It’s all in a day’s teaching for the campus’s GSI “heroes”

By Bonnie Azab Powell


Kristina Gehrman. Fourth-year philosophy Ph.D. candidate.
Kristina Gehrman. Fourth-year philosophy Ph.D. candidate.

Editor’s note: Undergraduates who completed the 2005 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey conducted by the campus Office of Student Research were asked to name someone — staffer, administrator, or teacher — who had gone “above and beyond” during their undergraduate experience. Several thousand of them did so, and the resulting long list of names constitutes a roster of “everyday heroes” on the Berkeley campus — a cohort that the Berkeleyan and the online NewsCenter are acknowledging and celebrating into 2006. This story highlights graduate student instructors (GSIs) whose labors on their behalf won them recognition from hundreds of undergraduates surveyed.

‘When I got the letter from the chancellor, I was standing in the mailroom going, “Don’t cry, don’t cry.” I really care about teaching, but just because you care about it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good at it, that you’ve helped someone. This means so much to me.’

-Kristina Gehrman, fourth-year philosophy Ph.D. candidate

William Wong, Haas, MBA '05
William Wong, Haas, MBA ’05

As a GSI for Finance (BA 103) and Managerial Accounting (BA 102B), William “Willy” Wong, MBA ’05, would offer “numerous review sessions and have 12-hour-long office-hour visits,” wrote one of the 37 student who nominated him for heroic status. Another singled out the “large packets of material [he prepared] to help us learn the subject matter, which must have taken him many hours each time” — packets that “if compiled fully, will rival the class textbooks,” said another admirer. When one student was having trouble obtaining internships, Wong gave him advice, then offered to look over his résumé, as he did for several others. And his 24/7 help was nondiscriminating: roughly half of the 37 survey respondents admitted that they were not even enrolled in one of his sections.

Now working as a senior investment analyst for a money-management firm in New York City, Wong explains in a lengthy, humble e-mail that he considers all students — whether officially his charges or not — his “friends.” He was always available to them because he did not have a computer of his own, thus necessitating a lot of time in the campus computer lab. “I was there pretty much the whole time, and if you have a question, why not ask me right away?” he writes, claiming such interruptions were his study breaks.

His philosophy of teaching, which he prefers to call “sharing,” is also quite unusual: He told students that he wouldn’t take attendance, even if it was required, or penalize them for not attending his discussions.

‘I made over 500 friends in three semesters, and I can recall more undergraduate names than I could ever imagine. I am proud and very happy to have been able to help our own people, Cal students.’
-William Wong, Haas MBA ’05

“Though it seemed like my class was an unrestricted world,” says Wong, “it turned out that the audience would in turn behave how they were supposed to — a fully attended class, polite behavior, and lastly, the true and honest respect you get because you have given them the respect that they need.”

The night shift

Wong wasn’t the only GSI cited for his constant dedication and availability. Several students commended Meghdad “Amin” Hajimorad, an electrical-engineering teaching assistant, who “devoted countless hours in the labs to help students,” according to one respondent. “He pulled all-nighters to help students, and sacrificed his own work and sleep to make sure that we understood the material.”

John Tran, a molecular-and cell-biology GSI, “held review weeks rather than review sessions,” making handouts and lesson plans and, as one student wrote, sitting “with us night after night to painstakingly cover the details of the material that we were responsible for. At the end, he even bought everyone pizza for dinner.”

When a student asked Mark Bandstra, a physics teaching assistant, if she could see her final exam from the previous semester, he “went through the trouble of obtaining and e-mailing the final exam questions, the histogram, and the final-exam solutions to me, as well as getting my blue book for me.” Since the student couldn’t take away the blue book, Bandstra met with her for nearly three hours — on a Friday evening, no less — and painstakingly went through each of the questions and her answers … even though Bandstra was no longer the GSI for the class. And then, because it was dark, he walked her back across campus to her dorm.

Another undergraduate nominated Lianne Beltran, a graduate student in the College of Chemistry who provided copious amounts of counseling, both academic and personal. “Her heart is golden,” wrote the student. “If she [saw] me working late in the lab, staying even overnight, she would buy me breakfast.”

All-around all-stars

Many of the survey respondents were grateful for specific academic support they received from their GSI heroes. Kristina Gehrman, a philosophy GSI, helped one of her undergraduates immensely by allowing the student to rewrite a paper “because she realized I understood the material but did not know how to write a philosophy paper. She took the time and effort to help me improve my logical-writing skills, which will still be helpful in the future after I graduate….Kristina is one of those GSIs who actually take to heart the burden of having the responsibility to guide and assess the success of students.”

Hal Haggard. Second-year physics Ph.D. Candidate
Hal Haggard. Second-year physics Ph.D. Candidate

To me, the most striking thing about teaching is how much you learn. There’s something about trying to explain complicated concepts to people that you don’t capture when you’re just receiving the information. ‘

-Hal Haggard, second-year physics Ph.D. candidate

It’s not only students in need who commend their GSIs. Walter Roberts, a GSI in the classics department, praised a paper an undergraduate had written and encouraged the student to expand it into a 20-page research paper. Roberts then met with the student weekly, sometimes for two hours or more, helping make outlines and suggesting additional research. “He is an outstanding GSI for recognizing individual strengths and passions and channeling those into a truly meaningful academic experience,” wrote the grateful student.

