Ten winners of the 2023 Penn Prize for Excellence in Teaching by Graduate Students were announced at a ceremony held April 13 at the Graduate Student Center. The recipients, who represented five of Penn’s 12 schools, were recognized among a pool of 44 Ph.D. candidates and master’s students nominated primarily by undergraduates—a quality unique to and cherished about this Prize.
“It’s a particularly authentic expression of gratitude from undergraduates, and that’s really the pleasure [of presenting these awards],” says Vice Provost for Education Karen Detlefsen, who was present to announce the winners and award them with a certificate. (They also receive a monetary award.) “I’m so proud of our students: Our undergraduates, for taking the time to recognize what it is our graduate students contribute to the student body, and the graduate students who are contributing to the life of the University.
“Students are the lifeblood of the University and without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
The Prize began in the 1999-2000 academic year under former Penn President Judith Rodin. It was spearheaded by then-doctoral-candidate Eric Eisenstein and has been issued every year since. Nominations for the Prize often mention how graduate teaching assistants were able to take a complex subject and make it relatable or craft a course like philosophy or mathematics into an enjoyable—even highly anticipated—experience for students.
“Many nominations show how much students value a TA or a graduate instructor of record who shows that they care for their learning and for them as people, and who makes themself readily available to assist,” says Ian Petrie, director of graduate student programming for the Center for Teaching and Learning, who organizes the selection committee for the Prize. “Typically, however, committee members are also interested in seeing nominations that really point to how a graduate student instructor taught or gave feedback—not just how responsive they were to emails or how many office hours they had.”
He also emphasizes that many winners this year were not just teachers, but mentors—often helping undergraduates or new graduate students navigate not only the course but also Penn as an institution.
“I make myself approachable outside the classroom, and I think that’s one aspect of being a TA: having responsibilities that extend beyond the classroom,” says Puneeth Guruprasad, a Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering and winner of the Prize. “Dozens of times, I’ve spoken to students over coffee, or over some lunch, about what direction they want to take in their life, what they want to do outside of the course, and give them my two cents of advice.
“I try to individualize.”
Similarly, Lucy Andersen, a Prize winner who is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Nursing, says that mentorship is what’s made her a better teacher.
“I think I have really wonderful mentors,” she says. “[I’ve learned to] be present and available for students, so that students are comfortable talking to you, and I also try to engage them with the subjects in a way that’s more relatable.”
Oualid Merzouga, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics who received thunderous applause from colleagues and students upon receiving his Prize, says building strong relationships with students is the main ingredient for being a successful teaching assistant.
“First of all, I have really good teachers,” he says, “so I try to replicate what they’re doing. But the main ingredient is I always try to place myself in the student’s position, to judge how the course is going from their perspective. And that’s hard because when you know all the material, it’s difficult to try to relate to students who are learning for the first time.”
He also quipped that because his class takes place at 7 p.m., it’s extra challenging to ensure his students don’t fall asleep. He likes to add peculiar facts about mathematicians to add some flair to the material.
“If you can make them laugh, that’s even better,” Merzouga says.
Below, the full list of winners of this year’s 2023 Penn Prize for Excellence in Teaching by Graduate Students. Nominations take place each winter and are accepted from undergraduate and graduate students who wish to recognize the impact of their graduate student instructor.
- Lucy Andersen; Nursing, Ph.D.
- Adiwid (Boom) Devahastin Na Ayudhya; SEAS, MSE in Data Science
- Kai Feng; SAS, Demography, Ph.D.
- Latrice Ferguson; GSE, Ph.D.
- Puneeth Guruprasad; SEAS, Bioengineering Ph.D.
- Ann Ho; SAS, English Ph.D.
- Ritesh Isuri; SAS, Chemistry Ph.D.
- Arianna James; SAS, English Ph.D.
- Oualid Merzouga; SAS, Mathematics, Ph.D.
- Derek Yang SAS; Chemistry, Ph.D.