UTRGV faculty expertise recognized at annual excellence awards ceremony

UTRGV Founding Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Havidán Rodríguez (far left) and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and Diversity Dr. Ala Qubbaj and Associate Vice Provost for Diversity Dr. Marie Mora (far right) joined Faculty Excellence Award winners  Bruce Reed, Faculty Mentoring Award for the School of Rehabilitation Services and Counseling; Emmy Perez, Student Mentoring Award; Elias Villarreal Jr., Teaching Award; and Dora Elia Garcia Saavedra, Service Award at a Faculty Excellence Awards ceremony May 5.

By Gail Fagan

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – MAY 5, 2016 – Three faculty members and an academic department at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley were recognized May 5 for their exceptional efforts, during the annual Faculty Excellence Awards ceremony.

The Faculty Excellence Award winners who went above and beyond in the areas of teaching, service and student mentoring were:

  • TEACHING: Elias Villarreal Jr., MPAS, ADE, PA-C, clinical associate professor, Department of Physician Assistant, College of Health Affairs.
  • SERVICE: Dora Elia Garcia Saavedra, Ph.D., associate professor of communication, Department of Communication, College of Liberal Arts.
  • STUDENT MENTORING: Emmy Pérez, associate professor, MFA program in creative writing, College of Fine Arts.

The Excellence Award in Faculty Mentoring went to the School of Rehabilitation Services and Counseling in the College of Health Affairs.

Also honored at the ceremony for their accomplishments during the 2015-16 academic year were seven winners of UT System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards, eight faculty winners of national external awards, nine faculty who had books published, and 13 faculty who received grants of $1 million or more.

Dr. Havidán Rodríguez, founding provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs, praised the talent, contributions, commitment and hard work of the awardees.

“We always say student success is at the core of what we do at this institution, but student success revolves around the success and the excellence of our faculty,” he said. “We are celebrating you today.”

The Faculty Excellence Award program is co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the UTRGV Foundation Board. An external selection committee chose the winners from nominees recommended by their peers at the college level.

Each faculty winner received a plaque and a $5,000 monetary award. The department recognized received $3,000 in travel funds to support the faculty in their department/school.

University Excellence Award for Teaching: Elias Villarreal Jr.

Villarreal, who has worked with the PA program since 1998, when it was a collaborative agreement with the UT Medical Branch in Galveston, is known for his expertise in mastering and utilizing the latest technology and teaching methods, including implementation of team-based learning and readiness assessment tests, as well as the use of iPads by all PA students. That expertise helped him garner the 2015 national Distinguished Apple Educator Award from Apple, Inc.

“I’m not dedicated to teaching, I’m dedicated to changing lives on our campus,” he said. “Changing a student’s life requires a professor to be up-to-date on the latest technology and teaching methods. Students notice my passion for teaching and learning with technology, and their success comes as a natural reflection of my influence.”

His faculty colleagues say he is a born leader, with “communication skills that are unmatched.”

“He is not satisfied with the status quo but has a passionate desire to have our students have the best that is offered for their benefit and the benefit of their future patients,” wrote Willard Baker Jr., clinical assistant professor and one of several faculty who nominated Villarreal.

His former student Priscilla Peña, a UTRGV PA graduate who now works as a PA with a local internist, in her nomination letter described Villarreal’s teaching style as “not only interactive and challenging but also very fun.”

“He enables students to learn how to think critically,” she said. “I was immediately captivated by his passion and completely drawn to being part of something bigger, such as becoming a successful physician assistant.”

University Excellence Award for Service: Dora Elia Garcia Saavedra

Saavedra, a faculty member at UT Pan American and now UTRGV since 1993, has an extensive legacy of service at all levels, including as chair of the UTPA Faculty Senate. With the advent of UTRGV, she was elected unanimously as founding chair of the Faculty Senate, where she has worked on numerous transition issues.

Nominator Tom White, associate professor and criminal justice chair, cites Saavedra’s long list of university- and committee-related service, which has had a positive impact on many issues of importance to the university, its faculty and students.

“Dr. Saavedra is invariably one of the principal actors in any of the service activities she undertakes,” he said.

Her colleague and nominator, Communication Lecturer Elizabeth Garcia, said Saavedra “gives others the quiet gift of a listening ear and then finds out how she may serve them and follows through.”

“She is always ready to work hard to make our campus and community places where people can do their best and be their best,” Garcia said.
Saavedra says her passion for service was inspired by her Catholic faith, citing St. Ignatius Loyola’s “A Prayer of Generosity.”

“It says …‘Teach me to be generous, teach me to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wound, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to seek reward,” she said.

University Excellence Award for Student Mentoring: Emmy Pérez

Pérez, a renowned Chicana poet, has been a faculty member since 2006. During that time, she has chaired 13 thesis committees and led her students to present at countless academic conferences and venues nationwide, to receive significant nationally competitive fellowships and awards and to have their poetry and other work published in prestigious peer-reviewed literary journals and anthologies.

“Professor Emmy Pérez demonstrates that mentoring students does truly lead students to academic success through her wise advice and guidance,” wrote Dr. Stephanie Alvarez, associate professor of Mexican American Studies, who nominated Pérez for the recognition. “Thanks to her mentoring an entire generation of Chicana/o poets is emerging right here from el Valle, UTRGV.”

Laura Oviedo, a former student and now a doctoral student at Texas A&M University, in her nomination letter described Pérez as an “inspirational advocate and life-changing supporter of students inside and outside the classroom through her service learning projects, her leadership in the Mexican American Studies Program, her pedagogy, advisement with the UTRGV student organization WAKE-UP! (an all-female performance-poetry collective) and her continued mentorship during my Ph.D. studies at a different academic institution.”

Pérez said one of her favorite parts of teaching is meeting individually with students.

“I believe my mentorship style comes out of that longing to connect with someone who could have helped the younger version of my writing self more,” she said. “I have learned that communication goes a long way in helping students feel comfortable.”

University Department Excellence Award for Faculty Mentoring: School of Rehabilitation Services and Counseling

In her nomination letter, Dr. Charlene Blankenship, associate professor and assistant director, cited the school’s organized and formalized New Faculty Orientation system, which provides regularly scheduled mentoring meetings between the director and junior faculty that covers new employee issues, teaching, research and service.

She also praised its partnership with Langston University, which provides junior faculty with opportunities to produce research and publications. Blankenship said its informal mentorship includes a Moving Committee, where new faculty is assisting in locating housing and moving in.

“I would describe the mentoring culture in this school as faculty continuing the cycle of being the mentee then becoming the mentor,” Blankenship said.

Assistant Professor and nominator Abdoulaye Diallo said his colleagues in the Department of Rehabilitation Services and Counseling went far beyond what is expected of mentors by visiting his class and providing feedback, helping him align his course materials to accreditation standards and providing advice that helped him in advising students and increasing his productivity.

“They provided and atmosphere that was conducive to learning and productivity,” he wrote in the nomination. “Now I am a ‘good’ steward of my profession.”


Marci.Caltabiano@UTRGV.edu UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications

Jennifer.McGehee@UTRGV.edu UTRGV Director of Public Relations