By Susan Keaton
Photo by Jean Lachat

The Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prizes for Excellence in Teaching recognize exceptional teaching of undergraduates by graduate students. College students and faculty members nominate the recipients for the awards, established in 1991 in honor of Booth, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature. This year’s winners are Mohamed R. Abdelhafez, Yuna Blajer de la Garza, Cosette A. Bruhns, and Eric Michael Hirsch.

Mohamed R. Abdelhafez

As a theoretical physics student, Mohamed R. Abdelhafez uses mathematical formulas to explain or predict natural phenomena. But the scientist uses words like “compassion” and “kindness” to describe his methods of teaching these concepts to pre-med students, who sometimes fear they are in over their heads during the required course.

“Much of the problem with learning physics is psychological,” says Abdelhafez, so he tries to “put myself in my students’ shoes” and make sure they understand he is there to help them understand the material.

“Physics can be scary,” he says, so he considers it an honor to be “helping people understand this in a very simple and beautiful way.”

Abdelhafez is from Egypt; he earned his bachelor’s degree at the American University in Cairo, his master’s in theoretical physics at Cambridge, and was accepted in the UChicago PhD program on his third try. He credits his wife, Sara Ali, for much of his success.

“The University of Chicago is one of the best universities in the world for theoretical physics,” he says. He is pleased he can share his love of the topic with students destined for careers in other areas of science.

”I have a passion for teaching,” he says. “I believe that if anyone has a certain talent or gift given by God, he has a responsibility to use it to help others.”

Yuna Blajer de la Garza

The daughter of two ballet dancers, one of them Polish and the other Mexican, Yuna Blajer de la Garza grew up in Mexico City “always hearing a lot of competing points of view.” But after years of studying dance, she surprised her parents by telling them that she wanted to give up the artistic life and go to college.

“Academia has always felt like a space of freedom for me,” she says.

She earned a bachelor’s in international relations and worked for the Mexican government, then came to Chicago, where she earned a master’s in international relations with honors in 2011 on her way to a PhD in political science.

“I study democratic citizenship and the ways in which people belong to political societies,” she says. She found that teaching, with its more immediate gratification, was a wonderful complement to the introspective gradual research process.

“You can truly see the change in a student the moment she understands a concept,” she says.

She strives to be welcoming of all voices in her classroom, endeavoring “to foster an environment that makes it easy for people to speak.” She expects a lot from her students because, as she puts it, “when someone has high expectations of you, they are also conveying respect for you. And students here are amazing.”

She now balances writing, researching, and teaching—a model for the career she hopes to continue after earning her degree.

Cosette A. Bruhns

An “unconventional background” as a home-schooled student and dancer in New York might not have seemed the most likely preparation for becoming a University lecturer, but Cosette A. Bruhns says her experience taught her the importance of creativity in engaging her language students.

“I want to find ways to help students find connections between the material and what they’re interested in,” she says.

After a back injury ended her dance career, she earned a bachelor’s in philosophy at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts. A summer studying in Italy sparked her interests in Italian arts and literature, in which she earned a master’s and continues to pursue her doctorate from the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.

A language course draws students from across the University, she says, so she tries to get to know her students’ interests outside the classroom to engage them in meaningful conversations in class. She strives to create an environment in which students feel comfortable communicating in the target language. After all, it’s difficult to learn a language if you don’t speak it aloud in a setting where you can make mistakes.

Last fall, she was graduate student assistant for the “Rome: Antiquity to the Baroque” study abroad program. She coordinated and managed 22 undergraduate students, taking them on excursions, improving their language fluency, and helping students adjust to life in Rome.

She was delighted at the end-of-quarter activities her students created in her two Italian classes. “They had fun finding creative ways to say goodbye to the city,” she says, noting that one group even wrote and performed a song in Italian.

“As an instructor, it was really gratifying to see the students embrace Rome and the Italian culture and language,” she says.

Eric Michael Hirsch

A native New Yorker working on a PhD in anthropology, Eric Michael Hirsch delights in drawing out his students to discover what theories they are developing from their readings or class discussions.

“The class is really its own organism, and students will come back with surprising insights,” he says.

That’s why Hirsch, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Columbia, emphasizes that everyone is expected to contribute to class discussions, that all comments are welcome and important.

If a student is too quiet, he will often ask a question out of the blue—a tactic that he admits “at first strikes some fear in students.” But as the student begins to form an answer, the entire class benefits.

“Nine-tenths of the times when that happens, it is someone who is following along and has something great to contribute,” he says.

For his turn, Hirsch makes it a priority to be responsive to his students and available to help when needed, “doing what I can to really make teaching a priority.”

He hopes to become a professor in a research institution one day.

“I really like doing this, and I think it’s important for students to see that their teachers deeply enjoy what they do.”

Originally published on May 31, 2016.