Teaching Techniques, Cultural Appreciation Lead to Becker Award for Mason Professor Emeritus

By Jamie Rogers

Don Boileau, Professor Emeritus, CHSS. Photo by Creative Services

Don Boileau, Professor Emeritus, CHSS. Photo by Creative Services

Professor Emeritus Don Boileau walks into a small coffee shop on the Fairfax Campus of George Mason University, the place where he’s taught hundreds of communication classes over his 27-year tenure. Though it’s been almost six months since he retired, he’s still well known and much loved at the university.

As he passes a group of students, he’s instantly recognized by one who jovially asks if Boileau remembers her from his intercultural communication class.

“I loved that class! I’m going to give you a hug!” the student exclaims, before wrapping her arms around his neck.

It is this appreciation for his work, his professionalism and his knowledge of communication that earned Boileau the prestigious Samuel L. Becker Service Award from the National Communication Association. The award is presented annually to one person who made the greatest contribution to the association and to his or her profession through teaching, service or research, according to the association’s website.

Boileau, 72, notes he still has no idea who nominated him for the award, but he’s hoping he’ll find out on Nov. 22 at the National Communication Association’s annual convention in Chicago. “It’s the highest award they give. For me, it’s just a fantastic honor,” Boileau says.

During his time at Mason, Boileau served as department chair for 13 years and taught 22 different classes.

“A huge part of my success is understanding that each faculty member is part of a university and not just part of a department, and that university is a part of a state and a country,” he says.

Of all the classes he has taught, Boileau says the experiences of the students in his intercultural communication classes are perhaps the most memorable.

Instead of having his students write essays on a country or culture group, Boileau required them to spend at least eight hours with a person of a different culture, nationality, language or ethnic group from their own to write about.

He encouraged them to pick a stranger to interview for the project, to help them break down what Boileau calls the “lens of cultural barriers.”

Some of his students spent time with strangers from India and Cambodia. One student traveled to Quebec with a family member and found a subject; another spent time with an Amish person in their neighborhood. Most found ideal subjects in their classrooms and neighborhoods or among their friends.

Boileau, who lives in Reston, says Mason’s location near Washington, D.C., is what enabled the students to carry out this assignment.

“There’s this richness of learning that is ours,” he says.  He has read more than 1,500 of these reports and truly understands the diversity of this area.

His students’ experiences in his course have also inspired him. He’s working on a book titled “The Neighbor Next Door,” based on what he learned over the years from his intercultural communication students and their interactions with strangers while doing their assignments.