Introducing the 2021 Texas Ten

Photographs by Matt Wright-Steel

The Alcalde
15 min readMay 5, 2021

Each year, the Alcalde asks alumni to vote for their favorite professors: the teachers who inspired them and helped make their college experience unforgettable. This year’s Texas 10 represent a variety of academic areas, ranging from international security to theater arts, but all have left an
indelible mark on their students. After a challenging year, during which a global pandemic forced professors everywhere to reimagine their entire approach to teaching, we caught up with these talented instructors to learn more about their life’s work.

Michael Clement

KPMG Centennial Professor and Chair, Department of Accounting | Years at UT: 24

Side Gig: Clement has been UT’s Faculty Athletics Representative since 2013 and serves as an advocate for student-athletes for the Big 12 and NCAA.

“My grandfather passed away while I was in his class,” Michael Clement’s nominator wrote. “His funeral was on September 11, 2001. I emailed all my professors to tell them that I would be out. He is the only person who responded. He told me how close he had been to his own grandfather and to take care of my family. That human touch meant so much to me.”

“How does that make you feel?” I ask him over the phone. Clement composes himself and then responds quietly: “I don’t remember that” he says, “but I do believe I said it. It’s consistent with the way I think.”

His father, his most important role model, was also a professor of business, but for years Clement resisted academia, working at a public accounting firm and a big bank in New York City. When he met people in the industry who had been taught by his father, they always wanted to do nice things for him. “Because of what he had done for them,” he says. One day, he realized no one he knew was as fulfilled as his dad.

Clement says the core purpose of the university — to transform lives for the benefit of society — is what has kept him in Austin so long and made it easy to turn down offers from private schools. And his job at UT allows him autonomy in his research and to take full advantage of his intellectual curiosity. “There is always something new to learn,” he says.

When asked what this honor means to him, Clement is again choked up. “I’m trying to help people figure out who they are and what they can do,” he says. “An award like this makes me realize that, in some way, I am achieving that goal.” — Dorothy Guerrero

Above portrait by Dustin Snipes

Omi Osun Joni L. Jones

Professor Emerita, Department of African & African Diaspora Studies | Years at UT: 28

A new name: Omi Osun was actually born Joni Lee Jones, the youngest of four growing up in the Chicago suburbs. It wasn’t until a spiritual trip to Nigeria in 1997 that she was initiated as Omi Osun (pronounced oh-me oh-SHoon). Omi translates to water in the Yoruba language while Osun refers
to “the energy of the river.”

A quick glance at her CV and one sees Omi Osun Jones’ academic path: Northwestern and New York University for postgraduate studies, teaching posts at the University of Maryland and Howard University. What is less evident, however, is the breadth of her work. Jones has founded theater companies and starred, directed, and produced performances from coast to coast. She’s published two books and a third, her first foray into fiction, is on the way. She’s had performance art installations in some of the biggest contemporary art museums in Texas. And she’s published hundreds of poems, essays, and articles, all while teaching and providing dissertation and thesis guidance to more than a hundred UT students.

When it comes to balancing the life of an artist and academic, Jones says, “There is deep continuity and deep challenge. What I studied as a scholar was what I was actually embodying as an artist,” she says, later adding: “I had to live it in order to understand it in any sort of way to share it with others.”

Though Jones is retired, she is continuing to work hard in her new home city of Los Angeles. After our interview in mid-March, she had to prepare for an arts workshop she was conducting later that day alongside her partner, Sharon.

“I’m continuing to build [community] in my own kind of way. It’s part of what I’m here to do, I mean that very seriously. But helping individuals be
their best selves so that families and communities and the world can be its best. That’s what I’m here to do.” — Katie Friel

Sara Stewart Stevens, MS ’12

Assistant Professor of Practice and Program Director (Academic), the Division of Textiles and Apparel | Years at UT: 9

Favorite Designer: “I’m not a high fashion person, but I love Christian Dior because of the shapes and silhouettes,” Stevens says.

