St. Bonaventure University faculty members honored two of their colleagues with awards of excellence at Sunday’s annual Commencement Exercises.
Dr. Charles J. Walker, retiring professor of psychology who began his teaching career at St. Bonaventure in 1973, was presented with a Professional Excellence in Teaching award, while Dr. Xiao-Ning Zhang, associate professor of biology and a faculty member since 2009, received a Professional Excellence in Community Service award.
Walker’s colleagues describe him as a devoted, enthusiastic and compassionate teacher, an innovator willing to try new ways to connect to students, and a knowledgeable and inspirational mentor.
“Teaching is Chuck’s calling and he views it as such,” said Dr. Stephanie Vogel, assistant professor of psychology. “The warmth of his personality lets people know that he values you, respects you, and cares.” His engaging sense of humor helps him connect quickly with students, making him one of the most popular professors on campus, said Vogel. What’s more, “students learn in his classes, and they appreciate that,” she said.
Walker’s goal is to inspire students to not only excel academically, but to “live their lives joyfully,” said Dr. Robin Valeri, professor of psychology. “Chuck brings passion and commitment to his classes,” she said. “He sees his role as one of encouraging, inspiring and empowering his students. While he wants to help students understand psychology, he also seeks to provide them with the tools necessary to deal with all that life throws their way, and to inspire them to pursue their dreams.”
He leads by example and is a role model for fellow faculty, said Dr. Althea Baurenschmidt, assistant professor of psychology. “I have relied on him heavily as a source of institutional and teaching knowledge. He is always genuinely excited about teaching and mentoring,” she said.
Students are drawn to Walker because he treats them with respect and compassion, said Baurenschmidt. He helped a grieving student get his life back on track after the death of a loved one, and encouraged another student to pursue her interest in photography by starting a club on campus, then became the club’s adviser.
“Chuck Walker has not only inspired and excelled at teaching his own students, but he has made a career out of teaching others to do the same,” said Baurenschmidt.
Walker earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1969 and his Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Adelphi University in 1974. A Department of Psychology faculty member at SBU since 1973, he served as department chair from 1978 to 1983. Since 2011, he has served as special assistant to the dean of Arts & Sciences for teaching, learning and assessment.
He has held numerous leadership roles during his tenure. He has served as coordinator of instructional development for the Department of Psychology since 1990 and as Senior Seminar coordinator since 1999. At the university level, he has led or served more than 25 committees on various topics, from student life to faculty evaluation. He also chaired the Presidential Commission that established the university’s Teaching and Learning Center.
His resume is a “highlight reel” of achievement, said Baurenschmidt, presenting a long list of published articles on research and teaching, as well as numerous presentations across the U.S. and around the world.
Walker is the creator and manager of the popular website “Well-Being in Higher Education,” which helps students and faculty alike assess and strengthen their well-being. He has directed nearly 80 workshops on the topic and has served as keynote speaker for national and international conferences.
Walker is a member of the International Positive Psychology Association and the Association for Psychological Science. Upon his retirement this semester, he was honored by St. Bonaventure with the granting of professor emeritus status.
Dr. Xiao-Ning Zhang, associate professor of biology and director of the Biochemistry Program, was “already something of a rock star” among her biology colleagues when she began organizing activities promoting natural-science education in local schools, said Dr. Joel Benington, professor of biology and director of St. Bonaventure’s Bioinformatics Program.
Zhang arrived on campus in 2009 and quickly established a reputation as a gifted researcher and research mentor, as well as for excellence and innovation in teaching, said Benington. Then, over the past few years, she “conceived of, created, organized, and executed an impressive collection of activities” promoting STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in area schools, he said.
These include an annual summer research experience for high school students and an annual summer teacher development program for high school STEM teachers. Zhang also organized and conducted a week-long International STEM Camp in the summer of 2016 that was attended by students from China, Spain and the United States.
“These activities have raised SBU’s profile in natural-science education in our community to an unprecedented level,” said Benington. “And these activities simply would not have happened were it not for Xiao-Ning’s initiative in getting them started, as well as her dedication in following through to make them succeed.”
What’s more, Zhang secured National Science Foundation funding for the summer programs for high school students and teachers, so that the programs can be offered at no charge.
Zhang has also developed a crime-scene investigation lab exercise in place at Allegany-Limestone High School, as well as a pilot program at Olean High School to introduce students to college-level biology courses.
“Her passion and efforts in community outreach are without peer,” said Dr. David Hilmey, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at St. Bonaventure, noting she has “raised the profile and the perception of the Bonaventure sciences throughout the local community, the Western New York region, and even internationally.”
Her outreach efforts so impressed WNY STEM Hub of the Empire State STEM Learning Network that St. Bonaventure has been designated as the Hub’s Southern Tier Satellite Center. “This is a direct result of Dr. Zhang’s dedication to STEM and her willingness to involve local school systems in advancing it,” said Dr. Denny Wilkins, a professor in the Jandoli School of Communication.
Her contributions to STEM education have been lauded by State Sen. Catharine M. Young of Olean and Congressman Tom Reed of Corning.
Zhang earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Nanjing University in China, and her Ph.D. in genetics from Fudan University, China. Before coming to St. Bonaventure, she was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania from 2002 to 2006, and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland from 2006 to 2009.
She chaired SBU’s Department of Biology in 2014-15, and has directed the Biochemistry Program since 2011.
Zhang has published numerous peer-reviewed papers, some with contributions from undergraduate students, and has given presentations on molecular genetics and STEM education across the U.S. and internationally.
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