Campus buzzes with excitement each spring as graduating students grow anxious to move on to the next chapter of their lives. The pomp and circumstance of concluding an academic year at WOU extends to honoring people who have accomplished much—from alumni, faculty, staff and students.
Seven prestigious awards are given out to recognize people who have made a difference in the WOU community. They are the Alumni Award of Excellence the Delmer Dewey Award for outstanding senior male, the Julia McCulloch Smith Award for outstanding senior female, the Outstanding Graduate Student Award, and the Mario and Alma Pastega Awards for Excellence in Scholarship, Excellence in Teaching, and Staff Excellence.
Pictured at right: Commencement keynote speaker Mark Corcoran ’78
In addition to recognizing these winners as part of the Commencement activities, WOU is honored to have Mark Corcoran ’78 address the ceremony as keynote speaker. He had an important message for WOU’s graduating students about goals and passion. He came to WOU from the San Francisco area to play basketball and earned his bachelor’s degree in education. He had planned to become a teacher, but that career path was short-lived.
Massive budget cuts in the New England education system forced Corcoran to find a new career. Only 24-years-old and a newlywed, he looked for any job that would help pay the bills. He got a position with GTE Sylvania in 1982, something he thought would be temporary. But little did he know that he would have a passion for sales. That passion has ultimately yielded a 30-year career with Sylvania, and the responsibilities of his current role, vice president of industrial commercial lighting for the U.S.
That is part of his message to WOU students today: don’t be discouraged if your life takes a path different from what you planned, because you may end up happier for it. “Everything happens for a reason. Don’t be disappointed if your life’s plans suddenly veer off a plotted course. As long as you find and embrace your passion, you will lead a successful life.”
Alumni Award of Excellence: Zellee Allen
It’s nearly impossible to live in the Monmouth area and not be familiar with Partnerships in Community Living, Inc. (PCL), an organization supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Whether you know someone who works there, a client of the organization, or have seen the organization at community events – the name is a household one. PCL was co-founded by WOU alumnus Zellee Allen ’93.
Allen grew up in Indianapolis, Ind. and left there for Big Ben Community College in Moses Lake, Wash. to play basketball. He always preferred the country to the city and was happy to leave Indianapolis. Allen then transferred to WOU to play basketball.
While on campus he held several jobs where he worked with people with developmental disabilities. He talked with a fellow student, Joanne Fuhrman, about the politics of their jobs. “We started talking about the field we were working in and how we didn’t like the way people were treated. They were treated like objects so I could have a job, but I was working so they could have a better life. One thing led to another and the next thing you know we’re out there writing proposals to provide a service and, lo and behold, we ended up with a contract.”
Allen and Fuhrman created PCL together, and now work as the executive director and associate director, respectively. He has remained fervently committed to PCL’s mission since it’s inception in 1986 and he works to instill that dedication in his staff. “I wanted staff to feel good about the work they did, I wanted them to learn a lot and be professionals in this field. I wanted the people we are supporting to have a life that reflected what their needs were. I hope that’s what we’re doing.”
Suzanne Young, the chair of the PCL board, nominated Allen for the Alumni Award of Excellence. “Under Zellee’s 25-year leadership, the organization he has led is literally changing the way our society regards ‘disability.’ He has created an organization that centers the people it serves at the core of its values and is continually driving PCL’s mission to the forefront of the minds in our community leaders and the halls of the state legislature,” said Young.
“Our community is a very important part of how we do business and it’s a very important part for the people that we support,” said Zellee. “Even though the people we support are disabled and have been segregated in a lot of ways, they are a part of our community. It’s our responsibility as citizens and community members to assure them a place in the community. We make room for new babies every day that don’t have our abilities. Although they may grow up to gain those abilities, that doesn’t mean the people who don’t develop them deserve any less. So I always think that it’s our responsibility to help the community learn their responsibilities.”
Pastega Excellence in Teaching: Maria Dantas-Whitney
Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Dr. Maria Dantas-Whitney knew from a young age that she wanted to be an educator. She planned to follow her mother’s footsteps as an English teacher and pursue her passion of learning other languages. Teaching English in Brazil became her goal.
Dantas-Whitney, associate professor of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and bilingual education and this year’s Mario and Alma Pastega Excellence in Teaching Award recipient, came to the United States to earn her master’s in teaching English as a second language. But she met an unexpected, but pleasant, snag: her future husband. This led to her decision to teach English to international students in the U.S. Consequently, she shifted her focus during her doctoral program at Oregon State University to training teachers.
