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Northwestern students honor high school teachers who helped them find their passion

Graduating seniors pay tribute to educators who left a lasting impact

High school teachers have the capacity to make a profound difference in the lives of their students, from providing a “safe space to store a jar of Nutella and a loaf of bread” to inspiring a career in mechanical engineering.

Each year, the Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Awards (DSTA) give a group of Northwestern University seniors an opportunity to reflect on and pay tribute to exceptional educators who have had a lasting impact on their lives.

The awards honor high school teachers whose personal and professional commitment has touched the Northwestern community, and carry an award of $5,000 for each teacher and $5,000 for each of their schools.

The five high school teachers nominated by graduating seniors will join their former students and each receive their award during Northwestern’s Commencement exercises in June.

“The Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Awards program is one of my favorite Northwestern traditions,” said Northwestern President Morton Schapiro. “On a weekend during which we celebrate the excellence of our graduates, they take the time to honor great teachers and mentors who made their own successes possible. Every year, our campus community is touched by the enduring bond between teacher and student.”

This year’s DSTA recipients are Seth Brady; Carrie Marcantonio; Monica Rowley; Jeff Solin; and Mark Vondracek. The recipients teach in high schools across the country, including public schools in Illinois, Missouri and New York.

The awards are sponsored by the Office of the President. Eugene Lowe, assistant to President Schapiro and senior lecturer in religious studies, chaired the 2021 selection committee, which works closely with the School of Education and Social Policy.

After a selection committee comprised of faculty, staff and students reviews nominations and portfolios, a small group of finalists are interviewed, and the committee recommends five outstanding teachers to President Schapiro for this recognition.

“It was particularly inspiring for the selection committee to engage these exceptional teachers during this year as the pandemic forced them to teach and work in new ways to connect with students,” Lowe said.

Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Awards

Seth Brady
Naperville Central High School
Naperville, Illinois

Mahie Gopalka continues to be in touch with Seth Brady as a source of “constant support,” long after leaving Naperville Central. Gopalka, now a senior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences who is preparing for a gap year and ultimately medical school, credits Brady with unlocking her passion for global health.

“Mr. Brady has touched the lives of so many students — even outside Naperville — through his countless hours developing the Illinois Global Scholar (IGS) program,” Gopalka said. “His passion for global education shaped the way I now understand my own purpose in life.”

The IGS program, signed into Illinois legislation in 2017, allows school districts across the state to offer merit to students who demonstrate global competence through coursework, service learning, global collaboration and a summative capstone project — and the idea for the certificate came from Brady’s classroom.

“Somewhere around 2013, I had a series of epiphanies that stripped the ego out of my teaching, and revealed, to my surprise, the deep and inexhaustible joy found in setting students free,” Brady said. “When students are given the freedom to develop actionable questions, the expected output changes from one of knowledge to one of action. This action orientation in turn drives research that is routed to the student’s own interests. Moreover, the focus on action results in infinitely variable artifacts that are research-driven, creative and authentic.”

Carrie Marcantonio
Winnetonka High School
Kansas City, Missouri

Emanuella Evans remembers spending every lunch period of her freshman year in the office of Carrie Marcantonio, where she stored her Nutella and a loaf a bread. The two would eat lunch together. Later, when Evans first joined Winnetonka High School’s Key Club and then took Marcantonio’s research course, she said she felt empowered and learned to value mutual aid, service learning and community care.

Evans reflects on the care, empathy and support Marcantonio was able to give to each of her students.

“The crazy thing about explaining how much of an impact Carrie has had on my life is that it’s hard to believe that she had time to do this for any other students, but that’s the reality,” said Evans, a senior in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “Her qualities touch every student she has in class, in club and even the students that just step into her office for a snack — another reason she’s exceptional! She meets people where they are, even if that place is just hungry. I left high school not only prepared for college, but also motivated and excited to change the world — and that’s thanks to Carrie Marcantonio.”

Evans remembers after the 2016 presidential election, Marcantonio’s office was packed with students who knew her space was always open, and she took time to listen to and validate every emotion supporters of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton were feeling in the wake of her loss. As the coordinator of Winnetonka’s two-year capstone program, Marcantonio said she often hears juniors say, “people like me aren’t college material.” As such, she sees her responsibility as one not just of contradicting these beliefs, but of helping students see themselves fulfilling their dreams “in the great wide world.”

“Many of my students see their life experiences as obstacles to academic success, honors classes, college admission and the fulfillment of their aspirations,” Marcantonio said. “My goal is to help them see these things as assets, erasing the narrative that tells them their English is broken or their writing is non-standard, and for them to recognize that their ability to write in Somali, read in Arabic and nail the essay in my upper-level English class is to be commended and celebrated. To that end, the biggest thing that I have learned in my 20+ years as an educator, is that my job is to empower, encourage and then get out of the darn way!”

