Four celebrated instructors at Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges who last fall picked up top awards at their campuses added another jewel to their crowns on Wednesday as recipients of a national award recognizing exceptional teaching and leadership by community college faculty and staff.
Receiving the League for Innovation Excellence Awards March 4 at a conference in Seattle were math instructor Irene Palacios and Computer Science and Information Systems instructor Julie Hansen from Grossmont College, and from Cuyamaca College, English as a Second Language instructor Manuel Mancillas-Gomez and English instructor Robert Stafford. The four are the only honorees from San Diego County.
The League for Innovation in the Community College is a network of 1,500 colleges and associated businesses in North America and beyond. The Innovations Conference is the premier event for community college professionals dedicated to teaching, learning, leadership and management. The conference is capped by a special tribute to Excellence Award recipients which includes a medallion presentation ceremony.
For Palacios and Hansen, the Excellence Award follows the Distinguished Faculty awards they received last fall, with Palacios winning the top accolade for full-time faculty and Hansen receiving the award as a superlative part-time instructor. Mancillas-Gomez was lauded at Cuyamaca College as the Outstanding Faculty Award recipient for full-time faculty while Stafford was selected as the adjunct faculty awardee.
“These four faculty members epitomize excellence in teaching,” said Chancellor Lynn Neault. “The Innovation Excellence Award is validation that our students are receiving the award-winning education our colleges are known for.”
This math instructor embodies Grossmont College’s motto of “changing lives through education” because she has witnessed the transformation many times in her 19 years at the campus, and because of her own story.
“My personal journey is just one example of a life profoundly changed by access to higher education,” she said.
Palacios and her mother emigrated from Mexico to the United States when she was 2 to live with her mother’s parents in Arizona. Palacios’ grandfather was a migrant fieldworker, following seasonal work in Arizona and California. Palacios worked the cotton fields during the summers, waking up at 4 a.m. and laboring in 110-degree heat.
As her high school valedictorian, she was able to attend Arizona State University for free. A support program for first-year students from underserved communities was key to her success and she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in math from ASU and a master’s degree in statistics from Colorado State University.
The support she received in her own education led Palacios to begin working in 2016 with Grossmont College’s Via Rapida First Year Experience program, creating peer mentoring and embedded tutoring programs. Palacios marvels how education transformed her life and strives every day to pay it forward by helping students progress.
With an accounting background in the corporate world and jobs that have taken her around the globe, Hansen made a mid-career switch to begin teaching. In addition to an introductory Computer Science and Information Systems course in information technology at Grossmont College, she teaches accounting at Miramar and Mesa colleges and San Diego State University.
A CrossFit athlete, Hansen’s equally high-energy approach to teaching is popular and her creativity in engaging students and introducing data analytics to Grossmont’s CSIS program have garnered praise.
She developed a “Shark Tank” experience in which students are grouped into teams to pitch proposals to a group of judges at the end of the semester. Colleagues say her innovative ideas like creating applications and assessment tools to gauge students’ progress have contributed greatly to the CSIS program. Hansen’s early efforts helping the department’s transition from print to digital textbooks and teaching material brought her recognition as a trailblazer.
Born in Tijuana and educated through high school in Mexico, Mancillas-Gomez’s introduction to U.S. schooling came in 1967 at UCLA.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Latin American Studies from UCLA and his master’s degree in teaching English from Grand Canyon University, he is now an English As a Second Language instructor at Cuyamaca College. He worked for eight years as an adjunct instructor before getting a fulltime contract in 2014.
Mancillas-Gomez draws on the memories of his own challenges as a product of Mexican schools transitioning to UCLA as he helps the mostly Iraqi students he sees in his classes. Cuyamaca College’s pedagogical shift to accelerated learning in which students are no longer delayed by remedial classes in math, English and ESL appeal to Mancillas-Gomez’s well-honed sense of justice. As one of the key designers of the new accelerated English as a Second Language program at Cuyamaca, Mancillas-Gomez devotes hours outside the classroom to promote what he regards as equity for students.
The son of educators, Stafford said teaching wasn’t in his plans early in life. But from his boyhood years spent in Uganda, where his parents taught for the State Department, the teacher’s life was engrained in him and he witnessed the satisfaction that imparting knowledge can bring.
“Really teaching somebody something they need is a joyful experience that few other others can match,” said Stafford, who first worked at Cuyamaca College in the mid-‘80s as a tutor for students with learning disabilities.
While a student at San Diego State University, he continued tutoring at the college and eventually became the interim coordinator of the Tutoring/Assessment Center. After earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in writing from San Diego State University, he returned to Cuyamaca College in 2006 as an adjunct English instructor.
Stafford said the people and the data-driven aspects of Cuyamaca College are what he appreciates most.
“We’re getting at the real reasons students succeed and fail, and we’re building in interventions to help students stay in school and succeed,” he said. “This is having a huge impact on student success.”