KU student, professor’s tight-knit connection leads to award

Posted on Oct 10, 2019 in Campus News and News

Hailey Solomon

Since 1959, KU seniors have chosen a professor to receive the H.O.P.E. Award to Honor an Outstanding Progressive Educator. The award, established by the Class of 1959 and given each year through the Board of Class Officers, is the only teaching honor bestowed by the senior class.

Hailey Solomon, a senior from Oswego, nominated her civil engineering professor, Matt O’Reilly. When he was selected as a finalist, Solomon attended the Oct. 5 KU-OU football game to support her mentor. Uninterested in the game itself, Solomon brought her crocheting and presumed her presence had gone unnoticed.

Four million Twitter and Facebook views later, she had become a social media sensation.

“It was incredibly surprising to go to exactly one football game in my entire college career and leave it as a meme, but I’m thankful for the experience,” Solomon says. “If a 30-second video of me contentedly crocheting brings people joy, then I’m joyful too!”

O’Reilly, an associate professor, is one of the few people Solomon would attend a game for. She credits his guidance as an adviser during freshman orientation as the reason she had the confidence to pursue engineering. An excerpt from her nomination form shows O’Reilly’s investment in his students, even before they are in his classroom.

“You can absolutely be successful in engineering because engineering, like everything, is so much more than it appears,” O’Reilly told Solomon. “It’s not just math and science; it’s writing, communication, teamwork, design, and so much more. You can’t judge yourself based on what you’re not, otherwise you’ll never accomplish anything. You have to make decisions based on what you’re good at and get help with the rest.”

Standing on the field during the award presentation, O’Reilly presumed one of his fellow finalists already received word he or she had won, so when “Dr. O’Reilly” blared over the loudspeaker as the winner, it took a second to sink in. Then he jumped with surprise.

“Most of my students call me Dr. Matt, so it took me a bit longer to respond to ‘O’Reilly’ and realize ‘he’ was me,” he says. “Nothing like jumping in shock when you’re on the Jumbotron.”

O’Reilly’s care for his students led to the H.O.P.E. Award. He fills his lectures with humor, makes video tutorials for difficult lab procedures, and grades every assignment, including exams, the day they are turned in. His open-door policy extends beyond office hours: He has been known to drive to campus on a Saturday to help a student understand a topic that was better explained in person.

“I know my students like and appreciate what I do, and that’s always been a source of happiness for me,” O’Reilly says. “I couldn’t imagine having a better career than teaching.”

His style derives from his own favorite teachers, student feedback, and trial and error. He constantly adjusts to best suit the needs of his students.

“The common thread was always putting students first and treating them with respect, and I strive to always hold myself to that,” he says.

As for Solomon, her crocheting is more than a hobby. She co-founded Warm the World, a student organization that makes warm clothes and blankets to donate to local homeless shelters and soup kitchens. The group meets every other Wednesday in the Union and is open to all students, regardless of skill level.

Solomon’s 15 minutes of fame made for a fun weekend, but the real story continues a cherished 60-year KU tradition: Matt O’Reilly’s teaching has earned him a place among the professors enshrined on the H.O.P.E Award plaque in the Kansas Union.

—Brianna Mears

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