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March 8, 2012

Staff named winners of

chancellor’s awards

Six staff members have been awarded 2012 chancellor’s awards for excellence in service to the community and service to the University, the highest honor the University bestows upon staff.

Receiving the 2012 Chancellor’s Awards for Staff for Excellence in Service to the University are:

  • Natalie Blais, recruitment and academic affairs administrator in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences, Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH);
  • Shawn E. Brooks, associate dean and director of residence life in the Division of Student Affairs;
  • Christina L. Graham, director of Student Activities at Pitt-Bradford, and
  • J. Andrew Holmes, machinist supervisor in the Swanson School of Engineering.

Receiving the 2012 Chancellor’s Awards for Staff for Excellence in Service to the Community are:

  • Peter L. DeNardis, a senior management analyst in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, and
  • Penny Semaia, assistant athletics director for student life in the Department of Athletics.


Chancellor’s Award for Staff for Excellence in Service to the University

The Chancellor’s Award for Staff for Excellence in Service to the University recognizes staff members “whose work demonstrates a consistent pattern of extraordinary dedication to the University, above and beyond the responsibilities of the nominee’s position.”

A selection committee chaired by Jane W. Thompson, associate vice chancellor, Planning and Analysis, reviewed the staff nominations.

The awards are open to staff members who have been at Pitt at least five years. Honorees receive a $2,500 prize and have their names added to a plaque on display at the William Pitt Union. They also were recognized at the Feb. 24 honors convocation and will be honored at a reception later this year.

Nordenberg, in his notification letter to Natalie Blais, wrote, “The committee was particularly impressed by the many ways in which you contribute to the success of others, including mentoring colleagues who do not report to you; helping GSPH students even after they graduate; helping new faculty; attending doctoral committee meetings, and volunteering for numerous activities.”

Natalie Blais

Natalie Blais

Blais also was recognized for her “extraordinary dedication to the University and to [her] colleagues and her significant contributions to the Staff Association Council, particularly her service as chair of its benefits committee.”

The awards committee also noted Blais’s commitment to maternal and infant health based on her work in establishing a lactation room at GSPH — a facility used by faculty and staff across campus. Her efforts led the Allegheny County Health Department to present GSPH with its Breastfeeding Friendly Place Award in 2011.

Blais told the University Times that when she learned she had won the award, “Honestly, I thought they had the wrong person! I was unaware of the monumental, behind-the-scenes efforts of my supervisor who gathered all the letters of support!”

Blais downplayed the credit for the establishment of the GSPH lactation room. “It was the result of many people’s efforts, time and dedication. I couldn’t have done it without a large network of support,” she said.

Blais started at Pitt in 2002 as a part-time staffer working on a team evaluating local early Head Start programs. She transferred to her current position at GSPH in 2005.

“I have always found myself working as a liaison between various constituents,” Blais explained. “I love supporting students through all the stages of personal and academic growth, from application to graduation. I consider it an honor to play a part in their journey of becoming the best person they can become. I have become passionate about public health as my own professional and academic paths have converged. In the process of completing my coursework for my MPH here at Pitt, I realized that I could and even had an obligation to bring about positive change in my own community — in this case, my Pitt work community.”

She’s still contemplating uses for the cash award. “I am exploring the feasibility of using some of the money to purchase a hospital-grade pump for the lactation room within the Graduate School of Public Health,” she said.

Shawn Brooks was commended by Nordenberg and the awards committee for his commitment to Pitt students and for consistently going “above and beyond his job requirements [in] the amount of time, degree of enthusiasm, magnitude of involvement and depth of personal connection he brings to his position.”

Shawn E. Brooks

Shawn E. Brooks

In his notification letter, the chancellor noted Brooks’s willingness to work late in the evenings and on weekends. Nordenberg also cited Brooks for his work on projects that go well beyond his duties, such as revamping the Outside the Classroom Curriculum. The chancellor wrote that he was impressed with Brooks’s devotion of his spare time to the University, serving for four years as an unpaid adjunct professor in the School of Education and as a pro bono adviser to graduate students.

