A Nonconventional Path

Bruce Hawkins MA '79, PhD '84

Bruce Hawkins holding his granddaughter

Bruce Hawkins with his granddaughter

Bruce Hawkins MA '79, PhD '84, almost didn't make it to UC San Diego. His father had been fighting cancer for a few years, and although he was unable to work during his treatment, Bruce didn't qualify for enough financial aid for his family to afford tuition. So, Bruce wrote an impassioned letter contesting his aid package.

And then fate interceded. Ron Langacker, a linguistics professor, helped Bruce land a fellowship at the last minute. The fellowship supported Bruce for his first two years of graduate work and allowed him to focus on his family and his studies. Bruce remembers visiting his dad at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla after classes. Unfortunately, Bruce's father died while he was completing his coursework, but he credits the fellowship with giving him the opportunity to be with his family during an emotionally turbulent time.

His experience at UC San Diego was also Bruce's introduction to a theme that has proved influential: the importance of personal connections. Professor Langacker's intervention, which Bruce later learned was inspired by his wife's cancer diagnosis around that time, gave Bruce the support he needed to pursue his education unencumbered by financial concerns. Professor Langacker's initial empathy led to a robust mentorship that inspired Bruce to pursue work in the experimental new field Langacker defined: cognitive linguistics.

Bruce was an academic innovator; his work transcended disciplinary boundaries, incorporating concepts from social sciences, psychology, and literary theory, as well as linguistics. As his research interests in linguistics came into focus with Professor Langacker's guidance, he began to study language acquisition in children and adults. In 1982, Bruce took an opportunity to direct an American language and culture program overseas, which required him and his wife to move to Spain for two years. The move gave Bruce a chance to complete his dissertation on the semantics of English spatial prepositions. In 1984, he and his wife returned to San Diego for Bruce's dissertation defense.

A few years later, Bruce received a job offer in the English department at Illinois State University. Because the position involved a heavy administrative load, friends and colleagues urged him to decline the offer, arguing that such a position would limit his career growth. Undaunted, Bruce accepted the position and enjoyed a range of academic and administrative responsibilities at Illinois State University for more than twenty years. Unlike many academics at large research universities, Bruce fought to maintain a balance between his academic responsibilities as a teacher and researcher and what he saw as his social service responsibilities.

After his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991, Bruce immersed himself in volunteer work. He became a board member for a central Illinois branch of the Komen Foundation and participated in the local Relay for Life benefitting the American Cancer Society. His personal connection—to cancer, to his academic colleagues, and to his community—inspired him to give back to the people and the organizations that helped him and his wife through a challenging time.

Unfortunately, in early 2005 Bruce's wife received a second cancer diagnosis—a kidney cancer that would prove fatal. Burnt out by his wife's four-year battle with kidney cancer and devastated by the loss of his wife in late 2008, Bruce retired from teaching and began searching for healing. He moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2010, where he found a new community—and new motivation. He began driving for Road to Recovery, a program managed by the American Cancer Society that provides transportation to and from medical appointments for individuals with cancer.

It was also around this time that Bruce began to reflect on the opportunities he received. He decided to start paying back the fellowship that had enabled him to attend UC San Diego 30 years before. Today, Bruce is a loyal supporter of Chancellor's Associates Scholarships and has made a trust gift to support graduate fellowships. He sees himself in UC San Diego's aspiring young scholars: Bruce wants to close the gap between financial aid and the out-of-pocket expenses for students like him whose family incomes don't qualify them for full support but who can't afford tuition.

The birth of Bruce's first grandchild two years ago inspired him to move back to Illinois. Today, he lives near his children so he can provide daycare for his granddaughter. His extensive collection of Native American art and sculpture, acquired from an artist and friend during his time in New Mexico, reminds him of the importance of friendship and self-care, especially during challenging times.

"Experiences like that enhance your appreciation for life and what people have done for you," Bruce said. "I hope I can do for others what others have done for me—through my teaching, volunteer work, and philanthropy."

If you would like to make a gift to UC San Diego that can fund scholarships for future students, please contact the Office of Gift Planning at (858) 534-2249 or giftplanning@ucsd.edu to get started.