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Dr. Michele Fazio wins UNC System Award for Teaching Excellence

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Dr. Michele Fazio
Dr. Michele Fazio

As a first-generation college student and now professor, Dr. Michele Fazio discovers kindred spirits in many first-generation students she encounters at UNC Pembroke.

They share an instant connection. She knows the struggles and unique challenges they face. And like Fazio, many are from working-class families. In fact, the long-time literature professor is a nationally recognized scholar and expert in working-class studies as past president of the Working-Class Studies Association.

At UNCP, Fazio’s teaching draws clear connections between knowledge and understanding of the world outside the academy, such as immigration concerns, inequality and social justice. She has immersed herself into service-learning involving visits to migrant farmworker labor camps designed to enrich the learning experience and further help her students understand the role migrant farmworkers have not only in the state’s economy but in food production worldwide.

Fazio’s work earned her statewide attention as the 2020 recipient of the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. The highest post-secondary award in the state, it is presented to a tenured faculty member at each UNC System institution for excellent and exceptional undergraduate teaching over a sustained period.

“This award is beyond any expectation I could have imagined achieving in my academic career and I'm thrilled to have been chosen as this year's recipient. It’s an incredible honor.”

Growing up in Massachusetts in a large Italian American family, her parents worked hard to make ends meet.

Education through the 12th grade was expected, but not beyond that. Michele broke the mold when she enrolled at nearby Bridgewater State University, earning a degree in English. She would go on to earn a master’s and Ph.D., both in English, at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Stony Brook University, respectively.

“As a first-generation working class student, I never expected to have made it this far. The large percentage of first-generation college students is one of the things that drew me to UNCP and has made me as successful as I am in the classroom. The struggle is very real with my students.”

In her nomination letter, colleagues said Fazio’s success in the classroom is grounded in her capacious ability to motivate students. Her students praised her for creating a classroom in which they feel they belong.

“Dr. Fazio is the most culturally inclusive professor I’ve had at UNCP,” according to one former student. Observers of Fazio’s classes witnessed a steady exchange of ideas between students presenting, students listening, and Fazio, with one observer counting 100 unique student contributions to the class conversation during a single class.

“As educators, we must continue to provide opportunities to ‘cross the border’ from campus into the real world to address larger conversations about immigration, inequality, social justice, and working-class rights,” Fazio said.

Outside the classroom, she is co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies and is currently writing a manuscript on Woody Guthrie and the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. Fazio’s research on family history, community, and memory has been exhibited at the Harvard Law School Library and the American Labor Museum.

She serves as coordinator of the Gender Studies Minor Program and created a first-generation certificate program to assist faculty and staff in learning more about the needs of first-generation students.

Her research centers on the intersections among ethnicity, gender, and class with a particular focus on Italian American labor radicalism.

Additionally, she is the co-producer of Voices of the Lumbee, an award-winning documentary film that raises awareness about the ongoing struggles of the Lumbee Tribe. The film is based on interviews of elders in a series of service-learning classes led by Fazio.

She will be honored formally as UNCP’s winter commencement speaker.