Meet the 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award Winners

Alumni Feature

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The Pitt School of Education has selected 13 noteworthy educators for its 2021 Distinguished Alumni Awards.

The winners include two superintendents of K-12 schools, a senior scientist at Pitt's world-renowned Learning Research and Development Center, the president of a national teacher's union, and researchers who are conducting ground-breaking work in HIV treatment strategies and weight loss interventions related to exercise and sleep.

"In their work and through their studies, our alumni and student award recipients represent the highest ideals of the Pitt School of Education," says Michael B. Haas, the school's director of alumni and development. "They are leaders who are propelling their organizations forward and helping the communities they serve through their commitment to innovation, equity, and justice in education."

Established in 1992, the Pitt Education Distinguished Alumni Awards are granted annually to outstanding alumni and students in the fields of teaching and learning, education policy, and health, wellness, and human development. 

The 2021 virtual awards ceremony took place on Thursday, March 25, 2021. Watch a recording of the event below.

Meet the 2021 winners:

Isabel L. Beck - Distinguished Alumni Award

Isabel L. Beck (BS ’53, MEd ’64, PhD ’73) is a professor emerita in the School of Education and a senior research scientist with the Learning Research and Development Center. She received all three degrees from Pitt. Her research spans the major areas of reading: decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension, and resulted in authoring and coauthoring about 100 articles and seven books. Beck’s work has been acknowledged by a number of awards, including the Oscar Causy Award from the Literacy Research Conference for outstanding research, induction into the International Literacy Association’s (ILA) Reading Hall of Fame, and the William S. Gray award for life-time contributions to research and practice. In 2008, she was elected to the National Academy of Education. 

"Initially, the School of Education provided me with teaching skills to support students’ learning and to diagnose and help those who didn’t learn to read easily. Later during my doctoral work I became fascinated with research and the science of reading, which became the rest of my career’s bailiwick," says Beck.

Linda Rose Frank - Distinguished Alumni Award

Linda Rose Frank (MSN ’83, PhD ’90) is a professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Graduate School of Public Health with secondary appointments in School of Nursing and School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. She has been on the front lines of the HIV epidemic since 1988, providing training, consultation, and technical assistance with particular focus on HIV clinics, community health centers, prisons, and other health settings. She is currently working on a HRSA-funded COVID-19 education project and an NIH COVID-19 research project in community settings. She is a Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing; member of the Public Policy Committee of AIDS United, and serves as the Chair of the City of Pittsburgh HIV Commission.

"The Pitt School of Education has provided me with foundational knowledge and skills to design, develop and implement programs and interventions to address the needs for education related to existing and emerging regional, national, and global infectious disease for health care providers and teams, educators, policy makers, legislators, patients, families, and communities," says Frank.

Virginia Hill - Distinguished PreK-12 Educator Award

Virginia R. Hill (EdD ’14) is the founding principal of Environmental Charter High School in Pittsburgh. With almost 31 years of experience in Pennsylvania as an educator, her roles have included: teacher, school administrator, science supervisor, as well as a curriculum and professional development executive director. Hill specializes in positive school climate and culture building, school improvement efforts, student achievement, along with equity, and diversity mindsets in the school setting. She sits on the Board of Directors of the Positivity Project that emphasizes the importance of positive relationships and self-development.

“The University of Pittsburgh School of Education invited me into a diverse family of professors and peers that have challenged my beliefs and forever impacted my values. Learning at Pitt has not just been an education, it’s been a life changing experience!” says Hill

Janet Marie Sardon - Distinguished PreK-12 Educator Award

Janet Sardon (MEd ’99, EdD ’03) is the superintendent of Yough School District in Westmoreland County. During her 27-year education career, she has held the positions of high school emotional support special education teacher, middle school principal, high school principal, director of technology, and assistant superintendent at several school districts within Allegheny County. She is an executive board member on the Tri-State Study Council and is vice president of the Consortium for Public Education Board of Directors. Dr. Sardon also serves as the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit representative for the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators Legislative Committee.

"The University of Pittsburgh has given me the academic knowledge, ability to be a critical thinker, and the scholarship necessary to be successful educator. Those attributes, coupled with collegiality, connections and confidence is what makes the University of Pittsburgh an important educational institution for the development of educators and administrators.  The education and relationships have made a significant impact on my career over the last 27 years," says Sardon.

