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Recipients of faculty, staff awards for teaching, scholarship, service announced


Chancellor Kelli R. Brown and Interim Provost Richard Starnes have announced faculty and staff recipients of Western Carolina University’s top awards for achievements in teaching, scholarship and service for 2019-2020.

Because of the social distancing practices in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no celebratory handshakes or acceptance speeches, as has become tradition for the annual Faculty and Staff Excellence Awards program. This year, winners were notified by congratulatory emails and telephone calls or video messages from Brown and Starnes earlier this week.

“Although we cannot gather in person to acknowledge the amazing work that our faculty and staff have accomplished over the past year, it is important that we take time to shine the light of recognition on these innovative and dedicated members of our university family,” Brown said. “We also will plan a celebration and reception to honor our award recipients and all the nominees when conditions allow.”

Jennifer Schiff, associate professor of political science and public affairs, was announced earlier this spring as WCU’s recipient of the 2020 University of Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

In addition to the campus-level award-winners unveiled Wednesday, May 13, Jennifer Schiff, associate professor of political science and public affairs, was previously announced as WCU’s recipient of the 2020 UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching. This year’s UNC System award-winners were announced Wednesday, April 8. A faculty member since 2010, Schiff was recognized for her willingness to seek new ways to engage with her students and her quest for continuous improvement.

Established by the Board of Governors in 1993 to underscore the importance of teaching and to reward good teaching across the university, the awards are given annually to a tenured faculty member from each UNC campus. Winners must have taught at their present institutions at least seven years. No one may receive the award more than once.

Typically, a member of the UNC Board of Governors presents WCU’s recipient with the award during spring commencement ceremonies, but this year’s events also have been postponed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schiff will formally receive her award as a part of ceremonies rescheduled to the weekend of Dec. 11.

Recipients of WCU’s university-wide awards for 2019-2020 are:

Star Staff Award – Tom Frazier, business officer, Print Shop.

Tom Frazier

Frazier, who also manages WCU’s mailing service, is described by many as “an institutional rock during his extensive career with Western Carolina University,” the selection committee said. “From dressing as Paws to participating in after-hour activities, this nominee embodies Catamount spirit. Their positivity is contagious and they are an inspiration to everyone that crosses their path. They never hesitate to deliver on last-minute requests and wrangle departments, data, and design work to ensure accuracy and quality that live up to the WCU standard of excellence.”

Bright Idea Staff Award – Betsy Aspinwall, associate director of the Counseling and Psychological Services Center.

Betsy Aspinwall

“This nominee created and implemented quick access for WCU counseling and psychological services, thus reducing wait times for students’ first contact with a mental health professional from weeks to days,” the selection committee said. “This bright idea has improved student access crucial to their success at Western Carolina University. Student success is why we are all here, and this nominee’s idea impacts us all.”

Judy H. Dowell Outstanding Staff Award – Gabriel Williams, building and environmental services supervisor, Facilities Management.

The selection committee characterized Williams as “a proactive leader” who treats all team members equally. “A cornerstone of the second-shift housekeeping staff, Mr. Gabriel Williams leads by example. Mr. Williams possesses a unique care for the conditions of our buildings, and goes above and beyond to ensure safety and security of our faculty, staff and students. Known for keeping WCU running when most of us have gone home for the day, Mr. Williams’s dependability and loyalty to Western Carolina University make him deserving of the recognition.”

Paul A. Reid Distinguished Service Award for Administrative Staff – Brian Boyer, residential case manager, Residential Living.

Brian Boyer

“Boyer is completely committed to the success of Western Carolina University students…and regularly goes above and beyond what is asked of him to ensure that students are happy, healthy and successful,” the selection committee said. “He is constantly fielding questions from parents and students, and cares so much about the impact he has on our campus. Brian's role in connecting with students goes on even after graduation. They keep in touch with him, invite him to weddings, and they make sure to connect with Brian when they return to Cullowhee.”

Paul A. Reid Distinguished Service Award for Faculty – Melissa Birkhofer, instructor of English.

Melissa Birkhofer

“Melissa Birkhofer has played a central role in establishing the Latinx minor program, which has gone from zero to 33 students in one semester,” the selection committee said. “Melissa also has been active in inviting scholars to campus and inviting authors to be part of our Spring Literacy Festival. Melissa has been working hard for the last three years to help the university fulfill its mission in relation to diversity and inclusion.”

Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award – Erin Callahan, assistant professor of English.

Erin Callahan

The selection committee said that the decision was a very difficult one to make, with several nominees rising to the top. “Dr. Callahan’s teaching philosophy emerged out of her early teaching career in a low-income area in Durham. She believes that ‘the universal process of language learning is, itself, a unique pedagogical lens that allows students to investigate the organization of human knowledge, identity and society— including equitable teaching practice for vulnerable populations like students of color, those who are English language learners, those who come from immigrant families, and those who identify as LGBTQ+.’ This social justice ethic carries through to all of her courses and is clearly evident in the language she uses in her writing, teaching and communication with students.”

University Scholar Award – Albert Kopak, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice.

Al Kopak

“Dr. Kopak’s breadth of research and involvement of students is impressive,” reviewers commented. “He demonstrates a solid track record of engaged and interdisciplinary work across campus and in the community and engagement of students (both graduate and undergraduate) in research and publication with expanding scope and impact over time. He grounds his research in how helpful and applicable it is for his partners and the community, which connects to our mission as a regionally engaged institution.”

Excellence in Teaching Liberal Studies Award – Heather Rimes, assistant professor of political science and public affairs, and MPA Program director.

Heather Rimes

The selection committee said that it was impressed by Rimes’ intentional and thoughtful approach to teaching. “We found Dr. Rimes to be a dynamic and student-centered instructor. In particular, we appreciated the ways in which she fluidly mixed different modalities of teaching – from effective group-work practices, to engaging lecture techniques, to using student questions as a platform for enhanced learning, Dr. Rimes is a true credit to WCU. The university is lucky to have such a dedicated Liberal Studies instructor.”

Innovation Scholar Award – There are two recipients of this award this year: Kathleen Brennan, associate professor of anthropology and sociology; and Kim Gorman, director of the Counseling and Psychological Services Center.

Kathleen Brennan

Kim Gorman

The selection committee reports that its decision was unanimous. “Brennan and Gorman’s scholarship project truly exemplifies what the Innovation Scholarship Award is about. They have been working collaboratively for a number of years to better understand the prevalence of mental illness stigma at WCU and the impact it has on student treatment-seeking and academic progress. Their project is the first to take a multi-dimensional approach to studying mental illness stigma in a university context, and it fits well within the bounds of the scholarship of integration and engagement.”

Excellence in Community Engagement Award –  John Carzoli, assistant professor of physical therapy.

John Carzoli

Carzoli is “an exemplar of community-engaged teaching, scholarship and action,” the selection committee said. “John believes that community-engaged practices serve as ideal learning opportunities to help students obtain critical aspects of a contemporary education, including critical thinking, problem solving, holistic analysis, synthesizing and applying disciplinary knowledge, skills and abilities.” His community engagement work includes community-engaged health and wellness promotion programs, and research that supports student-learning and migrant farmworker health.

Last Lecture Award – Alicia Grande, instructor of psychology.

Alicia Grande

Winner of the only student-nominated award, Grande will deliver a “last lecture” at some point in the 2020-2021 semester. “Dr. Alicia Grande teaches with passion,” the selection committee said. “Her lectures are described as fascinating, vibrant and engaging. Outside of class, she extends her availability to students and provides support for them no matter what their situation or need.  To quote a student, ‘She is a professor who wants to see every student she encounters reach the potential they have.’”

Academic Program of Excellence AwardSpecial Education Program.

Emily Flemming, Cullowhee Valley School

“While all of the nominated programs were deserving of further recognition, the Special Education Program stood out,” the selection committee said. “The Special Education Program has been a leader and an innovator. They were the first to use portfolios for students and program evaluation. In addition, innovative ideas brought forward through the University Participant Program, Rocket to Creativity and Novel Inventions have impacted people beyond our campus. The Special Education Program is a deserving program with an established record of success.”

Administrative Program of Excellence Award Office of the Registrar.

The selection committee called the Office of the Registrar a key campus partner that works collaboratively in support of the academic mission of the university. “(The office’s staff members) provide training, information and updates to the campus community, and are always there to answer a question. They make sure that our student data is accurate, so that our next generation of leaders can matriculate and successfully enter the workforce. The Office of the Registrar has the respect of the campus community.”

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