One after the other, JJC students in the busy Orthotics and Prosthetics Technology (OPT) laboratory look for Professor Mike Brncick’s encouraging words of support, “that’s a really nice job you’re doing, keep it up.”
The admiration OPT students like senior Liv Nuzzo have for their beloved teacher is infectious.
“He’s always smiling and that makes class so much more interesting and exciting,” Nuzzo said.
The orthotics and prosthetics laboratory is where Brncick says he’s most at home, and he should be, because he alone founded the school’s OPT program back in 2007, one of only a handful of programs like it in the entire country.
Before joining JJC, Brncick taught for 32 years at Northwestern University. After teaching generations of students, Brncick has decided, at 72 years old, it’s finally time to retire.
“I especially like the interaction with the students and seeing them graduate with a job they love,” Brncik said.
During his 14 years teaching at JJC, Brncick estimates he has taught more than a 1,000 students, treating each one as the special student he says they are.
A thought that doesn’t go unnoticed on OPT program senior Gabby Duncan.
“He is always very helpful, he’s very kind, gives detailed explanations, and will do whatever he needs to do in order to find the answer,” she said.
Brncick says the OPT program will be left in the very capable hands of Professor Desmond Masterson who knows he has legendary shoes to fill.
“I won’t even try to replace him – the best advice is to be myself and don’t try to be someone else,” Masterson said.
To make the OPT program more selective, admission is no longer open enrollment. Of the approximately 40 students who apply each year, only about half are accepted.
Students run the gamut from recent high school graduates to mid-career changers to even retired senior citizens – one as old as 76.
All applicants must demonstrate through an essay writing and completion of an introductory course that they are firmly committed to learning this unique trade.
The essay is then presented to Brncick. Brncick also looks for a desire to help others less fortunate such as the disabled and injured veterans of war.
Meanwhile, back in the laboratory, the fans are blowing, the air guns give-off their high-pitched squeals, and spinning routers shape another plastic prosthetic as students become covered in resin. Brncick goes from student to student observing, offering advice, and answering questions like the attentive teacher he is.
“You’re always solving a lot of problems – there’s never a dull moment,” Brncick said.
What Brncick is most proud of is seeing graduating students get high caliber jobs such as at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and The Ann & Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
“That’s the nicest part of this program, that’s a real joy to see our students graduate and get a job, and then hire the next generation of graduating students,” Brncick said.
And when Brncick’s last day comes this month, his students will certainly be sad to see their longtime teacher, mentor, and biggest supporter leave.
“It won’t be the program without him,” says Nuzzo.
Duncan expects to get choked-up when she has to say goodbye, “I probably am going to cry.”
Brncick won’t exactly slow down when he retires this month, as he plans to write a textbook and produce a video on orthotics and prosthetics. His last day at JJC is officially May 31.