Eileen Anderson-Fye focuses on students’ work—and the rest of their lives

Eileen Anderson-Fye offers an unusual line when asked about mentoring.

“Students,” she says, “aren’t just brains on a stick.”

Yet amid the intense intellectual demands of graduate school, they often can feel that way. As a first-generation college student pursuing her doctorate at Harvard University, Anderson-Fye easily could have exemplified that image.

But some of the faculty she admired most encouraged an alternative approach.

“I was fortunate to have mentors who not only guided and inspired me intellectually, but also as a whole person,” Anderson-Fye recalled. “Their willingness to recognize my life—my struggles, fears and joys—allowed me to truly and deeply engage with my work.”

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An anthropologist and associate professor of bioethics, she incorporates their lessons—as well as a few from her children—in her own student interactions today. The combination has proved so resonant that this year she won her second John S. Diekhoff Award for Mentoring.

“Dr. Anderson-Fye challenges and encourages me to be a better scholar, student, person, and community member,” one nominator wrote. “She leads by example, balancing many roles, projects, and responsibilities.”

Another phrase Anderson-Fye often uses regarding mentoring is the idea of scaffolding—that is, providing the right blend of challenge and support for students to gain increasing confidence in their own abilities. As the mother of three daughters, she frequently found the concept applied to caring for her children.

“Parents and instructors both have to balance nurturing and assistance with the freedom and encouragement to do more independently,” she said.

One student noted that over time she not only became Anderson-Fye’s student and mentee, but also a teaching assistant and research assistant as well.

“She has served as my advocate, even when I didn’t know I needed one,” the student wrote. “She has a way of making every student feel comfortable, understood, capable, and valued.”

As a researcher, Anderson-Fye studies how adolescents and young adults adapt to changes in their environments in ways that can both advance and impair their welfare and interests. One of her projects involved using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods to reveal differences between reported and actual use of psychiatric medications by undergraduates at several North American universities.

It’s a recurring theme in the students’ award nominations—her genuine interest in their overall well-being.

“The quality I most admire about her is the sincerity that shines through in everything she does,” one wrote. “Her interest in helping students succeed is so real … This empowers us to feel valued, important, intelligent and capable.”

The prize is the latest recognition of Anderson-Fye’s mentoring and teaching distinction. Five years ago, she became the first faculty member to receive the top awards for undergraduate teaching and graduate mentoring in consecutive years.

“I am grateful to the students who nominated me, as well as the selection committee, for all that they contributed to this process,” Anderson-Fye said. “We have extraordinary students at Case Western Reserve, and I feel privileged to work with them every day.”

Anderson-Fye will be recognized with other award-winners during Commencement ceremonies May 20.

About the award

The Diekhoff Award honors John S. Diekhoff, a distinguished scholar, teacher, mentor and administrator who served Case Western Reserve in several capacities during his tenure, from 1956 to 1970. He was professor of English, chair of the Department of English, dean of Cleveland College, acting dean of the School of Graduate Studies and vice provost of the university.

The Diekhoff Award, established in 1978, recognizes outstanding contributions to the education of graduate students through advising and classroom teaching. The annual award is presented to two faculty members who epitomize what it means to teach graduate students: to connect them with experts in their discipline, engage them academically in a forthright and collegial manner, and actively promote their professional development. In 2009, the Diekhoff Award was expanded to recognize two additional full-time faculty members who excel in the mentoring of graduate students. A committee of graduate and professional program students with the guidance of the Graduate Student Senate reviews the nominations and recommends winners.

These awards are presented during the Graduate Studies diploma ceremony.