Published: Nov. 3, 2023

Buff pride filled the air at the 94th CU Boulder Alumni Awards event in the Glenn Miller Ballroom Thursday, the official kick off of Homecoming festivities.

The Alumni Awards are one of the longest standing traditions of the university. A variety of awards honor some of CU Boulder’s best and brightest alumni, faculty, student and staff members. 

Awardees were honored with a video tribute, presentation of awards by Chancellor Philip DiStefano (who recently announced plans to retire), and brief remarks to an audience of roughly 400 people. The event was livestreamed for those unable to attend. 

“One of the things I’ll miss most is being part of events like this, where we get to celebrate the incredible successes of CU Boulder alumni and supporters,” said DiStefano, who received a standing ovation from the crowd. “You can’t go too far without encountering our talented and distinguished alumni.” 

“Thank you for serving as role models and visionaries and for driving the university forward in your own individual ways.”

Here’s a list of award winners. 

George Norlin Award: Janine Davidson (ArchEngr’88)

With every step of Davidson’s combined 30 years of academic, civilian and military service, she has demonstrated a commitment to excellence and the betterment of society and her community—precisely what the prestigious George Norlin Award stands for.

During her career, the current president of the Metropolitan State University of Denver, Davidson initially held many roles within the U.S. Department of Defense, including deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans, where she oversaw the formulation and review of military war plans and global force posture policy. For her work, she was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service. 

Her military service culminated as the 32nd Under Secretary of the U.S. Navy, as appointed by President Barack Obama. During that time, she planned the execution of a $900-billion, five-year budget, ensuring readiness, modernization and the health of 900,000 military and civilian personnel and their families.

In her present role, Davidson has staunchly supported the DREAM Act and the university’s DACA students, as well as its minoritized, military and veteran students. 

Alumni Recognition Award: Kim Christiansen (Jour’84)

Christiansen has appeared as a friendly, calm presence in the homes of Coloradans for more than 30 years. As the lead anchor of Denver’s 9News broadcast, she has earned a reputation as a trusted source for news—and beyond. 

Since 2016, the nine-time Emmy Award winner has dedicated hours of her time to CU Boulder’s annual Alumni Awards ceremony as emcee and video narrator.

Christiansen, who grew up and lives in Arvada, is a staunch Colorado advocate. You’ll also find her in the stands of Folsom Field on a football game day with her family, fully decked out in Buffs gear and brimming with school pride. 

She is the epitome of a Forever Buff. As a journalism student in the 1980s—where she also was twirler for the marching band—she credits the foundations of writing and reporting she learned with helping her land her first job at the 9News station in 1985. She’s also now a parent to a recent graduate. 

Alumni Recognition Award: Olivia Omega (Bus’01)

A proven leader in the Denver community, Omega has a passion for inspiring young people to make their dreams a reality. And her values of inclusion and access drive both her career and community contributions. 

As a TEDx speaker, diversity and inclusion advocate, author, branding strategist and seasoned entrepreneur, Omega has more than 20 years of brand positioning and digital marketing experience across startup, nonprofit, and public and private sectors. During this time she has studied the importance of authenticity for both brands and individuals—and what it means for personal brands to show up in a genuine way.

As senior director of marketing and communications at the nonprofit Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF), Omega helps make college possible for students and builds the educational and economic future of Denver. 

Given her own familiarity of growing up in a single-parent, low-income home, she is personally dedicated to helping students receive the support, resources and guidance they need to access the educational and professional pathways of their choice. 

Robert L. Stearns Award: Sara McDonald (Mgmt’01)

Since her earliest role as a student employee, McDonald has consistently been a reliable and irreplaceable leader at CU Boulder. 

Fond of saying she grew up in the CU Boulder School of Education, she watched her mother, Patty McDonald, build an unassailable reputation as a trusted administrator in her 32 years with the school. 

In 2001, McDonald graduated from CU with a degree in business management, then worked her way up to her current position as senior director of operations at the School of Education, a community she has lovingly served and played an essential role in leading for over 20 years. 

Described by colleagues as the “heart and soul of the School of Education,” McDonald plans and runs many of the school’s events. Using her master’s degree in information and learning technologies from CU Denver, she manages technology, IT and logistical needs for all school spaces, students, faculty and staff. 

McDonald has also embraced CU Boulder’s diversity, equity and inclusion commitments, making her a source of refuge for many students of color and LGBTQ+ leaders seeking a safe space. Recently, she started a Staff of Color Alliance, and she has also served on the School of Education’s Strategic Planning Committee and Equity and Justice Committee.

Leanne Skupa-Lee Award: Stephen Hatfield (Bus’96)

Hatfield grew up in Boulder and surrounded by the world of CU Boulder, where his father was an adjunct professor in the interdisciplinary telecommunications program. This connection to the university led him to discover what would become his ultimate passion: CU Athletics. 