Throughout her teaching career, Dantas-Whitney has focused on bringing real-world experiences to the classroom. One of those experiences happened during the 2008-09 academic year, when she lived in Mexico with her family on a Fulbright fellowship. She taught for a year in collaboration with a university in Mexico and did research at a local elementary school. One challenge she faced was learning her third language, Spanish, and navigating a different culture in a new language. On top of that, her son went to a school where he didn’t speak the language. Dantas-Whitney had to figure out homework with him, talk to his teachers, and navigate other challenging experiences.
“It was a really important experience for me to go through and constantly reflect on the experiences that parents of English language learners in this country go through,” said Dantas-Whitney. “And at the same time, reflecting on the privileges I had while there that many parents don’t have here. I had the time to help, the resources in terms of language, financial means, and computer skills. That has become a real important message that I brought back for my students here.”
Last summer, Dantas-Whitney took a group of students to Argentina for three weeks. It was a class on culture, language and education. “It was so perfect to have them in an international/foreign language environment, learning another language and dealing with another culture. At the same time, they reflected on what their future students have to deal with, too.”
Chelsea Cotton, one of the students who participated in the Argentina trip, said in her nomination of Dantas-Whitney for this award that her passion for the ESOL program increased greatly after the study abroad program. “Maria is such an inspiring and passionate teacher. She is so knowledgeable about what she teaches. Learning from her always comes so easily, she is great at making connections and helping us understand.”
Pastega Excellence in Scholarship: Henry Hughes
Dr. Henry Hughes, professor of English, has found balance at Western Oregon University. A balance in which his teaching fuels his passion to create, and his creations inspire him in the classroom. “Teaching keeps me fresh and I find the students invigorating. Because it’s new to them, it tends to feel new to me,” said Hughes.
Hughes, this year’s recipient for the Mario and Alma Pastega Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activity, has led a distinguished and prolific career. He was hired in 2002 as an expert in American literature, after completing his doctorate at Purdue. Hughes focused on maritime narratives and the writings of Herman Melville. In 2003, he led a team of scholars to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands to examine the historical background of Melville’s early novels.
“While Professor Hughes’ teaching is exceptionally strong, writing and scholarship are clearly his fortes, and he is one of those extremely rare people who achieves significant success in both creative and critical endeavors,” said Dr. Curtis Yehnert, chair of the Humanities Division and a professor of American literature and writing. In recent years, Hughes has shifted his scholarship toward literary journalism, and now regularly reviews books for publications like the Harvard Review. The review process keeps him in the conversation, while allowing him time for other pursuits. “I found that for a job like this, it was easier for me to use my time creatively,” said Hughes, adding that he can work on his poems during an hour between classes or other pockets of free time. “I never lose energy or find that I’m short on time when it comes to poems.”
Hughes has written poetry regularly since high school. His first collection of poetry, Men Holding Eggs, received the 2004 Oregon Book Award. In 2011, his second collection, Moist Meridian, was a finalist for the award. His third collection of poetry, Shutter Lines, has just been published. Hughes, an avid fisherman and admirer of the fishing memoir genre, has edited the Everyman Library anthologies The Art of Angling: Poems about Fishing and the forthcoming Stories about Fishing.
Hughes’ work also extends to other mediums. Last year, he wrote his first libretto, The Call, while working with Grammy-award winning composer David Metzger. Hughes created lyrics for a choral piece honoring armed service veterans that was performed by the Willamette Master Chorus at Willamette University. Last spring, he curated an exhibit at WOU’s Hamersly Library called “Avian Art: Birds in Image and Word.” He also serves as a city councilor in Falls City.
When looking at Hughes’ career and body of work, there are two apparent themes. One is collaboration. He includes WOU faculty and local individuals in his projects as much as possible. Another is that Hughes will try anything once. Next he plans to work on a nonfiction book with stories of his fishing experiences.
Staff Excellence Award: Kathy Hill
There’s a lot Kathy Hill loves about her job. She finds the most rewarding aspect to be the direct impact she can make on the lives of students and faculty. As the administrative assistant to the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as this year’s Mario and Alma Pastega Staff Excellence Award recipient, a large part of Hill’s role is problem solving.
