Omar Villanueva poses with students at Georgia Gwinnett College.
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Selfless Service and Mentorship from Higher Education’s Future Leaders

The Cross Award recognizes graduate students who show exemplary promise as future leaders of higher education

By Ben Dedman

September 14, 2020

Every January, a small cohort of graduate students arrive at AAC&U’s annual meeting as VIPs. As the newest recipients of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award, they are introduced during the opening plenary session in front of two thousand meeting participants. Over the next several days, they attend receptions held in their honor; participate as panelists in a meeting session; network with college and university presidents, staff, and faculty; and learn about the latest research and innovations in undergraduate education.

“I felt surrounded by an empowering community that made me feel that my mission of prioritizing liberal education was important,” says Edgar Virguez, a PhD student in environmental sciences and policy at Duke University, who received the 2020 Cross Award.

Since 1996, the Cross Award has been given in honor of the work of K. Patricia Cross, professor emerita of higher education at the University of California–Berkeley, to recognize graduate students who show exemplary promise as future leaders of higher education and who are committed to academic innovation in the areas of equity, community engagement, and teaching and learning.

“In carrying out K. Patricia Cross’s legacy,” says AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella, “these scholars embody a commitment to student success, inclusive excellence, and civic responsibility integral to both AAC&U’s mission and to a future of higher education in which all students, from every type of institution, are positioned to thrive in work, citizenship, and life.”

Below, four recipients of the Cross Award share how the experience has prepared them to be better mentors and leaders on their campuses.

Finding a Passion for Selfless Service

Several years after she received the Cross Award in 2010, Holly West was asked to review applications for future award recipients.

“Every year, it’s like an adrenaline shot when I read those applications,” she says, awed by the work that students are doing on campus and in their communities.

When judging among many strong candidates, the main thing she looks for is evidence of “selfless service in leadership.”

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Holly West presents a diploma at West Point.

“Many grad students have a breadth of experiences, which is great,” West says, “but they don’t have depth in one area—the passion. I think that’s what a true leader is; it’s those people who take what they have—the skills, the talent—and go all in.”

West’s graduate research examined how faculty can be socialized into the culture of their institutions through teamwork and mentorship. As director of strategic plans and assessment at the US Military Academy West Point, she works in an environment that prioritizes comradery and relationships. West and her twelve-person team “lead the leaders” of West Point through its strategic planning processes, ensuring that the Army is building the diversity and skills needed for the future.

“At West Point, selecting and developing leaders is critical, since we know the cadets we bring in this summer will be the leaders of the Army in the next twenty to thirty years,” West says. “I think this is exactly the same view for the Cross scholarship; we are looking for the leaders who will help shape the direction of higher education.”

Paying Mentorship Forward

To be considered for the Cross Award, graduate students must be nominated by a faculty or staff mentor, who are instrumental in helping students narrow in on the work that is important to them.

When West began studying for her PhD in Education at New York University, the Army had already selected her to be an academy professor, the equivalent of a tenured position. After a decade in the Army, she was the oldest scholar in her program, and her master’s degree was in business, not higher education. She felt a little out of place among better prepared classmates.

“Mentors were super important to me,” West says. “They took me under their wing and helped open my eyes to what the rest of higher education was doing.”

When Omar Villanueva, a 2014 Cross Scholar, was completing his PhD in chemistry at Emory University, his mentors gave him the green light to pursue passions beyond laboratory research.

“In the physical sciences, most of the time, you’re expected to work, work, work in the labs and just produce, produce, produce,” he says. “Your job is to publish.”

But Villanueva’s interests also pulled him toward teaching and public engagement. With the support of his academic advisor and other mentors at Emory, he joined the university’s Center for Carbon Hydrogen Activation, leading the center’s outreach to local communities, disseminating research findings, and engaging K–12 students from minoritized ethnic backgrounds in STEM.

His experience as a Cross Scholar at AAC&U’s annual meeting strengthened his commitment. He had been to many STEM conferences, but this was his first time attending a large event focused on higher education. Many of the presenters and participants came from community colleges or liberal arts schools and were partnering with communities or helping underserved students.

“They were super proud of what they're doing, and I had never heard anything like that,” Villanueva says. “I kind of saw them as idols.”

In his job search, Villanueva prioritized institutions where he could provide the same kind of mentorship and engagement. Now an assistant professor of chemistry at Georgia Gwinnett College (GCC), he has started a campus chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, conducting community outreach events and introducing students to careers in science that will allow them to apply their research within their communities.

These close relationships with minoritized students and first-generation students, many of whom work up to forty hours a week outside of school, mirror the experiences he had as a student.

