Celebrating Our Alumni

The College of Arts and Sciences recognized alumni achievements at the Sixth Annual Alumni and Philanthropy Awards celebration Friday, October 8, 2021. Alumni, their friends and family, and college leadership gathered to celebrate the depth and breadth of careers a degree from the College of Arts and Sciences can provide.

“It is both an honor and privilege to preside over this ceremony,” said Dean Theresa Lee. “We are extremely proud of the individual and collective achievements of our alumni who we honor tonight.”

Alumni received awards for early career achievements and exceptional talent and promise in their fields, leadership and service to a department and/or the college, scholarly and creative achievements, philanthropic generosity, and extraordinary distinction through a lifetime of service and achievements.

Promise Award

The College of Arts and Sciences Promise Award recognizes alumni who have achieved significant levels of accomplishment in the early to middle stages of their careers. It is designed to publicly acknowledge these “rising stars” who have exhibited exceptional talent and promise.

Nominees can come from each of the four divisions within the college: natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, and visual and performing arts. We also accept nominations on behalf our interdisciplinary studies in this category. This year we recognize two recipients, one from humanities and one from the visual and performing arts.

jordan-kuckJordan Kuck (’14) received the College of Arts and Sciences Promise Award for Humanities. Kuck earned his PhD at UT in history and studied under Professor Vejas Liulevicius. He is an assistant professor of history at Brevard College, where he teaches European and global history.

Kuck has published a number of articles and book chapters on the history of Kārlis Ulmanis, his authoritarian regime, interwar Latvia, and transnational fascism and totalitarianism. The Latvian government and Latvian Institute of International Affairs solicited two of his publications as part of the centennial celebration of Latvian independence. He is currently working on a manuscript on the Ulmanis regime and his chapter on transnational totalitarianism in Latvia will appear in the forthcoming edited volume Dictatorship and Daily Life in Twentieth-Century Europe.

While a student at UT, Kuck received the J. Wallace and Katie Dean Graduate Non-Service Fellowship, a number of departmental awards, and in 2011 received the Chancellor’s Extraordinary Professional Promise Award. He has continued his professional promise through his career and has received a number of prestigious awards, including a Fulbright, a US Department of Education Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship, and an Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (AABS) grant.

shinerAlexandria Shiner (’16) received the College of Arts and Sciences Promise Award for Visual and Performing Arts. Shiner received her master’s of music from UT and continues to garner critical acclaim in her career as a soprano. In 2020, she was a Grand Finals Winner in The Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions.

A recent graduate of the Cafritz Young Artists Program of Washington National Opera where she was seen in The Magic Flute (First Lady), The Consul (Magda), and the world premiere of Sankaram’s Taking Up Serpents (Kayla). The Cafritz Young Artist Program is one of the most prestigious training grounds for young operatic talents in the world. Each year, more than 750 applicants are considered for four or five openings to join the 13-member studio.

During the 2018-2019 season she was seen in the North American premiere of Liszt’s lost opera Sardanapalo (Mirra) and the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos with Wolf Trap Opera. Concert appearances included Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII with the Choral Arts Society of Washington. Shiner began the 2017-2018 season singing the title role in Alcina for the Young Artist Performance at Washington National Opera.

She is a 2021 Jensen Foundation Vocal Competition third place winner, 2019 Sara Tucker Study Grant recipient, and she placed second in the Young Artist category of the 2016 Orpheus National Music Competition for Vocalists. Shiner also competed as the mid-south regional winner in the 2016 National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) Artist Awards in Chicago. According to the director of the Cafritz Young Artist Program, she “is now the most remarkable young dramatic sopranos of her generation”!

She visits UT several times a year to connect with faculty, alums, and local opera companies.

Volunteer Service

The College of Arts and Sciences Volunteer Service Award recognizes exceptional service or long-term, continuing service of leadership to the College of Arts and Sciences or to a department or program within the college. It is designed to publicly acknowledge those individuals—alumni or friends—who have given significant amounts of time and talent over an extended period.

croninTom Cronin (’80, ’83) received the Volunteer Service Award for his generosity of time and talents to the college. He received his BA and MS in geology from UT and worked for 34 years in the oil and gas industry – mainly in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico.

