By Kari Ellingson
In fall 2011, the University of Utah community engaged in an initiative to “reimagine the undergraduate experience.” One consequence of this effort was the development of the Beacons of Excellence Awards, which recognize excellence in providing transformative experiences to undergraduate students. Best practices by individuals, programs, centers or projects are selected from campus-wide nominations and are honored at a luncheon in October.
This year, the fourth annual Beacons of Excellence Award winners have been selected from 260 nominations. A committee of past recipients and other campus representatives selected six winners who represented inspirational teachers, empowering programs and outstanding opportunities for our students to connect. The 2015 recipients include three individuals and three programs/organizations.
Tony Butterfield, assistant professor in chemical engineering, began teaching at the U as a “fill-in” for one semester. Five years later, his students wrote such glowing nomination letters, that he was selected for the Beacons of Excellence Award. Finding new and innovative ways to teach students has been a priority for Butterfield, giving students hands-on experiences to reinforce their learning. One student states, “Tony is by far the most caring professor I have come to know at this institution. He is extremely supportive of all students.” In addition to teaching, Butterfield is the advisor for the university’s Chem-E-Car team, which won last year’s national competition. He also advises the Outreach Team, reaching more than 9,000 junior high and high school students over the past three years. One nominator highlights Butterfield’s commitment to recruiting underrepresented students into the STEM fields. “He believes that every student can make a great engineer and will devote the time to help them achieve that goal!”
Craig Bryan is an assistant professor in psychology and the executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies. Bryan deployed to Iraq in 2009, where he served as the director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at the Air Force Theater Hospital. Since his separation from active duty, he has focused his research on suicidal behaviors and suicide prevention strategies as well as psychological health and resilience. The students who nominated Bryan point to his outstanding and inspirational mentorship and his ability to simultaneously challenge and support students in his lab. “He knows exactly when to leave students alone to develop their own lines of research and when to provide help,” says one nominator. “The students I’ve met in his lab all say, ‘I wouldn’t be where I am now without Dr. Craig Bryan.’ And I feel that same way. I cannot think of another professor who has helped shape my future as much as Dr. Bryan.”
Sharon Aiken-Wisniewski is an assistant vice president for Undergraduate Studies, associate dean for University College as well as adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy. She was nominated by both students and her staff for providing transformational experiences for students. One student writes, “Sharon is able to embrace all students and meet them at their level.” Another says “Sharon goes out of her way to support and include students in the decision-making process at the university. She is truly an advocate for students and helps them navigate the complex processes at the university.” Staff and faculty alike point to the mentoring she provides for students as well as her staff. One states, “she demonstrates the importance of hearing students’ stories to better assist them in and out of the classroom.” Aiken-Wisniewski has been called inspirational, kind, incredibly talented, passionate and innovative in her efforts to create a student-centered advising environment.
ArtsForce is a program run by and for undergraduate students in the College of Fine Arts to help them discover the value of their degree. This annual conference and discussion series teaches skills in articulating their transferable skills and network with arts alumni and members of local arts organizations. Often, says one staff member, “Fine Arts students are conditioned to believe that they must choose between their passion and a reliable career. ArtsForce seeks to fill the role of a myth buster.” As one student describes it, “ArtsForce allows students to engage with professionals throughout the Salt Lake arts community, learn invaluable skills, such as resume building and portfolio formatting, and get their foot in the door of strategic career planning for post-graduation.” One alumni sums up the program by stating, “This program gives students the opportunity to understand how truly powerful having a degree in the arts truly is.”
The Women’s Resource Center was founded in 1971 by a group of visionary women faculty, staff and graduate students. They continue to be at the forefront of issues that impact women both on the campus and in the state. Their engagement with social justice to end racism, sexism, homophobia and all other biases are fundamental to their work. This year’s nominations included submissions for both the center itself and for individual staff members. One student states that “this nominee is a Beacon of Excellence because they are a Beacon of Hope. The Women’s Resource Center took a chance on me. They are there whenever I feel overwhelmed and are an intricate part of my success here at the U.” In discussing one of the staff, a nominator praises, “Despite me being a male, she found ways to help a single father out. She always has a smile on her face and is always ready to listen before she speaks. It’s not just a job to her. They all deserve kudos… and then some.”
The Larry H. and Gail Miller Enrichment Scholarship Program was established in 2002 to provide educational opportunities for students from underrepresented populations or who are first-generation college students. This all-inclusive scholarship has as a primary goal, in addition to creating a diverse and inclusive environment at the U, aims to integrate the recipients with campus life through volunteer community/leadership service. Students who nominated the program attested to the impact the scholarship has had in their life: “The program has allowed me an opportunity not given to many Latinos in West Valley City,” “Every aspect of my life was pushing downwards, however, the Miller Scholarship program pulled me upward and onto success,” “I want the Larry H. and Gail Miller Enrichment Scholarship program to be recognized for its excellence in providing me, and many other students, the ability to solely dedicate our time to what we love to do in academia, while simultaneously allowing us to exemplify our respective cultures and origins.”
Kari Ellingson is the associate vice president for Student Development.