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Cuttino Award: Jensen mentors students for success

By Leslie King | Emory Report | May 8, 2015

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For Robert Jensen, a mathematics education professor in Emory College, mentoring provides the "vicarious thrill" of helping students and colleagues reach their goals.

The most important thing Robert Jensen learned about mentoring he learned in high school and middle school — not as a student, but as a teacher.

"I was a high school and middle school teacher for 12 years before I gave any thought to teaching at the university level," says Jensen, who is a mathematics education professor in Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

The many opportunities through-out those early years to mentor students "taught me the importance of listening first to hear the student’s perspective before providing guidance," he says. "I learned that mentoring is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise during that time."

Jensen, director of the Division of Educational Studies, is the 2015 recipient of the George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring. The award was established in 1997 by John T. Glover 68C.

"It is satisfying to make use of knowledge I have gained over time to help someone else," Jensen says. "I derive both personal satisfaction in connecting on a meaningful level with another individual and, if my input proves productive, a vicarious thrill in seeing a student or colleague make progress towards achieving a particular goal he or she may have."

Emory College senior Andrea Simon has known Jensen for all of her four years on campus. He was an adviser and reader for her senior honors thesis for which she received highest honors.

"I found that he is very insightful about his students’ strengths and weakness, both as a person and in their work," she says, noting that he balances praise and critique in a very constructive way.

"Most impressive to me as a student and his advisee for my honors thesis was his ability to scaffold what work needed to be done in a way that promoted me as a rising academic while still allowing me to take full advantage of the learning opportunity at hand," Simon notes. "He gave me the tools to be successful, but he never did the work for me."  

Jonathan Dollar, another of Jensen’s mentees, praises Jensen’s keen direction and openness with creative ideas that result in "providing the space for student growth."  

"Professor Jensen’s insight aligning student interest and passion with academically enriched research allows for the cultivation of the next generation of independent thinkers," says Dollar 14C.

He also credited Jensen for "his guidance [which] allowed for me to grow as a researcher, asking the most essential questions but allowing me to take ownership in my own work."

When Jensen first arrived at Emory in 1984, he had just completed his own graduate program so he identified closely with graduate students.  

"The challenges of navigating through coursework, becoming a part of a particular research community, completing a dissertation, and then determining ‘what next?’— all the while trying to maintain a healthy focus on family and personal life — were challenges for me as well as the graduate students I advised," he recalls.

Jensen’s role as mentor to undergraduates has grown gradually over time and, in recent years, his concern for them has sharpened.

"Perhaps that is paralleled somewhat by my own children and children of siblings, friends and neighbors who I knew well, and watched grow up and leave for college," he says. "I hope I have been able to provide a good sounding board for an increasing number of undergraduates over the years."  

Always giving 100 percent

Sari Flomenbaum, Class of 2017, stresses the quality of caring that Jensen brings to his interactions with students.

"In every single interaction I have had with him, I have felt cared for and supported. He always gives 100 percent of his energy to every interaction, whether with a student, professor or anyone else."

Any unexpected outcomes of mentoring relationships for Jensen?

"It was unexpected that some of the people who I have mentored have stayed important in my life even after the mentee-mentor relationship ended," he says. "This is a pleasant bonus I really didn’t think about at the outset."

During 19 of his 31 years at Emory, Jensen worked closely with graduate students while serving as director of graduate studies for the Division of Educational Studies.

His research has focused on mathematical thinking and the problem-solving behaviors students engage in when confronted with situations for which they have no clear solution path to follow.

"I now see that the act of problem posing is an integral part of the process that, unfortunately, receives too little attention in the curriculum at this time," he says.