MONMOUTH – Each year, two faculty members and a staff member are honored with the Mario and Alma Pastega Awards – to recognize outstanding achievement in their work. This year’s winners are professor of special education Dr. Hank Bersani, for Excellence in Scholarship; professor of health and physical education Dr. Jessica Henderson, for Excellence in Teaching, and director of Werner University Center and Student Leadership and Activities Jon Tucker, for Staff Excellence.
The Excellence in Scholarship Award honors a full-time faculty member who demonstrates outstanding creative or scholarly accomplishments, the Excellence in Teaching Award goes to a faculty member who demonstrates excellence in teaching and relationships with students, and the Staff Excellence Award recognizes a staff member of exceptional service to the university.
These awards are supported by Mario Pastega and his late wife, Alma, who provided permanent endowments to WOU to fund honorariums for the winners. The Pastegas, Corvallis residents long known for their philanthropy, donated $20,000 on two separate occasions to initiate endowments for the awards. Mario Pastega is owner of Pepsi Cola in Corvallis, Tillamook and Medford.
Hank Bersani, Excellence in Scholarship
Reflecting on what he’s accomplished in his career, and what he still plans to do, Bersani laughed over how he got involved with special education to begin with. “I was looking for a date, I met a nun, and I ended up teaching special ed.” As an undergrad at St. Michael’s College, an all male school in Vermont, he followed his friend’s advice that the key to meeting girls was to volunteer in the religion education program for children with disabilities at the nearby all-girls college. Bersani went to talk with the nun who ran the program and she instructed him to think about why he was good enough to teach her kids and return next week with a response. Now, Bersani recognizes how revolutionary that attitude was for working with people with disabilities.
When he neared the end of his undergraduate program in biology in 1972 and med school didn’t pan out, he asked the nun he’d worked so closely with for three years what he was supposed to do with his life. She replied immediately and without reservation that he was going to become a special education teacher. She told him to visit his hometown of Syracuse, New York to talk to a professor at the university. On her advice and through one of her connections at the university, Bersani earned both his master’s and doctorate from Syracuse University.
Since graduating with his doctorate in 1982, Bersani has made it his mission to give a voice to those with severe and multiple disabilities who can’t speak for themselves. This often means providing technology to speak for those who physically can’t do it on their own. He also works to ensure that they are heard, once they can speak. One way he gives people a voice and ensures they are heard is by including them in his work by asking them to write chapters for the books he has edited.
Listing Bersani’s accomplishments only paints a portion of the picture of what he does for the Western Oregon University community and beyond. Throughout his 36 years in special education and his 28 years as a faculty member, Bersani has collaborated on many projects.
“From the moment of his arrival on campus, Hank has sought ways to collaborate with other Western faculty in research, publication and presentation. He has mentored students in the development of their research endeavors and instilled in them a deep appreciation of the strong research base in special education,” said education professor Dr. Mickey Pardew.
He has edited six books, each including chapters written by people with disabilities, which Bersani believes is as important in an academic text as hearing from professionals and government officials in the field. He has authored chapters in 18 books, published nearly 20 peer-reviewed journal articles, delivered well over 100 presentations and invited addresses all over the world. As evidenced by his lengthy list of qualifications, Bersani has been able to deliver his message of providing a voice to those in need in a variety of formats and channels.
“When people who haven’t been able to speak suddenly get a voice, literally, then we realize they’ve got something to say. So there’s this other meaning of voice, which is do people listen to what you have to say? Do people hear what you have to say,” Bersani asked. “It’s important to document and bring to light people’s perspectives and point of view to teach others and learn from them,” he said.
Currently he is working with education professor Dr. Chloë Myers to analyze how children’s books talk about disabilities. They analyzed all Caldecott award winners of children’s books, looking at how the books represented people with disabilities. Bersani said about one in 100 characters had a disability, and when there was someone, they were usually portrayed as weak, pitiful or scary.
Myers said, “Dr. Bersani’s work has helped to reframe our understandings about intellectual disability.” One of his many accomplishments includes spearheading an effort to rename the American Association on Mental Retardation to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Jessica Henderson, Excellence in Teaching
Within minutes of health professor Dr. Jessica Henderson’s company one can’t help but become infected by her enthusiasm for life, her students, her research and teaching. Henderson is one of the teachers who inspire students to teach, without doing it intentionally.
A former student of Henderson’s, Lori Palmer, agrees. “Though all [WOU faculty] are high quality, few are as exceptional as Dr. Henderson. When I first met Dr. Henderson, what stood out most was her undeniable enthusiasm and passion for the field of health education. Her passion for the subject is evident in every lecture, and she presents course material in a way that gets you excited about the topic.”
Henderson knew from day one of first grade that she wanted to teach. From that point on, she always wanted to teach the age group she was in, but she wavered on the subject matter. But several experiences throughout her life steered her toward teaching public health.
At the age of five, Henderson began questioning the rules related to health practices. She was hospitalized for what was believed to be a life-threatening situation, but turned out not to be. They put her in a children’s ward that housed children from zero to six years of age, and all slept in cribs. She was confronted with the health issues of little kids, including her own, at her young age. She found herself questioning the rules. Why did she have to be in a crib? Why were all the children together in one room? Why couldn’t her family visit her?
