Guiding the growth

History professor receives award for faculty excellence

by Ciara Brennan ('17)

Fitzgerald submitted this photo for the College of Arts and Letters virtual commencement video to celebrate the Class of 2020.

SUMMARY: Timothy J. Fitzgerald, an Associate Professor of History, has been selected as a recipient of the 2020 Shirley Hanson Roberts (‘56) and Richard D. Roberts Endowment Award for Faculty Excellence.

As a high school senior, Kurt Finkenstaedt had his sights set on attending the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. When the opportunity fell through, he found himself with a choice: he could reapply to the Academy or attend a university in Virginia.  

He was skeptical about JMU when he attended Summer Springboard – until he met History professor Timothy Fitzgerald. “Dr. Fitzgerald made me feel welcome and quickly broke down my apprehension about college,” said Finkenstaedt, now a first-year History major. After meeting Fitzgerald, the high school senior immediately abandoned plans to reapply to the Academy, and under the professor’s guidance, took his first steps to become a Duke. “In those months Dr. Fitzgerald became my lifeline and my key to James Madison University.”

Fitzgerald, who was honored with the 2020 Shirley Hanson Roberts (‘56) and Richard D. Roberts Endowment Awardwas first drawn to JMU “because I knew it to be a university with a sincere commitment to undergraduate education.” Over the past ten years, “a sincere commitment to undergraduates” has become Fitzgerald’s hallmark as a professor and first-year adviser.  

Lauren Palmieri (’20), a History majorwas one of Fitzgerald’s first-year advisees. She initially planned to study American history, but her interests shifted after she enrolled in a course taught by Fitzgerald, an expert in Middle Eastern and world history. “Just within the first weeks of the course, I came to the realization that the world was too diverse and there was too much to learn for me to simply stick with what I knew,” Palmieri said.   

During her four years at JMU, she took nearly every course Fitzgerald taught. “His classes left me with this burning desire to combat widespread prejudices about the Middle East and Islam. And he has been beyond supportive in all the paths I’ve taken to achieve that.” Fitzgerald’s support included helping Palmieri secure the opportunity to study Arabic language and culture in Jordan for two months and directing her year-long Honors Thesis about a pioneering women’s magazine published in late 19th-century Alexandria, Egypt. 

“He’s helped me grapple with complex, overarching questions in history and has mentored me in exploring these myself,” said Palmieri, who was recently admitted to NYU's History MA program and awarded a Fulbright to conduct research in Kuwait.

Inside the classroom, Fitzgerald is a “force of nature,” said FinkenstaedtHe asks complex questions – like, what does it mean to call a society "tolerant?" – to encourage his students to think critically and independently. Outside the classroom, Fitzgerald can be found in his book-lined office, where he often holds extended office hours, or at a coffee shop, where he meets with students to discuss their courses and their wellbeing. 

Fitzgerald’s mentorship philosophy involves relating to students as dynamic, multifaceted people. “To me, mentorship means caring for individuals in their entirety,” said Fitzgerald. Students want to be treated in ways that respect their individuality, their worldview, as well as their hopes and fears." This understanding helps mentors and mentees “work through challenges and chart paths forward, together.” 

Palmieri (left) while studying in Jordan, Jones (middle) at William Fleming High School and Finkenstaedt (right). Photo by Mark Finkenstaedt 

This commitment to mentorship is shaped in part by Fitzgerald’s experience with two professors while he was an undergraduate at the College of William and MaryThey taught me so much more than the material on their course syllabuses. They opened new worlds of knowledge, firing my curiosity and my desire to learn more and teach others,” Fitzgerald said. “They also nurtured a sense of self-confidence, which I had never had.” 

Self-confidence is something Fitzgerald seeks to instill in students attending William Fleming High School through JMU’s Professor-in-Residence program, a program that focuses on Virginia schools with high populations of underprivileged students. Before schools closed this spring, Fitzgerald made the 80-minute drive weekly to the Roanoke, VA high schoolwhere he met senior Sydney Jones.  

Upon first meeting, Jones found Fitzgerald to be “someone who is caring and wants to provide information to those who will benefit from it and need it to be successful.” He was able to offer Jones, who had long wanted to attend JMU, unique insight into her dream school.  

Fitzgerald met with her one-on-one and encouraged her to apply for a Centennial Scholarship. He truly gave me the confidence to apply and I left the conversation that day nervous, but excited all at the same time from his outstanding guidance and advice,” Jones said. 

Over the course of the school year, Fitzgerald also encouraged Jones to recognize what she had already accomplished in her life. “He truly helped me grow in having a better outlook on my future and paying respect to the hard work I've done." Although Jones will not be at William Fleming when Fitzgerald returns, she will be able to visit his office this fall when she begins her first year as a Duke.  

The in-person relationships Fitzgerald has cultivated with his students have changed them, as students, scholars and humansFitzgerald is “the advisor that provides an insight or opportunity, that changes the course of your college experience, said Finkenstaedt. Palmieri, who graduated in May through a virtual conferring of degrees, said, Dr. Fitzgerald has helped me become someone who cares about the world and the people in it. 

During this unprecedented time when in-person meetings cannot take place, Fitzgerald has integrated Zoom and FaceTime into his weekly routine so he can continue to meet students where they are. “Online technology can facilitate an impressive variety of learning experiences and modes of communication,” Fitzgerald admits. “But, for me, nothing replaces the energy and the connection of an in-person relationship.” 

For many students, Fitzgerald’s office is more than just a room, it is a space where support is offered, ideas are forged and an empathetic ear is always waiting. It is a second home. Zoom and FaceTime will do for now, but Fitzgerald eagerly awaits the time when in-person meetings can resume. 

I’ve exchanged many promises to meet for coffee as soon as we can! 

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Published: Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Last Updated: Thursday, January 13, 2022

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