George Norlin Award:
Educator. Researcher. Mentor. Leader.
There are many ways to describe Jackie Colt. The most important might be this: Change-maker.
Jackie dedicated her 40-year career in public education to improving literacy and the student experience, as a district literacy coordinator, CU instructor and chair of CU’s School of Education Advisory Board.
Perhaps her most significant contribution began in Longmont’s St. Vrain Valley School District, where she directed the Right Start Reading Project. In addition to pulling struggling readers out of class, the program integrated remedial reading instruction into elementary classrooms. This unprecedented approach was especially helpful for special education and bilingual students.
“The Right Start Reading Project created a culture shift in the school,” a peer said. “Everyone became a teacher of reading.”
District-wide literacy levels improved dramatically, and the project model was later implemented around the country. “Her efforts and results were monumental — all because she not only believed all students could learn, but developed a program that proved it,” another peer said.
As a clinical professor at CU, Jackie married research and teaching, using the fruit of her research to reform the way future teachers learn reading instruction.
“Researchers often have difficulty making their work accessible to practitioners,” said one scholar, “but with Jackie on the team, we were able to bridge that gap for the benefit of teachers, administrators and students.”
Now retired, Jackie continues to support literacy for adults as a volunteer. She also contributes to a CU scholarship supporting educators who teach in high-poverty schools. Thousands of students continue to benefit from her life’s work.
Sometimes, all you need to solve a tough problem is a rocket scientist with a good golf game.
Fortunately, at least one exists: Safwan Shah studied both electrical and aerospace engineering at CU Boulder before establishing himself as a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur in financial technologies, or FinTech.
Along the way, he designed experiments for the US space program and researched artificial neural networks and AI.
Today Safwan is CEO and founder of PayActiv, which helps workers gain instant and timely access to earned wages, alleviating financial stress between pay periods and allowing them to avoid punitive fees of pawn shops and predatory lenders. Walmart, ADP, Visa, Uber and many others partner with PayActiv.
Earlier, Safwan cofounded Infonox, which produced payments technology widely used in the casino industry and also developed the first biometric ATM.
Born in Pakistan and now a California resident, Safwan met his wife, Ginni Dhindsa, in Boulder. He is an intimidatingly good golfer with a voracious appetite for new knowledge, a friend said.
Safwan has taught at Cal-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and UC Santa Cruz’s Baskin School of Engineering, and advised CU Boulder on innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives.
“Safwan is a perpetual learner, reading everything he can get his hands on, absorbing, analyzing, critiquing and challenging ideas often taken for granted,” a friend said. “He challenges the status quo constantly and has the unique ability to apply knowledge from the multitude of physical and social sciences to finding solutions that could have a meaningful impact on society.
“His passion for learning is only matched with his love for sharing his knowledge.”
Robert L. Stearns Award:
As CU Boulder’s assistant vice chancellor for diversity, learning and student success, Dave helps students achieve their goal of obtaining a college education successfully. His work focuses on supporting students who come from historically underrepresented groups such as first-generation college students.
Dave’s humility and mild manner mask his determination to broaden access to the transformative experience of a CU Boulder education.
He’s been at it since his own student days, when he served as CU student body president collaborating with groups across campus to promote inclusive ideas.
After graduation, he worked in admissions, then became associate director (and later director) of the engineering college’s Multicultural Engineering Program. It evolved into the nationally esteemed BOLD Center.
Over decades, Dave has developed a variety of programs for underserved youth, attracted financial support for them and fostered appreciation for the social and practical barriers some students face.
Admirers praise his “awe-inspiring ability to build bridges and connect people and groups with integrity” and his “authentic and lasting relationships with students.”
He’s published academic papers, advised DACA students and nurtured alliances with the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program and other groups invested in the belief that diversity is a strength.
“Dave takes on the very human work of listening to students and then putting them in a position to be successful,” said a former student, “and there is no way to do what Dave does just through projects and programming.”
Sona Dimidjian is a real life superwoman. Channeling psychology as her superpower, she fights for global wellness and a better tomorrow — accomplishing more than seems humanly possible for one person.
In 13 years at CU Boulder, Sona has served as a professor, lab director, faculty fellow, and member and chair of numerous committees. She has received a multitude of accolades for her valuable research and work in clinical psychology, including faculty service, teaching and research awards from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.
Sona’s service extends beyond CU and improves communities across Colorado and the world. From rural India to urban Colorado, she works with communities to enhance mental health support and wellness. Her internationally recognized body of rigorous scholarship and innovative approach to mental health interventions have established her as a world-renowned clinical psychologist.
To young scholars, Sona exemplifies a balance between academia and activism — proving that it’s possible to be both a researcher and an advocate.
“In Dr. Dimidjian, they see a mentor who is bridging the worlds of research and practice in transformative ways,” said a faculty peer.
While some may puzzle over where Sona finds the time and energy for all her professional accomplishments — and wonder if she maybe is Superwoman — at least one colleague thinks he knows the source of her superpowers.
