Transformational Teaching Honored in Annual Torch Award

Professor Berman at a podium, wearing glasses, a brown jacket and purple tie, and a flower in his lapel.
English Professor Jeffrey Berman accepts his 2022 Torch Award. (Photos by Brian Busher)

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 26, 2022) — Empathy. Kindness. Guidance. Humanity. A lifelong mentor.

These are some of the words students used in heartfelt and sometimes passionate nominations to the Torch Award Committee, describing professors who profoundly affected both their academic experiences and their lives.

UAlbany’s annual Torch Award recognizes transformational teaching, so it is fitting that those transformed — graduating seniors — are the ones who make the nominations. This year more than 50 professors were nominated, a particularly strong field, Provost Carol Kim said.

English Professor Jeffrey Berman rose to the top and was recognized Friday as this year’s Torch winner, along with three outstanding nominees: Associate Professor Rita Biswas, Lecturer Marcie Newton and Associate Professor Matthew Szdagis. As Torch Award Professor, Berman will be honored at Commencement this spring, and will address new students at Convocation in the fall.

Berman was nominated by two students, Kyle Kelly and Jade Basconcillo, both of whom credited their professor’s empathy and supportive nature for encouraging them to express themselves fully in writing and in life.

Kelly recalled reading an emotional personal essay in class, trembling and struggling to finish. “It was your empathy that enabled me to finish … It was your kindness that made the classroom environment flourish and allowed students to share their experiences freely. It was your teaching that made me into the writer and person I am today.”

Basconcillo said that the respect and guidance Berman offered in his Expository Writing class allowed students to write about events and experiences they might have been reluctant to share elsewhere. For Basconcillo, that resulted in getting published in an academic literature journal and working with Berman on a chapter of an upcoming book.

“Your teachings also heavily guided my hand in crafting my personal statement, which was key in my acceptance to almost all the graduate programs I submitted applications for,” Basconcillo said. “I consider myself extremely lucky to have had a class with you, in being able to keep in contact with you, in being able to write with you … As a maturing, work-in-progress writer and individual, my experiences as your student, and insights gained about myself, guide my path today. I imagine it will continue to do so.”

Berman, who has been teaching for 50 years — “I’m mid-career now,” he said — confessed that technological challenges nearly caused him to retire when the pandemic forced the University to go remote. And he had his own high praise for his two nominators. They are, he said, better writers than he was at their age, and perhaps even today.

A line of students and professors, some with their arms around each other, smile in celebration.
Student nominators and their professors are, from left, Stavan Thakkar, George Homenides, Gunjan Kapoor, Rita Biswas, Jade Basconcillo, Jeffrey Berman, Kyle Kelly, Marcie Newton and Divya Tulsiani.

Outstanding Nominees

Two international students from NMIMS, a university in Mumbai, India, nominated Biswas, the associate dean for international programs in the School of Business, where she also teaches international finance.

Gunjan Kapoor said Biswas was her first point of contact when she was transferring to UAlbany and is now her most trusted mentor. She said Biswas’s guidance led her to land an internship when she arrived, and a full-time job for after graduation.

Stavan Thakkar said Biswas was like a mother to him and Kapoor, guiding and supporting them when they were far from home. “Right from the moment when you came to NMIMS to present UAlbany’s upcoming programs, my parents trusted you and trusted that I was in your capable hands,” he said.

“For me, you have been the ‘torch’ who has guided me through my transfer to UAlbany, the COVID impacted year, and my subsequent presence here,” Thakkar said. “At every phase, you have always been upfront about my strengths and what I can do to improve.”

Divya Tulsiani nominated Newton for her tireless work coaching, guiding and supporting UAlbany’s Mock Trial team. In addition to serving as faculty coach since the team’s inception, Newton teaches in the pre-law and Writing and Critical Inquiry programs.

Working weekends, through snowstorms, and bringing the program online during the pandemic for the first virtual invitational, Newton supported all the students on the team, Tulsiani said.

“You truly have become a mother to every student on the team,” she said. “You’ve become my second mother on campus … my advisor, my employer in the Writing and Critical Inquiry Department, my mentor and my confidant. You have written countless letters of recommendation for students on the team, looked over our internship applications and grad school statements, forwarded opportunities about LSAT prep and summer positions, and have offered us so many opportunities to grow.”

George Homenides nominated Szdagis, the professor he has done continuous research with since his freshman year.

“You have mentored me throughout my undergraduate experience, supporting my ultimate goal of obtaining my doctorate in physics and pursuing a career in academia,” Homenides wrote, noting that even the COVID-19 pandemic did not interrupt the work. “Following my departure from campus due to COVID, you informed me that you took it upon yourself to bring my whole experimental setup (a very heavy liquid chiller bath and 100-plus test tube samples) to your house. Non-stop throughout the pandemic, you performed over 5,000 tests of my experiment… You were in constant contact with me, sending me hundreds of zip files so that my research wasn’t halted.”

Homenides said that when applying to graduate school he was told he was the only applicant to have made it through the pandemic with four years of uninterrupted applied research. “It then dawned on me that not only [was Szdagis] my undergraduate mentor, but my lifelong mentor.”