From an early age, Hatfield was often in the stands at football games, cheering on his beloved Buffaloes in Folsom Field. Years later, he enrolled at CU and graduated with a degree in business administration, later earning his executive master’s of business administration from CU Denver in 2003.

After years of putting his business acumen to work in marketing and sales roles, he returned to CU Boulder where he joined the Forever Buffs Alumni Association Advisory Board from 2019 to 2020. He went on to serve as chairperson of the board from 2020 to 2022, serving both the Boulder and Denver chapters. 

He worked on several impactful engagement and fundraising opportunities, including a showing of documentary film “Mission Mt. Mangart”, which chronicles the story of the 10th Mountain Division ski troops. This event was the most successful fundraising event for any Forever Buffs chapter to date.

Leanne Skupa-Lee Award: Tom Shepherd (TranMgmt’78)

Shepherd’s CU Boulder family pride has a wide range: His mother, wife, son and several extended family members are all Forever Buffs. 

He wanted this huge display of school enthusiasm to be evident in other CU families, too. So, as a master of getting things done—evident in his work as the now-retired vice president of logistics for global berry company Driscoll’s—he got to work on a new university initiative. 

The Buffalo Legacy Program launched during his nine-year tenure on the CU Boulder Alumni Association’s Advisory Board. Today, through the program—which Sheperd donates to—first-year students with parents, stepparents or grandparents can apply for legacy-related scholarships, and graduating students can wear a complimentary black and gold cord over their gowns during commencement ceremonies. 

Sheperd served on the board of advisors from 2008 to 2012 and from 2015 to 2020, notching nearly a decade of volunteer time for the Alumni Association, including four years as chair of the board. 

Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Recent Graduate Award: Brock Kowalchuk (AeroEngr’11)

The fields of aerospace engineering and finance aren’t commonly combined when building a career path—but Kowalchuk is hardly common. 

After graduating from CU Boulder in 2011, Kowalchuk spent seven years working for Goldman Sachs. During this time, he also earned a master’s degree in information and data science from UC Berkeley, before transitioning to Kaspien, an innovative e-commerce company.

Known by colleagues for his professionalism, he quickly climbed the ranks from senior vice president of finance to his current role as chief executive officer in four years, serving as chief financial officer and chief operations officer along the way. In these four years, Kowalchuk led the company through several rounds of funding and guided its restructuring efforts through the departure of two CEOs, before stepping into the role himself. The e-commerce company now has 80 employees, works with hundreds of brands and generates more than $100 million in revenue per year.

In 2018, Kowalchuk brought his storied career experience and unflappable work ethic to CU Boulder’s inaugural College of Engineering and Applied Science Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD) Board. As co-chair, he helped establish the initial board structure and future expectations for the role, implementing clear performance indicators. 

Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Recent Graduate Award: Eddie Taylor (BioChem, Math’12)

When Taylor stepped atop Mount Everest in May 2022 after years of planning and training, he celebrated a much greater accomplishment than reaching the top: He just had helped double the amount of Black climbers to ever reach Everest’s summit. 

Taylor was a member of the Full Circle climbing team, which was composed of 10 other Black climbers who raised more than $800,000 for the historic expedition. The team’s accomplishment was featured in USA Today, Outside Magazine, National Geographic and CNN.

Taylor, a former CU Boulder decathlete, was approached by Phillip Henderson, the leader of the Full Circle team, while ice-climbing in Ouray.

While the experience on Mount Everest was memorable for Taylor, there’s one thing that has always remained a top priority for him: his students. A former water chemist, he realized teaching was his calling after he began coaching track at Broomfield High School. He received his master’s degree in education from Regis University and took a position teaching science at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, Colorado, where he also serves as head track coach. 

Forever Buffs Student Award: Joanne ‘Jo’ Christine Marras Tate (PhDComm’23)

During her six years on the CU Boulder campus, Marras Tate has consistently demonstrated her commitment to being a Forever Buff. 

As a doctoral candidate in communication studies—specifically in the community and social interaction area—she has strived to improve her department’s community, her field of expertise in environmental communication and the greater CU Boulder community. 

Her dedication to CU Boulder began in 2017 as secretary for the Communication Graduate Student Association (CGSA), and later as the association's disability and wellness chair. In 2019, she was elected the association’s co-president and has served as its social liaison for two terms.

Marras Tate has been an active member of several campus groups during her time as a doctoral student and continues as a postdoc. She served as co-president and remains a science communication facilitator for Science Under the Dome at Fiske Planetarium. Marras Tate is also a member of the campus Tree Care Advisory Committee and the Microplastics Working Group with the Inland Ocean Coalition. She was co-president of CU’s Colorado Ocean Coalition and still mentors undergraduate students within the organization.