Dr. Stephanie Alvarez, assistant professor of Spanish at The University of Texas-Pan American, was selected to receive the Outstanding Latino/a Faculty in Higher Education (Teaching Institutions) Award from the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE). She was presented with the award at the AAHHE's sixth annual conference held in San Antonio March 5.
"Dr. Alvarez uses innovative approaches and applications in working with her students," said Dr. Loui Olivas, AAHHE president. "Her service and outreach to her greater community is inspiring and she is well deserving of this award."
Alvarez, who was honored in 2009 with The University of Texas System's first Regents Outstanding Teaching Award, said she was thrilled with the honor from AAHHE.
"The award recipients in the other categories are top scholars, artists and other people in the Latino higher education community, people I have admired for years," she said.
Alvarez, who came to UTPA in 2006 as a faculty member in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, has said her number one objective in the classroom is to find innovative ways to engage students in the learning process.
"When I enter a classroom, I tell my students, 'I'm not lecturing ... you students are going to guide our discussion, ask questions and challenge each other," she said.
Her students regularly participate in research alongside faculty and she has created a number of innovative opportunities for students to learn outside the classroom. Her Cosecha Voices project, co-taught with renowned Latino poet Tato Laviera, allows students from migrant farmworking families to write testimonies about their migrant experience and create a digital story based on their testimonies to present to the community. The project, she said, not only improves those students' writing skills but also empowers them.
In November, 2010, Alvarez led a group of graduate students to New York City to conduct archival research at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies and at Ellis Island. The students created digital stories based on photographs found in the archives that would match with eight of Laviera's poems.
"Research does not have to be an academic paper. Research can also be a film, a story or lesson plans, for example," Alvarez said.
"Her work in the Rio Grande Valley resonates beyond the classroom and into the community and into our national consciousness," said one of her nominators for the award, Dr. Robert Con Davis-Undiano, Neustadt Professor and Presidential Professor of English at The University of Oklahoma and executive director of World Literature Today.
Davis-Undiano was a mentor to Alvarez when she was a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, where she earned her Ph.D. in Spanish - Contemporary Latin American and Latino Literature and a graduate certificate in Latin American Studies. While at Oklahoma, Alvarez received the Provost's Award for Most Outstanding Dissertation in the Humanities and Fine Arts as well as the Provost's Graduate Student Award for Outstanding Teaching in the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Her teaching and research assistant for two years, Orquidea Morales, said she traveled to New York City to participate in the project there and loves that Alvarez' classes revolve around discussion.
"She allows the students to have their own voice in the class," she said. "Students loved the (New York City) project because they were in complete control of their product and they told the story they wanted to tell. This allows them to really think about the course material, process the information and see what impact it has on their lives."
Morales is one of many students Alvarez has inspired to move on to pursue graduate degrees. Morales will graduate with a master's in Interdisciplinary studies in May 2011 and will attend the University of Michigan to pursue her Ph.D. in American Cultural Studies.
At UTPA, Alvarez has also spearheaded the effort to revise and revitalize the Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program, which she now co-directs. A MAS committee she helped create developed a new degree plan for undergraduate major and minors and also a Graduate Certificate in Mexican American Studies. The number of MAS majors has gone from one to 10 since spring 2009 and 17 students are now pursuing the graduate certificate, which, she said, upon completion shows demonstrated knowledge in that area.
"This certificate demonstrates you have this cultural knowledge which can be applied to many fields - journalism, marketing, nursing - in any job, you will have an advantage. If you want to be able to make culturally-based decisions in your professional life, your personal life and your social life - that is the key to your success when you are living in a diverse society," Alvarez said.
Alvarez said she hopes to make Mexican American Studies an institutionalized program at UTPA and a first rate one.
"That would really raise the profile of the University. I think that UTPA can be a model for what a Hispanic Serving Institution should be," she said. "I think the only way to do that is by having a really strong program and all our students have an opportunity to take coursework related to Mexican-American or Latino culture. It can only benefit everybody."