Sullivan Awards Honor Three For 'Highest Qualities of Heart and Mind'

May 19, 2011 — The recipients of the 2011 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards at the University of Virginia are Ishraga Eltahir and Ethan Heil, who will graduate this weekend, and Valerie H.  Gregory, associate dean and director of outreach in the Office of Undergraduate Admission. They will be honored during Valedictory Exercises Saturday at 11 a.m. on the Lawn.

Each year, the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation sponsors the presentation of awards at 54 colleges in the southeastern United States to individuals who have served others, their institutions and their wider communities.

Created in 1925, the awards are given to two distinguished fourth-year students and a member of the University community in memory of the award's namesake, a New York lawyer, businessman and philanthropist. The awards are intended to perpetuate the excellence of character and humanitarian service he epitomized.

"All of the recipients of this award are distinguished for possessing fine spiritual qualities, practically applied in their daily living," said Brad Brown, principal of the International Residential College and director of the study abroad program at the McIntire School of Commerce, who chaired this year's selection committee. "They are often described as our unsung heroes." 

Ishraga Eltahir

Eltahir, a student in the College of Arts & Sciences, has been a leader in many capacities.

A native of Sudan, she is a leading member of the Organization for African Students. She has been a leader for both the Global Development Organization and the Cultural Programming Board. She is also a peer adviser through the Office of African-American Affairs and served as an intern in the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies.

"Not only has she been an excellent student – completing not one, but two undergraduate theses – but she has been active in the broader University community, most recently spearheading the efforts to establish a visible memorial to those enslaved persons who helped to construct the University and who constitute a vital piece of its history," said Deborah McDowell, English professor and director of the Woodson Institute, who also noted that Eltahir was also active in the establishment of an African studies minor.

Last year, Eltahir was a co-chair for the Diversity Initiatives Committee on Student Council and also interned with the University and Community Action for Racial Equity (UCARE) center on the University-Community Racial Reconciliation.

"But Ishraga is more than an effective advocate for the under-appreciated groups in the community," reads her Sullivan citation. "Many students praised her as a supportive and amazingly thoughtful friend."

Eltahir, 22, will receive degrees in political and social thought and African-American and African studies in the distinguished majors program. An Echols scholar, she has received a Walter N. Ridley Scholarship, Revenell Keller III Scholarship, Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Foundation Scholarship and Community-Based Research Grant. She's the daughter of Alawia Ahmed and Abdelhadi Eltahir of Herndon.

Ethan Heil

Heil, 22, who will graduate with a degree in civil engineering from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been involved in myriad activities, mostly flowing from his academic interests but reaching far beyond.

He has worked on several research projects, including a sustainable water filtration system in rural South Africa, sustainable forestry in Mozambique and, as a Jefferson Public Citizen team member, stormwater management and low-impact design with ecoMOD.

This year he joined a group of architecture and engineering students to design a studio apartment for the Jefferson Area Board on Aging. His service extended overseas to include work on renewable energy technologies for historic workers' houses in Falmouth, Jamaica. With a Community-Based Undergraduate Research Grant, he conducted research on ensuring a supply of safe, filtered drinking water in rural South Africa. Heil also collaborated with a South African student on that project and the two recently published their findings in a professional journal.

A recipient in 2010 of a Morris K. Udall scholarship and this year's Outstanding Student Award in the Engineering School, he has been active in Engineering Students Without Borders and Bridging the Gap. He is the son of John and Elizabeth Heil of Salem.

One of his engineering professors, Paxton Marshall, said of Heil, "He is exceptionally responsible and committed to community service environmental causes. He has the ability to integrate technical considerations of a project with economic, cultural and project management considerations."

Graduate student Loren Intolubbe-Chmil of the Curry School of Education, who met Heil during a January Term course, said he cares as much about relationships as his work. "Ethan is always willing to listen, to pitch in, to participate – and to do so with sincerity and camaraderie," she wrote, nominating him for Engineering's Outstanding Student Award.

Valerie H. Gregory

"I'm not actually sure what her real job is. She's Wonder Woman!" said one student of Gregory, whose leadership in admissions outreach has resulted in great strides in student diversity.

A member of the group that helped found the College Guides program, now a nationwide high school outreach program, Gregory is dedicated to making higher education a reality for underrepresented groups, reads her Sullivan citation. "Her contribution has been enormous, but mostly out of sight," it says.

"Valerie has been a tremendous promoter of students from underrepresented groups within the context of U.Va.'s highly selective admissions process," said Ryan Hargraves, senior associate dean of admission, nominating her in 2009 as an Equal Opportunity Program "champion."

"For the past decade, she has dedicated her days, nights and weekends to recruiting and matriculating racial minority and low-income students," he wrote. "Not only does Valerie champion these prospective students, she also nurtures them through her leadership, advising numerous student organizations."

Dean of Admission Greg Roberts calls her "one of a kind."

"She has transformed our outreach efforts over the years and, along with her staff, is the primary reason many families and students feel at home at U.Va.," he said. "I would expect she receives more than one Mother's Day card each spring."

Her Sullivan citation notes, "Whether she is fixing students' transcript problems, or entertaining students in her home, she is the source of a warm and welcoming community that couldn't otherwise exist." Though those aren't part of her official job description, "they are part of Valerie Gregory."

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