University award fuels graduate student's love for teaching

Angela M. Rogers
June 10, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Saumya Vaishnava, a doctoral student in the Penn State Department of Geography, has received a 2021 Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award, which is sponsored jointly by the Graduate School and the Office of the Vice President and Dean for Undergraduate Education. Vaishnava received the department’s Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant Award in 2020.

Upon learning that she was to receive the University award, Vaishnava said the recognition has encouraged her to continue growing as a teacher and an educator.

“I was very happy and grateful to all my instructors and fellow graduate students for their help and advice over the years,” she said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Graduate Student Recognition Ceremony was held virtually and can be viewed online.

Vaishnava has been a graduate teaching assistant for GEOG 30N Environment and Society in a Changing World, GEOG 364 Spatial Analysis, and GEOG 301 Thinking Geographically. She is currently an instructor for GEOG 431 Geography of Water Resources for summer 2021.

“Without question, Saumya was the best TA I have worked with in my long career,” said Roger Downs, professor and former geography department head said. “What does best mean? Saumya anticipated what needed to be done. She did things on time with no fuss. She took pride in her work. She genuinely cared about students and as a consequence, she earned the respect and attention of students. It was a pleasure working with Saumya and I am grateful that I had this opportunity.” 

Downs and Helen Greatrex, another geography professor for whom Vaishnava has been a teaching assistant, said she took initiative and cared about the students.

“I'm very excited that Saumya won this award,” Greatrex said. “Her dedication, maturity and ability to communicate with students make her an exceptional TA. From taking the initiative to lead — and improve — my labs, to always being there when students needed support, to actively seeking feedback, Saumya made my class a wonderful space to be in.”

Vaishnava said that she believes communication is key to effective teaching.

“That might sound like a truism and perhaps it is, but I did find this in my experience,” Vaishnava said. “With the first class of students, I realized that the reasons that a particular concept or case study resonated with me was different from why it resonated with some of my students. Communicating clearly, communicating across those differences while also emphasizing the need to expand our perspectives beyond our own personal experiences has been an important lesson for me.”

There are many things that departments can do to encourage students looking to become great teachers, Vaishnava said. Some ideas she listed include: inviting senior doctoral students to guest lecture; encouraging students interested in teaching to build a teaching resume; building more formal and informal spaces to discuss teaching strategies; including a teaching mentorship program; and having a boot camp on graduate teaching during the orientation week, in collaboration with the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.

“Graduate students come to the program with different goals in mind and it is not necessary that becoming great teacher is one of them,” Vaishnava said. “However, there are many skills that are associated with being a TA or an instructor that are useful in different, even nonacademic, fields. I think it is important for departments to take the lead in emphasizing the importance of these skills to future career goals and then find ways to engage graduate students in developing those skills.”

There are many competing demands on a graduate student’s time. Vaishnava said she thinks it is important for faculty members to work with their teaching assistants to determine the best use of their assistantship hours that can benefit both the course and the student’s goals.

“As a TA, I have had the good fortune to work with some wonderful faculty members who have always been willing to advise me on teaching and have always made themselves available for troubleshooting,” she said.

Vaishnava said the Harold F. Martin recognition helps toward her professional goals.

“After my Ph.D., I want to teach and do research,” Vaishnava said. “I put in a lot of effort and time into my teaching, and it is gratifying to be recognized for that effort. I love teaching and have always been interested in becoming a better teacher, so this award is an important achievement for me personally as well.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 10, 2021