RIT celebrates outstanding staff with university’s Presidential Awards

Annual awards honor service excellence, citizenship, pluralism, and rising stars

Carlos Ortiz

RIT honored the service and dedication of nine employees with the Presidential Awards for Outstanding Staff ceremony on March 22.

RIT honored the service and dedication of its employees with the Presidential Awards for Outstanding Staff ceremony March 22. The annual awards are presented to staff members who exemplify outstanding service and dedication to the university and who exhibit a high degree of personal ethics and integrity while consistently demonstrating a strong commitment to student success.

Rising Star

The Rising Star Award recognizes a staff member with three years or fewer of service to the university who presents progressive examples of high-quality service; has demonstrated a willingness to work collaboratively with colleagues and university constituents; and shows imagination, creativity, and innovation, which embody the RIT spirit.

This year’s recipient is Andrew Cirillo, assistant director, Spirituality and Religious Life.

According to the nomination, Cirillo spends each day enhancing self-empowerment, self-respect, and mercy toward each individual he interacts with. He is known for his collaborative approach; is an active participant in The Collective, a multi-divisional cultural programming group that seeks to meet the needs of our diverse community; spearheaded the creation of the Interfaith Council; and helped to secure a $70,000 grant to fund a full-time Jewish student life engagement coordinator.

One nominator said, “Andrew’s door is always open to help any student who may be in need. He takes time to learn about each one he interacts with and spends many evenings and weekends attending events sponsored by Spirituality and Religious Life.

“A common theme among Andrew’s references is his strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion to foster community and lifelong learning on campus. Andrew is just scratching the surface of the work he has begun, and we look forward to seeing how he will continue to impact RIT throughout the years.”

Excellence Awards

Excellence Awards recognize staff members who excel in their duties, promote teamwork, and inspire excellence in others. This includes individuals who have demonstrated an innovative approach to their jobs, and fostered collaboration, communication, and cooperation among colleagues and university constituents, and teams that have impacted the university in an exceptional way through exemplary service, ongoing innovation, and/or creation of best practices.

The Excellence Awards winners are:

Wendy Marks, director, Finance and Administration Galleries, and Maddy Schoenfeld, Shop One manager.

Marks and Schoenfeld have an ability to leverage each other’s strengths, which has resulted in the streamlining of processes and the increased cultivation and recognition of Shop One artists. They have engaged more than 300 artists, designers, authors, and crafts people, all of whom represent the diversity of RIT design talent and creativity.

The team has also played an instrumental role in expanding the RIT Women’s Council Glass Pumpkin Sale and, according to a nominator, is extremely inclusive by working to generate consistent storytelling from their interpersonal skills in the shop to the way works are described in their displays. The team also works with artists to help maximize their growth and success.

Brittany Taylor, interpreting manager for College of Science and College of Health Sciences and Technology, National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

Taylor has been part of the NTID interpreting community for nearly 14 years. In her role, Taylor’s references highlight her dedication, leadership, empathetic nature, and conscientiousness as direct impacts on employee retention for the College of Science and College of Health Sciences and Technology teams.

One nominator said that Taylor “is a true transformational leader and inspires everyone around her to not only do better, but be better.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Taylor conducted research to identify the safest and most accessible masks for those who rely on American Sign Language. She also provided time for staff members to be vulnerable and share thoughts, feelings, and creative pursuits, fostering a team bond that allowed connectivity and a renewed sense of belonging. 

One nominator said, “When presented with a challenge, Brittany continues to deliver and make herself available and advocate for her staff, making them feel valued, heard, and respected.”

Kendra Evans, Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative coordinator, Spectrum Support Program.

In her short time on campus, Evans has completely transformed the neurodiverse hiring program. She has developed innovative curriculum for Career Ready boot camp, a job readiness residency program for autistic RIT students, and has expanded the program’s offerings, tripling the number of students served by the program.

Evans is committed to advancing employment outcomes and the quality of life for RIT students. She has also developed relationships with staff across the university in order to provide neurodiversity training to departments and employers nationwide.

According to her nomination form, “Kendra not only dedicates time to current students on campus but is also supporting former Spectrum Support students who may be struggling with full-time employment. Acting as a mentor to the employee and manager, she attends meetings to clarify miscommunication and set expectations. Her ability to see each person individually and provide them with the appropriate coaching and pre-interview training allows students to feel confident and prepared as they begin the next step in their educational journeys.”

Aaron Tomassini, associate director, Residence Life.

Tomassini’s steadying presence and institutional knowledge has allowed him to keep the day-to-day operations running. He oversees both professional staff and student staff/resident assistants, which involves open communication, collaboration, and cooperation. He also trained new employees by familiarizing them with RIT processes and policies which are crucial to the conduct process.

One nominator notes, “Aaron takes great pride in developing relationships with students and staff and learns about each individual, supporting his students through athletics, film screenings, concerts, or other student activities. He knows how important each invitation is and how important it is to show our students they are cared for. He remains positive, clear, concise, and respectful. He is up for any challenge and aims to keep focused each and every day, motivating and supporting those around him.”

Staff Pluralism Award

The Isaac L. Jordan Sr. Staff Pluralism Award recognizes and affirms RIT’s collective aspiration toward a community that celebrates differences and allows individuals to develop to their fullest potential. This year’s recipient is Sandra Woodruff Whitmore, senior director of operations, Division of Diversity and Inclusion

Woodruff Whitmore shared that she is “humbled and extremely honored to have been nominated for this award. Although I never had the opportunity to meet Isaac Jordan Sr., personally, as I reflect on my 23-year career at RIT, his legacy has provided a roadmap for the ways in which I’ve been able to hopefully make an impact.”

One nominator said, “I see daily her commitment to share with others across campus the importance of open discussion on diversity and inclusion whether it is with other marketing and communication experts or in signature program planning. Isaac Jordan Sr. lived his life with purpose and commitment to building communities of inclusion and equality. He transformed the minds and hearts of the people who worked and studied at RIT. Sandy is carrying his legacy forward with grace and character.”

Outstanding Citizenship

The Dancy Duffus Award for Outstanding Citizenship within the RIT Community recognizes a staff member who is an independent thinker and activist who embodies the utmost integrity and who consistently shows imagination, creativity, and innovation, as well as a deep commitment to RIT. This year’s award is presented to Donna Burnette, executive director, K-12 University Center.

Burnette is the key to success for this program. She was asked by leadership to transform the university program and align its goals and objectives with the university’s strategic plan and Action Plan for Race and Ethnicity. It is Burnette’s belief that this pre-college and information educational space should be a transformative experience for all who partake, and that drive has elevated grant management, summer camps, and all-campus experiences for youth participants.

Burnette secured the largest grant in RIT history—$14 million from Army Educational Outreach Program Apprenticeships. She quickly worked to develop a credit-bearing web-based course through RIT and recruited 100 high school students from across the nation to participate.

According to one nominator, “Donna respects the importance of college completion and is a staunch advocate to do whatever is needed to maximize the probability that her clientele will graduate successfully from RIT. She always maintains that students who participate in K-12 maintain their connection with the program after enrolling at RIT.

“In addition, Donna is committed to the larger picture and the strategic direction that her work takes. Her understanding of these transformational opportunities is helping to shape RIT, as well as the nation’s future of the STEM workforce.”

Legacy Award

The Albert J. Simone Legacy Award recognizes a staff member whose long-term body of work is exemplary and who has contributed significantly to RIT for 25 years or more. 

This year’s recipient is Rod Lezette, assistant director, technology and communications, Public Safety.

Lezette, a 26-year employee of Public Safety, has seen it all. He has had direct involvement in programs related to access control, intrusion detection, surveillance cameras, asset management and, most notably, the development and successful launch of the Tiger Safe security application.

He has taken great pride in evaluating, designing, and implementing modernized security systems and credits a multi-disciplinary approach with preventative, corrective, and detective measures as part of his success. His willingness to learn about each one provides students, faculty, and staff with the assurance that RIT is safeguarding its workforce in the best way possible.

One nominator said, “The work that he has done on campus continues to make RIT a strong, safe campus community, and we certainly would not be where we are today without Rod. Each project that he undertakes has far-reaching implications, and he is always examining every area to ensure the right decisions are made.”

More information on the awards is available on RIT Staff Council website.

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