Students and colleagues of Rita Lester say the religion professor is known for her rigorous courses. And in the same breath, they’re quick to point out that her courses are so intriguing and engaging that students want to come back for more.
“It is one thing to teach information, but it is really something else to inspire,” wrote a NWU junior.
Lester’s ability to teach and challenge students to analyze religion, advise majors and non-majors, continually improve her teaching styles, help with prestigious scholarship applications, and go above and beyond her job description has landed her the 2010-2011 Margaret J. Prouty Faculty Teaching Award.
The honor is bestowed each year to a professor who:
- Communicates high expectations;
- Encourages intellectual curiosity within and across disciplines;
- Inspires students to do their best work;
- Holds students accountable;
- Engages student in class;
- Encourages cooperation among students;
- Respects diverse talents and ways of learning;
- Encourages faculty-student contact;
- Uses variety in instruction.
In nominating Lester for the award, several religion majors said they were inspired by her to become a religion major noting her engaging teaching style and her ability to make students feel comfortable while discussing and analyzing religion. Students also commended her for exploring options for them beyond the classroom including unique study abroad opportunities.
“She opened up opportunities to me that never would have been made available to me without her guidance,” said a religion major who nominated Lester.
Non-majors also commended Lester for her ability to teach a difficult subject and make it digestible to even the most religiously close-minded students. One student nominator admitted she was worried about taking Lester’s World Religions course.
“I was scared that I would get a professor who was atheist or would change my mind about being Christian,” she said. “What I thought was going to be an awful class turned into one of the best I have ever taken.”
Lester has taught at Nebraska Wesleyan since 1998. Last year she was one of 12 professors in the nation selected to attend the “Teaching About Islam and Middle Eastern Culture” seminar in Jordan. She spent 2007 on sabbatical in Toronto where she studied and conducted research at the Encounter World Religions Centre. In addition to undergraduate courses, Lester teaches religious diversity in Nebraska Wesleyan’s Master of Arts in Historical Studies Program. She served as Fulbright Program Adviser in 2009-2010 and continues to serve on the Fulbright Selection Committee.
Colleagues who nominated Lester for the Prouty Award celebrated her ability to stretch students’ minds, stay current on best teaching methods, her countless hours spent helping students with their prestigious scholarship applications, and work with students outside of the classroom. For example, Lester is currently giving Arabic lessons to a religion major who hopes to better understand the Quran.
“This isn’t part of her job description, but if a student is interested and motivated, I do not think there is a limit to the time and effort Dr. Lester is willing to expend to improve student learning,” said a nominator.
Lester was presented the Prouty Faculty Teaching Award during the May faculty meeting. Previous winners include:
- Frank Ferraro, psychology, 2009-2010
- Gary Plank, forensic science, 2008-2009
- Dale Benham, biology, 2007-2008
- Bill McNeil, psychology, 2006-2007
- Jay Chipman, theatre, 2005-2006