Auburn’s Jenda receives prestigious presidential mentoring award

Published: August 13, 2020
Updated: August 14, 2020
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Auburn University’s Overtoun Jenda, assistant provost for Special Projects and Initiatives and professor of mathematics in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, has been named one of 15 recipients of a prestigious mentoring award given by President Donald Trump.

Jenda, an Auburn professor since 1988, was part of a group of a dozen university professors to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, or PAESMEM, with three organizations also earning the distinction. He accepted the honor via a virtual Zoom awards ceremony on Aug. 3, with Auburn President Jay Gogue among the participants on-hand to offer congratulations.

“Throughout my adult life, I have devoted a lot of time to mentoring students, faculty and administrators while carrying out the core functions of my academic duties: teaching, research and administration,” Jenda said on the PAESMEM website. “For me, mentoring provides immediate rewards because at the end of each day, I can go home and say, 'I made a difference in someone’s life today.' I never imagined that I would be recognized for mentoring at this level, and I feel humbled and truly honored to receive this prestigious award.”

The award, which is administered by the National Science Foundation, or NSF, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, recognizes excellence in mentoring among college and university professors. Jenda will receive the award, along with a $10,000 check to use for his educational programs, and said he and the other award winners have been invited to visit the White House as soon as conditions allow.

The PAESMEM recognizes the critical role mentors play outside the traditional classroom setting in the academic and professional development of the future Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, workforce.

Mentors support learners from kindergarten through the collegiate levels, as well as those who recently started their careers in STEM. Mentors share their expertise and guidance with learners, sometimes through formal mentoring programs, and have demonstrated an impact on individuals historically underrepresented in STEM.

Since 1995, PAESMEM has honored the hard work and dedication which mentors exhibit in broadening participation in the STEM pipeline. Colleagues, administrators and students nominate individuals and organizations for exemplary mentoring sustained over a minimum of five years.

“One of the most satisfying opportunities of my professional career was participating in the nomination of Dr. Jenda for the NSF Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring,” said Stewart Schneller, dean of COSAM from 1994-2010 and current professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “Many words come to mind to describe Dr. Jenda’s commitment to facilitating the educational future of minority students with limited academic background in science, mathematics and engineering. He is tireless, selfless, creative, personable and inspirational.

“He also has been successful with entrepreneurial funding for his programs. Dr. Jenda has been one of my mentors.”

Jenda has served as assistant provost for Special Projects and Initiatives for four years at Auburn and previously served as associate provost for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and associate dean of COSAM. Jenda has been the principal investigator and project director for numerous NSF grants focusing on STEM education and student success.

Jenda began implementing NSF-funded scholarships for students in 1994 and worked with professors in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering to create a STEM Summer Bridge program in 1997. He has helped grow the scholarship program from $10,000 in student support in its first year to $1 million annually as part of a 10-institution collaboration, been instrumental in the STEM Summer Bridge program’s vast expansion to eight institutions in the Alabama Black Belt since its inception and led the charge to consistently raise the programs’ student grade point average requirements through the years.

Under his leadership, overall external funding for recruitment and retention programs has increased from $17,000 per year in 1994 to $1.5 million per year currently.

Jenda has used a variety of hands-on programs to mentor and educate students, including the U.S.-Africa Collaborative Research Network in Mathematical Sciences and Masamu Program, Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program, or LSAMP, and LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate Program, Making to Advance Knowledge, Excellence and Recognition in STEM (MAKERS) Program, Alabama Alliance for Students with Disabilities in STEM and INCLUDES South East Alliance for Persons with Disabilities in STEM.

His longevity at the university and experience as a mentor has enabled Jenda to reach more and more students with each passing year.

“I think this award is for consistency in mentoring through the years and developing programs in the 1990s that are still running now,” Jenda said. “We try to do institutional transformation so that our programs not only affect current students, but also future students, and I think that’s what resonated with the selection committee. I had great nomination letters, too.”

Most recently, the Auburn University Research Experience for Undergraduates, or REU, in Algebra and Discrete Mathematics was selected by the NSF for a $259,200 grant as a renewal of funding for an additional three years. This program—run by Jenda and colleague Peter Johnson—is a continuation of successful NSF-funded REU programs.

His mentoring efforts have impacted hundreds of students through the years, most being underrepresented students or those with disabilities.

“To me, mentoring should be part of what you do on a daily basis,” Jenda said. “This award justifies all the work I’ve been doing, but more importantly, I hope the award will be motivation for young people. It says, ‘If you do this kind of work and mentoring long-term, people will recognize it and thank you for it.’ It says a lot about Auburn University and what we’ve done, and it’s not just me doing this work.”

Prior to Auburn, Jenda was a faculty member at the University of Kentucky, University of Botswana and University of Malawi. He has published three books and more than 60 research articles on Homological Algebra and has given many presentations and co-authored numerous articles on STEM mentoring and retention programs.

Jenda received a Bachelor of Science with distinction in mathematics from the University of Malawi and a Master of Arts and doctorate in mathematics from the University of Kentucky. His honors include the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, COSAM Outstanding Achievement Award, renaming of the Auburn Summer Bridge Scholarship as the Overtoun Jenda STEM Scholarship and the Minority Access National Role Model Faculty Mentor Award.

The recognitions and awards are great honors for the modest Jenda, who has cherished his experiences at Auburn for more than 30 years.

“I love what I do,” Jenda said. “I get to work with students, parents and a lot of great people.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.