In 2016, at the age of 39, Sara Stevens was diagnosed with cancer after doctors found a malignant tumor in the front portion of her tongue. What followed was an aggressive treatment protocol, with surgery to remove part of her tongue and reconstruct it with tissue from her forearm. After that, radiation. But there was a moment months later when she was meeting with her speech therapy team that still makes her laugh. She was re-learning to speak, and the letter S was a struggle. “What’s your name?” one of the therapists asked. “Sara Stewart Stevens,” she managed. The therapist smiled sympathetically.

“And what do you do?” they asked. “I’m a professor,” she said. And they all cracked up.

After a year away from work, Stevens was apprehensive to speak to a class again. But she remembers how welcoming the students were and happy to have her back. “I’m still learning and growing here,” she told them. “So please be patient with me.”

These days, her speech is almost like it was before the surgery and she is back to sharing her passion for “the democratization of fashion.”
Stevens says she is all about the quality and function of a garment and making good design accessible for all.

“She always kept topics interesting and fun,” her nominator wrote, “and put an emphasis on hands-on learning. She was an amazing support even through her battle with cancer and returned to UT stronger than even before.”

Whether she is speaking at a lectern or taking her students to New York City to learn directly from fashion icon Iris Apfel, Stevens feels she is doing the work she was meant to do. “The more I have taught,” she says, “the more I’ve realized this was my path all along.” — DG

Michael Mosser

Assistant Professor of Instruction, Department of Government | Years at UT: 9

Steelers’ country: Mosser has traversed the globe, but one only has to step inside his office to know where his roots are planted. “There is Pittsburgh stuff all over the place,” Mosser explains of his decor, which includes a Steelers Terrible Towel and mug branded with his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. “Pittsburghians have a very strong sense of place,” he laughs.

When he was in high school, Michael Mosser brought home a flier advertising a six-week cultural exchange with a family in Madrid. His father and stepmother, who worked as a coal miner and an elementary school teacher, respectively, had both gone to college, and emphasized the importance of a well-rounded education.

“My folks, to their eternal credit, said, ‘If you want to do this, absolutely. We’ll make it work.’” And so, at just 15, Mosser left his family’s farm and flew to Europe armed with a few semesters of high school Spanish.

Mosser came back to his small southwestern Pennsylvania town changed. His time in Madrid sparked a curiosity that would shape both his professional and personal life. “I was just like, ‘Wow, this is really different, and I want to do it again and again and again.’”

After receiving his BA from Pitt, Mosser went to the University of Wisconsin — Madison, where he earned both a master’s and PhD in political science. Over the course of his 20-year career, Mosser has become one the nation’s foremost experts on European security and international relations. Despite his worldliness, in the classroom Mosser makes a point to connect with his students. “He’s not only one of the most intelligent professors I had,” wrote one nominator, “But also one of the most caring professors I have ever had.”

While he and his family have missed jet-setting over the past year, Mosser says being grounded has given them a chance to spend one final year with their daughter before she heads off to college in the fall. Naturally, she’s chosen to attend university in Europe. — KF

Alison Norman, MS ’06, PhD ’10

Associate Professor of Instruction, Department of Computer Science | Years at UT: 10

It takes a village: Norman has weathered the pandemic with a little help from her family — all her family. The associate professor, her husband, and their three kids all live within walking distance of Norman’s parents and her sister and brother-in-law.

Within minutes of meeting Alison Norman, it’s easy to see why her students adore her. Bright and bubbly with an infectious laugh, the principles of computer systems professor has been a fixture in the computer science department for more than a decade, receiving both her MS and PhD from the school.

Though she’s been teaching since her post- graduate days, redesigning her courses to be online (from home, with three children) has been a challenge. Norman says she’s worked hard to not just be “a crazy talking head” over Zoom, but instead create a thoughtful learning environment where students feel connected. That means using technology to keep her classes engaged and on track with their education.

