News at Mason
Alumni Association awards honor commitments to helping others
May 8, 2020 / by Christopher Bobo
Each April, the George Mason University Alumni Association recognizes its most prestigious alumni, as well as the Senior of the Year and the Faculty Member of the Year, with an elegant event called the Celebration of Distinction.
This year’s event has been postponed, but the Alumni Association is still celebrating these remarkable individuals. The winners of the 2020 awards represent Mason’s spirit of excellence and service.
Alumnus of the Year Steve Monfort, PhD Environmental Biology and Public Policy ’93, is the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo and its world-renowned Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). A researcher and conservation advocate, Monfort cofounded the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in 2008, which offers classes at SCBI’s 3,200-acre campus in Front Royal, Virginia, and takes an interdisciplinary approach to conservation education. The school is the cornerstone of the relationship between Mason and the Smithsonian that Monfort helped build.
“I feel like I’ve had this incredible opportunity to create a mechanism where the impact of those of us who founded this school will help these students who will go out and change the world for the better,” says Monfort. “It’s a legacy for the Smithsonian and for Mason.”
Robert Harris, MS Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’96, PhD ’03, and Ilana Shapiro, PhD Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’03, longtime volunteer leaders and donors to the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), are joint recipients of the Alumni Service Award. The couple, who met and married while at S-CAR, are deeply committed to the values of the school and of Mason. Shapiro co-founded the nonprofit Alliance for Conflict Transformation, which is dedicated to building peace through education, training, research and practice, and also works regularly with S-CAR students. Harris, a strong advocate for philanthropic support, currently chairs the S-CAR Advisory Board. Together they established the first alumni endowed scholarship for the school in 2015. Five students have earned the Shapiro Scholarship to date.
Software engineering professor Jeff Offutt has almost 30 years of teaching at Mason—three decades marked by passion and commitment to his students. A world-recognized authority on software testing, Offutt received Mason’s Stearns Center Teaching Excellence Award in 2013, and in 2019 was one of two Mason faculty members to win Outstanding Faculty Awards from SCHEV, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Now in 2020 he is the Alumni Association’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Senior of the Year Jesse McCandlish is a computer science major with a passion for helping others. She has been a dedicated mentor and student leader with the Early Identification Program, which identifies and guides potential first-generation students from middle school through high school. In summer 2019, through the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR), she led a team investigating how machine learning software could recognize American Sign Language to help bridge communication gaps with the deaf community. After graduation, McCandlish, who wants to focus on human-computer interaction, will choose between pursuing her master’s degree or working in industry.
“I like helping people, and I like computers, so when I found this area of research it seemed to be the perfect fit,” she says.
The Alumni Association also recognized 15 distinguished alumni from across Mason’s schools and alumni chapters. The full program is available here.
"It is an honor to recognize the extraordinary work of our distinguished recipients," said Jennifer Robinson, interim associate vice president of alumni relations. "We look forward to celebrating them in person as soon as we are able to do so."