By Nicole Montero
A professor in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs was awarded the Kennedy Center Stephen Sondheim Award for Inspirational Teaching, an award that highlights the country’s most inspirational teachers and recognizes them for their service and dedication.
Pamela Izvanariu, director of the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy and professor of Labor Studies and Labor Law, was awarded $10,000 by the John F. Kennedy Center – a center for the performing arts that recognizes American teachers by spotlighting their extraordinary impact on the lives of students.
“Winning this award is particularly meaningful because performance indicators for the advancement of academics in research environments are most often based on a publish or perish philosophy,” said Izvanariu.
“While research is certainly the cornerstone of what we do, we hold a special place in students’ lives as educators. Educators can transform students' lives, and be transformed ourselves, by the process of sharing in the intellectual and personal growth of our students.”
Izvanariu was among 14 other teachers in nine states and the District of Columbia who received the award. Recipients are selected from a pool of nominations, which are then reviewed by a national panel of judges and are narrowed down to several finalists.
Izvanariu was nominated by a former student and thinks the nomination speaks directly to the importance and value of what educators do every day.
Erick Samayoa, who emigrated from El Salvador and worked in construction while in community college, said that Izvanariu was the reason why he was able to pursue two degrees and a minor.
“She asked me to challenge myself,” he said in his nomination video. “This was the moment in which I decided to truly challenge myself and go out there and see what I could actually do and pursue a much greater academic goal.”
“I was able to completely change the trajectory of my family, to pursue a graduate degree and transform my life. I [would] never have done this without that conversation I had with [Izvanariu]. That’s when I realized I had the power, the potential and all it takes is the effort of a professor to actually tell you that you can do it.”
Izvanariu started her career as an attorney and never thought seriously about becoming an educator.
“I had been a horrible student,” she said. “I was a very wayward kid and ended my high school career at an alternative high school. I had so many people telling me I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, do anything for so long that I internalized it. I believed, with all my heart, that I would amount to nothing.”
From there, it took a village to get her out of that space – particularly some professors and colleagues who, later, helped define her.
“These professors and colleagues gave so generously of themselves and their time to help me develop the capacity to be self-reflective,” she said. “[They helped me] understand what being a critical and engaged citizen and academic looked like in practice, and how to ground my work as a professional and academic in humility and compassion to effect change. I owe a tremendous amount to these educators, as they helped me define and navigate my path and purpose.”
When Izvanariu came to FIU’s Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy (RISEP), whose mission is to work on issues that improve the lives of working people and their families, she found an academic community and administration with a specific commitment: to engage.
“At FIU, at the Green School and at RISEP, impact matters when it comes to research,” she said. “We are all asking of ourselves, “How can we ensure that our work here has a real and positive impact? How can we ensure that what we do here works to better our communities?” This enables us to bring the emphasis on engagement and impact to our classrooms—and not only prepare students for graduate or professional study, or entry into the workforce, but prepare them to take responsibility for actively intervening in, and improving, the world in which they live.”
That, she says, is her goal - to prepare, challenge and inspire.
“I’m grateful for my students,” she said. “They inspire me daily to do and be better and be mindful of the fundamental responsibilities and privileges we all have as educators.”
The Kennedy Center Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award is dedicated to noted composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who frequently attributes his success to the teachers in his life.