Cronin and his wife, Helen Sestak, are strong supporters of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) and contribute to several departmental endowments. In 2011, they established the Thomas Cronin and Helen Sestak Faculty Achievement Award to help support and retain key faculty. Until recently, Cronin served as chair of the EPS Alumni Advisory Board. Under his leadership, the board wrote its first charter, presented an articulate vision of their role in supporting UT, doubled in size, and established board member dues to fund department activities and scholarships. He is a stalwart advocate for policies and practices that promote excellence in student mentoring and outreach. In recognition of his achievements, he received the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences Accomplished Alumnus Award.

Cronin is currently the president of the Houston UT Knoxville Alumni Chapter, with an alumni base of 2,000 in the Houston area. The chapter awards a scholarship every year to a Houston area high school student who is going to attend UT.  They are also involved in local volunteer projects in the community and gather for UT football watch parties.

Scholarly and Creative Achievement Awards

The College of Arts and Sciences Scholarly and Creative Achievement Awards recognize alumni who have achieved a high degree of success in their chosen field in either a scholarly or creative endeavor. The trademark of this recipient is a record of notable accomplishments and a history of outstanding contributions to their discipline and/or creative pursuits.

brownShirley Rainey-Brown (’03) received the Scholarly Achievement Award for her success as both a professor and academic administrator. Rainey-Brown wears many hats at Fisk University – just recently being named dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In addition to her role as professor of sociology, she is the associate vice provost for online initiatives, director of distance education, discipline coordinator, and director of the of the graduate program in social justice. As an academic administrator, she promotes communication between the academic and non-academic units.

As a professor, she provides students with an innovative teaching experience that focuses on practical and real-world experience using multiple teaching models. She is a restorative problem solver who always brings solutions to the table in thinking through her students’ learning needs. She leads through scholarship and service, and is driven by a passion to put people first. As one of her former students said, “without her seemingly bottomless counsel and investment, I would not be an academic today.”

In her research, she documents how black Tennesseans think about environmental health problems associated with pollution and how these attitudes are contextualized within spatial patterns where people of color live in closer proximity to environmental hazards. She has received accolades from the Mid-South Sociological Society, Mid-Southern Interdisciplinary Sciences Association for her work. Her research has been funded by the United College Negro Fund, and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, among others.

belckScott Belck (’89) received the Creative Achievement Award for his achievements as a jazz musician, professor, and artistic director. Belck currently serves as the director of jazz and commercial music and professor of music at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music (CCM) where he directs the CCM Jazz Orchestra and teaches applied jazz trumpet. He also serves as the artistic director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Jazz Orchestra.

Belck is a founding member of critically acclaimed Tromba Mundi contemporary trumpet ensemble and has recently toured as a member of Grammy Award winning funk legend Bootsy Collins’ Funk Unity Band as lead trumpet. He has served as trumpet and cornet soloist with the Air Force Band of Flight in Dayton, Ohio, where he also held the post of musical director for the Air Force Night Flight Jazz Ensemble.

His playing credits include recordings lead trumpet/guest soloist with the Cincinnati Pops featuring the Manhattan Transfer and John Pizzarelli, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Van Dells, and jazz soloist with the University of North Texas One O’clock Lab Band with whom he recorded four CDs as jazz soloist and section trumpet.

He has performed as principal/lead trumpet with the St. Louis Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, the Lexington Philharmonic, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, and as section trumpet with the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra and the Duluth Festival Opera. In addition, Belck has performed as lead trumpet for shows/concerts of Christian McBride, Jimmy Heath, Aretha Franklin, Gerald Wilson, the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra, Linda Ronstadt, John Lithgow, Donna Summer, Maureen McGovern, Michael Feinstein, Lalo Rodriguez, Sandy Patti, Tito Puente Jr., Tommy Tune, Manhattan Transfer, Lou Rawls, Patti Austen, The Coasters, Yes, Ben Vereen, Doc Severinsen, the Temptations, Olivia Newton-John, Neil Sedaka, the Blue Wisp Big Band, the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, the Dayton Jazz Orchestra, the Ink Spots, the Four Freshmen, The Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Riddell, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Frankie Valli, The Maritime Jazz Orchestra of Canada as well as touring Broadway shows and regional and national recording sessions.

