‘Teaching was my first professional love’: Communication department head reflects on career at WKU


Alexandra Hendricks

Helen Sterk has been teaching for 47 years. She started at WKU in 2011 when she came to be head of the communication department.

Debra Murray, Digital News Editor

To Helen Sterk, the most important part of her 47 years teaching was building relationships with students, she spent her time at WKU watching communication students grow from confused freshmen to proud alumni. 

On July 1, Sterk stepped down as department head, but will continue teaching for the upcoming spring semester then will officially retire from WKU. History professor Anthony Harkins has agreed to serve as the interim head of the department of communication for a one-year term.

“Teaching was my first professional love and it will be satisfying to return to it in my last active professional year,” Sterk said. 

Sterk started teaching high school after her college graduation in 1974, which is how she decided she would rather teach at a college level. She then got her master’s at WKU and her doctorate at University of Iowa.

Her biggest accomplishment was watching the communication department grow. 

“Relationships with students in and out of class matter to me,” Sterk said. “As department head, I see them at every stage of their journeys through WKU, from shy first-years in COMM 145 to confident seniors in Capstone to graduate students writing theses to alumni finding their ways into productive careers.”

Sterk took students to the National Communication Association conferences and would facilitate students’ attendance at the Public Relations Society of America conferences, which she said was a pleasure to do. 

“As a university and as a department, our most satisfying relationships are those life-long ones with students,” Sterk said.

Helen Sterk has officially retired as head of the communication department, but will continue to teach at WKU. History professor Anthony Harkins is currently serving as interim department head. Alexandra Hendricks

Sterk’s retirement plans include writing, consulting and potentially spending time in Pakistan.

“I am waiting to hear about a grant proposal with the US State Department that will bring me and other women professors into a relationship with women leaders in higher education in Pakistan,” Sterk said. “Working with them to build their skills in leadership, communication, and networking.”

Harkins has been working in the history department at WKU since 2003. He served as interim head of the history department in spring 2020. Harkins has known Sterk since he was director of the popular culture studies program because she was an active member of the program’s advisory committee.

“I always found her to be enthusiastic and a great supporter of this unique program that she later brought into the communication department,” Harkins said.

As Harkins prepared for his position as communication department head, he said Sterk was very helpful while making this transition.

“I am excited to have this opportunity to help guide such a dynamic and student-centered department that plays such an important role on this campus,” Harkins said. “I am enjoying getting to know the faculty and I look forward to meeting more of the department and its students in the coming year.” 

Digital News Editor Debra Murray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @debramurrayy