Monica Rowley
Brooklyn Technical High School
New York City, New York

Chloe Wong does not mince words when she refers to Monica Rowley as “the most phenomenal teacher” she has ever met. Wong was one of only 13 seniors to opt into Rowley’s Advanced Placement (AP) Capstone Research course, which was a major part of Wong’s high school experience and initial ventures in academic research.

“Not only did she continuously convey critical feedback to her students, she also provided educational catalysts that enabled all of her students to exceed their own expectations and succeed in her courses,” said Wong, a senior at Weinberg. “Ms. Rowley created a sense of community in the classroom, a camaraderie that students should inspire each other’s intellectual curiosity by asking questions and diving deeper at every turn. We were held to a high standard in our academic assignments and expected to push the rigor of our arguments because she knew that we were capable of more than we thought. At times, she left us to figure things out on our own and to take ownership over our research processes, yet she was always willing to lend an ear.”

Outside of secondary teaching, Rowley is an accomplished poet. She has received several accolades for her work including a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, a Library of Congress Grant, and the Roxanne McCormick Leighton Foundation Fellowship for study at Bread Loaf. She also was a consultant for the College Board, an organization that aims to improve the AP Capstone Research curriculum for students across the country.

“Like the writings of bell hooks, I believe teaching is a political act of the self and for others, and I know education is essential to a functioning democracy,” Rowley reflected. “These statements position me to be in a state of liminality: a place where I am between worlds and must be open to the unexpected (being flexible is the mark of a good teacher), and I must be open to being imperfect. It is in this imperfection that I take on the role of a teacher-learner and researcher. We need troublemakers after all, and I teach — to a large extent — to start, as the late great John Lewis says, ‘good trouble’ and disrupt the power narrative.”

Jeff Solin
Lane Tech College Prep
Chicago, Illinois

Lazar Gueorguiev first heard about Jeff Solin during his junior year at Lane Tech when older friends taking Solin’s “Innovation Creation Lab” course described the computer science teacher as a “hella chill” guy who played music during class, rode a mini board through the hallways, had smart lights installed throughout the classroom and had a student-painted mural that spanned the walls. When he inevitably took the class himself, it started with designing and printing his own laptop sticker — and ended with the class’s Chicago flag mosaic displayed at Navy Pier for eight months, then continuously at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

“Mr. Solin was acting as a facilitator, giving us the tools, knowledge and guidance we would need to complete the project and leaving everything else to the students,” said Gueorguiev, a senior in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “This freedom is something I’d never experienced before in a classroom setting, and it had an incredible effect on the students. Students were deeply invested in their projects and had great pride in their work because they created it.”

Solin incorporates the community into his classroom through partnerships with organizations including Argonne National Labs, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Northwestern, the Chicago Cubs, the Museum of Science and Industry and the National Science Foundation.

“My job as an educator is to help students experience, understand, use, build and change technology so they can solve the problems they care the most about, and eventually solve problems that don’t even exist yet,” Solin said. “At Lane Tech, most of our students are disadvantaged and underrepresented, sometimes by their gender, sometimes by the color of their skin, sometimes by their family’s resources, sometimes by their documentation status — and usually by a combination of those reasons.

“This is the case for most of the students across the district. The challenges to overcome are not insignificant, but my colleagues and I are committed to continue to advocate, support, learn from, and find [computer science] education resources and opportunities to equitably serve ALL students of the Chicago Public Schools.”

Mark Vondracek
Evanston Township High School
Evanston, Illinois

Noah DeMar credits his decision to study mechanical engineering at Northwestern “in no small part” to his AP physics teacher, Mark Vondracek. DeMar said it was widely known that the teacher slept only a few hours a night — instead preparing lessons that went “far beyond the required curriculum.”

“Dr. Vondracek, or ‘Doc V’ as we called him, taught me much more than AP physics; he gave his students the foundation to succeed anywhere they went after graduation,” said DeMar, a McCormick senior. “In many ways, Doc V's AP physics classroom felt like a Northwestern classroom transported to the third floor of my high school. More than just an academic, Doc V truly cared about the success of his students. His classroom was smattered with paraphernalia from various universities. Often Doc V would provide guidance where the school guidance counselors fell short.”

Though Vondracek has received dozens of local, state, national and global awards for his teaching, he said his most treasured accomplishment as a teacher is that in 26 years as an educator, he’s never written a detention or had to send a student to the dean’s office — even when he’s worked with gang-affiliated students or individuals with criminal backgrounds.

“Students know they will walk into my room (or now, into the virtual Zoom classroom) and be respected and loved by the teacher,” Vondracek said. “They know they’re expected to follow the only rule I’ve ever had, the Golden Rule, with every one of their peers in class. We all agree to create a safe and trusting home away from home where they can forget about the real and often serious problems outside our space and in their daily lives. A classroom being a temporary safe haven is a breath of fresh air for many students, and they can drop the need to be someone who they’re not and instead have fun learning and growing — and learning physics of all things, that stereotypical ‘impossible’ subject they’ve been told is only for the ‘smart’ kids.”

“What a great job we teachers have!” Vondracek added.

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