Center for Excellence Honoree: Kathy CookeProfessor Kathy Cooke has been teaching history at Quinnipiac for 12 years-but more recently she's been making some herself.
Cooke and a team of faculty and student advisers created the new University Honors Program, which officially began this fall. The program, five years in the planning, is designed to meet the needs and interests of the University's most academically talented students.
Honors students participate in an honors-level curriculum as well as additional enrichment activities. The University currently has 70 students enrolled, with another 25 expected to join next semester.
"The amount of time and energy that Kathy has put into creating this honors program...is just mind boggling. She works night and day, weekdays and weekends," wrote student Jennifer Ellsworth in a letter nominating Cooke for the University's Excellence in Teaching Award.
"Kathy is open to all of our ideas and really puts the students as her first priority...I truly believe that this program can change the academic atmosphere of the University as a whole and raise it up a notch. I cannot think of another professor that has done a better job of upholding the University's promise of academic excellence."'
For her work with the Honors Program, as well as her skills in the history classroom, Cooke was selected for the Center for Excellence Award in Teaching, which she received at a dinner in the Recreation Center on Oct. 19.
"I am thrilled to receive this honor," Cooke said. "But so many people deserve this recognition that I almost feel sheepish about it. There are a lot of excellent instructors at Quinnipiac."
Since she arrived at Quinnipiac, Cooke said she had hoped to see an honors program created. There was no honors program at the college she attended in Michigan, but during the last 10 or 15 years, many universities have addressed the need for that type of offering, she said.
"What appealed to me was giving students another level of engagement," Cooke said. "All the students at Quinnipiac are great. They're fantastic. I like to shake them up and say, 'This is work, but it's also fun.' Working with students, and showing them how academic work is fun and productive, is energizing for me. I enjoy feeling I'm making a difference. The honors students are a special treat."
As director of the University Honors Program, Cooke almost always has a new project going on. During the last few years she has mentored students engaged in summer research projects through Quinnipiac's Interdisciplinary Research Program and has arranged for honors students to tutor in the Hamden elementary schools. She has worked with her honors students to organize Friday Forums at 5 where professors talk with students about contemporary issues.
Right now she's orchestrating a variety of events for students at Quinnipiac and hopes to hold a poetry slam, a trip to the Wadsworth Atheneum and obtain tickets to the New Haven Symphony. She's also working to solve the need for more quiet study spaces (with coffee).
Her projects always involve the help of her student advisers and often the Student Government Association and other organizations, like the Exploring Diversity group.
"Kathy Cooke is not just outstanding but amazing, remarkable, awesome, cool and really helpful," wrote Tim Squires in his letter of nomination. "I am currently an honors student in the honors program and if it were not for her determination and time I would not be attending this school any more. She leads the program not as a professor but as a peer, asking the advice of the honor leadership board."
Cooke grew up on a dairy farm. At Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., she became a history major, almost by accident. She had majored in political science but found that the political science courses offered her senior year unappealing. "I realized I could major in history and I loaded up on history classes during my last year," she said.
She attended graduate school at the University of Chicago, earning both master's and doctorate degrees. She credits her sister Sandy -one of her 5 siblings--with persuading her to go to the University of Chicago. Her parents and a few of her siblings will travel from Michigan to attend the award dinner.
"When I came to Quinnipiac I was struck by how nice the people are. Everyone was so kind and wonderful," she said. "I still love the people who work here, the students and the climate. I've seen a great deal of growth and good things. It's a tremendously exciting place to be."
Cooke is married to professor David Valone, who also teaches history at Quinnipiac and is the director of cultural affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and acting chair of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts. They have a 7-year-old son. In addition to spending time with her family, Cooke enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee and traveling. She combined these interests when she traveled to London, Hawaii, Vancouver and San Diego to play in Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.
When students come in to Cooke's history class they often expect to be lectured to and asked to memorize dates.
"I tell them, 'History is really interesting. It is like a puzzle," Cooke said. "History is about interpreting the past."
"She loves her subject and tries to teach it in a way that makes even the students who hate history at least appreciate it after the class is through," wrote student Jamie Sherry in another letter of nomination. "In her intro classes she teaches students the information that they should know in order to form a good background in history but she also tells students to question history and look at it from different perspectives and biases."
"It is difficult to describe how positive Kathy Cooke has made my experiences at Quinnipiac University," wrote student Christine Schenck in her letter of nomination. "She is the only professor that I know I could go to for anything, be it school related or personal.
"By talking with Kathy for just a few minutes, anyone could tell that she truly is doing above and beyond her job because she bubbles over with enthusiasm about what she is planning for her students, the honors program and the University in general. She has inspired me to challenge myself, to stick up for what I believe in and to find what I want out of life and accomplish it," Schenck said.