Dr. Stephen Merino, a new assistant professor of sociology at The University of Texas-Pan American, feels fortunate to get a tenure-track position right out of graduate school.
Armed with a Ph.D. in sociology from Penn State University, Merino said he also feels fortunate to land at a university that values what he loves - teaching and research.
Merino, among 37 new tenure-track faculty hired this fall, will get the support a novice faculty member needs through UTPA's New Faculty Support Program, now in its fifth year.
The program is intended to support and retain new faculty through the provision of a yearlong set of structured activities and experiences to help them adjust to their new environment, both academia and the UTPA system of rules and procedures. The activities include a welcome reception, an academic orientation, a series of training luncheons and workshops and a year-end event.
During the program, faculty receive assistance in preparing for their first-year tenure review and developing a five-year professional growth plan. They are also assigned a mentor, an experienced UTPA faculty member, usually tenured, who will advise them on teaching, research and funding opportunities.
Dr. Ala Qubbaj, vice provost for Faculty Affairs in the Office of Academic Affairs, said he has received extremely positive feedback about the program and the role it plays in helping new faculty acclimate to a new university and community and facilitating their professional growth and success.
"Since the implementation of the program in 2007, our faculty retention - the five-year tenure-track rate - has increased from 58 percent to 73 percent," he said.
Qubbaj said the program benefitted faculty in ways beyond the practical information it provides them.
"Many participants cite that the program made them feel welcomed and cared for. It has also created community and camaraderie that develops in each cohort during the course of the year. New faculty have said they also appreciate the social and networking support that the program provides," he said.
On Aug. 22, the first day of the 2012-2013 program, informational sessions on academic and institutional resources and support services were presented by directors or representatives from the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, Center for Online Learning & Technology, University Library and Registrar, IT Support, Campus Safety and Security and ADA Accommodations. New faculty also participated in interactive group activities and learned more about the Rio Grande Valley culture and students as well as how to prepare for the first day of classes.
During the day's luncheon, UTPA Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Havidán Rodríguez as well as college deans and other administrators greeted the new faculty members.
"Let us know how we can improve the strategic plan and find a place in that plan for you," he said. "There is a place for you whether it is scholarship, research, teaching or service. There is a place for each and every one of you in the engaged university."
At the luncheon, new faculty members heard from alumnus George Galindo, who graduated in May 2012 with a BA in English and now works with Teach for America at IDEA Donna. Galindo, who served as a student body vice-president while at UTPA, described the unique characteristics of UTPA students - often first generation college goers who have to work part or fulltime to support their families while going to school. He told the faculty that they can have a tremendous influence on students and their success.
"You are not only teaching college students, you are teaching first generation college students - the first in their family to ever set foot on a college campus" Galindo said. "The professors I had are really the models I take into my own classroom. All of our 19,000 students look up to you with open hearts and open minds and ready to learn. I request that you continually push them forward, give them the rigor that they need to be transformational individuals in a global society."
Luncheon speaker Steve Ahlenius, president and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, gave attendees an overview of the region's economic status, citing its unprecedented growth, low cost of living and the increasing diversification of its economy. He challenged them to get involved in the community to help make a difference in the region.
"As you begin your teaching here, I encourage you to look at ways you can connect with the region. You are the best ambassadors that this University has in reaching out to the communities," he said. "If this University is going to play the role that I think it is going to play, it starts with each one of you reaching out."
Merino, whose research focuses on the sociology of religion and race and ethnicity, particularly how religious affiliations might affect racial attitudes, said he looks forward to pursuing research on issues related to the region.
"I'm interested in pursuing a project that would look at how people's religious values influence their attitudes toward immigration and immigration reform," he said. "Being here now, I want to incorporate border issues and expand my research agenda to meet the mission and values of Pan Am."
Merino, who will be mentored by UTPA associate professor of sociology Dr. Ramon Guerra, said the New Faculty Support program indicates the University is committed to helping faculty succeed and being retained.
"The transition from graduate student to faculty is a really big one. So, I am really excited about the sessions that we are going to have throughout the coming year," he said.