Kristen Thornton awarded College of Engineering’s Staff Excellence Award for her unwavering dedication and exemplary service to students

PhD Coordinator Kristen Thornton continues to go above and beyond for the ECE graduate student community by creating new events, new office hours, and helping to launch a new Master’s program all during the global pandemic.

Kristen Thornton headshot Enlarge

Kristen Thornton, the PhD Program Coordinator for Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been awarded a Staff Excellence Award from the College of Engineering in recognition of her exemplary service to students over the years.

“Kristen has supported me through every step of my PhD program,” says PhD student Haley Northrup, who serves on the ECE Graduate Student Council. “She brings joy to the department through her positivity, holiday sweaters, open door policy, unending patience and kindness.”

She brings joy to the department through her positivity, holiday sweaters, open door policy, unending patience and kindness.

Haley Northrup, ECE PhD student

Thornton handles all administrative duties that support ECE PhD students from their initial registration, through candidacy, to their final defense or graduation. She manages the admissions paperwork, plans of study, preparing and filing nominations for fellowships and other awards, and she keeps track of academic requirements and deadlines.

She excelled so much in this role that she was chosen to manage four additional graduate certificate programs outside of ECE: Data Science (the university’s largest certificate program), the Engineering Education Research program, Computational Discovery and Engineering, and Plasma Science and Engineering. She was also instrumental in starting, coordinating, and supporting the ECE PhD Peer Mentoring Program, which began in 2019 and continues today.

“As her supervisor, I am continuously overwhelmed with the number of positive comments I receive regarding Kristen,” says Lisa Armstrong, the Unit Administrator for ECE. “She consistently goes above and beyond to support the students and the entire department. We call her, ‘Happy Ears,’ after Mickey Mouse, because she always brings the positive energy.”

After the pandemic shifted everything to remote work, Thornton went out of her way to check in with every PhD student via Zoom, so she could connect them with resources and ensure they felt supported. She began hosting office hours at 3:00 AM and virtual game nights at 7:00 PM to accommodate students in international time zones and keep them connected to one other.

“Kristen welcomes each student with her warmhearted smiles and kind greetings,” says Tianlin Wang, who graduated from U-M in 2020 with a PhD in Electrical Engineering and is currently a President’s Postdoctoral Scholar at Ohio State University. “She really cares about everyone in the program, and she is very passionate about facilitating each student’s success in his or her coursework, research, and career development.”

She really cares about everyone in the program, and she is very passionate about facilitating each student’s success in his or her coursework, research, and career development.

Tianlin Wang (EE PhD 2020)

To reduce administrative burden and increase efficiency, Thornton worked with IT to develop a new web-based system for development and approval of plans of study. This process allows for paperless interactions between the students, student services staff, and faculty.

Kristen’s support of graduate students includes the Master’s students as well. She created the program handbook and website content for ECE’s new Master of Engineering program, and she developed virtual information sessions that encouraged admitted international MS students to enroll rather than defer admission. With her efforts, ECE’s MS enrollment remained steady in the Fall and increased for the Winter semester.

“I want to convey the sense of gratitude I feel for Kristen’s consistently excellent performance, particularly for what she has accomplished over the past year, which is nothing short of miraculous,” says Prof. Heath Hofmann who’s served as the Associate Chair of Graduate Affairs for ECE the past three years. “The ECE graduate program, and the College, owes her a great debt.”

In addition to her administrative excellence, Thornton is known for going above and beyond to celebrate student success while fostering a supportive, inclusive, and family atmosphere in ECE. For example, after passing the highly rigorous PhD qualification exams, she hosts a party for the students and personally provides a celebratory Costco cake. Every month, she fills a candy bowl on her desk with treats from another country to give students a “little piece of home.”

When the pandemic shut down ECE’s annual cultural events, Thornton took the lead on developing a new virtual event series, the “ECE Culture Club.” Each month, an ECE student, faculty, or staff member, gives a presentation on their home country, region, and/or culture, showcasing the different traditions, languages, food, crafts, history, and more. These events have been immensely popular with the community, and multiple students have remarked on how these activities have promoted bonding and inclusivity.

As head of the ECE Positivity Committee, Thornton organizes bonding events for faculty and staff such as potlucks, ice cream socials, and chili cookoffs. She brought in therapy dogs and purchased “happy lights” to help with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and she frequently leaves coworkers treats and notes of encouragement and appreciation.

“Kristen is thoughtful, caring, selfless, enthusiastic, organized, accurate, and always positive,” says Ian Hiskens, the Vennema Professor of Engineering and Chair of the ECE Master of Science program. “There could not possibly be a more deserving recipient of this award.”