University of South Carolina

Benitez-Nelson recognized as Professor of the Year

By Chris Horn, University Magazine Group 

For marine science freshmen who sometimes feel they are lost at sea, adrift without a clear sense of direction, Marine Science 101 must seem like a lifeboat. 

The introductory course is taught by Claudia Benitez-Nelson, a professor and director of the marine science program who has made it her mission to connect with every first-year student in the program. 

Does she learn everyone’s name? Check. Incorporate some tidbit of information about each student into her lectures? Count on it. Bring full-on enthusiasm to the classroom? Every day. 

“My goal is to get them to respond,” said Benitez-Nelson, winner of the 2013 Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year award. “I want to get them engaged in some way, and once I get a response, I’ve got’em.” 

Benitez-Nelson knows all about feeling adrift and unconnected as a student. She was that person 25 years ago as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. 

“But I had these two professors who went out of their way to help me find my way,” she said. “They didn’t have to, but they did, and I wouldn’t be a professor now if it weren’t for them. So I’m paying it forward.” 

Benitez-Nelson passion for engaging with students extends beyond her own discipline. 

“Once you’re my student, you’re always my student. Whether you stay in marine science or you switch to business or photography or whatever, we’re still good; I’m here for you,” she said. 

That assertion rings true when perusing teaching evaluations penned by her students:

• “She’s super approachable, keeps the class interesting and really wants to help!”

• “One of the most enthusiastic and approachable professors I’ve ever had.”

• “She’s always willing to answer questions and helps us understand confusing material.”

Student questions are, in fact, the fuel that have powered Benitez-Nelson’s career since joining the faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences in 2002. 

“I’ve been asked to give talks all over the world because I’ve become good at explaining science to non-scientific people,” she said. “That’s a direct result of what I do in the classroom.” 

Explaining difficult material and answering endless questions can be a challenge, Benitez-Nelson said.

“But I get so much out of it, from new ideas in research to friendship. And at the end of the day I like to talk to people — it’s that simple,” she said. 

Michael J. Mungo Distinguished Professor Award winners

  • 2012 Milind Kunchur, physics and astronomy
  • 2011 James S. Cutsinger,  religious studies
  • 2010 Robert Jesselson, School of Music
  • 2009 Susan Anderson, theatre and dance
  • 2008 Sanjib R. Mishra, physics and astronomy
  • 2007 Thomas Hilbish, biological sciences
  • 2006 Tangali S. Sudarshan, electrical engineering
  • 2005 John Larry Durstine, excercise science, public health

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Posted: 05/01/13 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 05/03/13 @ 9:41 AM | Permalink