OSWEGO — The 2018 SUNY Oswego President’s Award for Teaching Excellence will recognize Fehmi Damkaci of the chemistry department, while the Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence for Part-Time Faculty will honor Charles Itzin of English and creative writing. They will receive their awards at the college’s annual Teaching and Learning Awards Ceremony luncheon in the fall.
Known internationally as the founder and director of the GENIUS Olympiad high school environmental competition, hosted for all eight years by SUNY Oswego, Damkaci has had many students — several now pursuing doctorates in chemistry — who credit him as an exceptional teacher, mentor and role model.
Now a doctoral candidate in organic chemistry at Boston College and a member of its Morken Research Group, 2013 Oswego biochemistry graduate Adam Szymaniak wrote in a letter of support, “Being a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Morken laboratory and having conducted a lot of research, I can confidently say that Dr. Damkaci’s research mentorship more than prepared me for graduate school.
“He allowed me to be an independent researcher, but was also there for me to address complex problems when needed,” continued Szymaniak, a past recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. “This type of balance for a researcher is quintessential for graduate school and is what I have experienced as well at Boston College.”
Thomas Sobiech, a 2016 graduate in biochemistry, said he lacked impressive grades, research experience and motivation when, at the end of his sophomore year, he met Damkaci and was “shocked” to be invited to work on new experiments for chemistry labs.
“Although this project may seem trivial, it was the foundation I needed,” wrote Sobiech, now a student in University at Buffalo’s graduate program in chemistry. “I learned how to conduct research, collect data and communicate information effectively. Dr. Damkaci took time and worked with me when I was not a stellar student.”
Sobiech, Szymaniak and several other former students among his supporters said Damkaci instilled in them a passion for chemistry and went out of his way to encourage student success.
Damkaci, who started at Oswego in 2006, has published journal articles and made conference presentations about aspects of teaching chemistry. Several supporters praised his methods, which include frequent hour-long review sessions in a very difficult course, organic chemistry.
“These review sessions were completely optional for Dr. Damkaci to hold,” wrote Matthew Yacobucci, class of 2012 in biology with a chemistry minor. “I have never seen a professor put in so much extra time for students. I felt he really wanted students to understand and gave everyone more than the necessary resources they needed to succeed in organic chemistry.”
Abigail Jago, class of 2012 biology major with a chemistry minor and now holder of a master’s in entomology from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said Damkaci engaged his organic chemistry class with witty stories that broke down difficult subjects in understandable ways.
“He can relate abstract, intangible material to everyday human interactions,” she wrote. “The most memorable stories were romantic comedies starring Hydrogen, Carbon and the many other ‘periodical’ guest stars from ‘The Table.'”
Megan Loper, a 2015 chemistry graduate with a biology minor and now a doctoral candidate at Touro College of Pharmacy in New York City, said Damkaci was her mentor, research advisor and professor, as well as her supervisor in work she did for the GENIUS Olympiad, which Damkaci founded in 2011.
“Overall, I think that Dr. Damkaci is an amazing educator and inspires all students no matter what their age that learning and life have endless possibilities,” Loper wrote.
An adjunct instructor with nearly 20 years of experience at SUNY Oswego in English and creative writing and in Extended Learning’s Summer Intensive English Program, Itzin drew support for the teaching award from students and full-time faculty alike for his expertise in and passion for poetry, as well as his creativity, open-mindedness and campus-wide engagement.
Fellow poet Tracy Lewis, Distinguished Teaching Professor of modern languages and literatures, said he has served as guest speaker in Itzin’s classes many times and as part of the summer intensive English team.
“I have always come away feeling I have seen the noblest values of education at work,” Lewis wrote. “Charlie simply loves his students, not as objects of his expertise, but as fellow humans whose lives he has the opportunity to enhance and who share with him the great mutual endeavor of learning.”
John Karlya, a senior dual major in cinema and screen studies and in creative writing, said Itzin would go “above and beyond in creating a learning environment in the classroom. Given that it was a morning class, he would sometimes provide music in the beginning of class when we were writing poetry. He allowed students to play music that they felt would boost creativity of the class. … It felt rewarding and validating to see other students being treated with such respect.”
Lorrayne Broach, a senior dual major in adolescence education and English, also praised Itzin for creativity and open-mindedness.
“He is very engaging when he is teaching and it is clear to his students that he genuinely enjoys being in the classroom,” Broach wrote. “Professor Itzin is passionate for both teaching historic works of poetry and reading the works of his students. He is extremely supportive and encourages students to step out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves on paper.”
Itzin’s supervisor, creative writing director Leigh Wilson, said Itzin, who represents all part-time faculty for the Oswego chapter of United University Professions, also practices what he teaches.
“His poems have been published in very competitive national journals (New Letters, The Massachusetts Review, The Northwest Review, and Sou’wester to name just a few) and he has given multiple readings across the region every year,” she wrote.
Wilson noted that Itzin integrates service learning into his courses.
For years, he taught English 102, which includes 25 hours of community service among its requirements. Itzin frequently takes groups of students to Sterling Nature Center to clean the trails and to celebrate nature and the written word.
Itzin requires one-on-one student conferences for all of his writing classes, Wilson said, “and although this is time-consuming, it is proof that tutorial teaching is one of the most effective writing pedagogies.” She added Itzin “distributes joy to his students as much as he distributes the self-discipline and skills young writers need.”
In a letter accepting the award nomination, Itzin made it clear what drives his teaching: “Whether it is English composition, summer ESL programs, or more recently creative writing, I feel the command of written language is key to our students’ success in college, in the workplace, in personal fulfillment, and as members of a participatory democracy. The importance of the ability to express oneself in writing has certainly changed in my years of teaching, but it has not diminished.”