‘This has been a great home for me’: Adam Spanier makes transition from UNK student to full-time lecturer
KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - It’s just a small piece of plastic inscribed with his name and department.
But it means the world to Adam Spanier.
The 39-year-old was surprisingly emotional when he received his University of Nebraska at Kearney name badge during a College of Business and Technology retreat earlier this year.
“It was so surreal,” Spanier said. “It’s honestly a dream come true for me. Now I have a chance to step up and really impact students.”
Spanier is the newest faculty member in the UNK Department of Cyber Systems, the end result of a whirlwind five-year journey that changed his life.
“It’s funny, because I’m the new faculty but I never left,” he said with a smile. “This has been a great home for me, that’s for sure.”
A Kansas native, Spanier definitely took an unconventional route to his current position as a UNK lecturer.
Originally interested in music and business, he earned an Associate of Science degree with a math emphasis in 2005, then spent the next decade working as a manager and CEO at a now-defunct McCook radio station. After that, he served as a regional director for a national car wash company, overseeing operations in several states.
“I developed a lot of really great real-world skills from those opportunities, but I was on the road four or five days a week,” said Spanier, who had two young children at home.
One day, while “trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” Spanier was suddenly inspired during a trip to Menards, where he noticed the high-tech smart refrigerators with touchscreen displays and internet capabilities.
“I was like, I believe software might be a good direction to go,” he recalled.
At 33 years old, Spanier decided to enroll at UNK, the same university his wife Andrea attended when they were dating. He bought the “cheapest computer I could find” and started classes in January 2018.
“At that time, my career goal was hopefully I don’t flunk out,” he said with a laugh. “I know that’s a low expectation, but that was my initial expectation. I was going to be the old guy in the room. And like it or not, the younger students are much faster. Their brains just work a lot faster than when you get a little older. So I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to cut it.”
With support from his adviser, former UNK professor Sherri Harms, and other faculty members, Spanier excelled in the computer science program. He enjoyed the classes and got involved in extracurricular activites such as the Cyber Club and undergraduate research. Spanier worked with UNK faculty members Tim Obermier and Angela Hollman on their Rural Measures project, a one-of-a-kind undertaking that addresses the digital divide by measuring real-time internet speeds at locations across the state.
He called his undergraduate education “an incredible experience.”
“I loved it,” Spanier said. “Don’t get me wrong, undergraduate can be stressful, but man, it was such a good time. There were great students in the department and I had so many good teachers who impacted me in such a positive way.
“Every student in our department has that opportunity to interact with their professors and to do more and grow more. I don’t think I would have gotten that experience at a different university.”
The only negative was the COVID-19 pandemic, which nixed his plans to intern in the information technology department at The Buckle, a Kearney-based clothing company.
Although that door closed in spring 2020, another opened later that year, when professor Liaquat Hossain came to him with a proposal.
The College of Business and Technology was looking to implement a new “grow-your-own” approach to recruit and train faculty members. Hossain, then-chair of the Department of Cyber Systems, thought Spanier would be a good candidate, and his colleagues agreed.
With support from College of Business and Technology Dean Tim Jares, the department offered to hire Spanier as a graduate assistant for two years and pay for his tuition, allowing him to continue his education before transitioning into a full-time faculty position at UNK.
“It was a fantastic deal,” said Spanier, who talked it over with his wife and close friends. They all agreed he’d make a great professor.
Spanier completed his bachelor’s degree in December 2020 and immediately started a master’s program in cybersecurity through the University of Nebraska at Omaha. After one semester, he was offered a U.S. Department of Defense fellowship that covered his tuition and paid a higher stipend, shifting the financial obligation away from UNK.
As a graduate student, Spanier conducted research in areas such as gamification in cybersecurity, static vulnerability analysis, zero-trust networking and cyberwarfare strategy while also serving as a part-time adjunct lecturer at UNK.
“I love research. Research is a lot of fun, but the reason why I decided to pursue a Ph.D. is because I wanted to teach,” said Spanier, who’s currently enrolled in a doctoral program through UNO. “I saw the impact my teachers made on my life and I wanted to be able to give back a little bit. My heart has always been with the teaching side of it.”
Now a full-time lecturer at UNK, Spanier is teaching four courses this semester – Object Oriented Programming, Operating Systems, Introduction to Information Security and Fundamentals of Networking and Systems.
Obermier, the current department chair, believes he’s a strong addition to UNK Cyber Systems.
“Adam understands the culture at UNK and the Cyber Systems Department and our emphasis on the teacher-scholar model,” he said. “He can easily relate to the challenges undergraduate students face as they pursue their degrees, and he has an infectious and enthusiastic personality that results in the students being excited about their studies.”
Spanier describes himself as a “student-centered” faculty member, someone who will set high expectations for students, then work one-on-one with them to reach those goals.
“In computer science, especially, sometimes we fall into a bad mentality that the students all have to be the best of the best,” he said. “In reality, there’s room for all levels of proficiency, whether it’s implementing UML diagrams in Python or writing high-level AI algorithms. It doesn’t really matter.
“I want my students to succeed in a very holistic way. I want them to come out on the other side thinking, I can do this. I have what it takes to be a computer scientist or I have what it takes to write code.”
His UNK name badge is proof that the right amount of support and motivation can lead students to their dream job.
“I plan on staying here forever. We’ll see what Dean Jares and Dr. Obermier say about that, but that’s my hope,” Spanier said with a smile. “I’ll do everything I can at least.”
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