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Faculty excellence praised during annual awards ceremony at UTPA
By Gail Fagan, Public Affairs Representative
(956) 665-7995
Posted: 05/11/2012
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A fourth annual celebration of faculty excellence in teaching, research, service and mentoring was held at The University of Texas-Pan American May 4.


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Pictured at the annual Faculty Excellence Awards ceremony May 4 are left to right Dr. Ala Qubbaj, vice provost for Faculty Affairs; UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen; University Faculty Excellence Award recipients Sandra Tijerina (Service), Dr. Mircea Chipara (Research), Dr. Constantine Tarawneh (Mentoring)and Dr. Cheryl Fielding (Teaching); and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Havidán Rodríguez.
UTPA Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Havidán Rodríguez said it is important to recognize and incentivize the achievements of faculty in the community. He called it a day of celebration.

"We celebrate the excellence of our faculty, we celebrate the contributions of our faculty and everything they do to enhance the goals and impact of The University of Texas-Pan American," he said. "We need to work together to promote excellence in everything that we do."

Co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the UTPA Foundation Board, the awards ceremony recognizes faculty in each of the four categories at the college and University level. The college level award is given in all seven UTPA colleges. A top University level winner is then chosen by an external committee outside the University and the University of Texas System from the list of college level winners in each of the four categories.

College level winners receive a $1,500 check and plaque. University level winners receive a $5,000 check and plaque in addition to the college level award.

Newly added this year was the category for mentorship.

UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen, who also welcomed the winning faculty members and other guests, said he tells people across the state that he has the most excellent faculty he has ever met.

He said when new faculty come to the Valley they either stay for two years or they "drink the Kool-Aid."

"You all drank the Kool-Aid," he told the faculty award winners. "You all know the importance of what you are doing here ... how many lives you are touching. You are amazing. You give our children the chance to dream and to dream big."

The following were University level award recipients. By clicking their name, a video can be viewed on each.

University Faculty Excellence Award for Teaching: Dr. Cheryl Fielding


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- Dr. Cheryl Fielding

Fielding, who began her career as a special education teacher, joined the UTPA faculty in 2000 and is currently an associate professor and Educational Diagnostician Program Coordinator and practicum supervisor in the Department of Educational Psychology. She earned her Ph.D. in special education in 2000 from Texas Women's University in Denton, Texas.

Fielding has been described by her students as "passionate toward her work," "an expert in her field" and a "true picture of what a great professor symbolizes."

During her time at UT Pan American, she has held joint appointment between the College of Education and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and supervised graduate students in the Psychology and Anthropology Department who conducted practicum at the Autism Treatment Center in San Antonio for board certification as behavior analysts.

Recently, Fielding co-developed a training app for parents and caregivers of children with autism and other challenging behavior called Behavior Breakthroughs, which has already been downloaded almost 27,000 times in the past year globally.

Fielding said she is genuinely humbled by the award. When it comes to teaching, she said she always puts students first and appreciates the long term relationships she has developed with her students who have gone on to earn graduate degrees and hold key positions in local public schools.

"I am genuinely interested in my students, I genuinely like my students, I genuinely want to get to know my students. I'm just really their biggest cheerleader, their biggest fan, their biggest advocate, their biggest supporter," she said. "To see them be successful puts more wind in my sails than anything else I can possibly imagine "

University Level Faculty Excellence Award in Research: Dr. Mircea Chipara


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- Dr. Mircea Chipara

Chipara first came to UT Pan American in 2006 after serving as an associate scientist at the Department of Chemistry and the Cyclotron Facility at Indiana University, where he also served as group leader of Radiation Research Effects, a research program at IU.

A native of Romania, the associate professor in the Department of Physics and Geology focuses his research on nanomaterials with emphasis on polymer-based nanocomposites. The quality and originality of his research is evidenced by more than 170 scientific publications in prestigious peer-reviewed journals and 120 abstracts and presentations in national and international conferences. His 26 publications authored or co-authored by him since coming to UTPA have resulted in 105 citations linked to his name.

Chipara's research accomplishments have also included the receipt of more than $1.5 million in funding over the past five years from granting agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense. He has had particular success in obtaining much needed scientific instrumentation for the University. He has established collaborations with national and international researchers and developed collaborations with faculty and involved students in research across a number of disciplines at UTPA.

In the past five years he has mentored 15 undergraduate and graduate students who have gone on to pursue graduate school or enter careers.

Although described by one of his colleagues as a "true scientist," Chipara said the award came as a surprise and will push him further in his research efforts. He said his research is not only about improving existing materials and discovering new ones but also about attracting students and preparing more to attend graduate school.

"This is extremely important because while we started in this part of Texas to excite young students toward undergraduate studies we need to do more and to push them toward greater studies, to push them farther in their career," he said. "Typically, they have this picture that their future is an act of fate. They should understand that their future is in their hands and they should build that future."

University Level Faculty Excellence Award in Service: Sandra Tijerina


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- Sandra Tijerina

Tijerina, affectionately known as "Mrs. T" by her students, earned her B.S. in medical technology in 1978 from then-Pan American University, where she also earned a secondary education certification to teach in 1994. She later earned her M.S. in Occupational Training and Development from Corpus Christi State University.

Currently an associate professor in the Clinical Laboratory Sciences (CLS) program, she first came to work at UTPA in 1989 teaching in the clinical laboratory and medical technology programs.

