Two professors from University of Wisconsin-Stout have been named special award recipients by the UW System and were honored Thursday, Nov. 4, in Madison.
Associate Professor Rickie-Ann Legleitner is one of 11 honorees for the Dr. P.B. Poorman Award for Outstanding Achievement on Behalf of LGBTQ+ People. Legleitner teaches in the English, philosophy and communication studies department, is the adviser of the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program and the university’s Inclusive Excellence Action Plan coordinator.
Wei Zheng, plastics engineering professor and program director, is one of 14 recipients of the Outstanding Women of Color in Education Award.
They were honored at a ceremony and reception hosted by UW System Senior Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer Warren R. Anderson. Both Zheng and Legleitner attended the ceremony.
UW System institutions submit nominations for the awards.
Dr. P.B. Poorman Award
The Dr. P.B. Poorman Award, in its 13th year, is given annually to LGBTQ+ people who have helped to create a safer and more inclusive climate. It celebrates the memory and legacy of Paula B. Poorman, a faculty member at UW-Whitewater who dedicated her life to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ people.
As a visible and vocal member of the LGBTQIA+ community at UW-Stout, Legleitner has given talks on campus aimed to dismantle stereotypes and assert the need for more inclusive environments for LGBTQIA+ students, faculty and staff.
As the adviser for the women’s, gender and sexuality studies minor, Legleitner revised the minor to include a course Introduction to Queer Studies to make the minor more inclusive.
She started as the Inclusive Excellence Action Plan coordinator in January 2020. Highlights of Legleitner’ s work include the formation of an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Team.
“I was really humbled by the award and honestly surprised,” said Legleitner, who is in her sixth year at UW-Stout. “It was incredible validation. I think anytime we are talking about a historically excluded group, we need to offer additional support to make their journey to success more equitable.”
Legleitner, who identifies as bisexual, was closeted about her sexuality as an undergraduate student except to those close to her.
“Being open about my sexuality is important to students,” Legleitner said. “I can tell them it gets better. Modeling success, modeling achievement and supporting students in their journey is important for their success. You want to make their experience better. You want them not only to graduate but to thrive while they are here at UW-Stout.”
Growing up in Fenton, Mich., Legleitner earned her bachelor’s degree at Aquinas College, her master’s degree from DePaul University and her doctorate from the University of South Dakota, all in English.
Legleitner never intended to go into teaching but found she loved it while working on her master’s degree.
“It is really rewarding work helping people figure out who they are,” Legleitner said, noting college is often a time when many students are first meeting others from diverse backgrounds. It’s vital to help students become more well-rounded as people and learn to thrive in diverse workplaces.
UW-Stout has the Qube in Merle M. Price Commons. It is the university’s headquarters for LGBTQIA+ resources, events and conducting outreach and visibility efforts across campus.
"This year’s award recipients are doing important and significant work to enhance equity and opportunity for our students, faculty and staff," said Anderson. "The UW System is honored to recognize their dedication to making our campuses and broader communities more welcoming places to live, work and learn."
Outstanding Women of Color Award
This year is the 26th anniversary of the Outstanding Women of Color in Education Award, which recognizes faculty, staff, students and residents for improving the status and climate for women and people of color and advancing the work of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Zheng has worked at UW-Stout for nearly 10 years. She has been the recipient of grants, including the WiSys Applied Research Grant and the G.A. Taft Professorship at UW-Stout. She is currently focusing her research on biodegradable polymers. She has been actively involved in the Society of Plastics Engineers.
During COVID-19, Zheng designed and implemented an online and hands-on lab course using the Microsoft Teams platform and remote control of laboratory computers. This has made learning accessible to diverse students and community learners. Such remote labs can be used for training and research activities with learners no longer required to be in the lab.
Zheng said she was surprised, honored and excited to win the award.
“To me, it is very important because it promotes diversity in the UW System, particularly in women,” Zheng said. “There is still a wide gender gap in STEM fields. Women make up less than 30% of the overall STEM workforce.”
Zheng, who was born and raised in China, has her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from East China University of Science and Technology, Shanghai, and her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Texas Tech University. She has post-doctoral education in chemical engineering from Texas Tech and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in polymer science and engineering.
The plastics field is growing with a high demand for plastics engineers, Zheng said. “There are so many opportunities and students can find their interest,” she said, including working on sustainability in the plastics industry.
Zheng encourages girls to look into STEM fields and see if there is one that is a good fit for them.
UW-Stout has been ranked No. 1 in the Best Value schools in the United States for polymer and plastics engineering students by Course Advisor.
Zheng noted that UW-Stout plastics engineering graduates earn on average $66,000 as a starting salary with 100% employment rate.
“The UW System is proud to recognize the tremendous achievements of this year’s award recipients," Anderson said. “They are enhancing opportunities for our students and benefiting our communities through their leadership, scholarship and outreach.”
UW-Stout’s Focus2030 strategic plan has five goals. They include inclusive excellence and employee success.