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Mentorship and wisdom, keys to teaching excellence

When William Darrow joined the faculty at FIU in 1994, he brought with him a vast reservoir of research and practice experience as the former chief of the Behavioral and Prevention Research Branch in the Division of STD/HIV Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where he led efforts to understand the cause of HIV/AIDS since the early 1980s. Recruited to teach in a city that, to this day, has some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection in the country, Darrow was ready to set his sights on teaching and mentoring future leaders in public health.

“It all began when I arrived in the summer 1994 and Dean Keppler asked me to concentrate on my teaching assignments and service to the academy, but the first student I met on campus announced that he had enrolled at FIU to research AIDS under my direction,” Darrow said. “It turned out that the student, Robert Webster, was more persistent and convincing than Dean Keppler, so I have been mixing research with teaching and university service since the first week I was employed by FIU.”

Now, with more than 25 years of academia under his belt, this year Darrow was recognized with the Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching by Provost Kenneth G. Furton and the Faculty Senate Honorary Degree and Awards Committee. 

“Dr. Darrow is an outstanding role model to all Public Health students.  Whenever students have questions or uncertainty about a research paper, dissertation, or other written work, they can always trust his critical eye and his meticulous review,” wrote Elena Bastida, chair of the Department of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, in her nomination.

Darrow’s experience provides a context for his teaching and mentoring that is difficult to replicate. Students recognize the high caliber of his teaching along with the distinction he brings to their various research efforts. His dedication to his students stems from the hundreds of people who have influenced him and his work over the past 60 years, with mentors and adversaries who have taught him and helped him grow.

“Some of the most important lessons I have learned were difficult for me to accept at first. It took a while to appreciate and accept the advice I was given. Tough love sometimes provides us with the most enduring lessons in life,” Darrow said. “I was touched when I read in one of the letters a former student wrote about me for the Faculty Senate teaching award that she had received some tough love from me while working on her doctoral dissertation and later learned to be grateful for it.”

For Darrow, the lessons that he has learned as a professor have impacted his style of teaching, which stems from the difference between teaching and teaching well.

“Teaching is standing in front of a class, saying all the right things, hoping that everyone learns the lesson of the day and passes their tests. Teaching well is being understood emotionally as well as intellectually. Your words and actions resonate with everyone who acknowledges your presence. If you are teaching well, birds are singing, bells are ringing, and lights are flashing. Students are engaged intensely and reacting to every word you manage to put together in a sentence. Ideas are alive. Love is in the air.”

Through teaching, Darrow has learned that awareness differs from knowledge, knowledge is not the same thing as understanding, and understanding is not wisdom.

“Learning begins with accurate descriptions of important phenomena we are aware of. It improves when we observe and note associations with other phenomena, and increases when we hypothesize, test, and demonstrate causal sequences. But a lifelong love of learning does not stop with possessing knowledge because we want to know why the truth is what it is. The highest level in our profession is wisdom and that is why mentoring is so important. By mentoring others and having others mentor us, maybe, one day, we all can become wiser for it.”

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