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The three winners of this year’s John S. Perkins Distinguished Service Awards—given annually to members of the BU community in recognition of their dedication to the University—have one thing in common: an ability to navigate such problems as IT crises, office mergers, and registration deadlines in order to keep faculty and students organized and the University running smoothly.
This year’s honorees are Gregory DeFronzo, director of Information Technology Services at the School of Management, Christine Paal (SED’96), School of Public Health registrar, and Joel Sparks, laboratory manager for the College of Arts & Sciences earth and environment department. They will each receive a plaque and $500 at a ceremony tonight at the Metcalf Trustee Ballroom.
Presented by the Faculty Council, the Perkins Awards are funded by an endowment from the late John S. Perkins, a former University faculty member, administrator, trustee, and treasurer. Faculty nominate candidates, who can be staff, students, trustees, alumni, benefactors, and members of the administration. Each nomination must be accompanied by at least three letters of support. Members of the Faculty Council’s Advisory, Libraries, and Support Services Committees then read each letter and recommend four to six finalists. Faculty Council members make the final decision, selecting three winners. Letters are carried forward from year to year so nominees can be reconsidered. There were 14 nominees considered this year.
DeFronzo, who joined BU in 2007, says he was “shocked and humbled” when he learned he had received the award. After receiving word of the honor, he immediately congratulated his team of staff and student employees, many of whom he considers mentees. He describes his Perkins honor as a “team award.”
“I have the opportunity to support some of higher education’s most brilliant faculty, dedicated staff, and awesome administrators delivering research of substance and a great education to students,” DeFronzo says. “I choose to work in higher education because I want not only to work with such faculty and staff, but also BU’s endless supply of bright students. I am fortunate to have access to, and be able to work with, both undergraduate and graduate students in a variety of roles. Students truly make my day.”
DeFronzo says he plans to donate half of his $500 award to CollegeApp Assist, a nonprofit organization created by SMG students that helps high school students who want to go to college, but lack a support system, by matching them with mentors who help them navigate the college admissions maze.
In a letter of support for DeFronzo, one SMG lecturer wrote that he “personifies the idea of service” to the University. “In my prior place of work, the IT department was viewed as a separate function—you would call and get an anonymous voice on the phone,” wrote the lecturer. “Greg sets an entirely different tone; his department is part of our team. He not only provides new and innovative technology, but also provides unlimited support…I like to be innovative in my classroom, so I am constantly trying new technology. I can confidently say that I would not be successful in my job without Greg’s support.”
Currently SPH registrar, Paal first came to BU in 1990 when she was hired to help design a nurse-midwifery master of public health program. “Higher education is a dynamic field, and one never succeeds without being part of a collective talent much bigger and brighter than oneself,” Paal says, adding that her award represents the assistance and collaboration of many people over many years.
She says her favorite part of the job as SPH registrar is working with students, staff, and faculty to problem-solve, design, and implement programs and processes in the school. “I like to think that I have been able to meld creativity with a practical approach that mitigates the challenges that faculty, staff, and students encounter along the way,” she says.
In a letter supporting her Perkins nomination, one professor recalled the dread he experienced dealing with the registrar’s office at the college he’d attended. “The staff generally seemed irritated, unconcerned, and unhelpful; to make matters worse, we generally had to wait on line before this abuse was meted out,” he wrote. “In dramatic contrast, Chris Paal’s office is a remarkably inviting, friendly, and efficient place, and is incredibly productive despite their perpetual open-door policy for students, staff, and faculty…Chris Paal is, without any doubt, the most remarkably effective and helpful educational administrator I have ever met. Seriously.”
As manager of the CAS earth and environment department laboratory, Sparks is responsible for overseeing all of the various geological, geochemical, remote sensing, geographic information system, visualization, and computing laboratory facilities. A BU employee for the past 17 years, he says he was “surprised and grateful,” upon hearing he had received a Perkins Award. Sparks says that what he likes best about his job is that it allows him to “work on such a wide range of problems, from the minute details of science research to the large-scale practical problems of building functions and designs to the dig-through-it details of working with finances, accounting, and software, as well as working with a wide range of people at BU.”
One professor, in a letter of support, shared an anecdote illustrating the valuable role Sparks fills in the department. In 2012, he wrote, he found himself in the midst of a perfect storm. Not only were the departments of geography and environment and of earth sciences merging—meaning boxes and chaos galore—but he was up for a promotion to full professor.
“As a result, unbeknownst to me, staff support on my dossier—accessing and compiling each and every paper I had ever written, no matter how obscure—got lost in the shuffle,” he wrote. “What I thought had been prepared had not, and the deadline for review was fast approaching.” Sparks was asked to assist in tracking down papers and book chapters for submission.
Instead, Sparks “proceeded to do the entire job, with a single-minded dedication and relentless focus that simply astounded me. It wasn’t the easily accessible papers that impressed me so much (even though there were many of them); it was the stubborn obscure book chapters that weren’t available through the normal channels, or were firewalled…I was struck by the thought at the time that he was acting to me as if one might who was doing everything they could for their own promotion; it was way outside of his job description. I will never forget this sustained act of unselfish labor, done so with complete self-motivation and even enthusiasm.”
The ceremony for this year’s John S. Perkins Distinguished Service Award winners is tonight, Tuesday, May 6, at 5 p.m. in the Metcalf Trustee Ballroom, One Silber Way.