Cornell awarded Stepfanie Aguillon grad and Aravind Natarajan grad the Cornelia Ye Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award in recognition of their work in the classroom on Jan. 22.
Aguillon teaches in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Natarajan in the College of Engineering and Department of Microbiology.
Aguillon, who described teaching as “one of the most important aspects of what I do,” expressed gratitude for being recognized for her hard work.
“I enjoy teaching, and it’s a hard thing to get recognition for,” Aguillon said. “In my research, I hopefully will have some influence on people, but I think through my teaching I will have much more of an influence, hopefully positive, on many people.”
Prof. Irby Lovette, ornithology, Aguillon’s Ph.D. advisor, described her as “a great example of a person who took [teaching] very seriously and used her leadership and her influence with the students to guide them in ways that went far beyond helping them improve their writing.”
Natarajan said that teaching assistants have a more direct interaction with students than faculty, so they have the fulfilling experience of watching students mature and succeed.
“I’ve had a great experience as a T.A. here, and I’ve wanted to inspire fellow graduate students to recognize the important role they play,” Natarajan said. “I hope that my receiving the award would inspire my peers to aspire to do well as a T.A.”
Natarajan said growing up in the competitive Indian school system helped him realize the importance of a good teacher.
“[In India,] I realized that there’s a lot of value to not just transmitting information from a textbook to a student but in how that transmission happens and the important, inspirational role that teachers play,” Natarajan said.
As a result of his experience going from the top of the class to the bottom in India, Natarajan demonstrates an interesting in tutoring “students who were at the bottom of the class.”
“Over a period of a year, [the students I tutored] rose to the top of their class, and many of these teachers commented that they had no idea that student could be a good student. And to me that was more fulfilling than anything else I’d done in my life,” he said.
According to Lovette, teaching is a “learned-skill” and people choose whether to develop that part of their expertise. She also emphasized the crucial role of T.A.s as the “front lines” of higher education.
“[T.A.s] are among the most important people in our teaching universe because they have a lot of face time with students,” Lovette said. “It’s really important that we let the grad students know that we appreciate their investment and engagement.”