Jackson Award winner Gillian Weiss helps struggling student earn a degree

Gillian Weiss
Gillian Weiss

“Great mentors don’t just belong to people who do great things,” wrote a Case Western Reserve University alum and former student of Gillian Weiss. “They are also there for the people who stumble across the finish line.”

With that resounding endorsement, her former student nominated the associate professor of history for a 2015 J. Bruce Jackson, MD, Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring.

Weiss and Paul Barnhart, from mechanical engineering—the other Jackson Award recipient this year—will be recognized during graduation ceremonies on Sunday, May 17, at Veale Convocation, Recreation and Athletic Center.

Weiss, a historian of 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century Europe and its relationship with North Africa, is the author of Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Stanford University Press, 2011). She got emotional as she read the nominating letter and recalled how far the student had come.

The undergraduate was struggling. But Weiss made it a personal goal to make sure this student would earn a degree.

After the student dropped classes, left school and returned, she insisted the individual come to her office weekly during senior year for progress updates. She refused to let the student give in to what she described as “self-sabotaging actions.”

Sometimes, the mentor’s message was tough and direct—whatever it took to break through and inspire.

“If I had to encapsulate her mentorship in one specific moment, it would be the time she told me something to the effect of, ‘You weren’t going to be [forever messing things up],’” the alum wrote. “It is nice for someone to be both blunt about your shortcomings and honest about what they see as your potential.”

Weiss detected much untapped potential. She never doubted the student’s intellectual talents and creativity. Neither did her colleagues, who also had the student in class.

“Helping me to finish and believing in my intelligence and capabilities despite evidence to the contrary is what great mentors do,” the student wrote.

Weiss learned the value of mentoring from the other side—as an undergraduate at Princeton University. Historian Natalie Zemon Davis was a mentor for Weiss, and a person with whom she still stays in touch.

Weiss recalled how Davis not only nurtured her students’ intellectual capacities, but also cared for them as human beings. Davis went beyond the classroom to inspire her students, hosting them for dinner and baking them cookies to eat during seminars.

Weiss also remembers faculty members with their spouses and children joining students for meals and casual conversation in the dining halls.

To create similar memorable experiences for Case Western Reserve students, Weiss has worked to get faculty meal tickets to dining halls to eat with students. She and her husband, Elliot Posner, an associate professor in political science at the university, and their children have done so. She would like to see more faculty members participate in activities that bring faculty and students together in social settings. She also tries to invite one class per semester to dinner at her home near campus.

“Everyone deserves to have a mentor like Gillian Weiss,” wrote the nominator, now a blossoming law student.

“In a cosmic way, you feel like you are on this earth for a short time, a small person in a big world,” Weiss said. “The notion that I made a tangible difference in the life and career of one person feels very good and satisfying.”