Friday’s Convocation ceremony, an annual event to celebrate the start of a new academic year, honored three faculty members with Goergen Awards. Allen Topolski, an associate professor of art and James Johnson, an associate professor of Political Science received the Goergen Award for Distinguished Achievement and Artistry in Undergraduate Education.

Suzanne O’Brien, Director of the College Center for Academic Support received the Goergen Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Learning in the College.

President Thomas Jackson began the ceremony and welcomed students, faculty and staff, returning and new, to the start of a new year.

“In coming together at Convocation, we reaffirm the vitality of our community as we remember the importance as we honor the values of a liberal arts education and its foundational role in developing leadership for society and the world for the year to come,” he said.

“We are all teachers, we are all learners and we are all bound together by a belief in virtues of unfettering inquiry and those truths are what makes this such a special place,” he added.

Dean of The College William Green then briefly described the award and introduced each recipient. “These awards really help us to see what our values are and help all of us to learn from one another about how to put our core educational values into practice,” Green said.

James Johnson was the first recipient to be presented with the award. Green quoted some of Johnson’s students before presenting the award.

“Before I attended [UR], I considered myself to be only an average student. Professor Johnson was one of the first teachers in my life to challenge me to go beyond being average,” one student wrote.

“The voyage from average to beyond average is the trip of a lifetime and Jim Johnson is Rochester’s main guide on that journey.”

Johnson and Green embraced, and Johnson stepped up to the podium.

Johnson discussed his teaching style – in particular, how he engages a class in conversation by provoking questions and encouraging discussion between students. “Students sometimes find my classroom and its environs uncomfortable. But comfort, at least where teaching and learning are concerned, is highly overrated,” Johnson said.

Next to receive an award was Allen Topolski. Topolski has been the faculty advisor and director of the Hartnett Gallery since 1993 and teaches art courses at all levels.

“He has turned the teaching of art into a process so skillful and so creative and so effective that it could be called an art form itself,” Green said in introducing Topolski.

“I always teach my students through a means that emphasizes process, not product,” Topolski said in his acceptance speech. “In doing so, they learn how to learn.”

Suzanne O’Brien received her award next. Green spoke of O’Brien’s “contributions to the College for over four decades.” O’Brien is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UR. Her position here as the Director of the Center for Academic Support – in addition to having been the Dean of Sophomores – has allowed her to be an intricate part of the university. She has been affiliated with Take Five, Study Abroad, NROTC, the Career Center and many other facets of UR.

“In a literal sense, she is a foundational figure at this university,” Green said.

O’Brien accepted the award and spoke of her time spent at UR since she first visited the campus “almost 50 years ago.”

She called receiving this award – the Goergen Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Learning in the College – “the sweetest icing on the cake” as she spoke, holding back tears of joy.

In a later interview, O’Brien spoke of her history at UR and her work leading up to this point.

“It was a magical day for me – people sending me e-mails, stopping me, giving me good wishes,” she said.

“You can always learn. If you do poorly in a course, it’s not as if that was a waste, you learn something about what you like to do and what you don’t like to do.”

When asked if she had a piece of advice for undergraduates, O’Brien responded, “I really do believe in the Rochester curriculum. The underlying advice to follow your interests is so liberating and can lead to such success,” she said. “You can learn from anything that you’re involved in.”

After O’Brien received her award, SA President Chris Calo spoke briefly. He gave a sneak preview of new late-night events that are planned for this year. He also encouraged students to support and join athletics. He unveiled a program called the Campus Club Connection, an online database where student groups can collaborate and organize events.

Thomas LeBlanc, Dean of the Faculty, closed the ceremony. “This is a great event,” he said of Convocation.

“It’s an event where we honor the people who make a difference in our lives.”

He then invited everyone to join the a cappella groups Vocal Point, the Midnight Ramblers and the Yellowjackets in singing “The Genesee.”

Following the ceremony, a buffet was served on the Wilson Quadrangle.

Yunis can be reached at

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