When you’re a student of Professor Laura Vazquez, you’re supported beyond the classroom and even your time at NIU.
Once in her life, you’re in it for good.
“I’m always heartened by the students who come back and say, ‘I love this place,’” said Vazquez, undergraduate program director and professor in the Department of Communications.
“I go, ‘Yes, I’ve accomplished something. It’s not just four walls and chairs to you, it’s a place. It’s something you’re attached to.’ I want them to remember NIU fondly.”
Recently awarded the title of Presidential Teaching Professor by NIU President Lisa Freeman, Vazquez sees her job as teacher and mentor as lifelong.
Reflected in her two decades as a professor at NIU, this commitment and passion continues today as she strives to remain connected to students despite this unprecedented time.
Teaching media production virtually has been challenging, she said, but she’s adapted by meeting with her students in smaller online groups over longer periods of time. She’s challenged them to translate this time into film.
“I’m really trying to keep them engaged,” she said. “And they’re upset about not being at school. They’re upset that they’re taking virtual classes they didn’t sign up for. They have a right to be upset. I just keep reminding them and, of course, myself, that we’ll get through this.
“We can learn also. The world is changing, and we’re going to change, too, and we have to keep at it and stay with it.”
Presidential Teaching Professors inspire excellence in and out of the classroom and connect students to the real world. Vazquez’s colleagues and students say they know few as deserving for the award. They describe her as empowering, engaging, enthusiastic.
“During our many years together, she supported me well beyond what would normally fall under responsibilities as my professor and advisor,” said Aimee Jean Burns, a former student and graduate teaching assistant for Vazquez, now a doctoral student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
A video professional and documentary filmmaker, Vazquez’s accomplishments through the years are immense.
She’s not only respected among her colleagues and students, she’s kept in touch with many alumni in the film world, including three-time Academy Award winning film producer Robert Katz. She’s connected students with numerous internships, including work on an Anthony Hopkins’ film.
“Over the last two decades, she has built one of the most vibrant and popular programs of study at NIU,” said Karen Whedbee, an associate professor in the Department of Communication. “Among students, she is well known for teaching classes that are intense, demanding and often life-changing. She consistently sets standards of professional dedication and energy to which most of us can only aspire.”
Her encouragement helped graduate student Sergio Gutierrez and former student Jordan Reed create a documentary shown at film festivals. “Judgement” analyzed the portrayal of people of color in media.
“Dr. V has always pushed the status quo regarding why things are the way they are and helps us realize that,” said Gutierrez, a graduate assistant with the Latino Resource Center. “She wants all of her students, no matter their race and ethnicity, to succeed.”
Vazquez also has worked tirelessly for the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and has been the driving force behind the Reality Bytes Independent Student Film Festival, drawing student filmmakers from across the country. Among that festival’s current judges is Bill Weinman, a freelance writer/producer/editor with Disney ABC Television Group.
Weinman won 2009 Golden Anniversary Alumni Awards for the College of Liberal Arts and Science, was president of the Alumni Association and still returns to NIU annually to speak with students in Vazquez’s classes.
Along with connections, Vazquez gives students constructive freedom, said former student Sam Hawkins, whose final undergraduate course involved work on the Reality Bytes festival.
“Working as part of this class helped me realize how diverse and wonderful NIU is as both a school and as a community,” he said. “I will never forget what Dr. Vazquez has done not only for me, but for the students of Northern Illinois University.”