Meet the Recipients of the Inaugural SOE Dean’s Excellence Awards

Meet the Recipients of the Inaugural SOE Dean’s Excellence Awards

the SOE Dean's Excellence Awards recipients

This past fall, the School of Education Dean’s Student Leadership Council developed a new set of awards – the Dean’s Excellence Awards – available to undergraduate and graduate students in the School to recognize outstanding achievements in research, leadership & service, teaching & mentoring, and social justice & advocacy. Students were invited to apply and awardees were determined by a selection committee comprised of students, faculty, and staff. There are six recipients in this inaugural year.

Leadership & Service

Rena Pazienza is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology.  She earned her MS in Mental Health Counseling at UAlbany and her BA in Psychology and in Philosophy at SUNY Geneseo.  Throughout her graduate studies, Rena has sought out opportunities to engage in leadership and service activities and has an impressive list of service across a variety of areas including sexual assault awareness; social justice, diversity and inclusion; suicide awareness; mental health training; and teaching and supervision.  She has been intentional about leadership as a priority.  Being engaged in and giving back to her community and serving those in need is at her core. She has made significant contributions to the School of Education, the University at Albany, the greater Albany area, and the profession of psychology regionally and nationally. Upon completion of the program, Rena plans to serve as a leader in the advancement of education and mental health service.

Social Justice & Advocacy

Cornelia Harris is a doctoral student in Educational Theory and Practice. She earned her MS in Biodiversity, Conservation and Policy from UAlbany, her MAT in Biology from Johns Hopkins University, and her BA in Biology with a minor in Hispanic Studies from Vassar College. Cornelia is a middle school science teacher committed to social justice and equity in her research, her teaching and her personal life.  Cornelia lives and works where she carries out research on how a citizen science program can increase the sense of place for urban minority high school students. She has advocated on behalf of all of Poughkeepsie’s children by spearheading a campaign to remove and replace the city schools’ lead-based pipes by securing $50,000 in funds, has raised $20,000 in funds for new books and shelves in the elementary school library, cares for the school gardens, and organizes events to build community—an essential component of supporting the schools.  Cornelia notes, “You have to show up, put in the work and be an honest and diligent partner. You have to develop trust… If we approach the work … with openness, a willingness to be self-reflective and work hard, then we can make change.”

Michelle Ferraino is a double major in Biology and Human Development with a higher education concentration. This past year, she has served as the NY Region Phi Theta Kappa Regional Officer, a role that gives her the platform to not only speak out about various inequities but also to create service initiatives to address them. The programs she worked on involved giving a voice to underrepresented groups such as those who are incarcerated, the elderly and homeless veterans, and providing education surrounding cultural and trans-inclusivity. Michelle also serves as the Director of Academic Affairs at the UAlbany Student Association advocating for First Generation Student concerns, facilitating affordable testing scholarships, and promoting changes to curriculum and financial policy based on student needs. As evidenced by her work in this role, she actively seeks a way to make life better for her peers at UAlbany.

Teaching & Mentoring

Jessica Murray is a doctoral student in Educational Psychology & Methodology.  She earned her MAT in Adolescent English Education from Sage Graduate College and her BA in Psychology/Women’s Studies from UAlbany.  Jessica is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in English, earned while teaching English and Psychology at Troy High School.  Throughout her doctoral studies, she has worked as a mentor and mentor coordinator for international students in her division and has been a mentor for the Teacher Opportunity Corps scholarship recipients at Clarkson University.  As an instructor, Jessica has always aimed to give students high quality educational experiences—from her work as a TA running review sessions, to revamping and reformatting courses for the Human Development major, to incorporating poster sessions as a final class project giving students a new way to present findings and reflect on their work, to having a lesson of hers accepted as a roundtable at an international conference.  More than two-thirds of students from Jessica's research class enrolled in her next class—which speaks volumes about what her teaching means to her students.

Rene Kanzler is a double major in Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Human Development with a Special Education concentration.  She has a range of teaching experience in various capacities – as an independent afterschool teacher, a daycare classroom assistant, a religious education teacher assistant, and a children’s fitness instructor.  These varied experiences combined with her undergraduate studies have given her opportunities to learn about the importance of collaboration with supervisors, parents and teachers and of creating a healthy, safe and nurturing learning environment for her students.  Each of these roles has strengthened her commitment to the profession as she looks ahead to graduate school and a career in teaching English to speakers of other languages.


Melissa Ertl is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology. She earned her MS in Mental Health Counseling from UAlbany and her BS in Psychology and in Spanish from University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Throughout her graduate studies, Melissa has demonstrated exceptional research productivity—she has coauthored 21 manuscripts in peer-reviewed academic journals, and over 60 peer-reviewed poster presentations and symposia at national and international academic conferences, with seven of them first-authored. Her primary interests examine health disparities and health risk behaviors among marginalized populations. Melissa has built an impressive record of scientific excellence and her research has earned her accolades and awards not only from the School and University, but from regional and national entities as well.  She has also mentored others who want to become researchers. Melissa has contributed much to the field of counseling psychology through her research and is poised for further influence as she plans a career in academia so she can continue these important lines of research.