Norman was predestined to be a computer sciences professor. Growing up in Georgia, both of her parents worked at IBM and her father became a computer science professor at the University of Georgia. Still, she didn’t jump into the family business right away, majoring in biology instead during her freshman year at Georgia Tech. “I was such a rule follower that my way of rebelling was majoring in another STEM field,” she says with a laugh.

Eventually though, the tech bug bit and Norman decided to pursue a career in computer systems. What she’s found along the way is a field where women and minorities are dramatically underrepresented, a trend she is working to reverse. In addition to creating an ethics course for freshmen, Norman pursues her own education, taking courses such as the history of the Black experience.

“I do think there’s tons of people at UT working to make it better for the students, working to fight injustice and inequity, and it’s just an amazing community to be a part of as people figure out what that looks like.” — KF

Betsy Berry, MA ’87, PhD ’94

Senior Lecturer, Department of English | Years at UT: 27

In Memory: Being recognized as a Texas 10 winner is an honor Berry now shares with her late husband, Don Graham, who won the award in 2014. “I wish he could be here to see this,” she says. “He would be so proud. He told me early on, when I first started teaching and I was so nervous, he would say, ‘You just don’t know it, but you’re a born teacher.’”

At the beginning of every semester, Betsy Berry asks her students to fill out a “biography card,” (the name a holdover from when she passed out actual index cards) with questions about their favorite animals and what they like to read. “Why should they be required to get to know more about me and they remain anonymous?” Berry says. “I try and connect with each and every student, and those students who prefer to be more anonymous in class, I respect that as well — I look at their work, and let their work speak for them.”

Berry says her biggest goal is to get her students to “not like, but love” reading and to become lifelong readers — not because it will give them the ability to use fancy words, but because she knows becoming a lifelong reader will help them move through the world more easily.

Before attending graduate school at UT’s department of English and being called to teach, Berry spent time working in the film industry in Los Angeles, and many years working in the business world — including as a staff writer for Tex Schramm, the original president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys. Berry has a Super Bowl ring thanks to that gig, and whenever people invariably ask what boyfriend gave it to her, she responds she earned it herself — with hard work and a good team. “That’s another reason I so value my students,” she says. “They’re on the team, and where would I be without them?” — Sofia Sokolove

Michael Marder

Professor, Department of Physics, Executive Director, UTeach | Years at UT: 33

Good surprise: Born in New York and raised in Illinois, Marder had never stepped foot in Texas until 1988, when he flew in for a job interview. “I had never visited Texas before,” he says, adding that he was surprised by how much he was taken with Austin. “It was the first of many surprises for me — and they’ve all been good surprises.”

One would think someone who researches chaos would not be keen on strapping on scuba gear and jumping into the oceanic abyss, but that’s exactly what Michael Marder does to relax. (But when your wife is a world-renowned underwater archaeologist and your daughter runs a Cretian dive shop, it counts as family bonding.)

On dry land, however, Marder has spent most of his academic life studying chaos theory, or the idea that though we think we can predict how things probably will turn out, it’s impossible to know for certain. “Take the weather,” Marder says, “despite all the satellites, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

It was by a seemingly random pattern that Marder ended up with a three-decade-long career in teaching. At UT, where he teaches students across a variety of majors, and was awarded the Texas Exes’ Elizabeth Shatto Massey Award for being a “teacher of teachers” in 2008, Marder says he tries to remember back to his days as an undergrad at Cornell or a doctoral student at UC Santa Barbara. “I’ve really tried to remember what it felt like to walk into someone’s office and be treated abruptly,” he explains. And so, as a professor, he approaches every semester as both an opportunity to teach and be taught.

“The master teachers [at UT], I continue to learn from them,” he says. “It comes more easily than others. It’s not humility to say that I have had to work very hard.” — KF

Jung Kwak

Associate Professor, School of Nursing | Years at UT: 4

For the future: Kwak says she grew up with a lot of older adults, and so it felt natural to gravitate toward topics around aging. “Some people think it’s morbid,” she laughs, “but it’s inevitable, right? It’s a universal experience. And our students are going to have to become amazing caregivers for all of us, so I feel that I have a personal stake in this topic.”