As one of his nominators commented: “Dr. Scott Belck is, as jazzers would say, a monstrous player. That fact is without doubt. That he attended UT for his undergraduate degree and went on to two of the finest jazz graduate schools in the nation and has developed a career that is quite simply, amazing, is more than enough in my opinion to give him this award.”

He has performed as a leader, musical director, or sideman with many top jazz players on the scene today. He is the author of the text Modern Flexibilities for Brass, published by Meredith Music and distributed by Hal Leonard. In his spare time, he is the CEO and founder of Lip Slur World Headquarters.

College Philanthropist Award

While many alumni recognized with these awards for their extraordinary achievements give generously to the college, the purpose of this award is to recognize the exceptional generosity and impact a philanthropist can have on the College of Arts and Sciences. This award publicly acknowledges the individuals – alumni or friends – whose philanthropy has made a significant difference to the college over an extended period of time.

taylorThis year, we recognized Dawn Taylor (’89) as our College Philanthropist. Taylor established two funds in her late husband’s name that support professors and graduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

The Lawrence A. Taylor Professorship in Planetary Geosciences Endowment supports a professor in the department who demonstrates qualities of an excellent professor, including the knowledge to continue the planetary geosciences endeavors of the EPS department within the broader context of the college and UT. The holder is required to maintain standards of distinguished performance and outstanding contributions to the goals and objectives of UT. The graduate fellowships are for a graduate student in the EPS department and one in the planetary science track.

At the university level, Taylor established four graduate student dissertation awards, which are designed to help students defray any costs related to the writing of their dissertations. Three are in the natural sciences division of the college and one is in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering in the Tickle College of Engineering.

“We are very grateful that Dawn could join us tonight and allow us an opportunity to thank her publicly for her generous support of our students and faculty,” Dean Lee said.

Dean’s Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna Award

The College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna Award recognizes an outstanding alumnus/alumna of the college who has attained extraordinary distinction through a lifetime record of achievement and service.

ayersEdward Ayers (’74) received the 2021 College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Distinguished Alumnus Award for his academic productivity and national prominence in his field, which brings significant honor and pride for UT. Ayers received a BA in American studies from UT and earned both an MA and PhD in American studies from Yale University. He joined the University of Virginia faculty in 1980 and served as the Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History and the Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 2003, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching named Ayers National Professor of the Year.

As president of the University of Richmond, he developed The Richmond Promise, a five-year strategic plan to guide University priorities. In addition to teaching a first-year seminar, Ayers served as a senior research fellow with the University’s Digital Scholarship Lab, which creates digital tools to reveal the patterns of American history. He currently holds the title of the Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities & President Emeritus.

As a scholar in his field, he as served the following national organizations:

  • Organization of American Historians, President (2017-2018); Executive Board Officer (2017-2020)
  • American Council for Education, Executive Committee and Co-Chair of Accreditation Committee, 2008–present.
  • National Humanities Center, Board Member, 2007–11
  • National Council for the Humanities, 2000–04, appointed by the President of the United States to advise the National Endowment for the Humanities

Ayers is the author of four and editor of numerous books on the history of nineteenth-century America. His book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America, won the Bancroft Prize for distinguished writing in American history and the Beveridge Prize for the best book in English on the history of the Americas since 1492. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, was awarded the Lincoln Prize. He received the Avery O. Craven Award in 2018, given by the Organization of American Historians, for the most original book on the coming of the Civil War, the Civil War years, or the Era of Reconstruction. His most recent book is Southern Journey: The Migrations of the American South, 1790-2020.

Ayers still finds time for UT and has returned to campus to deliver lectures, host alumni events, and speak to UT alumni. He is always wiling to lend a hand to help UT.

“Our university serves our state, the nation, and the world by educating people, enhancing culture, and making a difference in lives through research and service,” Dean Lee said. “We embody excellence in teaching, research, scholarship, creative activity, outreach, and engagement, all while reflecting the Volunteer creed: ‘One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others.’ Thank you for being a proud part of our legacy.”