UC Berkeley News


Strike up the band. and cue the choir
Students sing the praises of a parade of faculty heroes, whose everyday exploits enrich undergrads' lives

| 18 January 2006

Introducing Berkeley's 'Everyday Heroes'
Some 200 Berkeley staff and faculty were called "heroes" by undergrad survey respondents. Who asked them -- and why?

• List of faculty heroes

Last fall, the campus Office of Student Research asked respondents to the 2005 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey to name someone - staff, graduate-student instructor, or faculty - who "made an extraordinary effort to make your undergraduate experience - or that of your fellow students - better, resolved a difficult problem for you, or otherwise [went] beyond the call of duty on your behalf." Several thousand students took the time to describe those "everyday heroes" who had made their experience here at Berkeley a notably rich one.

The first two groups of heroes, staff members and GSIs, were highlighted in the Nov. 10 and Dec. 8 issues of the Berkeleyan.

This week the Berkeleyan celebrates a selection of faculty heroes. For a full list of professors and lecturers, see the online version of this story at newscenter.berkeley.edu. And check the NewsCenter to see everyday heroes featured, appropriately enough, every day, described by the students who commended them.

What makes a faculty member a hero? Some on this list engage their classes with stellar lectures; others invite entire classes to dinner. All of them care for their students as individuals, make themselves available to listen, and unfailingly prop up and encourage weary undergrads.

It's wonderful to have the feedback from the students and know that the class makes a difference on the ground.
- Victoria Robinson Lecturer, Ethnic Studies
Victoria Robinson "gives lectures that are inspired and alive," wrote one of the 37 students - the survey's highest number of commendations in any category - who nominated the Ethnic Studies lecturer as a hero. Robinson, who's also the coordinator for American Cultures, was singled out for encouraging students to think critically about race and identity, as well as always being willing to help with personal issues.

Robinson was described as "life-changing" and praised for "truly treating students as equals." She "navigated with surprising elegance the tricky terrain of sharing one's passionate position on a subject and creating an inviting and warm environment for all students to sound their unique and often divergent views," said one appreciative undergrad.

"Her classes were a joy," added another admirer. "She assigned projects that allowed us to explore the material in a very open way using our own creativity."

When family problems and difficulty adapting to college life had one student seriously considering dropping out, Robinson provided encouragement to help keep her motivated her first semester. "If it was not for her, I would have probably gone back home and quit, so for that I thank her from the bottom of my heart."

The best part of teaching is just meeting and working with such inspiring young people and knowing that I've played a small role in their education at Cal.
- Bernard Griego Lecturer, School of Public Health
The second-most-raved-about faculty member, named by 34 students, was Bernard Griego, a lecturer in the School of Public Health and health educator at University Health Services. Griego was called "a beacon of light on our campus" and an exemplary mentor - "understanding, empathetic, extremely supportive, and always willing to give his time."

One student recalled that Griego, at the beginning of the semester, assured the class of "his loyalty to the student population and his interest in seeing us lead our lives in the best way possible." When she got into a "sticky situation," Griego counseled her on how to resolve the problem, thereby winning her allegiance. "I'd want him in my corner for almost any battle I'd need to fight," wrote the student. "Unsung hero? He doesn't need a song - he needs an orchestra and a choir."

Paving the way at Cal

Gaining admission to Berkeley doesn't necessarily provide an automatic feeling of belonging. One student, a practicing Muslim, said that she has "often been confronted with bigotry and hatred." The young woman thanked Hatem Bazian, a professor in Near Eastern Studies, for being "a person I could go to for support or just to vent."

Professor of Ethnic Studies Alex Saragoza "was supportive and acted like a second father," wrote one undergrad. "A role model," Saragoza helped this student understand that as "a Latin person from a meager background it's still possible to succeed academically." The student lauded the professor for being "a symbol of hope - his teaching style reflects his understanding of the obstacles these students face."

Joseph Campos, a professor of psychology, impressed one student by insisting his class think beyond the current semester. "While struggling with old age and grappling with the fact he was going blind, he constantly hounded us for not using our resources on the campus better.namely, him!" Campos invited students to "pick his brain" and brought in former students to help undergrads considering careers in the field.

