipend to pay rent + Rosenberg Scholarship for graduate school (given to one student per academic year). Graduated Magna Cum Laude
- Asked to present two papers at the New York Speech Communication Association (NYSCA) while in Graduate school.
- My book: Soul Search Before the Job Search (eBook only).
- Successful Life & Career Coaching business (J.A.A.S. Coaching – J – Journey, A – Ambition, A – Action, S – Support (www.jaascoaching.com )
- My wife and 2 sons: long story short. [I] was in foster care by 1 and a half years old. Needless to say I am from a very broken home. Having a successful family is actually my greatest achievement.
- Being able to dunk a basketball. At 5 ft. 10.5 inches tall is no easy task. Funny story is in 5th grade I decided that I wanted to dunk when I got older. Did jumping exercises for two years before bed. Not sure if that’s why, but it’s a funny story.
Most used phrase:
“Can ya dig?”