UNT faculty recognized for exceptional teaching, research and service at annual awards celebration

Monday, April 29, 2024 - 11:30

DENTON (UNT), Texas — The University of North Texas celebrated 34 faculty members for their remarkable impact on student success and outstanding scholarly and creative achievements during the annual Salute to Faculty Excellence awards ceremony April 26 at Frisco Landing.

From left: Holly Hutchins, Vice Provost for Faculty Success; Angie Cartwright, Assistant Vice Provost for Faculty Success; Tim Dwight, Board Member of UNT Foundation; James Meernik, Regents Professor of political science; UNT President Neal Smatresk; and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael McPherson
From left: Holly Hutchins, Vice Provost for Faculty Success; Angie Cartwright, Assistant Vice Provost for Faculty Success; Tim Dwight, Board Member of UNT Foundation; James Meernik, Regents Professor of political science; UNT President Neal Smatresk; and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael McPherson

Faculty representing a variety of colleges from across the university received awards at this year’s Salute to Faculty Excellence ceremony. See a full list of 2024 faculty award winners.

The Salute to Faculty Excellence awards ceremony is supported by the UNT Foundation, which is responsible for overseeing private donations, endowed funds and other assests that benefit the university, including the prestigious top four faculty awards.

The recipients of this year’s UNT Foundation Awards have not only significantly impacted their respective fields but also played a pivotal role in advancing the achievements of their students, peers and community collaborators.

James Meernik

James Meernik, Regents Professor of political science and director of the UNT Castleberry Peace Institute, received the UNT Foundation Eminent Faculty Award, UNT’s highest faculty honor.

Learn more about Meernik in a video about his distinguished career in peace studies and his transformative research, advocacy and community engagement.

In his more than three decades at UNT, Meernik has risen from the rank of assistant professor to serve as chair of the Department of Political Science, associate dean of the former College of Arts and Sciences, acting dean of the Toulouse Graduate School and interim executive dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. He is currently the Johnie Christian Family Peace Professor.

Meernik is a leading authority on how societies transition from civil war conflicts to stable peace, thanks to his years of research in places such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Colombia. He earned his bachelor's degree in political science and psychology from Grand Valley State University and his master's and doctoral degrees in political science from Michigan State University.

He has facilitated multiple study abroad opportunities over the years, including a course that allowed UNT students to interview judges, prosecutors and key officials with the Inter national Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. That course won the American Political Science Association's Rowman and Littlefield Award for Innovative Teaching in Political Science in 2007.

Meernik has written six peer-reviewed books, edited four volumes and penned 93 journal articles and book chapters, many of which were co-authored with graduate students. He also extends his research opportunities beyond purely academic purposes, using them to benefit the communities he studies. His team of faculty and students partner with organizations including the Mothers of the Candelaria, which works to find those who “disappeared” during the conflict in Colombia, and the community of Altavista in Medellín, where they work with community groups to preserve historic memories, attract tourism and help feed people through a community garden.

Joseph Oppong

The UNT Foundation Faculty Leadership Award went to Joseph Oppong, academic associate dean in the Toulouse Graduate School and professor of geography and the environment.

Since joining UNT in 1992, Joseph Oppong has transformed the university with his dedication, advocacy and leadership. He takes a “save one” approach to supporting graduate student success, recognizing that addressing the struggles of a single student can often benefit count less others who don’t ask for help.

In addition to being a renowned expert in his field — he will begin a three-year elected position on the Honors Committee of the Association of American Geographers in July 2024 — Oppong is a dedicated and creative advocate for graduate students, working with faculty and staff a cross UNT to establish statistics and writing labs, professional development workshops, and thesis and dissertation boot camps. His Graduate Students Teaching Excellence Program (G-STEP) prepares students for jobs in academia by providing training in pedagogy and practical teaching. He established and continues to oversee the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) Competition at UNT to help students improve their communications skills. Oppong also established the trailblazing GRADLIFE program to address graduate student mental health concerns by providing group counseling opportunities that simultaneously provide internship credits for counseling and higher education students.

Oppong has been an active member of professional organizations that support graduate students at the state, regional, national and international levels, including the Council of Graduate Schools, the Council of Historically Black Graduate Schools and the Association of Texas Graduate Schools, where he served as treasurer from 2019 to 2024. He earned his bachelor's in geography and sociology from the University of Ghana and his master's and doctoral degrees in geography from the University of Alberta.

Marissa Zorola

Marissa Zorola, principal lecturer in the Department of Merchandising and Digital Retailing, is the recipient of the 2024 UNT Foundation Outstanding Lecturer Award.

Zorola takes a real-world approach to education, preparing students for personal and professional success by immersing them in activities that require critical thinking and problem solving to place them at the center of the learning process. For her, the most rewarding aspect of teaching is the ability to make a difference in a person’s life and foster a lifelong love of learning.

A UNT alumna, Zorola earned her bachelor’s degree in merchandising and master’s degree in industrial-technical merchandising and fabric analytics. While working as a graduate teaching assistant, she discovered something she loved more than merchandising; she discovered she loved to teach. During her more than two decades as a lecturer in the Department of Merchandising and Digital Retailing, she has taught courses such as Introduction to Merchandising, Consumer Psychology, Textiles, and Visual Merchandising. She currently serves as faculty leader for the Dallas Study Tour, in which students experience the merchandising field firsthand through visits to manufacturing facilities, retail corporate offices and more, and she co-leads the similar Europe Study Tour.

Additionally, Zorola helps students build industry connections as the merchandising internship coordinator. In 2020, she developed the Alternate Internship course for students who experienced difficulty securing required internship opportunities during the pandemic. The program also serves nontraditional students for whom completing internship programs may prove challenging due to personal, professional and other constraints.

For nearly a decade, Zorola was the faculty advisor for the student organization Merchandising Inc., which raised funds to endow a scholarship in 2016 that continues to support merchandising students today.

Lauren Mathews

Lauren Mathews, clinical associate professor of audiology and speech-language pathology, received the UNT Foundation Community Engagement Award.

Building and supporting strong communities is the heart of Lauren Mathews’ work. With her clinical and research passion for children and adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, she was instrumental in the development of the UNT Neurodiversity Initiative and three support programs targeting neurodivergent students: UNT ENGAGE, UNT EPIC and Eagle Chat, a peer support group.

In addition to her work at UNT, Mathews cultivates strong relationships with organizations to enact meaningful change for UNT students and members of the community. Her current partners include the Dallas Children’s Theater, where she serves on the Sensory-Friendly Performance Advisory Committee and the Texas Workforce Commission, where she works with vocational rehabilitation counselors to assist UNT students with enrolling in and accessing services. As the neurodivergent adult programming advisor for the Amon Carter Museum, Mathews created educational programming on neurodiversity for their faculty and staff and assisted in the development and implementation of Meet Up at the Museum, a sensory-friendly, biannual, private event with special programming for neurodivergent individuals.

Currently pursuing her Ph.D. in higher education at UNT, Mathews earned her bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University and her master’s from the University of Texas at Dallas. She worked in clinical settings as a speech-language pathologist before joining UNT in 2005. She has held various roles in the American Speech-Language Hearing Association and the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association and is a past recipient of the TSHA Award of Honor. In 2023, the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation presented her with its Burtis-Vogel/Elkins Community Service Award, which recognizes speech-language pathologists who provide services that benefit the community or advance the field, for her development of UNT EPIC.

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