'Heart of the department': Mary Portillo wins top staff honor in the 2024 Awards for Excellence

several people standing around a conference table and surrouning a woman holding a large check

The Billie Joe Varney award comes with a cash prize of $1,500. In this photo, the check is held by the 2024 recipient, Mary Portillo, senior business manager with the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, who was praised for her management of a department with thousands of students taking classes.

Ten employees and three teams are being honored for their dedication to students, colleagues and the University in the 2024 Awards for Excellence, presented by the Staff Council and the President's Cabinet.

Honorees are nominated by colleagues and selected by a panel of employees who volunteer as judges. Descriptions of all the awards, including criteria and eligibility, can be found on the website for the Employee Recognition Committee, which coordinates the annual awards.

Recipients will be recognized at a ceremony on May 3 from 3-4:30 p.m. at the Bear Down Building. The event is free and open to the public.

This year's winners are below.

Billie Joe Varney Award for Excellence
Given to someone with a career of service to the University and the community who loves the University and acts in the spirit of Billy Joe Varney, associate vice president emeritus for planning and budgeting, who retired in 1988 after a 30-year career. Criteria: demonstrated efforts in practicing inclusive excellence in the workplace; service to the University; service to University employees; service to the community. The award comes with a $1,500 cash prize.

Mary Portillo | Senior Business Manager, Department of Spanish and Portuguese

Portillo, who has been with the Department of Spanish and Portuguese since 1989, is known as the "heart of the department," according to one nominator, who added that she "expertly manages" a department that has more than 5,000 undergraduates taking classes.

"The logistics in managing such large numbers is not for the faint-of-heart," wrote the nominator. "It takes years of training to understand the day-to-day workings of the department, to say nothing of the University's ever-changing policies and technological systems."

The nominator also cited Portillo's work in maintaining regular contact with the descendants of Mary Bernard "Mami" Aguirre, the University's first Spanish teacher, who worked more than a century ago. The family has endowed a scholarship for upper-division female students majoring in Spanish.

Another nominator praised Portillo's ability to be a one-stop shop for answers for students and employees in the department.

"Need to charter a seaplane that can land on the Amazon River? Mary can give you some phone numbers," the nominator's letter read. "Got students on study abroad trapped at an embassy following a violent coup? Mary knows who to call and in what order so that those students get home safely."

Center/Department/Institute Award For Excellence
Given to units for outstanding excellence in the management of people and resources. Criteria: culture of promoting a satisfying work environment; leadership in creating and sustaining a dynamic and engaging workplace; environment of high performance. The winning unit receives a plaque.

Student Success and Retention Innovation

Nominators praised the office, which works to support undergraduate students through academic support, skill building, tutoring and more, for its commitment to student success in an ever-changing higher education atmosphere.

"Finding ways to help students become successful in this complicated system is both a moral and financial imperative, and this group is behind countless strategies that do just that, working with collaborators across units and levels of the institution," wrote one nominator.

Another praised the office's commitment to promoting from within, adding that all of the unit's current directors were elevated to their positions based on exemplary performance in an existing role within the office.

Team Award For Excellence
Given for outstanding team achievement. Criteria: exceptional contributions toward efficiency and effectiveness of operations; outstanding service to the University community and/or visitors; special efforts in practicing inclusive excellence in the workplace. The award comes with a $1,500 prize to support an activity or purchase to benefit the team.

Business and Academic Support Services Team

The Business and Academic Support Services Team, which provides administrative functions for the School of International Languages, Literatures and Cultures – housed within the College of Humanities – was praised by one nominator for having "worked incredibly hard to support faculty and students while the school has been growing through hiring and increased activity of every kind." Another commented on the team's diversity, "which directly translates into enhanced creativity, innovation, problem-solving, decision-making, skills, resources and many other much-needed efficiencies and benefits associated with such diverse and inclusive teams."

Project FUTRE and PeerWORKS

Project FUTRE and PeerWORKS, which were developed by the University's Comprehensive Center for Pain and Addiction as a response to the impact of the opioid epidemic across Arizona, offer their services "in an operationally efficient manner using telehealth, streamlining processes for applicants, trainees, apprentices and partners, and removing barriers to education," wrote one nominator. Another praised how team members "invest time and energy into inclusion, diversity, equity and access and continuous quality improvement as they strive to eliminate health disparities for individuals, families and their communities."

