Pitt honors alumni through prestigious awards

By Millicent Watt, For The Pitt News

One of the major events of homecoming is honoring Pitt alumni and recognizing their dedication to the University and the Pitt community. This is done through five different honors — the Roc Spirit Award, the Ivan and Mary Novick Award for Young Alumni Leadership, the Bill Baierl Distinguished Alumni Service Award, the Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award and being named a Distinguished Alumni Fellow.

Nancy Merritt, the vice chancellor for alumni relations, said these awards are not only to recognize Pitt alumni, but they also show Pitt students what they can achieve with their Pitt experience.

“With the Alumni Awards, we do this to show appreciation for alumni, volunteers, people who have done a lot of great things for Pitt as a whole, or even in a certain area,” Merritt said. “We like to recognize them for their achievements. We want to be able to show the entire Pitt community what a Pitt education enables.”

The awards recognize Pitt alumni for various accomplishments, from school spirit with the Roc Spirit Award to short-term Pitt commitment with the Ivan and Mary Novick Award to long-term Pitt commitment with the Bill Baierl Distinguished Alumni Service Award. Merritt said the awards are reflective of Pitt’s ability to prepare students for their future.

“The other thing that’s great about the Alumni Awards is just that you see the variety of people and what they have chosen to do in their careers,” Merritt said. “There are so many different ways people can have a really great influence in their own communities, on Pitt and globally.”


Photo courtesy of John Obeid

John Obeid

John Obeid, commonly known as “Johnny O” during his years at Pitt, is the definition of Pitt pride, leading him to receive the 2020 Roc Spirit Award, which recognizes a Pitt alum for their spirit, loyalty and pride toward the University.

A Pittsburgh native, Obeid graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s in chemical engineering and a minor in petroleum engineering. Obeid also graduated from Pitt with an MBA in technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in 2017.

While at Pitt, Obeid was involved in a multitude of clubs and jobs, including the Pitt band, Blue and Gold Society, Student Alumni Association and engineering peer advising in addition to running the front desk in Benedum Hall and being an engineering ambassador for the University.

Because of his involvement, Obeid became a well-known face around campus. His local fame caused his friends to push him to run for homecoming. Looking back on it, Obeid said being crowned homecoming king in 2012 is his best memory from his years at Pitt.

“It was the best feeling in the world, we were so out of our minds,” Obeid said. “All of our friends were hugging us, running to us, you could hear the entire Pitt band, all 300 people screaming for us.” 

Now a project manager in North Carolina, Obeid still wears his Pitt pride on his sleeve. He said his apartment is decorated with Pitt memorabilia and merchandise.

“I have a wonderful Pitt blankie, and a Pitt mug, my little Pitt glass cup,” Obeid said. “I got the cutest little mug that I still use to this day.”

Obeid said even though he’s away from his hometown, he still manages to bring a bit of Pittsburgh with him.

“People hear the word ‘Pittsburgh’ out of my mouth too much down in the South,” Obeid said. “It’s just a big part of who I am.”

Photo courtesy of Shannon Finley

Shannon Finley

Shannon Finley, one of the founders of the Young Alumni Association, has been awarded the 2020 Ivan and Mary Novick Award for Young Alumni Leadership, which celebrates young alumni and their contributions to the University.

Finley graduated from Pitt in 2011 with a bachelor’s in Spanish and Africana studies. She then graduated from Pitt’s School of Education with her master’s in 2012. During her years at Pitt, Finley was involved as the graduate chair of the Latino Affairs Committee, the Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Society and as a First Year Mentor.

Finley and her co-founders helped create and develop the Young Alumni Association to bridge the gap between older alumni and students.

Finley said she wants to provide Pitt students and soon-to-be alumni the guidance and support she received as a Pitt student.

I’m always trying to find what I can get out of my Pitt experience, even as an alumni, and how can I give back in a way,” Finley said, “so that a girl like me who’s looking for help can find that help so much more easily than I did, especially being a Black woman in these times and facing obstacles.”

Merritt said she believes Finley is doing a great job pushing the Young Alumni Association forward.

“She’s super energetic, she bleeds blue and gold and I think she’s really inspiring this particular group of young alumni to do more to engage fellow young alumni, which is very worthy of recognition,” Merritt said.

Coming to Pitt, Finley didn’t know what path she wanted to take in her future. She turned to Oronde Sharif, an Africana studies professor and adviser, for guidance. His advice was simple — “do what you like.” She said having a support system is what made her experience at Pitt special.

“Because of people like Oronde, because of the professors at school, it helped me in ways that I wouldn’t have thought that they would be helpful,” Finley said. “I really want to have that experience or I want to see that experience happen for other students.”

Along with being part of the Young Alumni Association advisory team, Finley is also a mentor for Panthers Forward — an organization that matches Pitt seniors with alumni — and is currently in the Black Student Union club, where she teaches Spanish at Fox Chapel Area School District.

