River Falls Professor & Alumna Receive UW System Honors

A University of Wisconsin-River Falls associate professor and an alum were named special award recipients by the University of Wisconsin System and were recognized by UWRF Chancellor Maria Gallo at the Spring Opening Meeting on January 18.

Soil Science Associate Professor Natasha Rayne of the Plant and Earth Science Department was one of 14 recipients of the Outstanding Women of Color in Education Award.

Alumna Faith Velez, a 2021 UWRF psychology graduate, was one of 11 honorees for the Dr. P.B. Poorman Award for Outstanding Achievement on Behalf of LGBTQ+ People. 

They were honored in November at a ceremony and reception hosted by UW System Senior Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer Warren R. Anderson.

UW System institutions submit nominations for the award.

Outstanding Women of Color in Education Award

2021 was the 26th anniversary of the Outstanding Women of Color in Education Award which recognizes faculty, staff, students and residents for improving the status and climate for women and people of color and advancing the work of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Rayne completed her undergraduate degree in agronomy in 2003 at the Anton de Kom University in her native Suriname. After gaining experience in farm management, post-harvest quality control and extension, she earned her master’s degree in plant and soil science followed by her doctorate degree in soil science at Oklahoma State University. Her area of expertise is soil fertility and nutrient cycling.

At UWRF, Rayne teaches various courses including Introduction to Soil Science, Soil Fertility and Special Topics in Soil Microbiology. Her research focuses on nutrient cycling and the improvement of soil health using manure.

“My emphasis is in soil fertility,” says Rayne. “This area of research is important because with the growing world population, the demand for food is increasing and thus the demand for land to grow our food in. As a soil fertility specialist, my job is to think of ways to improve the ability of the soil to sustainably provide the nutrients needed to grow healthy and high yielding crops.”

Rayne has supervised more than 15 undergraduate research projects. Her research also involves collaborative efforts with local industry and farmers. She is also an associate editor for the Agronomy Journal.

Rayne says the award came as a surprise.

“Receiving the award made me realize that my work and efforts do mean something to somebody,” she says. “It also carries with it an assignment to continue to work hard and do good because the things that look small in our own eyes might actually mean a lot to and make a difference in our community.”

In grad school, Rayne discovered her love for research and teaching.

“The opportunity that teaching offered – to be among people rather than just doing analysis in a lab – is what attracted me,” says Rayne. “Gaining knowledge through complex analysis in a lab or studies in the field is one thing. Making it relevant to others or awakening a desire in them to know more is a completely different thing and is precisely what I love about teaching.”

Rayne was attracted to UWRF because it was a smaller school providing opportunities to directly interact with students.

“The focus on teaching, primarily undergraduate students, has helped me as a teacher to grow in my pedagogy and find creative ways to instill in my students a greater desire to discover and a love for learning,” she says.

Dr. P.B. Poorman Award

The Dr. P.B. Poorman Award, in its 13th year in 2021, is given annually to LGBTQ+ people who have helped to create a safer and more inclusive climate. It celebrates the memory and legacy of Paula B. Poorman, a faculty member at UW-Whitewater who dedicated her life to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ people.

Velez studied psychology with an emphasis on social justice and a minor in women’s gender and sexualities studies.

“Having system-wide recognition of the advocacy work I did on campus was a really overwhelming feeling,” Velez says. “Being nominated for and winning this award felt like a win not only for my efforts but for the recognition that there is progress that needs to be made on our campus in order to continue to strive towards UWRF’s goals of inclusivity and that student voices matter. I hope my fellow queer students view this award as permission to continue to live authentically at UWRF. 

She served as a Falcon guide for UWRF Admissions and later worked in multiple internship positions to further push for inclusive college access materials and admissions programs. Through hosting community programming, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging service information nights, and personal advocacy for students and the community, she found herself becoming a better ally, a more informed queer person, and someone bringing plausible change on campus. She continued to hold a strong connection with the Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Office, and served as an office intern during her last year on campus to help foster inclusive programming.

“As a student, my time at UWRF was incredibly impactful,” Velez says. “I feel thankful every day for my rigorous social, academic and leadership preparation provided through my time as a student, especially as I pursue my master’s degree. UWRF served as a place that allowed me to come in as a time freshman and leave with a reputation of being a dedicated student and a vocal advocate for others.”

Velez is a first-year graduate student at Marquette University pursuing a master’s degree within the education policy and leadership program specializing in student affairs and higher education and is a graduate assistant within the Center for Community Services which engages students in discerning their role in the struggle for a more just society through opportunities to explore diverse forms of service. She is hoping to take all the advocacy skills and personal confidence gained during her time serving the UWRF LGBTQ+ community and apply it to a career within student affairs. She is excited to be a lifelong learner, an involved activist and an openly queer professional and mentor for the next generation of college students.

“The UW System is proud to recognize the tremendous achievements of this year’s award recipients,” Anderson says. “They are enhancing opportunities for our students and benefiting our communities through their leadership, scholarship and outreach.”