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UIndy Announces 2024 Teacher of the Year Recipient and Nominees

Mitzi Westra performs at 2023 UIndy Faculty Staff Institute, accompanied by pianist Gregory Martin

The University of Indianapolis is pleased to announce this year’s Teacher of the Year recipient as Dr. Michelle “Mitzi” Westra, Associate Professor and Director of Vocal Studies in the Department of Music within the Shaheen College of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Westra creates a positive, collaborative teaching environment. She encourages students to take charge of their own learning by soliciting feedback about the types of learning activities they find most helpful and adjusting her teaching to meet student needs.

Mitzi Westra

Dr. Westra writes, “My job is not only to give the students the information they need, but also to pass along the love of the art form and the desire to dig further beyond the scope of the classroom.” That passion shines through as she clearly loves her area and lives and breathes music. She loves watching her students grow and develop over their time in college. A very kind, caring, and compassionate teaching professional who is constantly trying to improve her teaching. She is passionate about her profession and educating her students.

As a performer, Dr. Westra loves watching people and encouraging them to come out of their shells.  She is both a professional musician and an extremely approachable mentor for her students—a combination that is unfortunately rare. With much of her instruction happening in private lessons and in small, intimate settings, Dr. Westra is mindful that each student is different. She tackles this challenge and tries to cater to them. “My students have told me that this comes through in all my dealings with them, and they feel ‘seen.’ Knowing that I am in a position to be so influential in their development—both as musicians and as human beings—is a huge responsibility and one of my greatest joys.”

Dr. Westra’s students bear witness to this. One student remarked that Dr. Westra “balances standard repertoire with pieces of our choosing, related to our interests: she always leaves space for a Spanish piece in my repertoire, tying into my Spanish minor.” Another student shares that “learning how to sing is a very personal and vulnerable experience, largely because every individual’s voice is different, and your teacher must help you learn to navigate your personal vocal anatomy without being able to see or touch your ‘instrument.’”

Dr. Westra shows passion for her field in her teaching and mentorship and uses it to inspire the next generation of musicians.

It is with great pride that the University of Indianapolis honors the inspiring and engaging Dr. Mitzi Westra, recognizing her as the 2024 University of Indianapolis Teacher of the Year!

There were many deserving nominees for Teacher of the Year this year. You can see those additional nominees below and help us recognize their positive contributions to the University and its students:

Dr. Alicia Cecil

Dr. Alicia Cecil

Instructor, Department of Biology

Dr. Cecil is an innovative teaching professional who is constantly looking for ways to improve her teaching and bring meaningful learning to her students. Her expertise in the field ensures students are learning the most relevant and current content in preparation for a variety of science and healthcare careers. Dr. Cecil holds students to a high standard of excellence, recognizing the fundamental importance of the content she teaches to their future learning.

A former student in her microbiology class, who graduated UIndy to become an intensive care nurse just before the COVID-19 pandemic, said, “I referenced daily what I learned in Dr. Cecil’s microbiology course… It is difficult to prepare for a pandemic, but I believe I was better equipped for this challenge because of Dr. Cecil. She would check in on me during this difficult time and offer a listening ear when I needed it.” Dr. Cecil balances diligence and care to ensure her students succeed both in the classroom and beyond.

Dhabih Chulhai

Dr. Dhabih Chulhai

Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry

Dr. Chulhai has a very enthusiastic yet gentle approach to teaching. He understands that he has the power to impact how his students view the world, and he has proven his creativity and dedication to teaching through many examples, one of these being his very own programmed video games to help students learn difficult topics such as quantum chemistry. Students in his class are welcome to let their minds wander, and they are free to speak with him and the class about these curious thoughts.

As part of educating the whole student, Dr. Chulhai challenges students. One student wrote, “While he is an excellent ‘explainer’ of science, he was never one to let a student’s mind off the hook. He wouldn’t give away an answer if he knew a student could work through it with some help.” He is truly a wonderful and caring professor in the Department of Chemistry, and it will be exciting to see where his creativity and passion take him next.

Sarah Denney

Dr. Sarah Denney

Assistant Professor, School of Education

Dr. Denney loves building relationships with students. In addition to building relationships, she enjoys building assignments that are worthwhile and that help her students think more critically. She fosters a supportive and engaged learning environment where students apply concepts to real-world experiences. 

As one of her former students explained, “One of Dr. Denney’s undeniable strengths is her compassionate approach to teaching and fostering a culture of empathy and understanding.” She poses questions that encourage deep thinking and collaborative discussion about the material, framing each concept within the larger contexts of the course and the profession.

Olya Mangusheva

Olya Mangusheva

Assistant Professor of Practice, School of Occupational Therapy

Professor Mangusheva considers it a great privilege to train the next generation of occupational therapists.  Her passion for the profession drives her work in the classroom.  She loves it when students understand more about the field and occupation of OT, when students succeed, and when they have moments of enlightenment. She works to create individual relationships with her students. She creates and maintains genuine student engagement and interest with grace and patience.  She puts in a significant amount of work to prepare each class to help students feel well prepared for the work of being an occupational therapist after completing her courses. 

Professor Mangusheva provides students with consistent opportunities for feedback. One student wrote that seeing her “desire to adjust her teaching in ways that are more meaningful to us as students has had a profound impact on the learning environment of her classes and motivates my fellow classmates and me to work hard in her classes.”