Seth A. Creasy - Distinguished Early Career Award

Seth Creasy (MS ’13, PhD ’16) is an assistant professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism, and Diabetes at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He completed his graduate work in the School of Education. His research focuses on identifying and testing novel strategies for treating and preventing obesity. He holds an NIH Career Development Award investigating how patterns and timing of behaviors (physical activity, dietary intake, and sleep) influence body weight regulation. His current research is focused on identifying the optimal time of day to exercise.

“I am so thankful for the education and mentorship I received at the University of Pittsburgh. My collective experiences in the Department of Health and Physical Activity helped me to identify my career path and find my career ambition of promoting healthy lifestyles," says Creasy.

Jasmine Williams - Distinguished Early Career Award

Jasmine Williams (MS ’14, PhD ’18) is a senior research scientist for the Committee for Children in Seattle, Washington. She received her doctorate in applied developmental psychology (ADP) from the University of Pittsburgh School of Education in 2018. Dr. William’s work focuses on leveraging developmental science to create more equitable educational spaces for youth. She has remained true to the heart of ADP in her career pursuits, leading the development, evaluation, and continuous improvement of Second Step® Middle School, an evidence-based social emotional learning program that reaches over 30% of U.S. students. She has been an active member of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) since 2013, most recently serving on the executive committee of the socio-emotional learning special interest group. 

“I always felt inspired and challenged by the faculty, staff, and students around me, but I don’t think I realized back then how profoundly my time at the SOE would impact my life. In moments of introspection, fear, and curiosity, I often find myself traveling back to interactions with SOE colleagues. Those memories always ground me in a sense of purpose. I will forever be grateful for the relationships and wisdom I’ve been able to carry forward in my life and career," says Williams.

Mary Catherine Reljac - Departmental Award: Administrative and Policy Studies

Mary Catherine Reljac (EdD ’16) serves as the superintendent of the Fox Chapel Area School District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the Fox Chapel Area family, Dr. Reljac served as the assistant superintendent of the Franklin Regional School District in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. She also worked in the Pine-Richland, Gateway, and Hempfield Area school districts in Western Pennsylvania. Dr. Reljac graduated from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor of science degree in music education. She earned her masters of science in educational leadership from Carlow College and received her superintendent letter of eligibility from California University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Reljac completed her doctor of education degree in administrative and policy studies from the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. Dr. Reljac serves as facilitator for the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership Program, working with administrators from across the state. She is also regularly asked to serve as presenter at workshops and programs.

"What I learned from my professors, colleagues, and the studies in the University of Pittsburgh School of Education were instrumental in my development as an educator., professional, and person. Little did I know when I entered the program just how life-changing my experiences would be and how they would prepare me to take on such rewarding roles and responsibilities in my professional career!" says Reljac.

Niall M. Moyna - Departmental Award: Health and Physical Activity

Niall M. Moyna (PhD ’93) is a professor in health and human performance at Dublin City University (DCU) in Dublin, Ireland. He completed his PhD in exercise physiology from the School of Education and a three-year NIH Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship in immunology at the University of Pittsburgh. His research interests are focused on the role of exercise in the prevention and treatment of chronic disease and in understanding how gene polymorphisms help to explain inter-individual variability in biological responses to exercise. Moyna is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and Honorary Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, Ireland. Additionally, Moyna was instrumental in establishing the DCU sports academy in 2006 and coached the university Gaelic football team to four national division-1 collegiate titles. He also was coach of the Irish U-17 International Rules team that toured Australia in 2006. Dr. Moyna received his undergraduate degree from the University of Limerick and his master’s degree from Purdue University.

"I was truly blessed and privileged to have had the opportunity to study in the School of Education.  My abiding memory of my time at Pitt was the kindness shown to me by faculty, staff and students," says Moyna.

Rebecca S. Pringle - Departmental Award: Instruction and Learning

Rebecca S. Pringle (BA ’76) is the President of the National Education Association (NEA), which serves three million educators, making it the nation's largest labor organization. Pringle is a fierce racial and social justice warrior, defender of educator rights, an advocate for all students and communities of color, and a respected voice in education. A former middle school science teacher and 31-year educator, Pringle is focused on using her intellect, passion, and purpose to unite the members of the largest labor union with the nation, and using that collective power to transform public education into a racially and socially just and equitable system that is designed to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world. Before becoming president, Pringle was NEA vice president and NEA secretary-treasurer. She co-chaired NEA’s Task Force on School Discipline and the School-to-Prison Pipeline and directed the creation of NEA’s groundbreaking “Policy Statement on Teacher Evaluation and Accountability.”

