San Antonio native Dr. Marci McMahon has always been drawn to Latina/o literature and early in her life she learned the power literature has in giving a voice to those who are not often heard in society and evoking social change.
"From a very young age, reading Latina/o and Mexican American literature like Sandra Cisneros' 'House on Mango Street' felt very familiar. I felt I knew Esperanza, from Pam Munoz Ryan's 'Esperanza Rising.' Those characters were my girlfriends. They were trying to find their own voices, trying to individuate, trying to find a space of their own - as a young girl I also wanted those things and could identify with them," McMahon said.
Her inventive research and excellence in teaching has earned her the 2013 University of Texas System Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award. The $25,000 award is among the highest academic honor nationwide to recognize academic distinction in teaching by university faculty.
McMahon attended Incarnate Word - a Catholic high school in San Antonio dedicated to many local causes for social peace and justice. Volunteering for a group affiliated with Amnesty International as a teenager gave McMahon firsthand experience with the local problems in her community.
"My high school ingrained activism in us," McMahon said, "It really made me aware of the economic and social disparities within my own community. We were able to work together with groups of individuals who had family on death row, trying to impact legislation and policy to end the death penalty."
It was not until McMahon attended The University of Texas at Austin for her undergraduate degree that she began to apply the activism she learned in San Antonio to the classes she began taking in Mexican American Studies.
"I remember taking a class where we studied literature in the form of visual art," said McMahon. "I remember studying these murals in California and being so struck by the role these art forms took in raising people's awareness about issues facing their own communities."
That class inspired McMahon to begin constructing her own philosophy about the conversations literature and art produce in changing society. She later used this philosophy in her teaching, using her classroom as a space for students to think about their role in society and create a voice of their own.
After earning her bachelor's degree in English literature, McMahon moved west to The University of Southern California (USC) and obtained her Ph.D. in affiliation with the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. Her experiences in Los Angeles further enriched her passion for Latina/o cultural experiences and began to prepare her for a life of educating students.
McMahon joined the faculty at The University of Texas-Pan American in 2008. Her courses focus on Chicana/o and Latina/o literature, cultural studies, gender studies and theater performance.
McMahon is the also the director of the Graduate Certificate in MAS and the master's program in interdisciplinary studies in MAS, as well as the MAS faculty and advisory board.
"My work at UTPA has been so rewarding, It thrills me to teach a student population whose voice is represented in the literature I have devoted my life to learning," McMahon said. "Being a part of developing a major and minor in MAS, developing new curriculum, finding new and exciting ways of teaching, and seeing the program flourish from the ground floor has been one my greatest joys here at UTPA."
In 2010, McMahon teamed up with a colleague from Kalamazoo College in Michigan to began an innovative online collaboration on the topic of border studies. Students from both institutions shared their ideas on border policies, immigration and other issues to better understand each other.
UTPA Professor Dr. Linda Belau, 2011 University of Texas System Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award recipient, was deeply impressed with McMahon's online collaboration.
"The course was fascinating in the way it engaged two American border environments (Mexican and Canadian) in the same pedagogical context and directed students to think about the theoretical and practical conditions of border dwelling beyond their own immediate experiences," said Belau. "The overall project was so pioneering that our University's Center for Online Teaching and Technology held a colloquium to demonstrate the use of technology that Dr. McMahon had adopted into the course."
McMahon also has outstanding rapport with her students and continues to push their goals into higher education. Anna Victoria Muñoz, one of the first two MAS bachelor's degree recipients in more than 20 years, is a witness to the passion McMahon transmits to her students.
"Dr. McMahon's dedication to my success in education continued even after I was not enrolled in her classes. In Dec. 2010, I decided to apply to the Educational Studies graduate program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor," Muñoz said. "Dr. McMahon was a main contributor to my acceptance into the prestigious program."
Dr. Stephanie Alvarez, director of MAS, credits McMahon as an integral force behind the MAS major and minor at UTPA.
"I have worked side by side with Dr. McMahon for five years now and can say that without any doubt she is completely committed to ensuring that students have the opportunity to engage in the study of Mexican American literature, cultural productions, and communities," Alvarez said. "She has dedicated countless hours, evenings, and weekends to redesign the MAS major and created a minor."
Prior to their efforts Alvarez said UTPA had little means of studying the Mexican American experience despite the almost 90 percent of the UTPA student body who identify themselves as Latina/o.
McMahon is one of six UTPA professors, and the only one in her college this year, to achieve this prestigious award.
To learn more about the 2013 and prior recipients at The University of Texas System Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards website.