Fostering student success motivates biology professor Fernando Tenjo-Fernandez as he approaches his 20th year at VCU
Enthusiasm from his students encourages Tenjo-Fernandez to find new and innovative ways to keep them engaged.
You could measure the success of Fernando Tenjo-Fernandez, Ph.D., by all of the hats he’s worn since arriving at VCU in 2003: associate professor of biology, associate chair for the Department of Biology, co-chair of the Men of Color Initiative and many more. But the metric Tenjo-Fernandez uses to measure success is different. He measures success by the engagement of his students in the classroom.
Tenjo-Fernandez said he sees students most engaged when they have the opportunity to work hands-on. He’s seen this first-hand while teaching beer-making through his “Yeast and Fermentation” class.
“In the class, students have to figure out all of the scientific processes behind brewing beer. They need to know basic biology, biochemistry, chemistry,” Tenjo-Fernandez said. “It is incredibly extensive.”
Students start the class by presenting a proposal of what beer they want to make. Tenjo-Fernandez observed that at this stage, students are understandably “shaky” and not confident in their own knowledge or skills. Through experiential learning, students grow their confidence. The class culminates in a final presentation with faculty and people from outside the university invited to attend. By the time this presentation rolls around, the students are much more self-assured than before.
“It is impressive,” Tenjo-Fernandez said about the growth he observes in students throughout the semester. “At some point, students can express by themselves what they’ve learned. I can see the enthusiasm that they have when they learn it. They can explain [their work] very well. They can answer questions. That’s when I know that I have made an impact, when students are able to clearly communicate what they learned.”
Though Tenjo-Fernandez has spent most of his time at the university as a professor, he arrived at VCU as a postdoctoral fellow at the MCV Campus. He says there were obstacles in the transition from conducting research to teaching.
“I was trained as a scientist,” Tenjo-Fernandez said. “And even though I could explain things, it was a different idea to express what I learned or what I know to a scientific audience who knows what I’m doing versus students where I have to explain in a way where they can understand.”
One of his key takeaways from teaching over the years is to keep things as simple as possible. He believes that students have to learn all of the basics before they can move on to more complicated concepts. He’s also learned to be receptive to students’ needs, which informs his work with the Men of Color Initiative. The initiative is dedicated to the enrollment, student success and post-graduation outcomes for Black males and Latinos.
“Sometimes even the students don’t know what resources they need,” Tenjo-Fernandez said. “So we [at the MOC Initiative] try to make ways that the students can learn what is available for them. It is important to let them know [of those resources].”
Many people have served as mentors for Tenjo-Fernandez throughout his career at VCU. He highlighted D’Arcy P. Mays, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operation Research and associate dean of research and operations, as someone who helped him navigate the complex structure of a university when he first started at VCU.
“When Professor Fernado Tenjo-Fernandez arrived at VCU, I was assigned to be his mentor through the Center of Teaching Excellence new faculty mentoring program. From the beginning it was clear that Fernando had a passion for teaching, and wanted his students to succeed,” Mays said. “As he has now moved into leadership positions in his department and at the university, Fernando continues to positively impact the lives of students, faculty and staff with the same integrity and passion that he had when he first arrived at VCU. It has been a great pleasure to have him as a colleague.”
Tenjo-Fernandez credits Donald Young, Ph.D., professor and former chair of the Department of Biology, who was Tenjo’s longtime chair and who initially helped him move over to the Monroe Park Campus. Mentor William B. Eggleston, Jr., Ph.D., former associate professor in the Department of Biology, helped Tenjo-Fernandez understand the campus culture and the importance of learning leadership skills. He also expresses thanks to Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., chief diversity officer and advisor for ONE VCU and vice president of the Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success, for helping him develop his leadership skills through the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute.
I always have to bring something new to keep [students] engaged. That’s a motivation for me.Fernando Tenjo-Fernandez
Some of Tenjo-Fernandez’s students look to him as their own mentors and continue to keep in touch with him after their classes together are over. Just last semester, a former student informed him that she had graduated medical school and invited him to her graduation ceremony, which he attended online.
Those kinds of relationships are what drive Tenjo-Fernandez to continue his work, and to continue it at VCU specifically. “I’m still very interested in learning from the students,” Tenjo-Fernandez said. “I always have to bring something new to keep them engaged. That’s a motivation for me.”
“I have found a community that embraces diversity,” said Tenjo-Fernandez. “We are committed to every person’s and every student’s success.”
Editor’s Note: Diversity Drives Excellence Profiles introduce you to some of the diverse faculty and staff members whose work makes VCU such an uncommon and amazing university. The Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success (IES) publishes the profiles on its blog and promotes them across its social media channels. Please send questions or comments about this series to firstname.lastname@example.org.