Joan Martinez

Dr. Joan Martinez

Assistant Professor, R.B. Annis School of Engineering

While Dr. Martinez is fairly new to UIndy, he has wasted no time in making a profound impact on his students and the R.B. Annis School of Engineering. Unique to his curriculum are year-long projects that address each student’s desire for creativity, autonomy, team-work, and competence. Notably, he allows students to work on robots and hosts competitions with these same robots, and this alludes to his mindset of having fun while learning. Dr. Martinez makes sure to have a personable and professional relationship with each student. 

One of his former students explained that he “truly has the gift of inspiring his students to learn more beyond what is in the classroom through a plethora of mediums including intensive class projects. He recognized our program is small where most would opt for class research papers, yet still spent time to curate real-world applications that can be used beyond our time in the classroom.” Dr. Martinez’s commitment to students and engaging them in their learning is illustrated in the success of his teaching.

Cathy Miller

Dr. Catherine Miller

Associate Professor, School of Nursing

Dr. Miller clearly has a mastery of her discipline, respect from her students, and the approachability of a long-time colleague. She builds students’ confidence in content knowledge through engaging lectures and provides opportunities to apply content through active teaching strategies. She seeks innovative opportunities for UIndy’s nursing students to prepare for real-world clinical practice.

According to a former student, her passion and knowledge “sparked the first flames” of their future career in critical care nursing. The importance of teaching her students to be safe providers of quality care shines through in her classroom. Dr. Miller is motivated to help her students prepare for an ever-changing healthcare environment and she uses her knowledge and compassion to achieve that goal.

Elizabeth Moore

Dr. Elizabeth Moore

Associate Professor, Interprofessional Health and Aging Studies

Dr. Moore is a dedicated educator who is able to make strong connections with her students while teaching a subject that many students find challenging – statistics. Teaching online has its own challenges, but Dr. Moore is able to assist her students to overcome their fears to successfully complete their courses and go on to finish their Doctor of Health Science degrees. This work does not go unnoticed. 

One of her current students remarked, “Dr. Moore invests considerable time and effort in guiding and nurturing the next generation of academic leaders, helping them develop their teaching and research skills, and fostering their professional growth.” In the virtual classroom she is knowledgeable and organized. Dr. Moore loves mentoring students, challenging them to think critically, particularly in the field of research. 

Dr. Toni Morris

Dr. Toni Morris

Associate Professor, School of Nursing

Dr. Morris is an experienced teaching professional who is concerned with not only her student’s experience inside the classroom but the extension of that mentorship past graduation and into their careers. She is proud of her students, their accomplishments, and the impact they have in the community. She wants them to learn, grow, and succeed. Her previous experience working in the medical field shines through in the classroom.

One of her students wrote, “What truly sets Dr. Morris apart is her unwavering support for her students. In addition to her impressive teaching abilities, Dr. Morris’ passion for the field of nursing is contagious and inspiring.” Her commitment to connecting students with real-life and service-learning opportunities illustrates her passion for connecting the next generation of nurses.

Sarah Pfohl

Sarah Pfohl

Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Design

Professor Pfohl creates a fun, collaborative learning environment that helps students find their inner creativity. Her classes are strategically organized to engage every student in a meaningful way. She is thoughtful and intentional about building relationships with students in ways that support their learning. Students consider her their biggest advocate.

Professor Pfohl recognizes the power and importance of creativity for art majors and those outside of the art programs, fostering a love for art that helps her students feel empowered and personally fulfilled. A former student said about Professor Pfohl, “I’m not sure I can put into words how grateful I am for the opportunities I have been afforded because of Sarah Pfohl and her dedication to teaching and her students… Her enthusiasm for helping students achieve their goals is inspiring, and it doesn’t end once you graduate.” Professor Pfohl’s intentional connection to her students is inspiring and a shining example to faculty across the campus.

Stephanie Rudd

Dr. Stephanie Rudd

Associate Professor, Phylis Lan Lin School of Social Work and Counseling

Dr. Rudd truly believes in building relationships with her students and recognizes the value of mentorship that goes beyond the classroom environment.  Her passion for social work is evident in her teaching; she takes great care in being intentional and thoughtful in cultivating an environment of reciprocal learning. 

Dr. Rudd’s impact is so meaningful that, as one former student put it, she was “the single most important part of my social work education experience.”  She artfully applies her clinical expertise to guide students to reflect on their own learning.  Dr. Rudd facilitates a positive, supportive learning environment that engages students in discussion and reflection and makes their study of social work much more meaningful.

Jim Russell

Dr. Jim Russell

Assistant Professor of Practice, School of Business

Dr. Russell has been teaching for nearly all his life and his experience in helping students apply core concepts to real-life situations illustrates this profound mastery.  He is strategic in embedding case studies and scenarios, helping students see the relevance in what he teaches, and exciting them about the material in the course. 

A former student wrote that Dr. Russell exemplified the “applied learning environment that UIndy is so famous for by leveraging guest speakers, real life scenarios, and applicable projects that have real impact.” He is a speaker who is naturally engaged with his audience but also intentional in helping students individually in their transition from students to professionals under his mentorship.  Dr. Russell is driven by his genuine passion for helping students and inspiring them in learning about operation management.