Cal Poly lost one of its most admired and respected sociology professors Sunday, Feb. 16. Teresa Downing touched the lives of many students and faculty in the sociology department and the campus as a whole.
Jan. 1, 1961 was the start of a new year, but also the start of a rich and everlasting legacy. For 59 years, Downing spent most of her days teaching and sharing her studies with not only Cal Poly students, but also the world.
“She gets a special entrance to heaven, for sure,” sociology junior Clare Giatzis said after taking two classes with her.
Downing battled cancer for the last 3 years. She was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, and moved back in February to spend her final days with her mother and kids.
“[She] was someone who really cared for the people who weren’t listened to.”
After studying at Wright State and the University of Kentucky, Downing made the move to Okayama, Japan. Throughout her time there, the professor taught English to Japanese students and met the father of her three children, Jyoshu, Mariay and Masahiro.
Eventually, the new mother made the move to Pullman, Washington, which is where she made the decision to attend Washington State University. She obtained her doctorate in sociology in 1989.
Students said they wish they could tell their professor and mentor how grateful they are for that decision.
“Her [Sociology 110] class was so interesting to me,” sociology junior Maddie Robinson said. “It really made me question if I wanted to stay in my major or if I wanted to switch to something like sociology. She was such an expert on it, I thought she was the coolest person ever.”
Robinson made the switch from journalism to sociology this year.
Before Downing made the move to California in 2016, she was a professor at Iowa State. While teaching there, she launched a fight against human trafficking and poverty within her community. She brought human trafficking cases to legislation and worked toward improving the issue every chance she got. As a professor, her teachings were relevant to current events and studies she conducted on these social issues.
“She had a deep concern and compassion for victims of human trafficking,” sociology junior Allie Figueredo said. “She told us some stories and was someone who really cared for the people who weren’t listened to.”
Downing also had an impact with her friendships with faculty from the social sciences department since she joined in 2016. One year later, cancer struck.
Social sciences assistant professor Liz Johnston said she and Downing bonded over their shared experiences in motherhood right away. Johnston said she hoped she would come back to see her students and friends at Cal Poly this quarter. With each week that went by this winter quarter, Johnston and Downing texted with efforts to meet for lunch, up until Johnston received the news that Downing had gone back to live with her family in Ohio.
A true passion to combat human trafficking and teach social activism was evident until Downing’s very last day. She dedicated herself to studying the issue and brought so many of her studies to life. She is Safe is one of the organizations Downing joined — and memorial contributions can be made on their website.
Downing’s friends in the San Luis Obispo area said they are discussing dedicating a bench to her on Cal Poly’s campus.