Torch Award, New Spark Award for First Year Teaching Announced

Students huddle around a teacher for a group hug near a purple table as an audience looks on.
UAlbany students give Ray Van Ness, associate professor of management in the School of Business and the winner of this year’s Torch Award, a group hug at a ceremony Monday honoring transformational teaching. (Photo provided)

By Bethany Bump

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 25, 2023) — As a freshman whose family lives out of state, Violet Levin was anxious about how she would handle the transition from home to life at UAlbany.

She struggled with social anxiety and initially had trouble connecting with others, she said. Until she met Eve Baldwin, who taught her required freshman Writing and Critical Inquiry class.

The professor reached out to Levin after the first day of class to ask about an off-hand comment she made about memory issues she had been dealing with, and took the time to inquire about her health and whether she had been settling in well. She also encouraged her to utilize University services, including Disability Access & Inclusion Student Services and Counseling & Psychological Services.

“Your emotional availability is what I believe to be a crucial part of how a teacher’s attitudes toward freshman students should be, especially for those who may need a little help initially connecting to the people around them,” Levin said of Baldwin in a letter nominating her for the inaugural Spark Award for First Year Teaching.

Baldwin was honored with the award at a ceremony Monday in the Campus Center, along with Ray Van Ness, associate professor of management in the School of Business and the winner of this year’s Torch Award, as well as other professors who have changed the course of their students’ academic and personal lives.

Each year graduating seniors nominate a professor for the Torch Award, which is given to faculty who have gone above and beyond the traditional teaching role to change that student’s life in a significant way. New this year is the Spark Award, which recognizes faculty who have helped new students transition to UAlbany and, in doing so, ignited a spark for learning.

“These two awards are significant because they come from our students who nominate professors based on the impact they have had on their academic pathway, and their lives,” said Provost Carol Kim. “This year’s nomination group was particularly strong. It was very challenging to choose our distinguished nominees and our Spark and Torch Professor. Reading the nominations from our students was a testament to the excellent teaching and mentoring happening every day at UAlbany.”

Spark Award

An inaugural committee was formed to develop the Spark Award, and a call to first-year students was issued in February to nominate a professor. The committee received dozens of nominations, said Linda Krzykowski, associate vice provost and executive director of the First Year Experience (FYE).

“Those who teach first year students take on a special duty not just to teach, but to help students grow in new directions, discover the excitement of learning, and develop the skills needed to be successful at UAlbany and in life,” she said. “FYE faculty don’t just teach — they nurture, motivate, advise, connect with and support new students.”

A woman with long blonde hair poses for a picture with two students, a woman with glasses and long brown hair and a man with short dark hair and a beard.
Eve Baldwin, who teaches a required freshman Writing and Critical Inquiry course, poses for a photo with her students at a ceremony Monday. Baldwin is this year's inaugural Spark Award winner. (Photo provided)

Hidayet Chowdhury, a freshman who had Baldwin during his first semester at UAlbany, said the professor helped him through one of the most difficult periods of his life.

“Between work, school, extracurricular commitments, personal conflicts and constant illness, you were incredibly understanding of the challenges I was facing and supported my success the entire way,” he said, adding that Baldwin also pushed him to produce some of his best writing ever.

As this year’s winner, Baldwin will serve on the committee to select future winners.

The Spark Award committee also recognized two distinguished nominees:

  • Michael Baumgardner, assistant dean of public engagement and enrollment in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity
  • Pauline Carricao, laboratory instructional support specialist in the Department of Biological Sciences

Torch Award

More than 70 nominations were received for this year’s Torch Award, said JoAnne Malatesta, dean for Undergraduate Education and vice provost for Academic Innovation and Student Success.

“This year’s Torch Award winner epitomizes the amazing student/faculty engagement that happens in classes, clubs and labs, through mentoring, advising and nurturing every day,” Malatesta said.

Van Ness — who teaches Management 481, a capstone class for School of Business majors — was praised by graduating seniors at Monday’s ceremony, who shared that he always lights up a room.

“Every time I walked into your class, I had a smile on my face because that’s what you do: You bring light and joy into a room and a smile to everyone’s face,” said Bryanna Lydell, one of four seniors who nominated him.

Three women pose next to Professor Ray Van Ness for a photo
Graduating seniors celebrate Ray Van Ness, associate professor of management in the School of Business and this year's Torch Award winner, at a ceremony in the Campus Center Monday. (Photo provided)

Several students confessed they were nervous about taking his course after learning they’d have to write a huge research paper, but said he put them at ease with consistent help and guidance along the way. Others expressed gratitude at his efforts to regularly check in on his students’ mental and emotional wellbeing.

“Probably the kindest and most genuine professor at the University, you truly care about each of your students,” said Gabriella O’Keefe. “Before and after class, you always check in with your students in a way that lets us know you are there for us whenever we need it. If we need someone to talk to, you’re always there.”

The University began recognizing outstanding teaching at the Torch Night Ceremony in the 1990s. The winner is chosen by a group of prior Torch Award winners, some of whom were in attendance at Monday’s ceremony.

As this year’s winner, Van Ness will be honored at Commencement this spring and will address new students at Convocation in the fall.

The Torch Award committee also recognized four distinguished nominees:

  • Gabriele Fuchs, assistant professor in the Department of Biology Sciences
  • Kyra Gaunt, assistant professor in the Department of Music and Theatre
  • Barry Loneck, associate professor in the School of Social Welfare
  • Cynthia Najdowski, associate professor in the Psychology Department