NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts on Saturday took time to recognize six of its alumni who have made their mark on their communities and their fields of study.
"You're a beacon for our alumni to follow and an aspirational model for our current students," said President Jamie Birge in welcoming the honorees for this year's Alumni Association Awards.
Juwonni Cottle, class of 2013; Stephen Simo, class of 2013; Shaniqua Choice, class of 2013; Claire Shea, class of 1965; Mikaelle Olivier, class of 2015, and Rebbecca Cohen, class of 2004, were feted at a brunch in the Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation during Alumni Weekend at the college.
"I'm sure that you'll all agree that each recipient embodies the ideals of compassion, leadership ... and dedicated service that define the core values of what an education from MCLA represents," said Kimberly Roberts-Morandi, class of 1991, the morning's master of ceremonies and Alumni Association director.
Roberts-Morandi read out a brief biography of each awardee and Birge presented to the awards, engraved clocks, to the recipients.
Cohen, a former North Adams city councilor who now lives in Adams, has spent more than a decade in operations management in medical-related fields after earning a degree in biology from MCLA, and later masters in science and business administration. She is currently operational excellence manager of external quality assurance at Moderna Therapeutics.
In addition to her service on the council, she has served on a number of civic and nonprofit boards, including Louison House and the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women.
"I've always been deeply passionate about leadership in my career. Therefore, an education was something that I knew that was essential to secure a career where I could pursue those passions, while also staying true to my responsibilities as a wife and mother," she said. "Mass College of Liberal Arts laid that foundation that fostered my drive, ambition and goal to become the first in my family to obtain a bachelor's degree.
"It was this was this very foundation that gave me the strength and faith that I could achieve more than my predecessors. ... The moral of my story is — you can have it all. It is entirely possible to have a life you always wanted with the right tools, the right support and the resilience to overcome the obstacles of life."
Five the honorees were present; only Simo, chosen for the Outstanding Educator Award, was unable to attend.
Roberts-Morandi, a former administrator in the North Adams Public Schools, and a past recipient of the Outstanding Educator Award herself, read Simo's remarks for him. He is currently assistant dean of students at the University of Rhode Island.
Simo, the first in his family to graduate college, wrote that he was grateful for his time in the Berkshires and recalled the challenges presented by his professors, including Robert Bence, who was in attendance, and the mentoring they provided.
"I also made plenty of mistakes, learned what didn't work, and how to do it better. Through it all, the wonderful North Adams State College faculty and staff made such a difference in my life," he said.
Choice was also honored with an Outstanding Educator Award for her work on a professional development program focusing on equity at the Charter School of Cambridge and is a guest lecturer at MCLA on social justice education. She holds a master's degree in teaching and was accompanied by her fiance and month-old daughter.
She dedicated her time to her 92-year-old grandmother, who moved her six children from South Carolina in 1964 to Massachusetts so they could get an education — now all of her grandchildren are college graduates. Choice said she will continue work on issues of equity and creating opportunities for safe spaces in learning.
Cottle was the recipient of the Vanguard Award, given to an alum who has graduated within the past 15 years and who shown significant growth in their profession as well as being a role model.
He is an arts administrator and educator in schools and museums, and founder of Dunamis, a nonprofit based in Boston that is dedicated to providing support and space for creative people of color. This has included fellowships, arts management opportunities, performance platforms, events and programming, and grant support. But he said he was afraid while in school that he didn't know what the future would bring.
"If I could speak to the terrified Jay of 10 years past, I would tell him that although he doesn't know what's next, he should trust all that he gained from his time at MCLA," Cottle said.
Olivier was presented with the Community Service & Citizenship Award for her work in science education in training new teachers in on data-driven decision making while incorporating social-emotional learning. She's worked in Connecticut schools and state government on leadership and education and is currently talent partner for Achievement First, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit charter school network serving 15,000 children. Her focus has been educational equity.
"Service to community has always been at the forefront of the way that I choose to do this and MCLA played a really integral part in helping me figure out how I could be the most impactful in that," she said. "I don't think I would have ever become an educator if it wasn't for MCLA."
Shea has been an educator and administrator for more than 35 years in New York, Massachusetts and Arizona, until retiring from Middletown, Conn., school after 26 years "with special attention to the issues of diversity access inclusion."
This year's Outstanding Educator Emeritus Award didn't stop at retirement: she joined a colleague in creating Imagine College, a mentoring program designed to address issues around diversity and institutional racism as well as the challenges for first-generation college students.
"I'm very proud to say that this program is still running and successful," Shea said. "And continues blazing the trail for more first-generation students to become the architects of their own lives, to move forward to college and better lives for themselves and their future families."
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