Anatomy’s Karla Coburn honored with 2023 John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching

Karla Coburn

Nearly two decades ago, Karla Coburn gave up a career in dentistry to pursue her dream of becoming an educator. As that mid-career pivot demonstrated, her desire to lead and care for students comes from deep within.

“Teaching is my true passion,” said Coburn, “and my goal is to offer the best learning experience to my students, striving to positively impact their lives. To that end, I am attentive to their feedback and constantly working on improving my teaching methodologies.” 

Her enthusiasm for teaching is also what sets her apart—and what’s earned her recognition as a recipient of the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching, an honor she will receive during the School of Graduate Studies diploma ceremony Friday, May 19. As her nomination materials indicated, Coburn regularly goes the extra mile for her students, even if it means adjusting her approach to better support their success.

“When I was a teaching assistant for her histology class, Dr. Coburn restructured the entire class because she understood exactly what the students needed to be successful,” said Zeyna Samba, one student who nominated Coburn for this recognition. “She listened to the prior class’s feedback and reworked the class for the better. Only a professor who really cares about her students would do that.”

Coburn’s compassion also made an impact on Samba. A Brazilian citizen and native Portuguese speaker, Coburn is easily able to demonstrate her empathy for students from different backgrounds. 

“As a pre-med student of color, I never felt that I belonged [at CWRU] until I met Dr. Coburn,” explained Samba. “She took the time to reassure me that I was a CWRU student and had every right to be here. For the first time ever, I felt seen as a student.” 

Handling her student relationships with care in a holistic manner is essential to Coburn’s classroom approach. This dedication encourages students to grow—inside and outside of the classroom.

“Dr. Coburn has had a positive impact on both my academic and personal life,” said student Olivia Ballentine. “I have had multiple experiences in the past where professors are almost exclusively concerned about the class average and do not care much about the individual students. Dr. Coburn is the opposite—she is dedicated to each student equally and wants all of us to succeed in learning.”

About the award

The Diekhoff Award honors John S. Diekhoff, a distinguished scholar, teacher, mentor and administrator who served Case Western Reserve in several capacities during his tenure from 1956 to 1970: professor of English, chair of the Department of English, dean of Cleveland College, acting dean of the School of Graduate Studies and vice provost of the university.

The Diekhoff Award, established in 1978, recognizes outstanding contributions to the education of graduate students through advising and classroom teaching. The annual award is presented to two faculty members who epitomize what it means to teach graduate students: to connect them with experts in their discipline, engage them academically in a forthright and collegial manner, and actively promote their professional development. In 2009, the Diekhoff Award was expanded to recognize two additional full-time faculty members who excel in the mentoring of graduate students. A committee of graduate studies students reviews the nominations and recommends winners.