Individual Awards For Excellence
Given to individual staff members for achievements in activities beyond normal duties. Criteria: outstanding achievement in the workplace; exceptional contributions toward efficiency and effectiveness of operations; outstanding service to the University community and/or visitors; special efforts in promoting workforce diversity. Each award comes with a $1,000 cash prize.

Adrián Arroyo Pérez | Associate Director of Faculty Programs, Office of the Provost/Faculty Affairs

"Dr. Arroyo Pérez is someone who embodies a commitment to University, local and visiting communities and does so consistently through an ethic of care, inclusion and equity," wrote one nominator. Another praised his "herculean effort" in coordinating the New Faculty Orientation, saying he makes sure "new faculty feel welcomed, learn about the most important aspects of being a faculty member and learn how to navigate our amazing University."

Sascha Bianchi | Clinical Operations and PrEP/PEP Program Manager, Department of Medicine

Bianchi was praised by one nominator for her work in the creation of the Post-Exposure Prophylaxis Program, which facilitates rapid access to treatment for people with an unprotected exposure to HIV, including survivors of sexual assault. "Sascha has a unique ability to make the workplace not only efficient but also enjoyable," wrote another. "I personally feel that she has contributed immensely to my happiness at work, and her positive attitude and kindness have made time in the workplace better for others as well."

Erin Chadd | Director of Special Projects and Chief of Staff, University of Arizona International Affairs

One nominator cited Chadd's work helping to organize the University of Arizona Refugee Project. "This initiative not only provided UA students with an opportunity to learn about refugees but also encouraged them to volunteer at refugee organizations," the nominator wrote. Another praised her work in planning conferences and alumni gatherings in countries including China, Peru and Mexico.

Jocelyn Fisher | Faculty Affairs Coordinator, College of Applied Science and Technology

"The positivity and infectious enthusiasm Jocelyn radiates is truly unparalleled," wrote one nominator. "Her vibrant presence not only uplifts but also deeply inspires everyone around her, fostering a community atmosphere that is both incredibly supportive and energetically vibrant." A second nominator cited Fisher's success in onboarding new faculty members and creating a mentoring program connecting junior and senior faculty members throughout the college.

Kate Mackay | Associate Director, Center for Educational Resources in Culture, Language and Literacy

One nominator said Mackay, who has helped lead the center since 2007, has helped it "become a major contributor to the University and the broader field in research and professional learning on second language and culture education." In another letter, two nominators commended Mackay's outreach efforts, including organizing the Tucson Meet Your Languages booth at the annual Tucson Meet Yourself community festival.

Liz Piña-Figueroa | Program Coordinator, Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies

"Students often comment on how quickly Liz will return their emails and how knowledgeable she is with any question that they have," wrote one nominator. Another praised her commitment to seeking and implementing feedback, saying her work to refine the graduate handbook to meet evolving student expectations and elevate the student experience illustrated "her agility and commitment to continuous improvement."

Clarisa Robles Parra | Chief of Staff, Office of the Provost

One nominator said Robles Parra has been instrumental in providing critical support to Ronald Marx, interim senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, saying she has efficiently managed the provost's office operations, ensuring a "smooth and effective workflow through a period of uncertainty and change." Another applauded her work in creating a "clear and transparent" review process for administrators at every level below the president.

Debbie Shon Buhler | Senior Program Coordinator, Second Language Acquisition and Teaching Graduate Interdisciplinary Program

"The time and care that Debbie takes supporting students is truly exceptional," wrote one nominator. "I can think of so many examples where her patience and support went far beyond expectations." Another proclaimed that "coordinating SLAT requires superpowers," commending Shon Buhler for juggling the needs of faculty and students across five colleges.

Tere Weiler | Executive Associate, Administrative and Academic Affairs, W.A. Franke Honors College

One of Weiler's nominators called her a "delight to work with," citing "her positive attitude and her dedication to doing what is right." Another praised her for facilitating "the most anticipated parts of our staff meetings where we celebrate the personal and professional success and joys of our honors team," saying the effort filled a gap in how the college recognized its employees' achievements.


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