"The University of Pittsburgh School of Education reaffirmed the decision I made at the age of 5 to become a teacher, provided me with all of the practical and interpersonal skills I would need to make my dream a reality, and helped me to enter my first classroom prepared to teach, encourage, and support my middle-level learners, to nurture their curiosity about the natural and physical world, and to prepare them to be the leaders of a just society," says Pringle.

Cynthia S. Popovich - Departmental Award: Psychology in Education

Cynthia J. Popovich (MS ’84, EdD ’16) is a retired professor who taught for 21 years at the Pitt School of Education. She was an assistant professor of practice in the School of Education’s applied developmental psychology program, where, in addition to teaching, she served as the coordinator of the baccalaureate program. Popovich has served as the past president of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (Trying Together) and has been a board member of many professional associations and community groups including the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC)–Early Education and Early Childhood steering committee and the Association for Child and Youth Care Practice. She currently serves as the editor of the Journal of Child and Youth Care Work. She has taught at every age level from being a preschool teacher to a university instructor. 

"Attending Pitt has given me the opportunity to become a leader and contribute to the field of child and youth care and education, work with many highly accomplished colleagues and mentor and teach many students," says Popovich.

Sarah E. Kurz - Student Leadership Award

Sarah Kurz is a third-year PhD student in the higher education program at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education. She is the 2020-2021 president of the Council of Graduate Students in Education and enjoys working alongside her peers to develop comradery and provide out-of-classroom learning opportunities to fellow graduate students. Kurz has also spent the last three years working as a graduate research assistant on projects related to undergraduate STEM women’s self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and career aspirations, along with Pitt’s Pathways for Civic Growth project. She also researches and writes about graduate student mental health and is passionate about understanding and improving the graduate student experience.

"Being a student leader within the SOE has provided me the opportunity to engage with my wonderful peers outside of the classroom, but also connect with a highly caring and attentive staff and faculty. We often learn alongside one another, and their commitment to hearing the student voice and enacting change has shown me what thoughtful and intentional leadership in higher education looks like,” says Kurz.

Rachel Anne Schles - Outstanding Alumni Dissertation

Rachel Anne Schles (PhD ’20) is an assistant professor of practice and coordinator of the visual disabilities program at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. Her dissertation, entitled, “Understanding the Prevalence of Students with Visual Impairments Receiving Special Education Services and State-Level Factors,” explored the variations in eligibility criteria across states in the U.S.. and a critical issue in the field: understanding the actual number of students with visual impairments receiving special education services in the U.S. Her dissertation quantified that, on average, states are supporting more than 3.5 times the number of students with visual impairments reported and outlined specific considerations and recommendations for states to take on the mantel of collecting accurate total population data collection. 

"My time in the School of Education thoroughly prepared me to conduct research in multiple methodologies, whether qualitative, statistical, or single subject research. Through the School of Education’s value of mixed-methods research, I can now select and implement the most appropriate research methodology(ies) to address any research question I may have. Ultimately, this will allow me to be a better researcher and practitioner to improve special education services for students with visual impairments and blindness,” says Schles.

Julia Adele Cavallo - Outstanding Alumni Dissertation

Julia Adele Cavallo (EdD ’20) is the Director of Assessment and Institutional Research and a Lecturer at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. She has been instrumental in building a systematic and sustainable student learning outcome assessment process. She serves on several institutional committees including leading strategic planning, retention, core curriculum, presidential ad hoc committees, and has served as Middle States self-study co-chair.  She also serves as the executive director of the association of Benedictine Colleges and Universities (ABCU). Additionally, she holds a position on the Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) Consortium’s board of directors. 

“The School of Education at Pitt inspired me to be a more active leader for social justice in education. The social justice threads throughout the curriculum as well as the adaptive leadership training made my education at Pitt rewarding and gave me enhanced agency to continue to advocate for positive change in my own educational community,” says Covallo.