New award recognizes Baylor Arts & Sciences faculty who excel as student mentors

By Randy Fiedler

Susan Bratton

Dr. Susan P. Bratton, professor of environmental science, is the inaugural recipient of a new award presented to faculty members in the College of Arts & Sciences who excel at helping undergraduate students expand their knowledge through learning outside the classroom.

The new Elizabeth Vardaman Award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduates will be presented annually to Arts & Sciences faculty who guide students through research projects and other engaged learning activities that supplement traditional classroom instruction.

“A lot of Arts & Sciences faculty mentor undergraduates outside the classroom –– everything from doing undergraduate research in a laboratory to directing a group of students making a film,” said Dr. Brian Raines, associate dean for research and strategic planning in the College of Arts & Sciences and a professor of mathematics. “Until now, our only means of encouraging them was with informal pats on the back. The Elizabeth Vardaman Award is a way for us to reward our faculty who devote a lot of their time outside of the classroom to work with students. It’s meant to honor them and give them a boost.”

“Research is the engaged learning experience most in demand by our undergraduates, and to serve that important need requires mentorship from our faculty,” said Dr. Lee C. Nordt, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and professor of geosciences. “While mentoring undergraduates can be a rewarding experience for our faculty, many do so on a volunteer basis that requires time and resources. This award is one way to help our faculty who take on these important responsibilities.”

Elizabeth Vardaman

The awards are officially nicknamed “Betsys” after their namesake, Professor Elizabeth Vardaman, associate dean for engaged learning in the College of Arts & Sciences, who is retiring this spring after 38 years at Baylor. As part of her responsibilities, Vardaman has mentored hundreds of Baylor students and assisted them in obtaining prestigious national scholarships, research and teaching fellowships, internships and other educational enrichment opportunities.

“Betsy has spent many years overseeing Baylor University’s scholarship programs. She does an outstanding job helping students win national and international scholarships, but the part of that work she is especially good at is the one-on-one mentoring that these students need, beginning often in their freshman year, in order to be competitive as juniors or seniors in competition for a Fulbright, Goldwater or Marshall scholarship,” Raines said. “She has spent many hours with students, advising them and helping them develop their potential. She embodies what we think of when we talk about student mentorship. That’s why we wanted the chance to honor her devotion to seeing Baylor students achieve outside the classroom. She has changed the lives of many students during her time here.”

Bratton is the lone faculty member to receive the award during the current academic year. Starting with the 2019-2020 academic year, the College will award seven Betsys each year to Arts & Sciences faculty members –– three to faculty in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, three to faculty in the humanities and social sciences, and a seventh award open to faculty from all fields.

Both tenured and non-tenure track faculty are eligible for the awards of $1,500 each. Nominations will be solicited from Baylor faculty, department chairs and students, and a faculty committee within the College of Arts & Sciences will choose each year’s winners. Faculty are eligible to receive the award multiple times during their career.

Dr. Bratton

Raines said that Bratton was chosen to receive the first Vardaman Award because of her long record of mentoring students.

“Dr. Bratton started URSA (Baylor’s Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Achievement initiative) in 2007 and served until last year as its director. Not only that, she has personally directed many undergraduate research projects over the years,” Raines said. “During the past two decades, when Baylor undergraduates have thought about doing research, many of them have thought about Dr. Bratton. She’s been the biggest champion of undergraduate research at the University, so it was natural that she would be the inaugural recipient of a Betsy.”

Bratton said that she is honored to receive the first Elizabeth Vardaman Award.

“This award is a sign of advancement in Baylor’s already very competitive undergraduate education programs,” Bratton said. “It concerns educator-student relationships that treat students as individuals, and addresses their educational needs directly.”

Bratton believes that the mentoring of undergraduates by faculty members can play an important role in students’ development and future success.

“Mentoring forwards imagination and planning, and it encourages students to take more control of their futures,” she said. “It’s not just about increasing their skills –– a good mentor helps a student to develop self-confidence, form cooperative relationships with colleagues and explore paths to employment. A good mentor makes a major contribution to a student’s academic and professional future.”

“Mentoring undergraduates is part of what makes a Baylor University education distinctive,” Raines said. “Students can come here and it’s possible for them to spend a lot of time with faculty learning outside of the classroom. Those mentoring relationships are a great value added to a Baylor degree. The establishment of this award is a small, but important step toward honoring the many Baylor faculty who invest their time working with our students outside the classroom.”

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