“I keep chocolate on my table because most things that hit here are crisis level and chocolate helps with anything. And a box of Kleenex.” Her dedication to helping people – combined with her natural caring demeanor – sets Hill apart. “Things can get very emotional in here,” she said, adding, “It’s amazing that any given day someone can walk in here and I can truly make a difference in their life by helping them.”
Dealing with crises is only one part of Hill’s job on campus. Over the past 12 years, since joining the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, her job has shifted from secretarial to administrative. She manages the budget for all of LAS, which includes approximately 20 indices, and she does the scheduling for all LAS class sections. The dean’s office also oversees all eight division offices and programs and handles the LAS grievances that cannot be handled at the department or division level. These varied duties are what Hill loves best about her job. Despite what she expects to fill her day, she rarely knows what the next moment will bring.
Hill’s supervisor, Dr. Stephen Scheck, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was one of Hills’ nominators. “In addition to her administrative duties, Kathy plays another role at WOU, that of ‘Big Sister’ or ‘House Mother’ for the many students wandering into the dean’s office, lost, and sometimes in tears. Most recently, I observed Kathy making multiple phone calls between a faculty member, Registrar staff, an academic division office and the Academic Advising & Learning Center…all to help guide a distraught parent into how to help their despondent son. Kathy did this during a very pressing time in her own workload – and she followed up with the parent several days later. Kind, respectful, courteous engagement is the norm for her.”
She also makes herself available 24/7. It isn’t rare for a student or parent to call her cell phone during evenings or weekends with a question or a crisis to deal with. “That is perfectly fine, if it will help them through a difficult situation.” This dedication to the university is what many appreciate about Hill. “I truly feel like WOU is my Western family. I am pleased that the way I feel about this place is acknowledged because the faculty and staff truly have a heart for caring.”
Outstanding Graduate Award: Allyssa McVay
The 2012 Outstanding Graduate Student, Allyssa McVay has been truly inspired by her time at Western Oregon University, both in her undergraduate and graduate programs on campus. McVay attributes the community setting, small class sizes and faculty who supported her every step of the way as molding her into the person she’s become. “I spent my life from ages 18 to 25 developing who I am at WOU. The university has truly built who I am and I call it home,” said McVay.
A native of Salem, Ore., McVay picked WOU because it was close to home and she’d heard great things about the school. After arriving on campus she began taking American Sign Language courses for her foreign language requirement and fell in love with the language.
For her master’s, she chose to stay at WOU and enter the rehabilitation counseling program, tailoring her program to focus on deafness. “I loved WOU enough to stay for my master’s,” she said. Through the program she learned how to work with clients who are deaf, utilizing both her undergraduate and graduate degrees on a daily basis in her job. A job she landed because of her time at WOU.
The rehabilitation counseling program has a mock interview component in which the students interview with professionals in the rehabilitation field. McVay made such an impression at her practice interview that she was offered an internship with the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (OVRS). A couple of weeks before the internship was set to begin, she received a call that a position opened up at OVRS and they encouraged her to apply. Before her internship started, McVay already found a permanent job with them.
She credits the WOU faculty for preparing her for her current job. “I feel like the program really funnels you out into the professional world and makes you career-ready.” McVay admires the dedication and care that each of her professors have taken with her and her colleagues over the years.
“I’ve never had a bad experience with any faculty. They’ve all pushed me, challenged me, and made me a better person. I attribute a lot of my success to them. They genuinely care about your education and give you the time you need to do what you need to do,” she said, adding that her professors are who she looks up to.
The faculty have also inspired her in her personal life. One faculty member in particular emphasized the importance of volunteer work, something McVay and her husband were already passionate about. This led to both of them volunteering in Haiti last January to assist both malnourished children and adults with disabilities. “It was very impactful and life-changing. You see a lot of things that media won’t cover and a lot of things you don’t expect to be exposed to,” she said. McVay and her husband are planning a return trip within the next year.
Delmer Dewey Award: Robert Alexander
Looking back at his time on campus, Bobby Alexander believes that Western Oregon University chooses the student, not the other way around. After trying New Mexico State University for a year, this year’s Delmer Dewey Award winner chose to transfer to WOU.
For his freshman year, he headed to New Mexico to play baseball. It frustrated him because he didn’t have enough to keep him busy while he red-shirted for the team that year. For someone who had played baseball and ran track year-round since sixth grade while balancing classes, New Mexico was definitely a slower pace. His mom encouraged him to find a different school and WOU seemed like a good fit.