Later in her life, a senior in high school in 1969, Henderson was in a serious car accident. The government had just passed a law requiring seatbelts. Prior to that, most cars didn’t have them – especially the type of cars most high school students could afford. Henderson found herself questioning why she didn’t even have the option of using a seatbelt.
Her search for a teaching focus kept returning to policy and laws. She uses her life experience to teach public health and policy issues both in and out of the classroom. Henderson’s research focus is breast cancer. A breast cancer survivor herself, Henderson uses that experience to teach her students. She also takes a group of students to Washington D.C. every spring for the National Breast Cancer Coalition Conference. The students learn how to be advocates at a national level, whether it’s for breast cancer research and awareness, or another issue close to their heart. After spending several days learning about how to be an advocate, the students spend a day on Capitol Hill lobbying Oregon congressmen.
“It’s exciting and life-changing because we actually go to Capitol Hill to do something about this issue. Without the students, it wouldn’t be the same. I love their energy and enthusiasm,” she said.
Henderson has accomplished a lot since moving to Corvallis in 1992, from California, to earn her doctorate of public health from Oregon State University. While at OSU, Henderson worked as an instructor. After completing her doctorate she went to work for Samaritan Cancer Center then the Oregon Health Plan. After several years she began to feel the pull back to teaching. In 2003 she got the job at Western.
“During the interview, Dr. Linda Stonecipher pulled out the schedule of classes and asked, ‘where’s your passion?’ I was hooked from that moment on. I get to teach what I’m passionate about. I love the topic of health, community health and public health. It’s so helpful to people’s lives. I truly believe that health is wealth and I’m fortunate to get to pay it forward and help people be healthy. It’s so gratifying,” Henderson said.
Stonecipher has been pleased with Henderson’s performance and impact on the students. “Her work as a teacher in and out of the classroom will leave an important legacy as her students apply the skills, knowledge, and passion Jessica shared with them to their roles as health professionals and health educators.”
Jon Tucker, Staff Excellence
There’s a man at Western Oregon University who defines multi-tasking. To get a grasp of all Jon Tucker, director of Werner University Center and Student Leadership and Activities, is involved in throughout campus – it takes a glimpse at a day in his life. Peeking at a day on his calendar, one may see this as an example: work with the Alternative Break Africa group, lead a staff meeting, plan an interactive murder-mystery program, work with the international ambassadors and mentors program going to China, select art from a student art exhibit for purchases for the WUC, work with a PLUS team member learning how to give tours on campus, then finish the day at a Student Senate meeting.
Needless to say, Tucker is a busy man. But that business is what he thrives on and enjoys most about his job. “Everything changes on a day-to-day basis. My day could be completely focused on one thing in the morning then a completely different direction in the afternoon. The next day will look nothing like the day before. It really keeps me on my toes and gives me an opportunity to have my hands on a lot of different things. I like the pace,“ he said.
Tucker’s staff appreciates his ability to juggle so many tasks, and to do it well, as stated in a nomination letter written by his office coordinator Angie Barry, and Amanda Rodino, coordinator of leadership and programs. “Jon is a wonderful role model for students, staff, and faculty at WOU. In the midst of all of that he does, he maintains an exceptional attitude and offers unconditional support to those fortunate to be around him. Jon is well on his way to leaving a positive and lasting impression on our campus, and his efforts to improve our university will undoubtedly be felt for years to come.”
Tucker has worked at Western for seven years. He came to WOU from Colorado State where he worked in residence life. He wanted to get more involved in the leadership end of student life, so he came and interviewed for an opening on campus for leadership development coordinator. “I liked the opportunity to have student contact that was meaningful and purposeful. I couldn’t have that at my previous location because it was too big. Here it’s been great because I actually get a chance to know the students and work with them directly, and build connections across campus.”
Now that he’s been on campus a while, he’s thrilled to be able to track the progress of students he’s worked with. “I get one of those rare chances to see a student when they first come to campus through student orientation, literally on move-in day and they are just starting to get involved on campus. And now I’ve been here long enough to see those students graduate. That’s really rewarding to see who they were when they came in and who they are as they leave, and recognizing there’s been so much growth and opportunity and that I may have had a small part in that. That’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.”
He has made the most of his role by being involved in a wide array of activities and making positive changes on campus. He oversees 12 professional staff members and more than 50 student workers. He advises student government, supervises student media and the Student Media Board, coordinates the Parents Club, manages the PLUS Team and New Student Week, works with the international ambassadors and mentors program, and co-advises the Alternative Break group going to Africa. The office he manages is responsible for non-traditional student services, the WUC facility, programming activities, and all facility scheduling and reservations that aren’t academic or class-related.
Tucker completed both a bachelor’s in marketing and management, and a master’s in industrial relations and human resources from the University of Oregon. He plans to pursue a doctorate in the future. In the spare time Tucker has been able to find, he has written a book on icebreakers and plays in international competitive volleyball tournaments. He’ll be travelling to Denmark this summer for one.
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