Distinguished Alumni Awards

Award recipients in a group picture with Dean Valerie Kinloch

Distinguished Alumni Awards Ceremony

Do you know an alumnus who is doing transformative work in the field of education? We strive to recognize the talent and efforts of our alumni through our annual Pitt Education Distinguished Alumni Awards ceremony.

Our award categories include:


Meet the 2019 Alumni Award Recipients

Distinguished Alummni Award 

Chris Groark, PhD

Dr. Chris Groark received her master’s and doctorate degrees in special education from the University of Pittsburgh. She focused on babies with the most severe and profound disabilities, taking her to a series of hands-on and leadership positions working with vulnerable children. Before taking a position at the University of Pittsburgh, Chris was the director of several community programs working on behalf of families with young children. Once at the University, she created the Office of Child Development’s emphasis on community engagement, focusing on partnerships with community organizations.

Over more than 30 years at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, Dr. Groark progressed from Director of Community Relations, to Co-Director alongside Dr. Robert B. McCall, and finally appointed as sole Director of the Office of Child Development.

Chris has devoted her professional life to implementing evidence-based practices in services for children with few resources in Pittsburgh and abroad. These efforts have resulted in several innovative programs that exist years later in the Pittsburgh region as well as a legislated change in practice in orphanages across the entire Russian Federation and now these changes are being implemented in several regions of Kazakhstan.

Julius Kitutu, PhD

Dr. Julius Kitutu is a three-time Pitt School of Education alumnus, and Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Alumni Relations for the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. His work has developed strong recruitment and advising programs for a range of students, particularly those at risk, those from underrepresented populations, and those from diverse cultural backgrounds. Under Dr. Kitutu’s leadership, the School has greatly improved the diversity of its admitted students, and has made great strides in bringing individuals from underrepresented populations into the nursing profession.

Before coming to the University of Pittsburgh in 1996, Julius was a lecturer at Maseno University in Kenya. He previously held government roles in Kenya focusing on statistics and data collection. He continues to maintain educational and community ties to Kenya, in a variety of ways, in part by collecting gently used and new textbooks in Pittsburgh for use overseas. These textbooks have been greatly appreciated by a number of higher education institutions. Additionally, in his home community in Kenya, Dr. Kitutu has assisted in water projects, which have supplied thousands of individuals with clean-piped water; supporting orphaned children; and participating in improvement projects for secondary and primary school students.

Distinguished Early Career Award

Ira Murray, PhD

Dr. Ira E. Murray is the President and CEO of United Way of the Capital Area in Jackson, Miss. He previously served as a United Way of America Community Fellow and later as the Vice President of Community Impact at UWCA for almost a decade. Dr. Murray is an education scholar, with expertise in issues of race, equity, and achievement in urban schools, districts, and communities. He has published his research in numerous nationally and world-renowned scholarly education journals and has presented his work at national and international conferences. Dr. Murray is the recipient of numerous recognitions, including being named a 2014 Mississippi Business Journal Top 40 Under 40 business leader.

Distinguished PreK-12 Educator Award

Timothy Hetrich

Timothy Hetrich teaches at Wyomissing Area High School, and this year marks his 37th year in public education. Hetrich teaches Advanced Placement Economics and US History, and is also the head cross country coach at Wyomissing where his teams have won five PA State Championships. He is also an adjunct professor of economics at Albright College and is the Senior Program Manager for the National Math and Science Initiative Program for social studies content in the New York City School System. Hetrich has received many honors during his teaching and coaching career, including being named a finalist for the Pennsylvania State Teacher of the Year.

Departmental Award - Administrative and Policy Studies

Patrick O'Toole, EdD

Following a career in public education that spanned 39 years, Dr. Patrick T. O’Toole retired as superintendent of the Upper St. Clair School District in 2018. During his tenure, the district garnered local, state, and national praise for several innovative programs under his leadership, which focused on a newly adapted tagline: “Customizing Learning, Nurturing Potential and Delivering Excellence.” Dr. O’Toole earned many honors for these initiatives, including the 2012 Pennsylvania Superintendent of the Year Award.

Departmental Award - Health and Physical Activities

Robert Spina, PhD, FACSM

Dr. Bob Spina has 30 years of combined teaching, research, service and administration experience in higher education after graduation from the doctoral program in health, physical and recreation education at the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, he serves as dean, since July 1, 2015, of the College of Education and Human Development at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX. Dr. Spina is a Fellow in the National Academy of Kinesiology and the American College of Sports Medicine.

Departmental Award - Instruction and Learning

Tspiy Gur, PhD

Dr. Tsipy Gur is the Founder and Executive Director of Classrooms Without Borders, a non-profit educational organization in association with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Dr. Gur has worked in the field of Jewish education for more than 35 years, creating cutting-edge programs in professional development and teacher training. She developed several courses for teachers who lack knowledge in pedagogy and/or Judaic studies, and created international study seminars to Spain, Poland, and Israel, utilizing countries as the textbook for Jewish learning. She has earned many awards for her work, including the Shazar Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Departmental Award - Psychology in Education

Matthew Fasano-McCarron, PsyD

Dr. Matthew Fasano-McCarron is currently a second-year fellow at Boston Children's Hospital of Harvard Medical School, and is a youth worker and clinical psychologist specializing in pediatric neuropsychology. He serves children, youth, and young adults with a wide variety of complex medical, developmental, and psychiatric conditions with expertise in delivering these to Deaf and Hard of Hearing children and families. Dr. Fasano-McCarron is bilingual in English and American Sign Language and has dedicated his career to ensuring that all DHH children have language, which is foundational to the complexities of mind and behavior that define us humans.

Student Leadership Award

Paulette Vincent-Ruz

Paulette Vincent-Ruz is completing the final year of her doctoral studies in the learning sciences and policy program. Her research is focused on how intersectional, attitudinal and environmental factors affect the experience individuals have with science, often in ways that systematically disadvantage different minoritized populations like women or students of color.

Outstanding Alumni Dissertation Award

Ross Higashi, PhD

Dr. Ross Higashi holds a doctorate in learning sciences and policy, and is currently head of educational outreach at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy, which conducts educational design research, development, and outreach serving over 16,000 schools and out-of-school programs. Dr. Higashi’s research interests center around the improvement of education with, by, and about technology, and he is currently working on extending his doctoral dissertation research on digital badges to create industry micro-certifications for a robotics technician pre-apprenticeship.

Elizabeth LaGamba, EdD

Dr. Elizabeth LaGamba is a 2018 graduate and currently teaches undergraduate and graduate literacy education courses at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. LaGamba’s dissertation research focused on engaging and playful pedagogies for enhancing the word-learning of preschool children. Results of the study identified instructional practices that significantly increased preschoolers’ knowledge of targeted vocabulary words.