Finley said she carries Pitt with her wherever she goes.

I really hope I can take everything I learned at Pitt and bring it here,” Finley said. “I want my students to have an experience that gives them the education they need.”

Photo courtesy of Doug Browning

Doug Browning

As a high school student, Doug Browning applied to Pitt to appease his physics teacher, a Pitt alum. Years later, after he graduated from Pitt, he received the 2020 Bill Baierl Distinguished Alumni Service Award, which recognizes the honoree’s long-term commitment to Pitt and its mission.

Browning graduated from Pitt in 1972 with a bachelor’s in political science. After graduation, Browning pursued his law degree at Hofstra University in 1976.

Browning has an extensive background, from working for multiple law firms to being deputy commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, assistant commissioner for the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs and a global customs counsel for General Motors.

In addition to the Baierl Award, Browning is also part of the board of trustees and the board of visitors for the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and has been named a Legacy Laureate at Pitt. He said these roles are the proudest honors Pitt has bestowed upon him, next to being a Pitt legacy and his daughter and nephew also being Pitt alumni.

If I can help make it possible for someone else to have the experience I had, and perhaps change their life the way Pitt has changed my life, then I consider that to be just a small investment that I’d be making back to the institution in terms of what they’ve given me,” Browning said.

Merritt said Browning is extremely humble and deserving of the award.

“He is a genuinely good guy, super humble, super gracious and he’s such an amazing example to all of our students and other alumni,” Merritt said.

Browning said he is extremely proud of how Pitt is developing and growing as a school. He emphasized that everything done for the University is for its constituents to have the best experiences and resources as possible and that he will continue to honor and support the students to the best of his ability.

“We exist for one reason and one reason only and that is to serve our constituency,” Browning said. “When we make investments, those investments have to be about making your environment, your life better and making this experience for you better.”

Photo courtesy of David Frederick

David Frederick

David Frederick, an appellate lawyer at Kellogg Hansen Todd Figel & Frederick, is a Pitt alum and a Distinguished Alumni Fellow, one of the highest honors Pitt has to give.

Frederick graduated from Pitt in 1983 with a bachelor’s in political science and history, where he then moved onto the University of Oxford to earn his doctorate in philosophy and a JD from the University of Texas. While at Pitt, Frederick was involved with the William Pitt Debating Union, the Pittsburgh Undergraduate Review, intramural basketball and other student activities.

Frederick began his career by clerking for Justice Byron White then moved to having his own private practice. Frederick worked in the Office of the Solicitor General within the U.S. Department of Justice before establishing his own law firm.

During his years at Pitt, Frederick said his professors became mentors to him and taught him the necessary skills and life lessons he utilized during his time as a lawyer.

“At Pitt, several political science professors were very influential, like William Keefe and Richard Cottam. History professor William Stanton taught me a lot about writing, and Honors College Dean Alec Stewart was a great model for interdisciplinary thinking,” Frederick said.

Frederick said he stays connected to Pitt through his position on the board of visitors for the Honors College.

“My belief is that excellence in the Honors College can propel the quality of the University as a whole,” Frederick said. “I have established scholarships, public service internships and a writing prize in the history department to help advance that objective.”

Frederick discussed engagement and the importance of using involvement and passion to face our country’s problems with Audrey Murrell, the Honors College acting dean, on Tuesday as part of the homecoming events.

Photo courtesy of Sundaa Bridgett-Jones

Sundaa Bridgett-Jones

Sundaa Bridgett-Jones, the managing director and policy and coalitions leader for the Rockefeller Foundation, has been named the other Distinguished Alumni Fellow.

Bridgett-Jones graduated from Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs with her master’s in 1995 after graduating from Georgetown University with her bachelor’s in international affairs and Africana studies. During her graduate years at Pitt, she was involved in Generation Together, an organization that connected undergraduate students with adults in the Pittsburgh community.

Bridgett-Jones has been part of the Rockefeller Foundation for eight years to help resolve global issues, including green energy and economic development. Prior to working at the foundation, Bridgett-Jones worked at the State Department Bureau for Democracy and Human Rights and Labor under the Obama administration.

After graduation, Bridgett-Jones reconnected with Pitt when GSPIA began reaching out to alumni. From there, she was appointed to the school’s board of visitors and also became part of Pitt’s board of trustees.

Bridgett-Jones will give a presentation with GSPIA Dean Carissa Slotterback on “Finding Purpose” as a homecoming event Wednesday. She said the goal of the event is to explore the understanding of purpose and “how we show up in the world and the difference we can make.”

She said she is incredibly honored to have been awarded as a Distinguished Alumni Fellow.

“This award means more than words can express,” Bridgett-Jones said. “At the heart of it, I am a girl from west Philadelphia who was raised to make a difference for my family and my community. I could not have fathomed this award in my earliest thoughts and achievements.”