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Jim Smart Award spotlights excellence in vocational reflection, exploration

Last updated February 15, 2021

By Tina Underwood

Fostering vocational exploration and reflection among students at a university might appear to be a fairly obvious and expected role of educators and mentors alike. But what if that gift of investing in students’ futures goes above and beyond expectations?

That’s the purpose of the Jim Smart Award from the Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection at Furman University. Every year since 2015, the Cothran Center has identified an individual who exemplifies this work through teaching, advising, mentoring, service, public engagement or other aspects of their roles at the university.

And for 2020, with so many strong candidates, and in a year turned upside down by a pandemic, the Cothran Center has selected two individuals to receive the award, named for longtime Furman History Professor James A. Smart (1967-1995).

Lillian Essaf, assistant director for student learning, Housing and Residence Life.

The honorees are Lillian Essaf, assistant director for student learning in Housing and Residence Life, and Senior Reflection Fellow for the Faculty Development Center, and Geoffrey Habron, a professor in the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Sustainability Sciences.

John Harris, mathematics professor and faculty director for the Cothran Center, said 20 nominations were received, more than double the number the center typically sees for the award.

“Lillian and Geoffrey were chosen for their inspiring work in the area of vocational development,” said Harris. “They go the extra mile with their students – helping them reflect and think carefully about the decisions they make and the opportunities that are available to them.”

Joining Furman in 2016, Essaf oversees 11 first-year advisors (a.k.a. FRADs) in the residence halls and two student supervisors in Housing and Residence Life. As part of the role, she develops student staff member training programs and works to keep students on track academically. In addition to creating an online training library for student staff members, she consults with other departments about best practices in supervision such as the art of the exit interview, teaching conflict management, and other reflective supervisory techniques.

Essaf co-chairs the Pathways Program, a program for first- and second-year students that focuses on transitioning to college life and laying the groundwork for the four-year pathway students will undertake at the university.

Through the program and direct interaction, Essaf helps students figure out who they are and how to live their best lives academically, personally and professionally – providing the enhanced advising and mentoring at the core of The Furman Advantage.

“I think a lot of times people get sidetracked by prestige and money, and that’s not what usually makes people happy,” Essaf said. “Often, it’s doing the things they enjoy – the things they do best every day.

“I like helping students find a place that really values who they are as whole people, not just employees. I want them to have a really good understanding of themselves and what they value and what they value in themselves and help them navigate next steps after Furman, whether that’s graduate school or in the workplace.”

It’s a belief echoed in a nomination letter written by Stephanie Hesbacher, assistant director for South Housing, Kayla Harvey, area coordinator for Clark Murphy Complex, and Teddi Walker, associate director of Residence Life at Furman.

“She helps students determine what a fulfilling career would look like, and how to live their values outwardly in their everyday lives,” according to the letter.

As a Senior Reflection Fellow, Essaf works with leadership in the Faculty Development Center’s Reflection Program, which aims to help faculty and staff think of ways to engage students in reflective practices to help them learn.

“I consider myself very lucky and honored to have my work with students be recognized to the level of these amazing past winners so early in my career because this work is something I’m incredibly passionate about,” Essaf said, looking back on the Jim Smart honorees who have come before, and her 10-year career in higher education and student affairs.

Geoffrey Habron, Department of Earth, Environmental, and Sustainability Sciences.

Suresh Muthukrishnan, chair of the EESS department, said Habron epitomizes the essence of the Jim Smart Award. Joining the Furman faculty in 2017, Habron works diligently with students and shows a “deep sense of commitment to lead them in their academic and vocational journey,” Muthukrishnan wrote in a letter of nomination – one of four nominations from the department in support of Habron.

He said Habron, with his easy way of engaging in conversations with students about their life’s calling, “is always thinking about helping students find their passion and guides them in channeling their energy toward fulfilling their dreams.”

To that end, Habron is known for bringing in recent alumni and upper-class students to the classroom to demonstrate how purpose and intent behind an action leads to successful and happy outcomes, said Muthukrishnan. He also noted that Habron incorporates reflection and vocational discussions to connect course content with life experiences, especially for the practicum class for senior sustainability science majors.

“Geoffrey provides ample examples and shares his personal experiences related to career choices, service, and the importance of having a purpose in mind,” Muthukrishnan wrote. Opening up another world of vocational possibilities, “Geoffey brings service opportunities such as Peace Corps or other similar options to our students’ attention during senior retreats.”

“He is an inspiration to both the faculty colleagues and the students at Furman. Furman is lucky to have Geoffrey as a member of the faculty,” wrote Muthukrishnan.

The award celebrates the memory of Jim Smart, known for his passion for teaching and learning, his dedication to student development and the importance he placed on students’ exploration of values and purposeful living, most notably in the context of Furman University as a liberal arts and sciences college. The award is made possible by a gift from Jim’s wife, Bonnie Smart, in memory of Jim and in honor of their two children, Rusty Smart and Susan D’Amato, a physics professor at Furman and faculty associate for the Center for Vocational Reflection.

The honorees will receive a plaque and be recognized at an upcoming in-person reception (TBA) with 2019 Jim Smart Award winner Associate Professor of Philosophy Mark Stone, whose recognition was postponed due to COVID-19. For more information about the award, contact John Harris at

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