When he came to WOU, he was given the opportunity to join the track and field team. He holds the third all-time record in the 60-meter dash for indoor track in the university’s history, with a time of 6.99 seconds. He was also a member of the Indoor Conference Championship Team three years in a row. “Like anything else, it’s frustrating at times because it’s an individual sport. You can’t really blame your success or failure on anybody but yourself. But that’s the whole beauty of the sport. When you win, you win.”
Between running track and the small class sizes on campus, Alexander excelled. “Athletics has been a way to streamline my academic processes because I know I need to finish things in a certain amount of time,” he said. One of Alexander’s political science professors, Dr. Eliot Dickinson, noted his strong work ethic and appreciated him as a student. “He learns for learning’s sake, and he takes to heart the knowledge and wisdom that are to be gained through university studies,” said Dickinson.
Alexander earned his bachelor’s in political science. “I like arguing. I like debating people. I like to talk,” he said. This fall, he will start a Master of Public Administration degree program at the University of Washington. He considers this a functional degree because it trains on budgets, economics and public policy. But his passion is in political philosophy and the more theatrical side of politics.
Another passion of Alexander’s is promoting diversity. When he came to WOU, he made it a personal mission to work toward ridding the school of stereotypes and increasing diversity on campus. He joined organizations such as Black Student Union and the Multicultural Student Union to achieve this. “I decided that I’m going to try and make a change here and let people know that there’s minute differences between people like color and hair, but all these things are really just different permutations of the human condition.”
Alexander was very involved in this year’s MLK Celebration Week. He wanted it to expand the focus of the celebration so he suggested centering it on the issue of poverty. “Dr. King’s dream of equality is really based on equality of opportunity, not so much color of skin. It’s about the ability of everybody to be on a level playing field. Education is the key to leveling the playing field.”
Julia McCulloch Smith Award: Paige O’Rourke
When Paige O’Rourke, this year’s Julia McCulloch-Smith Award winner, chose to attend Western Oregon University, her plan was to branch out from her love of English and writing. That didn’t happen. All it took was a couple of literature courses from Dr. Kit Andrews and O’Rourke found herself being pulled back into her passion for the written word.
“She has a knack for getting along with practically everyone, never uses her intelligence as a weight to push an agenda, and remains open to a wide range of viewpoints; in fact, she has a mental flexibility and resilience that cannily preserves both strength and warmth,” said Andrews.
Writing and literature have been themes throughout O’Rourke’s time at WOU. As a sophomore, O’Rourke began working at the Writing Center, helping other students build their writerly self-efficacy. She worked there for three years, with her most recent position being that of lead writing consultant. In describing her experience as a tutor, O’Rourke said she will always cherish the sense of family that permeates the Writing Center.
“From our kind, supportive, and simply amazing director and professional staff, to our dedicated, compassionate, and hilarious tutors, to the diverse number of intellectually stimulating student-writers who visit our office – all of these components have made working at the Writing Center such a joy,” she said.
In addition to her position as a writing consultant, O’Rourke worked at the Western Oregon Journal for three years, starting out as a freelancer and working her way up to editor-in-chief. She found the latter job to be especially challenging, but important to her development as a leader: “At the Journal, I learned that one cliché expression really is true: that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. My time managing the newspaper was an invaluable learning experience, but also one of the most demanding tasks I’ve yet faced.”
Being involved with Alternative Break, a student-led service-learning program, was another activity that strengthened O’Rourke’s leadership abilities. As a freshman, she was part of a team that worked at a sea turtle conservation facility in Costa Rica. This service was so enjoyable that O’Rourke participated in two more trips as a team leader: one to Yakima, Wash. to work with Habitat for Humanity and another to Los Molinos, Calif. to work at Sunshine Sanctuary, the only conservation site in the world for the Santa Cruz horse breed.
O’Rourke was also part of the Honors Program at WOU and has been diligently working on her thesis this past year. Dr. Gavin Keulks, director of the Honors Program and professor of English, has witnessed O’Rourke’s abilities over the past four years.
“I have never known her simply to meet requirements; nor does she simply exceed them. She redefines them as only the best people can. If you ask for competence, she will give you excellence. If you ask for familiarity, she will aspire to expertise. She is the only student I have ever advised to work less hard – because her performance on the weekly essays in one of my classes was nearly double everyone else’s.”