Foothill College's Student News Publication

The Foothill Script

Foothill College's Student News Publication

The Foothill Script

Foothill College's Student News Publication

The Foothill Script

Staff Spotlight: Sam Connell

Professor Sam Connell poses with his buddy, Skeleton Sam

When Professor Sam Connell makes his entrance into classroom 3101, ducking through the doorway with a pile of papers in hand, the space becomes his stage. Supported by a cast of skeletons (two human and one gorilla) perpetually sporting toothy grins, the Professor of Anthropology puts on a gripping show for his students. Connell is a first-class professor and performer; brimming with charisma and enthusiasm, he shares his extensive cultural and historical knowledge in a most entertaining fashion. 

Professor Connell’s specialty is Archaeology, a branch of Anthropology. While Connell is a passionate Archeologist now, he was not born with a love for the field. He had watched Indiana Jones as a child, but it didn’t quite pique his interests; Connell had no dreams of running around donning a classic fedora with a bullwhip slung on his shoulder, no desire to be playing dodgeball with massive rolling boulders, and certainly no expectation of being chased through the jungle by poisonous snakes–though the latter eventually became his reality! Growing up, he favored baseball and Dungeons & Dragons.  

Professor Connell first developed an interest in Archaeology during his junior year at the University of Pennsylvania, while partaking in Semester at Sea. It was three and a half months of traveling with 50 days on the ocean and 50 days at port. The ship went on an international tour, some of its stops including Japan, India, Egypt, Russia, Spain, and Turkey. 

Connell’s days at these destinations were characterized by involvement in the local community, a collection of culturally immersive experiences. Rather than tagging along with the main crowd of students who tailed tour guides, Connell was off playing pool with the locals, chatting them up. These interactions informed his mode of operation later in life as an Archaeologist traveling the world. When seeking an understanding of a variety of cultures, Connell goes straight to the most abundant source of culture–people.

Hawaii Indigenous Archaeology Field School, summer 2023 in Waipio Valley after a long day in the loi (taro fields).

On the boat, Connell took an Archaeology class with Kathy Reichs, Forensic Anthropologist and author of the book series that inspired the hit TV show Bones. It was there that Connell developed an interest in the subject, but with only his senior year at Penn remaining, he didn’t have the time to explore it fully. 

But explore he did. After finishing his undergraduate education, Connell came to California’s Channel Islands for field school with CSU Northridge. San Clemente Island, one of eight that form the Californian archipelago, is owned and used by the US Navy. “It was so cheap,” Connell laughs, “because it was a bombing range!” Not far from treacherous terrain, he spent four weeks intensively learning all the methods of archaeology. 

Post field school, Connell spent a year and a half working throughout California as a field technician for Cultural Resource Management companies. As he garnered archaeological experience working locally, he established his residency and applied to graduate school. 

When asked why he chose this path, Connell quips, “I was basically sure that I did not want to deal with real life. And the way to do that is to go to graduate school and get a PhD.” He succeeded in this evasion for another eight years, working towards a master’s degree and a PhD in Maya archeology at UCLA. Connell spent a majority of these years conducting archeology in both Honduras and Belize (the scene of his jungle serpent scuffle), becoming a Mayanist by trade. It was at UCLA that he had his first teaching experience, a requirement to achieve his doctorate. 

After graduating from UCLA, Connell continued teaching, initially at CSU Northridge and then at the University of Puerto Rico. Around this time, Connell and his now wife, Ana, “were just starting to hang out,” as he puts it; the two decided to conduct archaeological research in Ecuador, where she has family. “That’s where we started,” says Connell, “but at the same time that’s not payin’ the bills….” 

So, when a buddy called him up and suggested Connell join him in Hawaii to “look for military people who died,” Connell did exactly that–onto the next adventure! Connell conducted postdoctoral research as a Forensic Archaeologist for the military, where he specialized in the recovery and identification of U.S. armed service members who went Missing In Action in previous wars. From Hawaii, the military group would fly out to Asia (primarily Vietnam and Laos) four times a year to set up and run excavations.

Professor Connell on one of his many adventures, this time on an Archaeology survey in Ecuador.

One of these excavation sites in Vietnam was the setting of a classic jaw-dropping, side-splitting Connell story. In the Vietnam war, a plane had crashed into the side of a mountain, and the group was trying to locate its pilot (his remains, that is).

 Connell and the archaeologist were digging away towards some sort of metal object they had detected by scanning the area. In hopes of finding another part of the plane or perhaps even the pilot, they continued down, down, down. “I’m at the front,” Connell remembers, “Just ping, ding, ding… and then TWANG! I hit something big and metal with the pick!” Connell excitedly cleaned off said metal object, only to find, to his horror, “It was the backend of a huge bomb, like a biiiiiig bomb.” 

Amidst this eager excavation, Connell had just narrowly missed the pin of this unexploded bomb. Luckily, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician on site came to the rescue, defusing the bomb and offering Connell some words of comfort. “It would’ve been fine for you,” he said reassuringly, “You know the term ‘Integration?’ You would have been disintegrated! You would’ve been mist!” What a relief. It seems Connell traded Indiana Jones’ massive rolling boulders for ‘biiiiiig’ undetonated bombs!

Despite the dangers that came with the job, Connell was truly helping people in doing it. Identifying these people and sending them home allowed their families to finally experience closure. However, Connell was away for eight months a year–at home, his wife was juggling raising their little kids and graduate school. Looking for a more secure position, Connell took a risk and left his job with the military. After four years of living and working in Hawaii, he and his family moved to the Bay Area. 

Back in California, he returned to teaching, and after a short stint at Santa Rosa, Connell came to Foothill! In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a Community College Professor as well. 

This is Professor Connell’s 17th year at Foothill. Before him, the Anthropology Program was not well established–only a few online professors were holding down the fort, and the school needed a full-timer. Connell took agency, bringing back and strengthening Anthropology at Foothill by establishing various local and international field school programs and creating an in-person environment that fosters curiosity. He and the Foothill Anthropology program, now well known for these field school opportunities, have produced a number of skilled anthropologists and archaeologists–among them is Jada Ko, a Harvard graduate with a PhD in Anthropology who was selected as the 2023 recipient of the Society for American Archaeology’s Dissertation Award for her PhD Thesis

Anthropology is for everyone! As Connell says, “It shows you how to think about the world in a more holistic way, to see the complexities in [it]. [It teaches you that] everybody’s point of view should be considered.” 

For an enriching learning experience and first-hand tellings of Connell lore, take his Anthropology classes and join the Anthropology Club at Foothill! Find your seat in his audience, silence your phone, and get ready for the show! 

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About the Contributor
Sunaina Tadakamalla
Sunaina Tadakamalla is a first-year English major at Foothill College who is pleased to be exploring journalism as a reporter for The Script. As a student and a writer, she is driven by curiosity and a love for the arts. Aside from reading and writing, her life is characterized by music—listening to it, creating it, and finding community in it.

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