Seeks to ignite a passion for public health
If Sophie Godley gets her way, undergrads previously planning to study engineering or medicine will instead consider careers in the far less lucrative field of public health after taking a class with her.
“I want to change their minds,” says Godley (SPH’17), a School of Public Health clinical assistant professor of community health sciences. “I have always felt that my not-so-secret agenda in all of my courses has been to ignite a passion for the subject in my students—even, and perhaps most importantly, the reluctant ones.”
Her ability to inspire students has earned Godley a 2017 Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching, one of the University’s highest teaching accolades, which she will receive at the University’s 144th Commencement this Sunday, May 21.
Godley says she was slightly panicked when she received a cryptic message a few weeks ago asking her to report to the president’s office, wondering if it was possible that she had won a Metcalf Award. The award is the latest in a string of honors she has received as an educator, the most recent an SPH Excellence in Teaching award last year and the Norman A. Scotch Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2014.
Endorsements from both students and colleagues supporting her nomination mention her ability to inspire. “I’ve been empowered, disillusioned, moved, and compelled to action,” one student wrote the Metcalf selection committee. “The entire paradigm I view the world with has been completely altered in the most life-changing way. I now concretely believe that struggling to ameliorate poverty is what I want to do with my life. I am so grateful to have had this experience.”
In a letter recommending Godley for a Metcalf, Sandro Galea, dean of SPH and Robert A. Knox Professor, calls her as a “superb teacher…innovative, passionate, engaging, clear, and organized. The topics she teaches are difficult, controversial, and highly charged.” She “has a unique ability to create a safe space that encourages students to learn and to inspire students to do their best and to explore new concepts.”
Godley says her teaching is inspired and motivated by her work with impoverished and marginalized communities. She entered the public health field in 1993 and has been deputy director of the state’s AIDS Action Committee and director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Office of Sexual Health and Youth Development. She is currently a consultant with ROCA, Inc., a performance-driven anti-poverty and anti-violence nonprofit in Chelsea, Mass., where she is involved in a project designed to support high-risk young mothers.
“The mission of public health is to work with vulnerable communities and work with those who are the most disadvantaged: that’s our whole business, that’s why we exist,” Godley says. “In my years working in teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, I learned a lot about taking a back seat and not being the loudest voice in the room, learning from other people and respecting experiences that I have not had.” She offers the same observational opportunities to students in her Kilachand Honors College class Seeing Poverty, bringing them to her research sites so they can learn and volunteer.
She finds other ways to make her class material timely and relevant to students from schools across BU. In the one-semester, 100-seat undergrad Introduction to Public Health course she teaches twice a year—so popular that it fills up within five minutes on registration day—she integrates current public health issues into class discussions: the 2014 Ebola crisis, last year’s Zika virus emergence, and perhaps most relatable to students, college-age binge drinking.
After having her students read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot’s nonfiction account of a poor African American woman whose cells were taken by researchers in the 1950s without her knowledge, Godley has them delve into the forces that promoted the development of informed consent in research. She also asks them to evaluate the impact of Jim Crow laws on the ability of African Americans to access health care during the 20th century. (Lacks’ cells were used to develop the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization, among other advancements.)
Godley teaches several graduate courses as well: Women, Children and Adolescents: Public Health Approaches; Safer Sex in the City: From Science to Policy; and a new leadership and management course.
In course evaluations, students routinely applaud her enthusiastic and unconventional teaching methods. She begins every semester by shaking hands with each student and aims to learn the name of each one. Midterm reviews are often student-led. Each course has a designated Facebook page, where students can engage with one another and post events and internship openings.
Outside of the classroom, Godley is a sought-after mentor. As director of undergraduate studies in public health at SPH, she advises more than 100 underclassmen, as well as 10 to 20 master’s students. She writes hundreds of recommendation letters, is the faculty advisor for six student groups, among them the Undergraduate Public Health Association and the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, and regularly speaks on student panels, including the popular annual Sex in the Dark event. “Many she has counseled through tough times, including relationships, family dynamics, and academic challenges,” one professor wrote in his nomination letter. “Those who need her most have her cell phone number and Professor Godley the mentor/advisor is never off duty.”
Godley joined the BU faculty in 2003 as an adjunct instructor and became a clinical assistant professor in 2011. She earned an undergraduate degree in women’s studies from Smith College and a master’s in public health from the University of Washington. She will finish a doctorate in public health at BU in September. Her dissertation focuses on improving outcomes for teen parents and their children in the Bay State.
A gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a BU Board of Trustees chair emeritus and former professor, funds the Metcalf awards, created in 1973 and presented at Commencement. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000 and the Metcalf Award winners receive $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on statements of nominees’ teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the nominees.
The winner of this year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize, the University’s top teaching honor, is Naomi Mann, a School of Law clinical associate professor of law. Gary Lawson, LAW’s Philip S. Beck Professor of Law, is the recipient of the second Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching.
More information about Commencement can be found here.