Grades aren't everything

Students often voiced appreciation for faculty who emphasize learning over grades. One student nominated Bob Bea, a professor of engineering, because "he demonstrated the practical use of engineering in a fun and intuitive way."

It's really lovely to get the recognition from students, because they're what it's all about.
- Charis Thompson
Professor, Women's Studies and Rhetoric
The student was discouraged by poor grades and was preparing to drop out of the College of Engineering. Bea "advised me on many occasions on how grades are not as relevant to him as what I learned in his class. With this, he implied that I shouldn't give up on my major just because of my GPA."

Chemistry lecturer Steven Pederson taught Chem 3A and 3B "in a way that valued conceptual and intellectual understanding of the material over blind memorization" and "motivated us to learn for its own sake" enthused one undergrad. During the final class session, Pederson showed a video clip accompanied by the Eric Clapton song "Change the World." "It was a very simple but also empowering message....When I leave here, that is what I hope to do - change the world for the better."

A whole lotta heart

Many of the survey respondents were moved by how deeply their faculty heroes care. During her office hours, Claudia Carr serves up tea and "thought-provoking conversation," wrote one student, who gave props to the professor of Environmental Science, Policy and Management for going "sleepless many nights to prepare amazing lectures."

One student called Charis Thompson, a professor of women's studies and rhetoric, "one of the nicest people" she'd ever met. Thompson helped the student through some personal problems that were affecting her concentration, and even invited the student to read class assignments in her office to help her focus. In Rhetoric 174, Thompson's students provoked a surprising emotional display in their professor. "She teared up when we performed a skit, because she was so moved by our level of creativity," observed one student.

In his Shakespeare seminar, Professor of English Alan Nelson not only made the Bard's sonnets "accessible" and "fun to read," he also invited his class to his home for dinner at the end of the semester. "He introduced us to his wife, we ate pizza, and then we ended the night by reading some of our favorite sonnets," wrote one fan of iambic pentameter. "The experience was sublime and unforgettable. I know he had no obligation to offer such an invitation, and that makes me appreciate it all the more."

I am continually delighted to have contact with so many wonderful students here at UC Berkeley. I am especially touched by the receipt of this honor.
- David Presti
Senior lecturer, Neurobiology
Benson Tongue, a professor of mechanical engineering, earned high marks for knowing the names of all 188 students in his class by the second meeting, as well as for staying in touch with students via e-mail. Tongue also received kudos for keeping his class "fun and interesting," even going so far as to "talk in goofy accents or dress up for Halloween."

Renate Holub, a professor and director of international area studies, made a real impression on one undergrad when she invited a class of 100 students to her home for Thanksgiving dinner. "She was way more personal with us than most of the professors of the small classes I have had," wrote the student, who described Holub as an "amazingly passionate lecturer. I am not the type of student who often goes to professors, I tend to work out problems on my own, so these gestures on her part were exceptional to me."

Faculty to the rescue

Some faculty heroes really came through in the clutch for particular students. David Presti, a senior lecturer in neurobiology, earned the gratitude of one student who was suffering from depression. During the semester, Presti urged the student, who kept delaying, to get help. When the student went to his office "severely upset," Presti insisted on intervening, and the pair went together to the Tang Center, where Presti waited until a counselor was available. "He helped me a great deal during that very difficult semester, and without his help I might have crashed much harder," wrote the student. "He is truly a remarkable person and a very personable, caring, amiable professor."

Real learning involves taking risks on both sides of the podium; I try to create an atmosphere where students are safe to make mistakes and learn from them, and to challenge received wisdom.
- Kathryn Klar
Senior lecturer, Neurobiology
When one very ill student was forced to return home for treatment and had to take two incompletes, Kathryn Klar, a Celtic Studies lecturer, checked in regularly to make sure her work was progressing. Their contact occurred over the winter break, leaving the student with the impression that Klar "really cared about how I was doing."

Klar's efforts for the student were truly, well, heroic: She submitted the student's paperwork to the Office of the Registrar and, because the undergrad was out of state and the check had to be submitted in person, wrote a check to cover her fees. "She went out of her way for me during a very difficult time in my life. When people talk about Cal being a large, impersonal school with inaccessible faculty, I tell them about Professor Klar."

And don't forget about Professors Diamond, Ostertag, Hassner, Zysman, Purves, Walsh, Shimamura..