Neff reaches beyond classroom

By Princess Gabbara| THE EASTERN ECHO

Many students here at Eastern Michigan University are busy juggling the demands of school, work and other activities. As a result, it can be difficult for students to become well-acquainted with their professors.

Meet Heather Neff, she works hard to make herself accessible to her students academically and personally, and has studied and taught around the world.

Besides being a professor at EMU, Neff, 54, is a published novelist. Her publications are “Blackgammon” (2000), “Wisdom” (2002), “Accident of Birth” (2005), “Haarlem” (2006) and “Leila: The Weighted Silence of Memory” (2009).

She’s also the recipient of more than 30 awards including the EMU Teaching Excellence Award (2011), NAACP Image Award for Teaching Excellence (2008) and Michigan Distinguished Professor Award (2007).

At 13, she and her family moved from Akron, Ohio, to Detroit. She attended Cass Technical High School, where she began to develop her passion for music and graduated in 1975.

Neff graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a degree in English literature and high honors in 1978. Shortly afterward, Neff moved to Paris. She studied French at the University of Paris, commonly referred to as the Sorbonne. Every summer, she teaches a course in Paris.

In 1983, she moved to Switzerland, where she studied at the University of Basel and the University of Zurich. She taught English as a foreign language. Neff also taught at Shell Oil, Swissair and Condor Film Studios.

Neff earned her doctoral degree in English Literature from the University of Zurich in 1990. During this time, she also began teaching at the University of the Virgin Islands. It wasn’t until 1993 that she began teaching at EMU. African-American literature and women in literature are some of the courses she teaches. Neff said she feels honored to be teaching at EMU.

“EMU students are the most hard-working, goal-oriented students I’ve seen in nearly three decades of teaching,” she said.

As a professor, Neff has had a big influence on many of her students. Psychology and gender studies major Courtney Williams, 21, draws much of her inspiration from Neff.

“Meeting Dr. Neff was perhaps one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she said. “She is not only a phenomenal professor, but also someone that I can talk to and know that she will never judge me or make me feel insignificant. She is truly a blessing.”

English education major Jennifer Alexander, 22, shares the same sentiment.

“I met Dr. Neff during my freshman year in her introduction to African American literature class,” she said. “Since then I’ve been able to go to her and talk about anything from academic to personal. She’s one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met.”

Neff is also the director of the McNair Scholars Program. To be eligible, students must come from low-income families and be first-generation college students.

The McNair Scholars Program helps guide students toward earning a doctoral degree. A 3.3 GPA is required and students must maintain a 3.0 GPA during their participation in the program.

“McNair Scholars learn to do research writing, work on a research project with a faculty mentor, prepare for the graduate record examination and receive personalized support in the graduate admissions process,” Neff said. “We’re always looking for great new students to join our group.”

Shayna Rodriguez, one of Neff’s colleagues, recognizes hard work and determination as key aspects of who Neff is. She’s known Neff for five years. Rodriguez is a former student who currently works as Neff’s graduate assistant. She also works for the McNair Scholars Program.

“Dr. Neff is resilient in the workplace,” she said. “She is a complete perfectionist, so her professional work, writing and undertakings seem flawless — but only because she strives for personal and professional distinction.”

Neff has a lot to be proud of, but what does she consider to be her greatest accomplishment?

“My greatest accomplishment is successfully balancing my family life with my career,” she said. “I’ve been very blessed to work at EMU, where these two halves of my life could fit together so perfectly.

“I love teaching because of the students I meet and the stories they share. I can’t imagine a more rewarding profession. I look forward to many more years in the classroom, and I hope to watch our beautiful campus continue to grow.”

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