“I think the answer is that all of her activities are driven by an incredible passion for her work,” said the colleague, “and by the belief that she can make a difference in every realm of her life.”
Todd Gleeson is the MVP — the teammate people hope for and the leader they look up to. And luckily for Buffs, his home team is CU Boulder.
An academic jack-of-all-trades, Todd’s vast number of positions within the College of Arts and Sciences, including professor and dean, has benefitted from his dizzying array and diversity of skills — intellectual, social and practical. From leading CU’s largest college to setting up fundraising tents at dawn, no task is ever too awesome or too modest for him.
In 38 years at CU, Todd has also served as associate vice chancellor for faculty affairs, director of the Health Professions Residential Academic Program and mentor for legions. His impressive fundraising work for the college includes the establishment of the Buffalo Bicycle Classic, which has raised over $3.9 million for student scholarships, the construction of the $63 million Visual Arts Complex and a partnership with CU Engineering on the joint $170 Biotechnology Building.
He also helped establish new programming in Arts and Sciences — in the midst of the Great Recession — in several areas including Jewish studies, neurosciences, Asian languages and ethnic studies.
Todd has built lasting enterprises and won universal respect among colleagues because he leads by example — sharing in the workload and exuding respect for and commitment to others.
“Todd had come to embody the college,” a faculty peer said of Todd’s years as dean. “He was the college, in many ways.”
More than one colleague praised his talents as the shepherd everyone craved and needed.
“He brought a spirit of collegiality and community to a college faculty that is far more difficult to lead,” said a peer, “than it would be to herd an equivalent number of cats.”
Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Graduate Award:
For young Buffs, Savannah Sellers is an inspiring reminder that it’s possible to achieve one’s professional dreams — and that it doesn’t have to take decades.
Through hard work, self-confidence and perseverance, Savannah has risen fast at NBC News in the six years since her 2013 graduation from CU Boulder. She began her career working as an NBC page before becoming an executive assistant to MSNBC’s president. Now, Savannah co-hosts NBC News’s innovative Snapchat news service, Stay Tuned, and is one of the youngest people on air at the network level.
A media industry trailblazer, Savannah has been described by one fellow CU alum as “a breath of fresh air” and “a force for international good.” Her show, Stay Tuned, has nearly 10 million subscribers and a daily audience of at least 5 million millennials and Gen Z-ers — reaching a new demographic in a new way.
From her Emmy-winning documentary work reporting on heroin addiction to her interviews with Parkland shooting survivors and former Vice President Joe Biden, Savannah has a way of bringing a story to life and connecting with an audience.
“She has a special ability to tell stories in a way that makes young people feel understood, informed and inspired,” said a colleague.
At CU Boulder’s 2019 spring commencement, Savannah’s keynote address encouraged graduating Buffs to chase their dreams — and to remember that success depends on how one copes with challenges.
“She has brought inspiration to students of CU Boulder and students across the nation,” said a recent CU alum, “especially to young women in journalism.”
Alumni Recognition Award:
Well-being is at the heart of Daniel Conroy’s (Hum’91) work. As co-founder and director of the CU Collegiate Recovery Center (CUCRC), he offers support and community to students struggling with addiction. Some credit him with saving their lives.
The CUCRC is a non-clinical space in the University Memorial Center where students support each other, with professional help, as they grapple with substance use disorders, mental health issues and other personal challenges. Ninety-five percent of participants graduate or remain enrolled in classes at CU.
Early in his career, while working at Sierra Tucson and CEDU (pronounced see doo), Daniel noticed gaps in support for young adults returning home following substance use disorder and mental health treatment. He began consulting for schools, treatment centers, wilderness programs and residential programs about ways to improve the long-term outlook for young adults facing mental health issues.
In 1999, Daniel and his wife, Mae Martin, began AIM House in Boulder, a residential program for young adults recovering from substance and mental health issues. They have successfully treated thousands of participants and their families. Now in its 21st year, AIM House is thriving.
Said a long-time colleague: “Daniel embodies that rare combination of creative entrepreneurship and compassionate service that makes positive change possible.”
Daniel also helps other Colorado universities establish recovery programs. And former CUCRC students have followed his lead and begun programs elsewhere, including Wake Forest and Iowa.
“In 2013, I got sober. In 2016 I graduated from CU,” said a CUCRC alum. “Those are two of my greatest accomplishments, and Danny was there active during every step of my journey.”
Brian Cowan (Mktg’79) was a CU superfan for the ages.
The former U.S. Navy commander and hard-driving entrepreneur, who died in January at age 61, served the Alumni Association board for seven memorable years, including two as chair, combining a businessman’s discipline with a cheerleader’s spirit to the lasting benefit of the CU Boulder community.
A vigorous champion for the revival of a robust and varied Homecoming Weekend, Brian cared deeply about connecting Buffs with each other. He led the establishment of a formal alumni reunion program, hosted dinner for groups of Buffs in his Virginia home and financially supported several key Alumni Association initiatives. At every board meeting, he belted the “CU Fight Song,” often in a large cowboy hat.
