Williams Fellowships awarded to three UO faculty members

Donnalyn Pompper, Leilani Sabzalian and Raghuveer Parthasarathy

Three University of Oregon educators who have worked to bring innovation and excellence to their teaching are this year’s recipients of fellowships from the Tom and Carol Williams Fund for Undergraduate Education.

The recipients are Raghuveer Parthasarathy, in the Department of Physics in the College of Arts and Sciences; Donnalyn Pompper, in the Public Relations Program in the School of Journalism and Communication; and Leilani ​​​​​​Sabzalian, in the Critical and Sociocultural Studies in Education Program in the College of Education.

When Tom and Carol Williams established the fund, they planned to reward innovative new ideas for teaching undergraduates. But after a few years, Karen Ford, a member of the Williams Council, suggested the fund could also support excellent teachers just for being excellent; they didn't need to propose some new project.

“Our hope is to find and reward teachers who inspire and encourage undergraduates, really excite them about learning and lead them to think critically,”Carol Williams said.

The Williams Fellowship honors those who challenge their students, create inclusive environments, innovate the learning process, and create a collaborative learning experience. The winners receive a $5,000 award and a separate $5,000 is given to support innovative undergraduate learning experiences in the recipient’s department. 

Williams fellows embody the spirit of innovation in teaching and learning, but they also represent the collaborative ideal of reaching across disciplines and departments to create change and opportunities for students.

For Pompper, who holds an endowed chair in public relations, the lack of opportunities for peer engagement in a transformed academic landscape was a challenge she met head-on. 

Enter the 2020 One World Symposium, the first virtual, multiuniversity conference for the presentation of student research reports. Pompper used the Padlet platform to create a forum that allowed more than 200 students across five different universities the opportunity to broaden their view of media and diversity through interdisciplinary engagement with students across the nation.

Pompper hopes to use the award to build on the symposium and grow the experience to benefit students on an international scale. 

“What I've been able to do, very humbly I say, is create a larger learning experience for students not only at the UO but at these other universities as well,” Pompper said. “I'm just overwhelmed at how amazing this kind of recognition is for my school, and at the opportunity to be rewarded for the work that I've done.” 

Parthasarathy has been a physics professor at the UO since 2006. Being a college professor combined Parthasarathy’s love for both learning and teaching.

“I really liked both the idea of exploring science and physics but also being in a place where people are learning,” he said. “Being at this university is really, really great, because you can interact with students and teach. I learn a lot from them.”

Over his 15-year career, Parthasarathy has been involved with programs such as the Summer Academy to Inspire Learning and the Science Literacy Program. His passion for programs that encourage nonscience majors to learn science has been a guiding passion throughout his career.

Parthasarathy said being awarded the Williams Fellowship bolsters confidence in his innovative approach to teaching and lesson planning, employing an active learning style of instruction. 

“It's tough when you're experimenting with courses to know if what you’re designing is worth the time and effort,” he said. “And you do always kind of wonder, ‘Am I right, or am I wasting my time? Does anybody care that I'm experimenting?’ So I'm really thankful for this award.”

Sabzalian credits her accomplishments as an assistant professor of indigenous studies in education to support of family, friends and mentors, including Lyllye Reynolds-Parker, a former academic adviser at the UO who helped her on the path to becoming a teacher.

Ever grateful for her own supportive community, Sabzalian is now focused on supporting future teachers, especially future Native teachers who will go on to teach in tribal communities, through UO’s SapsikwalaTeacher Education Program, which she co-directs. 

Regardless of who and where her students will teach, Sabzalian’s emphasis in teaching is around decolonizing knowledge through a learning process she describes as transformative, healing and joyful.

“I hope that all of the students I work with recognize that their presence on Indigenous homelands means they have a responsibility to dismantle systems that harm Indigenous peoples and work toward a future in which Indigenous peoples thrive,” Sabzalian said.

“Our hope is to find and reward teachers who inspire and encourage undergraduates, really excite them about learning and lead them to think critically,” Williams said. “When I read the nomination letters, I am in awe of the efforts that faculty members go to to ‘turn on’ their students to the class material or to mentor them or to assist those who are struggling. To see the best of these named Williams Fellows makes us very proud of our association with Oregon.”

—By Alyson Johnston, University Communications