WMU News

Ponchillia, Schma to receive Distinguished Service Awards

March 12, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- Two Western Michigan University employees who together have dedicated some 40 years to the University have been selected as the recipients of this year's Distinguished Service Awards.

Dr. Paul E. Ponchillia, professor of blind rehabilitation, and Geraldine A. Schma, former director of distance education, will be presented with a plaque and a $1,500 honorarium at the 18th annual Academic Convocation at 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 31, in the Dalton Center Recital Hall.

The two were chosen from campuswide nominations based on such criteria as: service through innovative and effective programs; service in areas that contribute to the growth and stature of the University; and service that extends the impact and presence of the University into the larger community.

Ponchillia, a faculty member since 1978, is being recognized for his contributions to his department as well as for his dedication to the field of blind rehabilitation. Trained as a plant pathologist, Ponchillia lost his eyesight in a hunting accident in 1973. He embarked upon a second career in blind rehabilitation after earning a master's degree from WMU's world-renowned program.

"He has distinguished not only himself but also his department and the University through the various activities in which he has engaged," wrote one colleague in nominating him for the award. "His untiring efforts on behalf of many individuals and organizations have clearly projected the presence of the University into the larger community. He has also had a major impact upon the lives of many students and has changed the lives of many blind people."

Ponchillia has a longtime interest in sports and has combined that with his expertise in blind rehabilitation to create many opportunities for visually impaired athletes. In the early 1980s, he initiated a goalball program and sports education activities at WMU for visually impaired young people and their teachers. Those now attract participants from across the country and serve as teaching and learning devices for students in many disciplines. His efforts in the sports arena were recognized in 1996 when he was selected as an official carrier of the Olympic torch as it made its way across the country from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

Ponchillia also travels around the United States as a consultant and educator on blindness, visiting with school children, community groups, academic, professional and service institutions, and government agencies. He regularly presents sessions at local, state, national and international levels. His professional activities include serving on the boards of the Michigan Commission for the Blind, Michigan Foundation for the Blind, Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, Michigan Blind Athletic Association and U.S. Association for Blind Athletes.

Letters in support of Ponchillia's nomination for the Distinguished Service Award came from around the country from students, colleagues, blind athletes and leaders in the profession. "Dr. Ponchillia has been a major figure in moving rehabilitation teaching from random untested efforts to a coherent discipline which produces teachers whose impact enables innumerable blind/visually impaired persons to live to their potential," wrote one person.

Ponchillia's recent activities include writing a textbook for rehabilitation teachers with his wife, Dr. Susan Ponchillia, also a WMU faculty member. "Foundations of Rehabilitation Teaching" has earned accolades from blind rehabilitators throughout the world as one of the few comprehensive works of its kind. He also has served as a peer reviewer for the Library of Congress Braille Development Section.

"I truly believe the one thing that makes Paul make such a difference for all those who come into contact with him is what I am calling his mentoring abilities," wrote one former student. "Dr. Ponchillia not only teaches subjects and skills, he lives his philosophy, and opens it up for all his students to scrutinize. He brings a level of honesty and humane feeling to his students that is rare."

In addition to his master's degree from WMU, Ponchillia holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Eastern Kentucky University and master's and doctoral degrees in plant pathology from Iowa State University.

Schma joined the WMU staff in 1977 and retired as director of distance education in 1997. She currently teaches children's literature for WMU. Initially a faculty member in the Department of English, Schma moved to the Division of Continuing Education in 1981 as director of self-instructional programs. Her responsibilities included planning, developing, marketing and delivering electronic and correspondence courses to distant learners. During her 10 years in that position, the program grew from 200 students enrolled in 40 courses to 2,800 students enrolled in 112 courses.

In 1991, she took on additional duties as director of distance education, supervising the development and delivery efforts of the Office of Telecourse Programs and Self-Instructional Programs. She coordinated the activities of 75 faculty members delivering courses through satellite, videotape, cable, compressed video, correspondence, computer assisted instruction and integrated television/computer instruction.

Schma is being recognized for spearheading the development of quality, cutting edge educational programs for students unable to come to campus and for her commitment to nontraditional students.

"Gerry always brings to (our) discussions a profound belief in the rightness of what she is doing, and particularly a strong sense that her goal is to provide high quality, convenient education to students who cannot or choose not to participate in regular on-campus classes," wrote one colleague in nominating her for the award. "Our students have been fortunate indeed to have her as their advocate."

Due in large part to Schma's efforts, WMU's distance education programs are recognized as models throughout the country. She and her staff have earned awards 11 times from the National University Continuing Education Association for outstanding programs and services to students.

"Our growth has occurred largely because of her dogged determination," wrote one colleague. "When Gerry Schma believes in something, things happen. Very seldom have I seen her take no for an answer. She invented the back door."

Schma has been active in the National University Continuing Education Association on a variety of committees. She also has represented the University in the American Association of Collegiate Independent Study, the Higher Education Television Association, the West Michigan Media Consortium and the National University Teleconferences Network. In addition, she has served on a number of University councils and committees, including the WMU/Michigan Information Technology Network Advisory Board, the Educational Technologies Committee and the Nontraditional Student Financial Aid Committee.

"The level of commitment and effort she demonstrated produced outstanding results sustained over many years," wrote another nominator. "Her everyday approach to her job has been clearly an example of outstanding service to Western Michigan University."

Schma earned her bachelor's degree in English from Nazareth College and her master's degree in communication arts from the University of Notre Dame.

Media contact: Ruth Stevens; ruth.stevens@wmich.edu


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