By Ellen Ullman, Published March 16, 2015
This article is part of a series profiling winners of the 2015 Outstanding Alumni Award, which was presented April 21, 2015, at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention in San Antonio, Texas.
Whoever came up with the saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” must have known Luke Dollar.
He’s a husband, father, biology professor and the project director of National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. Any one of these roles is time-consuming, but Dollar takes it in stride.
“Work is not work for me,” he says. “It’s what I do. I have a lot of things going on, and I think I’m one of the luckiest people I’ve ever met.”
Close to home
Dollar discovered his appetite for teaching and learning while taking community college courses during his high school years. His dad was a chemistry professor and dean of students for the Alabama Community College System, so Dollar spent a lot of time in the community college world.
Because Walker College (now part of Bevill State Community College) was right across the street from his high school, he was able to graduate with 37 semester hours, the equivalent of two full years of college credits.
Dollar started at Duke University as a premed major. Since he had already fulfilled so many required courses during high school, he was able to take a wide variety of electives and classes that interested him and ended up with a double major in bio-anthropology/anatomy and psychology. He graduated in 1995 and stayed on in Durham for graduate school to study primacology.
Dollar believes that the head start he received from his community college experience gave him extra momentum following high school.
“It allowed me to take advantage of more opportunities as a college student,” he says. “Without it, I would likely have been so laden with basic coursework I might have missed the best a university experience has to offer.”
A global cause
During his years at Duke, Dollar studied in some of the world’s poorest countries, including Madagascar and Indonesia. His bio-diversity research in Madagascar led him to discover a little-known animal called the fossa. He began doing conservation and field research/humanitarian work there and, as a result, was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2007.
His research has been published in several prestigious journals and he has made two formal presentations about the conversation problems in Madagascar to the Royal Geographic Society of London. He’s raised more than $1 million in support of his research and was named one of the world’s 40 leading conservationists in a textbook called Wildlife Heroes.
In 2009, National Geographic came calling again to ask Dollar to lead the Big Cats Initiative, an international action program to halt the decline of lions, cheetahs and tigers. As program director, he has helped to raise more than $3 million that has funded 67 projects in 24 countries.
And if that’s not enough, the nonprofit he formed, Friends of Madagascar, has built or renovated 28 schools in Madagascar in the last several years.
These days, Dollar only gets to Madascar a couple of times a year, about six weeks at a time. He loves that he still gets to bring students and share the experience with them, but — even better — he’s been able to bring his son for the last two years.
How does this supremely busy guy get everything done?
“I sleep from midnight to 4 am,” he says, “which is the working morning in Africa. I wake up to a lot of correspondence, which is fun.”
Dollar says he’s been spent his whole life in training to do what he does, and he’s incredibly grateful to have had all of these opportunities.
“I truly do work at my passions — and my passions are my work,” he says.
When he’s not teaching biology at Pfeiffer University, ENVIRON 590 at Duke University’s Nicholas School or working on the Big Cats project, he’s hanging out with his wife and son or doing some competitive shooting.
“Before I was a dad, I would be in the country at a major competitive shooting match at least once a month, but there’s not much time for that now.”
He calls himself “a car guy” and says he loves driving and fiddling with cars.
“It comes in handy if I’m in the middle of nowhere and something breaks,” he laughs.
Remembering his roots
From time to time, Dollar returns to his roots and teaches a class at Stanly Community College, which he absolutely loves doing.
“Community college opens a window. It is a vehicle through which people can come to know not only information and knowledge but also themselves and the world around them. With that awareness comes the ability to have a greater impact.”
Above all, Dollar believes that the community college experience allows people to become more complete and equipped to change the world. As he says, “Journeys begin with one step, but if there’s no path you can’t go anywhere. Community college provides that starting point to the path of the rest of our lives.”