Brooks, who came to Pitt in 2005, told the University Times he has the ideal job. “My interest in Student Affairs traces back to being a resident assistant at Thiel College. I am inspired by college-aged students and see them as having unlimited potential. As our Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kathy Humphrey says, ‘There are very few jobs out there where you can wake up and know you can make a profound difference in the life of a student.’ I am blessed to be able to live my passion through my work.”

Brooks’s initial reaction to learning he had won the award: “I said: ‘Really? Wow!’ The truth is, I am surrounded by amazing people and, accordingly, so much of the credit for this award goes to them as well. I am humbled to have even been nominated and so very grateful for all of the kind words written in support of the nomination. I love my work and am passionate about making a difference in the lives of University of Pittsburgh students and staff, so to be recognized for these efforts leaves me speechless.”

The cash award will come in handy, he said. “My brother and his wife recently had a baby girl, my first niece. I plan on traveling to Los Angeles to visit with them and be a proud uncle!”

In Nordenberg’s notification letter to Christina Graham, he credits her handling of a flooding incident that required Pitt-Bradford to find alternative housing for 370 students. That was an example of her sense of responsibility toward Pitt-Bradford’s students in her role as director of Student Affairs, the chancellor said.

Christina L. Graham

Christina L. Graham

The selection committee noted the many letters from former students supporting Graham’s nomination. Former UPB student Amy McCoy, now coordinator of special events at the University of South Carolina, wrote in support of Graham’s award that Graham “worked 12 hours a day and most weekends; she lived to help her students succeed in life, and that is exactly what she did for me.”

Graham’s colleague at Bradford, Peter Buchheit, who served on the selection committee, noted Graham’s role on campus as an “unsung hero.”

Graham told the University Times: “I was in shock and very, very happily surprised to hear I won this award. I had felt that since it was getting later in February that I hadn’t won, which is what caused the shock.”

Beginning at the University as a Pitt-Johnstown student, she credits her UPJ Student Affairs mentors Bruce Haselrig and Linda Daniels as influences who guided her career choice. She took a job with the Pitt Program Council on the Pittsburgh campus in 1999 and then transferred to her current position at UPB in 2002.

“I love my job as director of Student Activities. It was an opportunity to get multiple experiences. At Pitt-Oakland I was working with the council and with orientation. Here I work with student activities, clubs, student government, plus orientation — a much wider range of duties,” Graham said.

She added that her goal is to earn a doctorate in higher education management at the Pittsburgh campus. “It’s something I really want to do.”

Graham has no firm plans for the cash award.

Machinist supervisor J. Andrew Holmes, known to all as Andy, was selected for the staff award because he routinely goes the extra mile for the Swanson school and its engineering students, Nordenberg wrote to Holmes in his notification letter.

J. Andrew Holmes

J. Andrew Holmes

The chancellor recounted Holmes’s nomination from U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering Gerald D. Holder, who stated that Holmes’s “contributions have enhanced efficiency in the workplace, have been innovative and impacted productivity, and have resulted in cost-savings. He has demonstrated excellent customer service to a wide constituency, has extremely positive interpersonal skills, has reached out to the local community in significant ways [and] has supported a team-oriented environment in the workplace.”

Nordenberg also said a number of students wrote in support of Holmes’s nomination, one of whom said that Holmes knows “how to make a part from the designing phase all the way to testing it, dozens of prototyping methods [and] the machining speed and feed for every metal I have ever dealt with.”

Holmes started on the Pitt staff in 1986 in the then-Department of Physiology as a scientific instrument-maker for School of Medicine researchers. He transferred to the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine in 1996, working on the Streamliner artificial heart device and blood pump, then to the Swanson School of Engineering in 2001, where he works in the school’s rapid manufacturing laboratory.

Holmes told the University Times: “I work with undergraduate senior engineering students on their required projects. Each semester I have about 20 teams of four students. I help them pick their project, which is flexible and differs every semester. It can be making a product or a fixture and after they do the engineering part of it, I help them build it. It’s very much a team environment, and I’m what you might call the manufacturing liaison for the school. It’s sort of a half-way position in that while I’m not on the faculty I do some teaching and advising students on their projects.”