Brian, a ROTC student at CU, spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy, retiring in 2001 at the rank of Commander. He went on to earn an MBA from the University of Virginia and founded his own information technology and supply chain management consulting business, Cowan & Associates. His commitment to country never wavered: In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, he responded as a civilian to the flaming Pentagon to help with rescue operations.
Brian, a father of four, died Jan. 14, 2019. The cause was brain cancer. He was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with military honors.
The CU Boulder community mourns his loss and will be forever proud and grateful for his service to country and to CU. He was, in the words of a friend and fellow CU alumna, “a true servant-leader.”
Leanne Skupa-Lee Award:
To know Carrie Scott was to know passion, tenacity and kindness. One of her greatest passions was her alma mater, where her legacy lives on in the community she nurtured and the students whose lives she touched.
A devoted CU Boulder fundraiser and Parent Leadership Society leader, Carrie loyally served CU until her death last year at age 60.
After shepherding daughter Shoshanna (Art’17) into the CU family, she catalyzed the growth of the CU parent community in Southern California, hosting events at her home and generating major financial resources for CU student services.
“The southern California community continues to grow today thanks to Carrie,” a CU partner said.
Carrie, who had a 20-year career in advertising, was also involved in a series of charities, including Dollies Making a Difference, Birthright, Stop Cancer and Jewish Federation. She loved strolling beaches, playing Mahjong, scuba diving and traveling.
While at CU, she attended Semester at Sea — paying for it herself by successfully auditioning for Hollywood Squares and winning $15,000 in prizes.
In addition to Shoshanna, Carrie is survived by her children Zachary and Rachel, and her husband of 31 years, Michael B. Scott.
“Carrie once told me that the best thing you could do for the world is to help children achieve their goals in life,” a fellow CU parent said. “She did just that, time and time again.”
Up until a month before she died of cancer, Carrie was still referring students and parents to her beloved CU. Said another CU parent, “Colorado was ingrained in her soul.”
Scott Steinbrecher is a big-picture guy who sweats the details.
When he coordinated a CU scholarship fundraising event, nothing went unnoticed. Tickets for 200 people, food and drinks to satisfy a crowd, a busy silent auction… Scott juggled it all.
Amid the happy hubbub, Scott, an international student programs coordinator at CU Denver, kept the event’s fundraising mission front and center. He’s proud to have raised and awarded over $75,000 in scholarships for incoming CU freshmen during his time with the Boulder alumni chapter. Of course, he had lots of enthusiastic Boulder chapter volunteers also hard at work in generating those funds.
An active CU volunteer since 1990, Scott has led the Boulder alumni chapter and chaired its scholarships committee. He‘s also been an important voice on the Alumni Association Board of Advisors.
Also a member of CU Advocates, the university’s official grassroots network, Scott has helped build a stronger link between the program and the Boulder alumni chapter, to the benefit of students, alumni and community members.
“He is always keeping an eye out for appropriate connections to advance the reach, exposure and mission of CU,” a fellow Advocate said.
Always looking for unique ways to support, celebrate and recruit students, Scott has represented the university at college admission fairs and serves on the board of the Buffalo Bicycle Classic, which raises money for CU scholarships. In 2017 and 2018, he even led the Homecoming Parade down Pearl Street, ensuring that the student groups did not run into the band.
Whether he’s juggling details or rousing a crowd, Scott keeps CU close to his heart.
As a Directors Club member put it, “Scott represents what it means to be a truly engaged alum, putting countless time and energy into strengthening our alumni association and alumni family.”
Forever Buffs Student Award:
When Jessica Mason’s (PoliSci’20) mom dropped her off at CU freshman year, she said, “You only have four years, you should make the best of it: Go.”
Jessica hit the ground running.
She joined the student government and began lobbying city and state officials about affordability issues and the pre-leasing process for student rentals — important issues for CU students. Promoted to associate justice of the Student Supreme Court in February of 2018, she’s risen to deputy chief justice, overseeing student government elections and reviewing student legislative actions. Some nights she works until 2 a.m.
“I can affirm her good character, organizational discipline, intellectual curiosity, critical thinking and her unwavering spirit to never give in to life’s challenges,” her academic advisor said.
Jessica, who grew up in Trinidad, Colo. and moved to Pueblo West in high school, has also been a peer mentor on campus and a journey leader, or person who helps new students adjust to the campus lifestyle. Having spent most of her childhood in a town of eight thousand people, she knows a big place like CU can induce culture shock. Today Jess mentors other journey leaders for New Student and Family Programs, helping ensure that thousands of new students make a smooth transition to college.
In between classes, student government, mentoring, and being president of Pi Sigma Alpha, she nannies a seven year-old child three days a week.
“I honestly thrive on being busy,” she said, “I’m not somebody who likes to sit at home.”
A member of Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Coed Fraternity, Jess plans to attend law school.
Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Graduate Award:
Savannah Sellers (Jour'13)
Forever Buffs Student Award:
Jessica Mason (PolSci'20)
*Awards being given posthumously.