“I always open up to students and tell them, ‘This is where I come from,’” Villanueva says. “‘Even though you guys think that your professors are perfect or know it all, we also had struggles while going through college and graduate school.’”

Ñusta Carranza Ko changed her own approach to mentorship after her experience as a Cross Scholar at the 2016 annual meeting. During an evening reception, Ko met a university president who urged students and faculty from underprivileged ethnic backgrounds to “claim their identity and name.” Ko, who comes from a South Korean and Indigenous Peruvian ethnic background, makes sure to learn the correct pronunciation of every student’s original name, even if they adopt an Anglicized name to make things easier for English speakers.

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Ñusta Carranza Ko attends a Model UN
event at Ohio Northern University.

“Even if I make mistakes at first in pronouncing their name, they know that I cared enough to try,” she says.

As assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore, Ko seeks out opportunities to mentor international students and students of color, knowing how important it is for students to have professors with shared experiences and backgrounds. She meets regularly with her mentees to discuss classes, future plans, and research opportunities, staying in touch as they move on to graduate programs at other institutions.

“Mentorship goes two ways,” Ko says. “It's not just me doing ‘mentorship’ to somebody. I've been very lucky in having students that have the initiative to participate.”

Building Connections to the Community

As a PhD student at Purdue University, Ko taught a course that brought her students to a local elementary school to work with the children of undocumented parents. Meeting with successful college students who were also fluent in Spanish helped the children feel empowered and recognize “that being Latin American is a good thing,” she says.

This dedication to service was strengthened by her experience as a Cross Scholar, which “really influenced me to realize that our role is not only as scholars but also as a spokesperson within the community,” she says.

Now, she researches transitional justice and Indigenous people's rights. Her recent research focuses on violence and forced sterilization in Indigenous communities in Peru, and she hopes her findings can inform ongoing litigation efforts.

“That is my way of also helping victims gain a voice and hopefully get reparations or recognition from the state,” she says. “The Cross Award is woven into my identity, who I am as a teacher-scholar.”

At Duke, Edgar Virguez’s work also focuses on community engagement and service. When Virguez was asked to teach a course to improve students’ communication skills in Spanish, he revised the curriculum. Now called Voices of the Environment, the course includes a partnership with a Colombian nonprofit, Fundación Ayuda por Colombia, that provides tutoring services for students who can’t attend the traditional K–12 system.

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Edgar Virguez speaks on a panel of Cross
Scholars at AAC&U's 2020 Annual Meeting.

The nonprofit members “formulate beautiful little questions about the environment, and my college students create audiovisuals in Spanish to teach them about sustainability,” Virguez says.

Through these experiences, he shows his students how taking an interdisciplinary approach can make a bigger impact in solving global crises.

“When you have a more holistic understanding of problems, you are more effective at solving them,” he says. For example, when confronting environmental challenges like wildfires, using only water may not be enough for long-term solutions. “You are more effective when you include other perspectives, like community management of the problem or campaigns to prevent wildfires.”

After the success of the course, Duke has launched two additional course sections in two languages: Mandarin Chinese and French.

Broadening the Network for Future Leaders

For decades, the Cross Awards were coordinated by L. Lee Knefelkamp, AAC&U senior scholar and former professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Suzanne Hyers, former director of the AAC&U annual meeting, who retired in 2019.

Ko had just started her job search when she received the Cross Award, but her applications seemed to be stalling in later rounds of the hiring process. At AAC&U’s annual meeting, Hyers coached her to be more proactive in contacting campuses and telling them about her teaching and learning experience. Ko sent updates to search committees, letting them know she had received the Cross Award. A few days later, she was invited to campus for an interview.

“That’s how I got my first job,” she says. “I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about that moment again.”

Since Knefelkamp passed away in 2018, Ashley Finley, senior advisor to the president and vice president of strategic planning and partnerships, has coordinated the award.

In noting what an honor it is to take over the role, Finley commented, “Lee had a profound connection to Pat Cross as a friend, mentor, and fellow scholar. Because of that, Lee was deeply committed to the Cross Scholars, not just as recipients, but truly as future leaders in higher education. AAC&U created the L. Lee Knefelkamp Fund, in part, to honor Lee’s commitment to Cross recipients by providing resources to support their on-going professional development.”

The L. Lee Knefelkamp Fund for Linking Student and Campus Success also supports holistic mentoring and advising—endeavors that Knefelkamp tirelessly pursued. West was among the many Cross Scholars who benefitted from Knefelkamp’s guidance and friendship.

“She was just a really strong woman. If I had a question or asked for advice, and that would happen over the years, she was always very, very quick to answer,” West says. “To see someone like that dedicate her life to others is inspiring. She had many causes, but the Cross Scholars were her cause.”


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.