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Two faculty retire after 46 combined years of service
Maria Franco de Gomez says adios; students say gracias
To Penn State New Kensington students, she is known simply as “Senora.” She makes learning a foreign language fun and informative as lively banter in Spanish reverberates through the classroom.
After 19 years of “hola” and “hasta luego,” it is time for Maria Franco de Gomez, instructor in Spanish, to say adios. Senora retired at the end of the spring semester. And a generation of campus students says gracias.
“Looking back on my teaching career, every class was unique and had its own character,” Franco de Gomez, said. “I enjoyed teaching Spanish to help students to communicate in a foreign language. I have had wonderful experiences with most of my classes, and every class has been equally important to me.”
And her students concur. In 2011, she was honored with the 2011 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching. The University-wide award, named after Penn State’s seventh president, is presented each year to faculty members who have devoted substantial effort to and developed a record of excellence in undergraduate teaching. Nominations are accepted from the University community, including students and colleagues. A former student spoke for many when submitting a nomination.
"Learning a second language is always difficult and intimidating," the student wrote, "but Senora ensures that all of her students find her classes casual and fun, while also being challenging and informative. She strives to give her students the confidence to learn through practice and conversation."
A native of Mexico, Franco de Gomez joined the campus faculty in 1994, teaching upper- and lower-level courses. She has taught elementary and intermediate Spanish conversation, grammar and composition, as well as a course on Latin-American civilization.
Prior to arriving at the New Kensington campus, Franco de Gomez held teaching positions at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the University of Pittsburgh. She holds a master's degree in Latin American literature from the University of Pittsburgh and a bachelor's degree in mathematics from La Normal Superior Nueva Galicia in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“Having the privilege to teach at Penn State New Kensington has totally exceeded my expectations, and I have never taken this opportunity for granted,” Franco de Gomez said. “The campus gave me the chance to do so many things that I love -- teaching, learning, knowing wonderful life time friends, interacting and traveling with students and faculty."
Her interest in teaching was piqued while she was an undergraduate. She had a young math professor who simplified the course material by making it logical and interesting.
“This professor sparked my interest in understanding the material thoroughly and also learning how to teach the material effectively,” Franco de Gomez said. “Years later, this professor became my best friend, colleague and companion for life.”
Javier Gomez-Calderon, professor of mathematics at the campus, is the husband of Senora. After teaching a summer course in June, he will join his wife in retirement.
The establishment of the campus’ international travel program is a proud moment for Franco de Gomez. She and a colleague, Bill Hamilton, assistant professor of biology and a 2003 Atherton Teaching Award recipient, developed the travel abroad program in 2004. For eight years, they coordinated trips during spring break. The program provided students with the opportunity to directly experience other countries and other cultures.
“One of my favorite memories at the campus is my work with Dr Hamilton in organizing the first international campus trip to Spain,” Franco de Gomez said. “I enjoyed teaching classes to prepare students for our international trips. It is a nice memory that I will never forget.”
Franco de Gomez and Hamilton sandwiched student excursions to Spain (2004 and 2011) between journeys to France, Italy, Greece, China, Peru and Ecuador. The program has since been renamed Global Programs and is coordinated by Ahbinav Aima, instructor in communications; Gary Heberling, instructor in information sciences and technology; and Amy Rustic, reference librarian. During the past spring break, students visited Ireland.
In addition to the Atherton award, the Plum Borough, Pa., resident is a two-time recipient of the campus' Excellence in Teaching Award, 1998 and 2004. The award recognizes faculty performance in the classroom, as well as in other activities such as advising, supervision of learning outside the classroom, and course development.
“There have always been some students in my classes that have inspired me to continue doing my best and allowed me to love my job,” Franco de Gomez said. “I will always remember this period of my life with gratitude and respect.”
Excellence in teaching runs run in the family. Her husband was the 2007 recipient of the Eisenhower Award that recognizes excellence in teaching and student support among tenured faculty. Like his wife, Gomez-Calderon has been honored twice with the campus' Excellence in Teaching Award.
Retirement for Franco de Gomez means maintaining her roots in Plum. Her increased leisure time will be devoted to her interest in reading, writing, gardening, walking and hiking, as well as “watching my little grandson.”
Javier Gomez-Calderon lives his dream of teaching college students
His research interests involve abstract algebra, such as finite fields and polynomials. His teaching interest involves basic math, such as number theory and vector calculus. Since 1986, Javier Gomez-Calderon, professor of mathematics at Penn State New Kensington, has introduced generations of campus students to the wonders of trigonometry, calculus, matrices and number theory.
A finite number class is appropriate this semester as Gomez-Calderon’s number is 27 – that is, years at the campus before he retires in June after teaching a final summer class.
“I have enjoyed teaching all courses, but I do love teaching basic math, especially number theory and vector calculus,” said Gomez-Calderon, who teaches upper- and lower-level mathematics courses. “I love interacting with my students every day, and teaching them how to solve problems and equations.”
Ever since he was a boy growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Gomez-Calderon dreamed about teaching at the university level. After teaching mathematics for eight years at several Mexican institutions and seven years as a graduate associate and teaching assistant at the University of Arizona, where he earned his master's and doctorate degrees in mathematics, he realized his dream when he joined the New Kensington mathematics department.
