Transformational Teaching Honored at 2024 Spark & Torch Awards

UAlbany students pose alongside the faculty members they have nominated for the 2024 Spark and Torch Awards.
UAlbany students pose alongside the faculty members they have nominated for the 2024 Spark and Torch Awards. (Photo by Irma Hernandez)

By Liliana Cifuentes

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 16, 2024) - The Campus Center Board Room heard heartfelt speeches, rounds of applause, and even brought a few to tears at the University at Albany’s annual Spark and Torch Award ceremonies on Wednesday. 

Spark Award

The Spark Award, now in its second year, is an acknowledgment selected from a wide array of student nominations that recognizes a faculty member for their influences on transitioning new students into UAlbany and, subsequently, sparking their passion for learning. More than 50 nominations were reviewed by the committee this year.

This year’s Spark Award recipient, Brian Greenhill of the Department of Political Science, did just that for freshman Trevor Pettit, a political science student who equated Greenhill to the definition of going “above and beyond.” 

Political science student Trevor Pettit stands at the podium to give remarks about his professor Brian Greenhill, standing to the right of him..
Political science student Trevor Pettit stands at the podium to recognize professor Brian Greenhill. (Photo by Irma Hernandez)

A student in Greenhill’s “Comparative and International Politics” course, Pettit was fascinated at Greenhill’s ability to foster thoughtful and engaging political discussions among students who had differing opinions and adapting his syllabus to make it reflective of real-world events.

On a more personal level, Greenhill showed a level of care that can often be difficult to cultivate among students. For Pettit, Greenhill was the support he needed when his aunt passed away.

“You were one of the few staff members at UAlbany who I felt comfortable talking to,” said Pettit, as he read aloud his letter addressed to Greenhill. “You were able to help me work through that difficult time while still managing the classwork.”

The Spark Award committee also celebrated two distinguished nominees: 

Torch Award

The Torch Award is a long withstanding tradition at UAlbany, with its first ceremony being held in the 1990s. Its purpose is to highlight a UAlbany faculty member who has made a profound impact on graduating seniors’ undergraduate careers. More than 85 nominations were reviewed by the committee this year.

Between discovering previously unknown talents to his carefully crafted lectures, James Searle, a lecturer in the Department of English was the obvious candidate for seniors Troy Ashcroft, Ruby Ayala, Isabella D’Amato, and Henry Fisher. 

There was a consensus among the four students that Searle was knowledgeable and passionate about English. 

UAlbany students stand with lecturer James Searle at the Torch Awards ceremony.
Henry Fisher (left), Isabella D’Amato, lecturer James Searle and Troy Ashcroft at the Torch Award ceremony. (Photo by Irma Herandez)

“You have a good critical eye and the proper knowledge to use it,” said Fisher, a student in Searle’s “Studies in Writing About Texts” course. “You take your time grading papers, always leaving long notes to help improve our essays.”

Searle was more than just a remarkable professor. For all students, he had a lasting impact on them outside of the classroom.

“In a time of personal turmoil, you became an anchor, guiding me through life’s complexities with genuine empathy and wisdom while encouraging me,” said D’Amato. “You’ve instilled in me a sense of self-awareness, confidence, and resilience that will resonate throughout my life.”

“During the time I have known you, I have discovered my passion for creative writing,” said Ashcroft. “With your support, I was accepted into the English Honors program and even went on to publish a short story in [the art and literary journal] Barzakh.”

After hearing them speak, Searle remarked on how honored he felt to hear their kind words.

“These students are incredible people. They have real struggles, surprise me and do great work,” said Searle. “Working with young people, their texts and their ideas is an enormous source of optimism and excitement for me.”

Searle joins a long list of Torch Award faculty who have received the prestigious honor. As this year’s winner, Searle will light the “Flame of Knowledge” at the Torch Night Reception on Friday, May 10.

The Torch Award committee also highlighted two distinguished nominees: