At the Colleges’ 2016 Commencement ceremonies, two area teachers will be honored with the Touching the Future Award, which recognizes educators for the significant and enduring role they’ve played in the lives of Hobart and William Smith students.
This year’s recipients are Laura Van Niel, a New Vision Medical Careers Program (NVMCP) instructor at Geneva General Hospital, in Geneva, N.Y. and Michael Myers, a social studies teacher at Victor Senior High School in Victor, N.Y. Courtney Franceschi ’16 nominated Van Niel and Samuel Menchel ’16 nominated Myers.
Established in 2004, the Touching the Future Award celebrates and honors the many early childhood educators – those with whom HWS students interacted in elementary, middle and high school – who have led graduates to HWS and to crossing the stage at Commencement. It derives its name from the famous words of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher selected to participate in the space shuttle program who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. McAuliffe expressed the sentiments of many teachers when she said, “I touch the future, I teach.”
Franceschi attributes a confluence of factors for her nomination of Van Niel, including her unwavering support and mentorship both in and out of the classroom.
“While I was only given the opportunity to be in a classroom with Mrs. Van Niel for one year, the unique experience formed the foundation for a relationship that has only continued to blossom,” Franceschi says. “Mrs. Van Niel was not only my teacher, but she was my college adviser, career mentor, strongest critic and biggest fan.”
Franceschi first met Van Niel in the NVMCP facilitated by Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES at Geneva General, serving as an inspiration and offering an encouraging learning environment. When it came time to apply to college, Van Niel advocated for Franceschi to seriously consider HWS.
“Before New Visions, I didn’t even know what a liberal arts college meant,” says Franceschi, who has been accepted to SUNY Upstate Medical School.
Van Niel, who has been an educator for more than two decades, has taught in a university, community college and three public high schools, worked in five hospitals in New York, Minnesota, Utah and Hawaii, and assisted college students to obtain acceptance into highly competitive graduate and professional programs and international fellowships.
“It is this wide range of professional settings that has contributed to my ability to develop a challenging interdisciplinary curriculum, creative project-based learning assignments and dynamic classroom lectures and discussions that are student-centered and have practical applications in their lives,” Van Niel says.
Menchel nominated Myers for helping him to believe in himself and inspiring him through his actions and guidance as a teacher.
“Mr. Myers catalyzed my ability to tap into my own capabilities and strengths,” Menchel says. “After spending time with educators who unintentionally left me doubting myself, Mr. Myers’ patience, wisdom and guidance reminded me that I was without a doubt not only capable, but also incredibly powerful. His investment in me came at a time when many did not help me believe in myself and without that, I would never be open to the importance of self-respect, influence, and individual power.”
Menchel met Myers when he was a sophomore at Victor Senior High, enrolling in his “Theory of Knowledge” course, which gives students the chance to reflect on the nature of knowledge.
A cancer survivor, Myers reminded his students of “the importance of never shying away from a challenge and confronting adversity with spirit, tenacity and humor,” Menchel says. Myers, who was diagnosed with Anaplastic Astrocytoma (brain cancer), in 2009, hit his five-year cancer-free mark last year.
“I have always believed that whether it is in a classroom teaching, a lacrosse field coaching, or in the hallway simply smiling or saying hello to students I either know or don’t, I can have a positive impact on them and thanks to Sam, I now consider that a fact,” Myers says.
An educator for more than 20 years, Myers teaches AP classes, and has served as an adjunct faculty member at Finger Lakes Community College and Virginia Western Community College. He previously taught at Salem High School in Virginia, worked for the Congressional Youth Leadership Council, and the National Youth Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C.