WSU Vancouver to present five top awards at 2024 Commencement

VANCOUVER, WASH. — Washington State University Vancouver will present its 2024 awards for equity, service, research, student achievement and teaching at this year’s Commencement ceremony on May 4. The following will each receive a Chancellor’s Medallion:

Chancellor’s Award for Equity—Pavithra Narayanan, Professor of English; Academic Director and Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences

Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence—Praveen Sekhar, Associate Professor, School of Engineering and Computer Science

Chancellor’s Award for Service to WSU Vancouver—Workforce Southwest Washington

Chancellor’s Award for Student Achievement—Juan Carlos Garcia Gonzalez, B.A., Humanities

Students’ Award for Teaching Excellence—Debra Wilmington, Associate Professor, Career Track, School of Biological Sciences


This annual award honors a faculty or staff member for excellence in contributing to a community of equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging at WSU Vancouver.

Pavithra Narayanan advocates passionately for equitable treatment for students, faculty and staff alike. She introduces students to Indigenous and non-Western histories, texts and authors who are not part of the regular course material. Guided by her philosophy of justice, equity and inclusion, Narayanan has increased WSU Vancouver’s cultural diversity at all levels. She has recruited and hired both staff and faculty of color, and supports professional development and career growth of all employees. She advocates not only for faculty and students but also for graduate students, adjunct faculty and support staff.

Narayanan, who joined WSU Vancouver in 2004, has an eclectic educational background. She completed most of her education in India, with an undergraduate degree in zoology. Prompted by a love for books and writing, she earned a master’s degree in English, a second master’s in American literature and a third in mass communication, as well as a Ph.D. She is an affiliate of the Collective for Social and Environmental Justice and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, focusing on economic and social policies, civil liberties, gender and globalization.


Each year, WSU Vancouver gives its highest research honor to recognize a faculty member’s exemplary research quality and quantity as well as positive influence on the broader community.

Praveen Sekhar’s research is grounded in the interdisciplinary field of electrochemical gas sensors, which intersects disciplines such as electrical engineering, chemical sciences, applied physics and materials science. He has achieved the heights of international recognition in his field while remaining down to earth: His research is aimed at making people safer and the world a better place to live.

Sekhar directs WSU Vancouver’s Nanomaterials-Sensor Laboratory, where he and his students are working on solutions related to environmental pollution, national security, energy security and Internet of Things applications. He is the principal investigator on a project that addresses the need for a flexible wireless gas sensing device at high temperatures for many applications—notably for use by first responders during emergencies such as forest fires and terrorist attacks.

Sekhar is committed to diversity in engineering research through collaborating with and mentoring women, immigrants and persons of color. He joined WSU Vancouver in 2011.


The award recognizes dedication and commitment to the WSU Vancouver community through leadership on behalf of the university and dedication of time, talent and resources toward advancing the university’s mission.

Much of what Workforce Southwest Washington does aligns with WSU Vancouver’s mission and values. WSW works to transform lives across the region and serves as a cornerstone for economic vitality. Its mission is to lead a regional workforce development system where every individual has access to high-quality employment and every business has access to a highly skilled workforce.

At the heart of WSW’s mission is a profound belief in the power of education and skill development. This is where WSU Vancouver and WSW have found a sweet spot for collaboration. Through partnership on multiple initiatives, WSW and WSU Vancouver work to strengthen the economic resiliency of Southwest Washington and provide students with the tools and knowledge necessary to thrive in today’s rapidly evolving job market.

Since 2020, WSW and WSU Vancouver have collaborated through a partnership contract that funds a full-time position in WSU Vancouver’s Engaged Learning and Career Action Center. Its purpose is to bridge the gap between the higher education system and the workforce development system.


The student achievement award annually recognizes one student’s love of learning, persistence to overcome barriers in pursuit of academic goals, leadership potential and involvement in campus life.

During the pandemic, Juan Carlos Garcia Gonzalez noticed that Clark College had online classes. “We were sitting around and thought we needed to do something or go nuts,” he said, “so I enrolled in Clark.” That led to WSU Vancouver.

He was 50 years old and had spent his life on the move, growing up in Mexico and living in California, Oregon, Chicago and New York, mainly doing mission work on behalf of his church. He moved to Vancouver in 2015. Having inherited a genetic kidney disease that requires dialysis three times a week, he has been unable to work. The disease also raises havoc with other parts of the body. But he doesn’t let it set him back. He studies diligently and, even though English is his second language, maintains high grades. Because he is approachable and easy to talk to, many students look to him as a paternal figure.

Garcia Gonzalez chose a fine arts focus for his humanities degree. His house in Vancouver serves as a studio for him and his daughter Samantha, also a WSU Vancouver student and an artist. “Not to get sappy, but I really don’t think I could be enjoying my time as much as I am at WSU Vancouver if my dad were not here,” Samantha said.


Students honor a faculty member each year with the teaching excellence award. The award recognizes exceptional dedication to students and infectious enthusiasm for the subject matter.

Debra Wilmington always has time for her students. Her classes in physiology, genetics and nutritional science, among others, are “fun and engaging,” students say. She strives to make class material relevant to students’ lives and goals, to meet students where they are and to be flexible. She brings “tools” such as blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes to class to let them learn by doing, and she tries to get to know each student “to understand the best way to connect to and teach them,” she said.

In addition to teaching, Wilmington is an advisor for students working toward biology and pre-health majors. She is also the faculty advisor to the Pre-Health and Pre-Dental clubs.

Wilmington, who joined WSU Vancouver in 2012 after earning a doctorate in biomedical science from the University of Texas, is also taking part in a project to improve the transfer process for STEM students from community college to WSU Vancouver.


Commencement will be held at 1 p.m. May 4 at the RV Inn Style Resorts Amphitheater located at 17200 NE Delfel Road, Ridgefield, WA 98642. The event is free and open to the public. No tickets are required. It will also be livestreamed on WSU Vancouver’s YouTube channel.


As one of six campuses of the WSU system, WSU Vancouver offers big-school resources in a small-school environment. The university provides affordable, high-quality baccalaureate- and graduate-level education to benefit the people and communities it serves. As the only four-year research university in Southwest Washington, WSU Vancouver helps drive economic growth through relationships with local businesses and industries, schools and nonprofit organizations. 

WSU Vancouver is located on the homelands of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and Peoples of the Lower Columbia Valley. We acknowledge their presence here. WSU Vancouver expresses its respect towards these original and current caretakers of the region. We pledge that these relationships will be built on mutual trust and respect.

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