Geographer Receives National Award For Mentoring Of Students, Colleagues

Heather A. Smith’s students and colleagues have long praised her generosity and inclusivity. For the exceptional way she mentors others, the UNC Charlotte geographer has received the 2023 Susan Hardwick Excellence in Mentoring Award from the American Association of Geographers.

“Dr. Smith’s professional interests and mentoring strengths have guided a generation of geography students in effective community engagement and in the ethical conduct of engaged research,” the association’s awards committee said. Smith is recognized for a commitment to providing more access, opportunity, attention, care, critical engagement, and professional development than is considered typical in academia.

“Further,” the committee said, “she has provided students with the skills and resources they need to succeed as scholars and practitioners. She shows sustained interest in the continued growth, well-being, and success of current and former students and faculty colleagues. The far-reaching impacts of her style of mentorship are carried forward by her mentees into other spaces and places.”

Smith is a professor of geography and interim chair of the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. She also is incoming faculty director and current faculty fellow of the Levine Scholars Program, one place where she brings her focus on collaboration, service and leadership to efforts across campus and in the community.

“I am particularly honored to receive this kind of national recognition for mentoring, which is not always recognized formally in things like annual reviews or performance evaluations,” Smith said. ‘Mentoring awards like this one from the American Association of Geographers, and others I have received from my department and university, uplift and highlight mentoring’s importance in our professional practice as professors and administrators.”

The award is given annually to an individual geographer, group, or department who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in building supportive academic and professional environments in their departments, associations, and institutions and guiding the academic and or professional growth of their students and junior colleagues.

The award is particularly meaningful to Smith because it flowed from a nomination made by former graduate students and faculty colleagues.

“Also important to me, the award is named after one of my professional and personal mentors, Susan W. Hardwick,” Smith said. “Dr. Hardwick was a groundbreaking scholar in the field of immigrant and ethnic geography and a national leader in geographic education. She was particularly instrumental in helping guide my career choices as I juggled the dual responsibilities of family and professional life. Many of the lessons she taught me are now being passed on to the graduate students and junior colleagues with whom I work, and in some cases, to the students and colleagues with whom they work.”

Smith’s teaching and research explore transitioning societies and restructuring cities. Immigrant settlement and experience in 21st Century Gateways and migration to the ‘New South” are particular areas of recent focus. Engaged scholarship and the building of cross-institutional and multi-tiered community partnerships are hallmarks of her work. She emphasizes participatory research, mixed methodologies, and intervention development.

Heather Smith (sixth from right) celebrates with colleagues her receipt of the 2017 Harshini de Silva Graduate Mentoring Award at UNC Charlotte.

Smith is the recipient of two major UNC Charlotte awards – the 2014 Provost’s Faculty Award for Community Engagement and the 2017 Harshini de Silva Graduate Mentoring Award. She has also received national recognition as the recipient of the American Association of Geographers Ethnic Geography Specialty Group’s 2019 Distinguished Scholar Award. Together with colleagues Beth Whitaker and Lan Kolano, Smith co-founded UNC Charlotte’s Migration Research Network (MRN) which brings together campus scholars who study migration from multiple disciplinary perspectives and are committed to policy-relevant engaged scholarship.

A Morehead Scholar, Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in geography from UNC-Chapel Hill. She completed a master’s degree in geography from Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and a doctorate in geography from the University of British Columbia.

AAG also announced Charlotte alumnus Michael Desjardins as a recipient of a 2023 AAG Research Grants. Desjardins is an assistant scientist/research professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins’ Spatial Science for Public Health Center, which is part of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Smith, Desjardins and other awardees will be recognized during the organization’s annual meeting in late March.

Words: Lynn Roberson | Images: Wade Bruton and Misty Morin