UC Berkeley News


Introducing Berkeley's 'Everyday Heroes'
According to 4,000 undergraduates, quite a few staff and instructors regularly go above and beyond their job descriptions to help students

| 09 November 2005

Everyday Heroes Revealed

Starting Nov. 14, from Monday to Friday the NewsCenter home page will feature a different "Hero of the Day," with the person's name, department, and a brief description of why he or she was chosen.
All the Everyday Heroes, with student comments and photos
Read the story about staff heroes
List of staff heroes
Read the story about GSI heroes
List of GSI heroes
Read the story about faculty heroes
List of faculty heroes

Last week, some 200 people on campus received letters out of the blue from Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. The letters, which expressed his "deepest appreciation for your contributions," explained that the recipients had been singled out by Berkeley students as "heroes" in response to a brand-new question on the 2005 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES) conducted by the Office of Student Research.

Last spring the online survey inquired, as it always does, about students' study habits and educational satisfaction, as well as their co-curricular activities and career plans. But this time it also gave respondents the option at the end of the survey to choose a staff person or instructor on campus who "made an extraordinary effort to make your undergraduate experience - or that of your fellow students - better, resolved a difficult problem for you, or otherwise [went] beyond the call of duty on your behalf." It then encouraged them to describe the circumstances of these heroic acts.

Amazingly, roughly 4,000 undergraduates out of the 11,674 total who responded to the survey had no trouble coming up with a name . or three or four. In exchange for their answers, the students were offered both anonymity and the chance to be entered into a drawing for cash prizes, should theirs be among the most compelling nominations. What is obvious from the responses is that most were motivated not by the chance to win extra pocket money, but by the opportunity to shine a spotlight on their mentors, cheerleaders, rescuers, surrogate parents, and friends - the people who they said made it possible for them to succeed at Berkeley.

"Even if you do not award her this honor, she will continue to do her best to make the Near Eastern Studies department and its members just a little more comfortable and secure in knowing that we actually belong here at Cal," wrote one student about Susan Agnew, NES undergraduate assistant. "She has already won more honors than you can ever give her in my heart. Thank you Susan!!!"

Helping students and facilitating learning is what being a GSI is all about. Sometimes you just have to be willing to do a bit extra - you know, in your spare time, just help someone out.
- Claudio Martonffy Graduate Student Instructor
Others declaimed passionately on why their favorite lecturers deserved tenure, pronto. Some mixed in a little humor: architecture graduate student Claudio Martonffy was identified because he gave up two days of his spring break to get students into a lab, but also because "he sports a fatty goatee and is generally always laughing."

After the survey deadline passed, a UCUES team comprising graduate students Kyra Caspary and Monica Lopez, along with Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program interns Colin Delmore and Vimi Shad, went to work sorting the responses. Certain faculty members will be familiar to Berkeleyan readers: Among those singled out for praise were Distinguished Teaching Award recipients Alex Filippenko (1991), the late Alan Dundes (1994), Martha Olney (2003), and Kevis Goodman (2005). "UC Berkeley is truly blessed to have this rarity on its campus - an instructor who can at once both dazzle the mind as well as the heart," a student wrote about Goodman.

Other folks who popped up over and over, may not be as familiar. A graduate-student instructor (GSI) in business administration was cited an astonishing 37 times. A lecturer in the ethnic-studies department was nominated by 36 different students; a lecturer in public health, by 33.

The real reason I can be helpful is thanks to my mentors, like Judy Shattuck. They taught me that we're here to solve problems. You may not know the answer, but you can send the student in the right direction.
- Susan Agnew Undergraduate Assistant, NES
Most names appeared only once, but were attached to stories of such personal significance to the writer that their place was guaranteed on the list of the very best nominations: the staff member who helped a student deal with the massive debts her mentally ill parent had run up in her name, for example, or the professor who always made sure his students got safely to the BART station after late-night class meetings. In all, more than 200 staff members, GSIs, and faculty received the chancellor's commendation for their actions.

In soliciting "unsung heroes," what the 2005 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey team has created is a cast of "Everyday Heroes." Because, it turns out, it's the little things that make one a hero. Students appreciate the smallest gestures, and as these responses show, they remember them: the professor who valiantly learned the names of 200 of the 300 students in a lecture; the GSI who gave out his cell-phone number and instant-messaging screen name; and the staff member who offered advice and encouragement even when visibly overwhelmed with work.

Birgeneau said it best: "Collectively, these 'everyday acts of heroism'. sustain and transform the campus community, creating a fabric of connection and inclusion for all of our students. On a campus as large and as potentially impersonal as Berkeley, this is a noteworthy achievement."

Here's to our everyday heroes: May you continue to remind students that even a behemoth like Berkeley has a human face.

NEXT: Read the story about staff heroes | Full list of staff heroes

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