For the past seven years, she has been the CLS clinical education coordinator supervising clinical rotations and overseeing student outcomes assessment. Besides providing a quality education experience for her students in the classroom, Tijerina has taken on numerous extra duties important in a student's education. She has served a chair of the program's Student Admissions Committee since 1995 and as faculty adviser for the CLS Student Association for 20 years, helping students with fund raising activities to have opportunities to attend professional conferences.

She also performs most of the program's student advising and serves as "mother hen" to her students during their six month clinical hospital experience, her program director Karen Chandler says.

Tijerina's record of service has extended beyond her students and program to include the college, University and her profession as well. One of her colleagues says "she is the kind of person who doesn't say no" when asked to be on a committee or help with projects.

She's served as chair or a member of a countless number of committees addressing faculty concerns and University issues. Tijerina has also been very active professionally at the district and state levels of the Texas Association for Clinical Laboratory Science (TACLS), where she has served in a variety of leadership roles and been recognized by the organization with many of its top honors.

Tijerina said it's a privilege to be recognized with the others receiving this year's awards and hopes her commitment to service inspires her students.

"Committee work is teamwork and that is something that we try to instill in our students," Tijerina said. "There is no 'I' in team and our students do have to work as part of a team. I feel if I am part of a team I can show my students how to be part also."

University Level Faculty Excellence Award in Mentoring: Dr. Constantine Tarawneh


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- Dr. Constantine Tarawneh

Tarawneh, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who joined UT Pan American in 2003, said the opportunity to make a difference in students' lives is what most attracted him to come to UTPA.

A native of Greece, he earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Jordan-Amman and both his master's and Ph.D. in the same field from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

At UTPA, he is regarded by his department chair as "tireless, dedicated and passionate" about doing his best and inspiring the same in his students. He has served as the mechanical engineering graduate program director for the past six years and also as its undergraduate program director, during which the number of graduate students in the field has grown significantly.

Tarawneh, also known as Dr. T, has advised nearly 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students and has been involved in many departmental initiatives to enhance its curriculum and student attendance, participation and success.

He is also co-principal investigator of the Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence grant and serves as the Global Security Studies degree program adviser and graduate program director.

Tarawneh has additionally drawn his students into his ongoing research leading them as future scholars-in-training. In the past five years, he has secured more than $1.9 million in external grant funding from railroad industry corporations.

His teaching skills and its impact on students has garnered Tarawneh the prestigious UT System Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award and six Outstanding Faculty Awards as voted by mechanical engineering students. His student and research assistant Andrea Arguelles says, "He's so passionate about what he does that you want to do your best."

Tarawneh said he was especially pleased to win the award in this category. He believes in leading by example and always takes the time to help students when they need it.

"One of the mottos I've always gone by is 'do as I do, not do as I say.' For example I tell my students, 'Today we are going to stay until 7 o'clock to get this stuff set up.' And I do it, I stay with them," he said. "I feel students react more when they see you getting involved and doing stuff that you are asking them to do, showing them that you are willing to go above and beyond to help them because then they feel more invested and more obligated to meet your expectations."

College Level Faculty Excellence Awards:

College of Arts and Humanities: Ila M. McCracken, teaching; Adriel Trott, research; Jeffrey McQuillan, service; and Stephanie Alvarez, mentoring.

College of Business Administration: Michael Abebe, teaching; Hale Kaynak, research; Sibin Wu, service; and Linda Matthews, mentoring.

College of Education: Cheryl Fielding, teaching; Maria Elena Reyes, research; Robert Guinn, service; and Paul Sale, mentoring.

College of Engineering and Computer Science: Sanjeev Kumar, teaching; Robert Schweller, research; Javier Kypuros, service; and Constantine Tarawneh, mentoring.

College of Health Sciences and Human Services: Rene Gonzalez, teaching; Sandra Tijerina, service; and Belinda Rivas, mentoring.

College of Social and Behavioral Sciences: Jessica Lavariega-Monforti, teaching; Jerwen Jou, research; Miguel Diaz-Barriga, service; and Ramon Guerra, mentoring.

College of Science and Mathematics: Teresa P. Feria, teaching; Mircea Chipara, research; Lokenath Debnath, service; and Scott Gunn, mentoring.

New Faculty Mentoring Award

An additional award for New Faculty Mentoring was presented at an evening reception held the same day for faculty. Initiated by the New Faculty Program, led by Dr. Ala Qubbaj, vice provost for faculty affairs, the award of a plaque and $500 recognizes exemplary mentorship by an existing faculty member to a new, first year faculty member.

The inaugural award went to Dr. Jessica Lavariega-Monforti, associate professor of political science and assistant dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Lavariega-Monforti, who also won this year's college level faculty excellence award for teaching in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, was nominated by Dr. William Sokoloff, assistant professor of political science, whom she mentored.

Sokoloff said Lavariega-Monforti helped him innumerable ways from professional advice regarding UTPA's institutional structure and providing him sample syllabi to helping him to secure housing and identifying the best Valley restaurants for he and his wife to try.

"Dr. Lavariega-Monforti mentored me before my physical arrival in McAllen and she made me feel like I had someone I could always contact if I had a question or concern. Once I arrived in the area, she was always available and shared her knowledge of UTPA in a friendly and professional way," Sokoloff said.

Lavariega-Monforti said she just tried to give Sokoloff all of the information she wanted to have when she first arrived at UTPA, including life inside and outside of the University.

"I made it a point to meet with him, discuss student and pedagogy concerns, and talk about the landscape of our department, college, and university," she said.