Jung Kwak’s “Ethics of Healthcare” course has always been one of her favorites to teach. “The ethics class is really about learning about ourselves, even though it is in the context of health care, it’s about helping students explore what they believe and why they believe what they believe,” she explains.

Even before COVID-19 had the world focused on vaccine rollouts, Kwak’s students were delving into rich discussions about the most equitable way to distribute valuable resources. But now, the course feels even more urgent. “The pandemic has given us a really realistic context,” she says, “And I think the students feel more engaged and invested in these topics because they are actually living through it.”

Despite the course’s obvious relevance to nursing, Kwak says it can be powerful for any student, because it’s about universal human experiences. Regardless of their major, she says, her students “can really think about these issues as a member of our larger communities.”

As both a social worker and gerontologist, Kwak embraces a multidisciplinary teaching style, looking at issues not only from a medical and biomedical ethics perspective, but infusing public health, philosophy, religion, arts, and literature into her syllabi.

Another thing she makes sure to bring into her classroom? Empathy. “It’s essential to create an effective learning environment,” she says. “It’s really not about me as a teacher at all. It’s all about students. Once you kind of set your mindset as such, it becomes much more liberating — and much more fun — to teach.” — SS

Fred Valdez, BA ’75

Professor, Department of Anthropology | Years at UT: 32

Anybody goin’ to San Antone? Though he’s lived in Austin for most of his adult life, Valdez has deep roots in his hometown of San Antonio. Pre-COVID, he would travel to the Alamo City at least twice a month to visit family, grade school friends, and his daughter and two grandsons.

Fred Valdez took his first archaeology course at the behest of a friend who didn’t want to take the class by himself. What started as a favor ended up sparking a lifelong curiosity for Valdez, and before long he was hooked.

“Every class that I took that was anthropology or archaeology, the professors that I had … they all seemed really happy about what they were doing. They really enjoyed what they were doing,” Valdez remembers.

And it was something Valdez enjoyed, too. As college came to a close, he continued taking more anthropology and archaeology classes, and began volunteering at the Balcones Research Center, now the Pickle Research Campus. “I volunteered out there looking through microscopes and sorting little bits of bone from rock and seeds and so forth,” he recalls with a fondness rarely attributed to microscopes.

Following college, he returned to his hometown to begin postgraduate studies at University of Texas at San Antonio before eventually transferring to Harvard College to complete his PhD in 1988. UT was able to lure him back as a professor later that year, and with exception of his year as a Fulbright Scholar researching in Guatemala, he’s remained on the Forty Acres ever since.

“I think [my story] shows there really isn’t a right way and a wrong way,” he says. “Things work out.” — KF

Natalie Czimskey, BS ’08, MA ’11, PhD ’19

Lecturer, Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences | Years at UT: 9

A family affair: Czimskey; her husband, Justin; her father; and her mother-in-law are all UT alumni — and they’re already preparing the next generation, including her five-year-old son. “He told me the other day, ‘Mommy, you know what I love? I love you. But you know what I love more? The Tower.’”

In addition to her academic and professional pursuits, Czimskey met her husband at UT, got married, settled down in the Austin suburbs, and had two children while finishing her doctorate. “I grew up here.” Because of that, she says, campus feels like home.

It also gave her a unique perspective in spring 2020, when students were unable to return to the Forty Acres after spring break due to the pandemic. “I think we forget that campus is a safe place for a lot of people,” she says. “Some of them are healthier and safer on campus.” To stay connected to her students as the world around them shut down, Czimskey gave every single one of them her cell phone number. “They need to be able to get a hold of me, and they can’t just pop into my office hours,” she says.

As a newly minted Provost’s Teaching Fellow for 2021, Czimskey will spend the next two years researching this kind of “compassionate instruction,” an examination of how perceived professor compassion can positively impact students.

“My next direction is really going to be working toward compassionate and empathetic instruction at UT and talking about how to enact that and what it looks like and its impact on students,” she says. “And I think it’s an area where professors are probably going to be receptive.” — KF



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