Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Psychology professor receives Distinguished Teaching Award

Shelly Smith-Acuna with chancellor and faculty senate president

Professor Shelly Smith-Acuna received the United Methodist Church University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award at DU's Convocation in October. Also pictured are Chancellor Robert Coombe, left, and Faculty Senate President Michael Levine-Clark.

For four years, Shelly Smith-Acuna taught second and fourth grades at Alameda Elementary school in Las Cruces, N.M. She loved teaching but wanted to be better equipped to help students who struggled with mental or emotional issues. 

Today, she’s an associate professor of psychology at DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology and the director of the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) Program. She also operates a small private practice where she works with couples and families. 

Because of her teaching excellence, the University of Denver recognized her with its Distinguished Teaching Award at the University’s Convocation in October 2009. 

“Her ability to engage students in the classroom by making them feel heard and appreciated is no doubt a testament to her days as an elementary school teacher, as well as her clinical skill,” says Gillian Taylor, a third-year student in the PsyD program. “Shelly is an invaluable resource when it comes to working with families, children and couples. She has a wealth of experience, which she skillfully integrates in to her teaching and supervision.”  

Smith-Acuna’s impact on students is lasting. Sheila Kamlet graduated from the PsyD program in 2006 and now has a private practice in Denver. 

“I continue to seek out her guidance,” Kamlet says. “It is rare in life that someone comes along and makes an indelible impact upon the future of an individual, a community and an institution. Shelly has done that and more.” 

Smith-Acuna advises and mentors students who work with clients at GSPP’s Professional Psychology Center. Kamlet says Smith-Acuna gives students valuable feedback but also gives them the confidence to handle the most difficult clients. 

Smith-Acuna also advises students on an academic and personal level. 

“She does a beautiful job offering support without negating the potential growth that can arise for the student facing a challenge,” Kamlet says. “She is a role model for me demonstrating how women can be intelligent and strong while balancing those qualities with compassion and justice.” 

Smith-Acuna also is highly valued by her colleagues. Lavita Nadkarni, associate professor and director of the Forensic Studies Program at GSPP, has co-authored articles and served on committees with Smith-Acuna. 

“Her superb relational skills allow her to make enormous strides on a local, community and national level,” Nadkarni says. “She is a gracious and talented emissary for the University, and a valued colleague and friend.” 

At GSPP, professors are encouraged to have a private practice so they can share their experience and learning with students. 

“Shelly is a consummate teacher,” says Peter Buirski, GSPP dean. “She is a role model for how one conducts oneself as a professional psychologist.” 

It’s a role Smith-Acuna embraces. 

“I love that I get to teach what I’m passionate about,” she says. “And my teaching informs my clinical work, and my clinical work improves my teaching. We are a special program in that we really celebrate a practice-based model.”

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