By Brittany Worthington, Marketing Student Assistant
In the midst of classes, homework, part-time jobs, internships, and a social life, it takes a special student to choose to spend what extra time they have volunteering. Texas Performing Arts is lucky to have a network of UT student volunteers who serve as campus arts ambassadors, volunteer ushers, and members of our student organization, Hook 'em Arts.
Texas Performing Arts thrives off of the enthusiasm and commitment of our student volunteers; without them, the show might in fact, not go on. In gratitude of these exemplary students, TPA recognizes two UT students each year who go above and beyond with the Robert L. Tocker Student Volunteers of the Year Award.
Named in honor of Robert L. Tocker, long-time patron and supporter of Texas Performing Arts, the Tocker Award celebrates students who exemplify the spirit of volunteerism by helping and giving back. A dentist and a Korean War veteran who served as an Asst. Battalion Surgeon in Korea in a forward aid station on the main line of resistance, a place infamously known as "Pork Chop Hill," Robert Tocker was himself a TPA volunteer usher with a strong sense of public service. Speaking with Kathy Panoff, TPA Director and Associate Dean, she said, "he would always talk about how much he loved to usher. His favorite event was graduation because he got to shake everyone’s hand, especially at doctoral graduations, because he got to say, 'Congratulations, Doctor,' and he himself was a doctor." So when the time came to create a student volunteer award, the namesake was a no-brainer. "I couldn't think of a better way to honor him after he died [in 2015] than with the volunteer student award," said Panoff.
The recipients of the award are selected by Student Engagement Coordinator, Tim Rogers, and Guest Services Manager, Sarah Andrews, who heads our Volunteer Usher Program. The winners of this year’s second annual Tocker Award were junior Wendy Fernandez and sophomore Vinay Thomas, pictured above with Kathy Panoff.
Last year, Wendy Fernandez was one of Hook 'em Arts' most active members, serving as the organization's historian as well as on the special events committee. She continued to volunteer even after taking on a part-time student employment position as a receptionist.
The creativity and commitment she brought to each endeavor continuously impressed Rogers. During the awards presentation, Rogers spoke to Fernandez's willingness to lend a helping hand and take on more work despite an already full schedule: "Ally, a former Hook 'em Arts member, was in charge of Loft events, but when she needed to take time away from that position to perform with the Opera, Wendy stepped up to be more involved and make things happen. This extra effort and sense of teamwork and general helpfulness not only allowed us to finish strong last year, but made the transition of one of our most visible student programs completely seamless."
The recognition came as a particular shock to Fernandez who almost missed her moment in the spotlight completely. "I was late!" Fernandez laughed. "Before going over there, I was just taking my time. Then a friend drove me [to the party] and the entire time Tim was texting me saying, 'Are you almost here? Are you almost here?' Then I walk in and go to the table to check-in when I hear my name and everyone just turns to look at me and claps and I was so confused! I didn't know what was happening. So someone just grabbed me and pushed me up to the stage!"
But perhaps even more surprising to Fernandez was the idea that all her involvement with TPA and Hook ‘em Arts is considered volunteer "work." She said, "it almost doesn’t feel like volunteering because volunteering is like work and this is more like fun for me. I just genuinely enjoy this, so it never feels like I’m working or volunteering my time because I just want to be here doing these things." As an English major, Fernandez's volunteer work—helping with the Loft and special events—provides her with an outlet for her love of theater and a desire to promote the arts to her fellow Longhorns.
Vinay Thomas, the second Tocker Award recipient, was lauded by Sarah Andrews for his exceptional positivity and active involvement with Hook 'em Arts and the volunteer usher program, alongside his other on and off-campus commitments. "Vinay volunteered for nine shows last season and is a very poised, professional, personable, and engaged young man," said Andrews. "Vinay is a student with the Butler School of Music, a member of the Fine Arts Council, is involved in the UT choirs, and sings in his church choir. He was the most active member of Hook 'em Arts both semesters last year—volunteering for nearly every opportunity and helping out with almost every event." Not to mention he always greets everyone he sees with a smile and a "good morning."
For Thomas, the award represented something more personal. "Of course I enjoyed the recognition, but more than that, it made me realize I found a niche at UT. As an arts student, I found a lot of comfort in ushering and being involved in that part of campus."
Through initiatives like the Tocker Award, Texas Performing Arts hopes to cultivate new generations more preoccupied with what they can give than get back. "I think to be recognized for volunteerism when you’re young creates an incentive to stick with it...One of the things I always tell student volunteers and employees is that you really need to make a commitment to pay your experience at TPA forward and set an example for someone else," said Panoff.
Putting yourself out there in a new place during a huge transitional phase of your life can feel daunting, but Thomas assures his fellow students that it’s all worth it. He encourages others to take advantage of their time at UT by getting involved in volunteer opportunities around campus. "College is the time to try new things and that’s certainly the mindset I took," said Thomas. "You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You meet new people. This is just another thing to try and if you go about it the right way I think you’ll like it." Thomas is committed to staying an active volunteer: "Actions speak louder than words, so I’ll keep being involved. I’ve been really blessed to find TPA and Hook 'em Arts."
Individuals like Robert Tocker, Wendy Fernandez, and Vinay Thomas represent a standard of excellence when it comes to their generosity of time and spirit that the world needs in order to thrive. "What would we do in this world without volunteers?" asked Panoff. "Think about what’s going on in Houston or what happened after Katrina. Volunteerism is important. I think there is a real sense of community, of wanting to raise up the community collectively by helping everyone. I would see this as just a tiny example of that within an organization on campus."
In the end, Fernandez drove to the core of what makes such involvement so meaningful: "It's the best way to broaden your horizons and learn more about the world, while at the same time having a lot of fun and meeting the best people."