“I have always liked mathematics and talked math with my young friends,” Gomez-Calderon said. "Mathematics is universal, and it is just beautiful to me."
In 1996, he was awarded full professorship, the campus’ second full professor. Former chancellor, Roy Myers, professor emeritus of engineering, was the first. Charles “Bud” Gibbons, professor of visual arts, earned membership in the exclusive club in 2008. Full professor is the highest rank attained by Penn State faculty members.
“I have spent the best years of my life at New Kensington, and I cannot imagine a better way of spending this part of my life,” Gomez-Calderon said. “I respect the work, dedication and kindness of the faculty. It has been a real honor to be part of it.”
During his tenure at the campus, Gomez-Calderon has been the recipient of numerous teaching awards. In 2007, he was selected for the Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching. The Eisenhower Award is a University-wide honor that recognizes excellence in teaching and student support among tenured faculty members in the Penn State system. Milton Eisenhower, brother of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, served as president of Penn State from 1950 to 1956.
"I have been living my dream of teaching mathematics for more than two-thirds of my life," the self-effacing Gomez-Calderon said. "I am not an outstanding teacher nor am I an important mathematician. I simply enjoy doing my job"
He pursued his profession because of the demands it places on teaching and learning; both concerning students and colleagues. He encourages student questions and suggestions, and serves as mentor for and mentee of peers and friends.
"In my opinion, teaching and learning always go together," Gomez-Calderon said. "How can I teach if I am not learning?"
In addition to the Eisenhower award, Gomez-Calderon is a two-time recipient of the campus' Excellence in Teaching Award, 1989 and 1997. The award recognizes faculty performance in the classroom, as well as in other activities such as advising, supervision of learning outside the classroom and course development. In 2002, he was honored with the Commonwealth College Outstanding Research Award and in 1996 with the Teresa Cohen Mathematics Service Award.
"It has been an honor to work with Javier whose passion for math is exceeded only by his devotion to his students, and he has truly set the bar high for teaching and learning on our campus,” said Andrea Adolph, director of academic affairs. “When I meet campus alumni, they often inquire about their former teachers, and Javier is one of the first professors they ask about. It's an inspiration to witness how many lives he has reached through his dedication and instruction."
The New Kensington campus hasn’t been the only beneficiary of Gomez-Calderon’s mathematical dexterity. For four years, 2002-06, he served as the Mathematics Division Head for 14 Penn State campuses across the state.
"I supervised the curriculum, maintained academic consistency across the campuses, and communicated with faculty and academic administrators," said Gomez-Calderon, who has authored or co-authored 32 articles and four books.
Excellence in teaching runs in his family. His wife, Maria Franco de Gomez, instructor in Spanish at the campus, also has won the Excellence in Teaching award twice — 1998 as a part-time instructor and 2004 as a full-time instructor. Franco de Gomez, is also retiring at the end of the semester. In addition, she was honored with the 2011 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching. The University-wide award, named after Penn State's seventh president, is presented each year to six full-time faculty members who have devoted substantial effort to and developed a record of excellence in undergraduate teaching.
The 64-year-old Gomez-Calderon's passions are not limited to academia. Soccer has been a lifelong avocation, both as a player and a coach. He played indoor and outdoor soccer until the age of 55 and coached high school soccer as recently as 2011.
He was the head coach of the girls soccer team at Plum High School for seven years, 1998-2006, guiding the Mustangs into the playoffs three times. In 2001, he was named Coach of the Year by the Valley News Dispatch.
A back injury sidelined "Coach G," as he is known on the pitch, and he resigned the position. After rehabilitation, he was lured out of retirement in 2006 by Mike Spangnolo to serve as assistant coach for the girls' team at Burrell High School. In 2008, he returned to the head coaching ranks and succeeded Spangnolo. He served three years at Burrell before retiring for good in 2011.
"I have great memories of my tenure at Plum, and the team did well after I left," said Coach G., a resident of Plum Borough. "I left Plum assuming that I was done with soccer, but Mike invited me to join him and be part of another great soccer team.”
Retirement for Gomez-Calderon won’t involve soccer, save for watching World Cup matches, but it will involve mathematics. Without a set academic schedule, Gomez-Calderon has the freedom to continue his pursuit of teaching and learning.
“I’ll have time to read more, and to think and reflect on mathematics,” said Gomez-Calderon. “My dream of teaching is still alive. Nothing is set for the future, so I am open to all opportunities.”
“Maybe someone will hire me to teach a seminar across the globe,” he said with a laugh.
For 42 years, Gomez-Calderon has stood in front of a chalkboard, writing equations, manipulating numbers and explaining theories. For the professor, it was always about educating the students. Letting go of that is the downside to moving on to the next phase of life.
“I have always had a substantial group of students who have made my teaching life extremely enjoyable and rewarding,” Gomez-Calderon said. “I have been very lucky."
In addition to his students, Gomez-Calderon will also miss the camaraderie of his colleagues. Informal banter with fellow educators, be it in the hallway, cafeteria or an office, presented an opportunity to get a different point of view, and to learn something.
“We need daily conversations with our colleagues, and I will miss it because I learned so much from it,” Gomez-Calderon said. “I will never forget this place and in particular the people here who have won my admiration and respect.
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