Holmes added that he has seen a change in his job responsibilities due in large part to the economy. “The economy is sort of forcing us to use more teamwork. It used to be engineers did engineering, machinists did machinery, drafters did drafting. Now those things are linked together, consolidated, so the students get a broader education.”

Holmes noted, “I was extremely surprised to win this award. I know there are an enormous amount of people at the University, and lots of people who do fantastic work, so it was quite an honor.”

He doesn’t have specific plans for the cash award. “It probably will get spent, though, probably on my kids for ice hockey equipment or something like that,” Holmes said.

Chancellor’s Award for Staff for Excellence in Service to the Community

The Chancellor’s Award for Staff for Excellence in Service to the Community recognizes staff  “whose work in the community surpasses the expectation of the organizations they serve and whose commitment and effort have made a significant impact on the community while also demonstrating a consistent pattern of dedication to the University.”

A committee chaired by Jane Thompson reviewed the nominations. The awards are open to staff who have been at Pitt at least five years. Honorees receive a $2,500 prize and have their names added to a plaque in the William Pitt Union. They also were recognized at the Feb. 24 honors convocation and will be honored at a reception later this year.

The chancellor praised Peter DeNardis’s commitment and service to the International Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia Foundation (IWMF), a support organization formed for a rare type of blood cancer that DeNardis himself is battling. In his notification letter to DeNardis, the chancellor wrote that he was “struck by the fact that you not only are there to provide counsel and comfort to your fellow patients, but also work to improve the IWMF itself through your service on its board of trustees, and as a discussion list manager, webmaster and patient database coordinator.”

Peter L. DeNardis

Peter L. DeNardis

The chancellor also said that DeNardis, in his role as a senior management analyst at Pitt, has “earned the respect and admiration” of his Pitt colleagues as well as those involved with IWMF. In a support letter for DeNardis’s nomination, Judith May, IWMF president, praised his work, saying it has “enabled the foundation to significantly improve its outreach.”

“I didn’t think I had a chance to win this award, so I was surprised,” DeNardis told the University Times. “When I see all the other things that volunteers do, with such a wide range of things, I’m really impressed at their dedication. I focus my service on people who have the disease I have, because it’s so rare.  It makes me feel good to get the recognition for helping people with cancer, because we have a different perspective on life and have to do what we can every day. Others can say, ‘Well, there’s always another day,’ but we have to live our lives a little differently.”

DeNardis added, “I see the value of community service in two ways: First, it’s helping others; but also it comes back to you. It makes you feel good. You feel better about yourself when you’re helping others.”

DeNardis has worked at Pitt twice, first in 1992-2000 in Financial Information Services; he returned to the Pitt staff in 2007.

He said he plans to hand over the cash award to his wife. “She has been my rock, my caregiver. She deserves it more than I do,” he said.

(For a feature story on DeNardis, see Oct. 27 University Times.)

The award selection committee commended Penny Semaia for his “above and beyond” service in the community, the chancellor said in his letter. “On campus, our student athletes could not ask for a finer role model than to have a former standout Panther [football player] assisting them with career planning, facilitating the Panther Game Plan Life Skills program, promoting personal development and encouraging them to participate in community service,” Nordenberg wrote.

Penny Semaia

Penny Semaia

Recently named one of Pittsburgh’s 50 Finest by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Semaia also is involved in a number of community service programs, including The Polite Way, which assists single mothers; Big Brothers and Sisters, and Get Involved, for which he serves as president.

Writing in support of Semaia’s nomination, Tom Baker, founder of Get Involved, noted that he found Semaia’s leadership skills and positive message to be “second to none in western Pa.”

Semaia, who joined the Pitt staff in Admissions and Financial Aid in 2004 before transferring to Athletics a year later, said he was “surprised and quite humbled” when he learned he had won the award. “It was really neat. You know, no one does community service to win awards or get personal recognition,” Semaia said. “I do it because it’s the right thing to do. The reward comes from the people you work with. I really enjoy working with people and communities where I know I’m having an impact. I treasure that, actually.”

Semaia said the cash will come in handy for his plans to take his mother on a trip back to her homeland, American Samoa.

—Peter Hart

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