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USCB professor named best in state

University of South Carolina Beaufort professor Babet Villena-Alvarez, right, reacts Wednesday after South Carolina Commission on Higher Education chairman Ken Wingate, left, announced she won the state's Professor of the Year award. The announcement was made at the USCB Hilton Head Gateway Campus in Bluffton.
University of South Carolina Beaufort professor Babet Villena-Alvarez, right, reacts Wednesday after South Carolina Commission on Higher Education chairman Ken Wingate, left, announced she won the state's Professor of the Year award. The announcement was made at the USCB Hilton Head Gateway Campus in Bluffton.

By the end of the first day of class, University of South Carolina Beaufort professor Babet Villena-Alvarez knows all of her students' names.

She takes notes while they introduce themselves and studies the seating chart. She asks them about their lives and what's important to their generation.

If she knows her students, they'll know her, Villena-Alvarez reasons. And they'll know she won't let them get away with skipping class or slacking academically.

Her ability to connect with students and prioritize classroom teaching is what made Villena-Alvarez the winner of the 2010 S.C. Governor's Professor of the Year award, Chancellor Jane Upshaw said.

Upshaw and Ken Wingate, chairman of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, surprised Villena-Alvarez with the announcement Wednesday.

"We are delighted the state recognized what a jewel we have," Upshaw said. "It is affirming to our entire institution."

Villena-Alvarez, who lives in Beaufort, competed for the award against nominees from 37 public and private four-year universities across the state. The award comes with a $5,000 prize and recognition during a ceremony hosted by the governor's office in November.

Villena-Alvarez, a native of the Philippines, came to USCB in 1994 as an assistant professor of French and Spanish after completing most of her education in Paris, Madrid and at the University of Cincinnati.

She said her peers were surprised she spurned offers from larger institutions to work at USCB. But she didn't want to be the youngest professor in a crowded department. She wanted a leadership role and knew USCB would grow.

"I thought, 'I can do something here. I can build something,'" she said.

After 10 months on the job, she established study-abroad programs. She won a federal grant to train professors to incorporate international perspectives in their teaching. She developed programs to help Beaufort County meet the demands of its fast-growing Hispanic population.

While USCB was a two-year school, Villena-Alvarez created a Spanish certificate program to meet a need for service professionals with a proficiency in the language. Although many in the county were native Spanish-speakers, few had college credentials.

"We had such an enormous need, in government offices, in hospitals," she said. "Everyone wanted someone who could speak Spanish."

Later, after USCB was accredited as a four-year university, she developed a dual-track Spanish degree program. It has one course of study for those new to the language and another for those already fluent but who want to study Hispanic literature and cultural history.

Villena-Alvarez now is the chair of the Department of Humanities and Fine Arts.

Rena Kratky was one the first graduates from the Spanish degree program and is now an instructor at USCB. She credits Villena-Alvarez with her success.

"She was one of the best professors I ever had in my life," Kratky said. "I wouldn't be here today if not for her."

Villena-Alvarez said Kratky personifies the best part of her job.

"We train and we educate and we see the evidence," she said.

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