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National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition


The National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition is proud to honor college faculty, administrators, staff members, and students for their work on behalf of first-year students and the impact their efforts make on the students and cultures of their institutions.

Each year with our partners at Penguin Random House Publishing, we recognize 10 individuals with the Outstanding First-Year Student Advocate Award and celebrate them at the Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience.

The 2024 Outstanding First-Year Student Advocates are:

Cindy Arizmendi Headshot

Cindy Arizmendi

Cindy Arizmendi serves as the first-year seminar faculty coordinator at Kellogg Community College (KCC) in Battle Creek, Michigan. Her responsibilities include teaching courses, training faculty, designing curriculum, and collaborating with student affairs and instruction partners. Cindy is inspired to create an inclusive first year experience in which students feel welcomed, valued, and encouraged.

 Her recent accomplishments include being presented with the Full Time Faculty Excellence Award and the Excellence in Assessment Award. She enjoys practicing yoga, scuba diving, and walking with her husband and dogs.

Tessa Chefalo headshot

Tessa Chefalo

Tessa Chefalo serves as the assistant dean of students for student engagement at Hamilton College, where she is responsible for managing the Office of Student Activities and the ongoing development of the campus life curriculum.  Chefalo coordinates Hamilton’s on-campus orientation initiatives and its immersive orientation trips. She is also responsible for the First-Year Experience program designed to create resources and social connections for first year students on campus.

Chefalo received her master’s in higher education from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s in English from SUNY Geneseo.  She is passionate about building inclusive spaces for new students, making connections, and providing self-advocacy skills. 

Gregory Eiselein headshot

Gregory Eiselein

Gregory Eiselein, Ph.D., is a professor of English and a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Kansas State University (K-State). After teaching his initial first-year seminar in 2003, he helped establish a new comprehensive first-year experience program at the university. K-State First was designed to keep the student in mind, providing resources such as seminars, living and learning communities, reading programs, mentoring opportunities, and more. A dedicated and enthusiastic teacher, he was named the 2013 Kansas Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

Eiselein received his doctorate from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s in history and English from the University of Idaho and received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.

Darin Ellis Headshot

R. Darin Ellis  

R. Darin Ellis, Ph.D., serves as associate provost for academic programs and associate vice president for institutional effectiveness at Wayne State University, where he has been a faculty member of the College of Engineering since 1994. In his current role, he advances the  university's academic mission by leading a wide-range of university offices that include the University Registrar, Institutional Research, Assessment, Evaluation and Research Services, and a newly formed office for first-year programs. 

He also leads the review and approval process for Wayne State’s academic policies and curricula, serves as the provost’s liaison to the Curriculum and Instruction Committee of the Academic Senate, and is chair of the General Education Oversight Committee.

Ellis earned his doctorate and master’s from Pennsylvania State University. He was a first-year student in 1985 at Kettering University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering

Karen F. Jackson headshot

Karen F. Jackson  

Karen F. Jackson, Ed.D., is the assistant professor of education and associate dean of advising programs at Georgia Gwinnett College. Her career spans over 30 years and includes work as an elementary school teacher, college administrator, and assistant professor. Jackson led award-winning student success teams that received recognition at the state and national levels. She holds a doctorate in education policy studies from George Washington University, a master’s in higher education from the College of William & Mary, and a bachelor’s in public administration from James Madison University. As a first-generation college graduate, she understands the importance of advocating for students and teaching them how to advocate for themselves. She recognizes the potential in all her students and encourages them to lean into their strengths and unique talents to work through challenges and achieve their goals. 

Barb Nowogorski headshot

Barbara Nowogorski  

Barb Nowogorski has spent most of her life as a member of the Falcon family. She began her career immediately after graduating from Lackawanna College. During her 45-year tenure, she has held numerous positions, but her most influential has been as the director of advising. In that role, she has created an impactful culture of how to advocate for students and help them navigate their campus life experiences. Nowogorski enjoys spending time with her husband, attending Penn State football games, and being a great aunt.

Amanda Sharp headshot

Amanda Sharp  

Amanda Sharp, Ed.D., serves as the assistant director of first- and second-year academic advocacy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Among her accomplishments at UMBC, she has shaped how UMBC views peer mentoring and first-year student success. She developed an Academic Peer Advocacy (APA) Program to expand the scale of support to students, where APAs provide first-year students with a compassionate and empowering understanding of individual barriers and support. She's also been integral in the development and implementation of UMBC's Academic Advocacy Office, which identifies students as needing additional support to enhance their chances of success.

Sharp earned her doctorate in educational leadership at Frostburg State University, a master’s in education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a bachelor’s at Indiana University Southeast.

Nathan Smith headshot

Nathan S. Smith  

Nathan Smith is an associate dean of student success at Bluegrass Community & Technical College in Lexington, Kentucky. In his role, he oversees the Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success and the Student Success Hub, which encompasses a wide array of services from tutoring, student engagement, food pantries, and first-year orientations.

Smith earned dual master’s degrees in German and higher education policy studies from the University of Kentucky and a bachelor’s in German from Murray State University.

He enjoys traveling, writing fiction, and spending time with his wife and dogs. 

Susannah Waldrop headshot

Susannah Waldrop

Susannah Waldrop, Ph.D., joined USC Upstate in 1999 and has worked in the Student Success Center since 2008.  As the executive director, she oversees multiple student success initiatives including advising services, the first-year seminar, and early intervention strategy. She has been instrumental in helping the university secure several grants and has served as the project director for two Title III Strengthening Institution Program grants.

Waldrop obtained her doctorate in educational administration with from the University of South Carolina. She received her master’s and bachelor’s in parks, recreation, and tourism management from Clemson University.

Susannah is a proud mother of two sons and resides in Campobello, South Carolina. She loves reading and baking.  

Elizabeth Whittaker Huggins headshot

Elizabeth Whittaker Huggins  

Elizabeth Whittaker Huggins, Ed.D., is the director of First- and Second-Year Experiences at Augusta University where her office helps students navigate their first and second years in college.  In this role, she coordinates a project-based research course, manages the Jaguar Jumpstart Learning Community, fosters retention with resiliency programming, and teaches leadership skills through community engagement and volunteering. 

Huggins earned her doctorate and master’s in education from the University of Georgia and a bachelor’s in psychology from Furman University.

She enjoys teaching, listening, and learning from undergraduate students to help cultivate academic engagement and foster pathways that benefit student success. 

See previous winners of the Outstanding First-Year Student Advocate Award

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