Natalia Caporale. Fourth-year neuroscience Ph.D. candidate.
Natalia Caporale. Fourth-year neuroscience Ph.D. candidate.

‘You can’t force people to learn at a particular rate. Some of my students really wanted to understand what they were doing, not just follow the instructions for the lab as fast as they could. If they wanted to stay late on Friday night, what was I going to say: “Sorry, I have to go”? Of course not.’

-Natalia Caporale,
fourth-year neuroscience Ph.D. candidate

Other GSIs rivaled Wong in their willingness to help students with tasks that fell outside their job descriptions. Physics grad student Hal Haggard, the GSI for an electronics-lab class, overheard undergraduates bemoaning how difficult it was to prepare for the GRE subject test in physics. “After hearing us mention it, without a second thought Hal offered to run a night workshop for the GRE,” wrote the student. “He even offered to help us edit our graduate-school application essays — far above and beyond the content of an electronics-lab class!”

Haggard confirms that he spent one night per week and several weekends helping the students get ready. “The GRE is a miserable experience; it didn’t need to be any more miserable than it was,” he shrugs.

A little of that human touch

Mostly, it’s the small things that count. Many undergraduates seemed amazed that GSIs would give out their home phone numbers and instant-messaging handles, and take the trouble to learn the names of the students in their sections.

Matt Medeiros, a biology GSI, “actually went as far as to physically discipline himself [figuratively, we hope — Ed.] if he forgot one of our names. I never knew any other GSIs who knew all the names of the students in class.” The student also lauded Medeiros for risking ridicule and his health to make learning fun: He “once even had the guts to dress up as Darwin to teach us about evolution … [and took] our lab group to Tilden Park during the semester, on a nature hike, which he led with great enthusiasm, twice, even on cold and rainy days.”

Another respondent praised Natalia Caporale, a graduate student in the neuroscience program who regularly stayed late on Friday nights to help students finish a lab, for being someone who “genuinely cares about her students’ experience in the class, understanding of the material, and academic performance…. Natalia’s enthusiasm and effort show me that there really exist instructors, even in such a large college environment, who sincerely care about their students; it is not just a job for them that begins and ends on the hour scheduled.”

Benjamin Young, a rhetoric GSI, was singled out for offering to help one student improve deficient writing skills. After the respondent had missed classes for more than two weeks, Young contacted the student to ask if everything was all right, and spent a lot of time “trying to understand what [was] going on in my life….He’s the first person to go OUT OF HIS WAY in my four years of college experience to show he cares,” wrote the student.

Young may have been the first person to go out of his way for that particular student. But as these testimonials show, he has plenty of heroic company scattered across this campus’s departments.

Heroes among UC Berkeley’s Graduate Student Instructors

Below is a complete list of all GSIs who received letters from the Chancellor after students cited them for everyday heroism.

Mont Allen, History of Art
Carlo Arreglo, English
Stephanie Ballenger, History
Mark Bandstra, Physics
Khalilah Beal, Mathematics
Lianne Beltran, Chemistry
Joseph Brooks, Psychology
Santiago Canez, Mathematics
Natalia Caporale, Molecular & Cell Biology
Edward Carter, Mathematics
David Chao, Chemistry
Ruprekha Chowdhury, South and Southeast Asian Studies
Shelley Claridge, Chemistry
Joel Corbo, Physics
Elise Couper, Economics
Travis Freed, Environmental Science, Policy, & Management
Matt Gagliardi, Mathematics
Susan Gaylard, Italian Studies
Kristina Gehrman, Philosophy
Liza Grandia, Anthropology
Hal Haggard, Physics
Meghdad Hajimorad, Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences
Christine Hong, English
Zachary Judson, Mathematics
Nathan Kramer, Public Health
Laura Levin, Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies
Claudio Martonffy,> Architecture
Alexander Mastroianni, Chemistry
Matthew Medeiros, Integrative Biology
Robert Myers, Mathematics
Zachary Nagel, Chemistry
Rajesh Nishtala, Computer Sciences
Bruce Ou, Education
Elizabeth Page-Gould, Psychology
Thavin Pak, South & Southeast Asian Studies
Walter Roberts, Classics
Jay Rynek, Sociology
Jeffrey Saret, Economics
Joyce Scales, Public Policy
Michael Schihl, Economics
Dan Schmidt, Geography
Mark Sithi-Amnuai, Business Administration
Monica Stufft, Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies
John Tannaci, Chemistry
Ben Tran, Comparative Literature
John Tran, Molecular & Cell Biology
Ian Tullis, Environmental Science, Policy, & Management
Vance Vredenburg, Integrative Biology
William Wong, Business Administration
Benjamin Young, Rhetoric
David Zywina, Mathematics

– Bonnie Azab Powell is a writer for the Public Affairs Office at Berkeley. Photos, except as noted, courtesy of the Public Affairs Office at Berkeley. This article appeared first in the December 8, 2003, issue of the Berkeleyan.