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Step Up and Be Recognized

Meet the recipients of the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Awards.

Pictured, from left: Melissa James, Danielle O'Connor Dean, Michael Wessells, Léonce Ndikumana, Robert Littleton, and Suzin Bartley. Photo by John Solem.

The UMass Amherst Alumni Association assembled this spring at the State House in Boston for its Distinguished Alumni Awards ceremony and luncheon celebrating and honoring the extraordinary achievements of five alumni and one faculty member. 



Michael Wessells

Michael Wessells ’73 MA, ’74 PhD, Distinguished Alumni Award

Wessells calls his career more of a called life path rather than a planned life path. As professor of clinical population and family health in the Program on Forced Migration and Health at Columbia University, he has conducted extensive research on the impact of war and political violence on children. His work emphasizes the resilience of children, families, and communities and the impact of distress due to armed conflict, disasters, family separation, and deprivation of basic needs such as food, shelter, and security. His research also examines what communities do to protect children, promotes sustainable social change, and challenges the emphasis on NGO- and outsider-led approaches.

In addition to his research and teaching, global humanitarian work is a key component of his life calling. For several decades, he has focused on psychosocial and child protection supports for war-affected children, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His work reinforces the importance of community mobilization, building on existing strengths and resources, including traditional practices and working in a spirit of humility, and co-learning.

“It has been my honor during my career to try to do my small part to try to help support war-affected children, families, and communities through humanitarian actions,” he said when accepting his Distinguished Alumni Award. “I would say there has been no better experience than the UMass education that enabled me to do this work.”

Wessells recognized the UMass faculty for instilling in him the “tools and habits of science, how to use science for improving people’s well being, and how to analyze complex multidisciplinary problems in a systematic manner.” He singled out Professor Emeritus John Donahoe as “the best teacher I have ever had in my life. He has been an amazing mentor and a lifelong friend. His towering mind, his love of science, and appreciation for how science can be used to solve real-world problems helped me in ways I had only begun to fathom in my days as a student.”

He closed his remarks with advice for future generations. “Seek and obtain an excellent education and use your learning to help improve those around you, not only internationally, but right here at home in the commonwealth and in our own communities, which have enormous needs.”



Suzin Bartley

Suzin Bartley ’80, Distinguished Alumni Service Award

Bartley is executive director of the Children’s Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping child abuse in Massachusetts. She and her team are widely recognized for influencing public policy and for developing, implementing, and supporting evidence-based programs that partner with parents to help them ensure that kids have safe and healthy childhoods.

Bartley has established the Children’s Trust as a multimillion-dollar organization that supports more than 100 community-based organizations throughout Massachusetts. She has created and led one of the most successful home-based parent coaching programs in the country, a network of eight center-based family support programs reaching 40 Massachusetts communities, a robust statewide collection of group-based parenting education and support programs, and a nationally recognized fatherhood initiative.

Taking the nontraditional path to her education, Bartley entered UMass Amherst as an older student and completed her degree through the University Without Walls. “It is important to credit UWW for what it did for me,” she says. “It helped me to really recognize my own potential for change.”

Bartley particularly cited her UWW advisor, Gene Orro. “Having him as an academic and professional mentor really made all the difference in the world,” she said. “He taught me how to think outside the box. I know that sounds like a cliché, but when you are really fighting to make sure, for example, that kids don’t get abused and neglected, and you’re fighting in this building [the Statehouse], you have to think outside the box, over and over and over again.”

Bartley talked about the nearly 800 confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect each week in Massachusetts. “I find that unacceptable,” she said. “It’s unacceptable, it creates long-term consequences that we can ill afford.” She went on to express her thanks to the “folks at University Without Walls who pushed me, and particularly, Gene. He would make me look at race and class and gender issues head-on. I was very lucky.

“He taught me that easy wins are not necessarily what, at the end of the day, is going to matter most,” she continued. “It’s not easy, but it is so inherently important that we give kids a safe and stable place to live.”



Robert Littleton

Robert Littleton Jr. ’71, Distinguished Alumni Service Award

Littleton has dedicated his career to supporting children with developmental delays and their families with assessment, early intervention, and education services. He has created and led several human service agencies focused on providing quality early childhood education and support to families with young children, including Criterion Child Enrichment and the Evergreen Center, a nonprofit residential school serving children and adolescents with autism and severe developmental disabilities.

“I can truly say,” said Littleton of his career, “none of this would be possible without the world-class education I received at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It was the incredible richness of the UMass experience, both academic and personal, that shaped my world view, contributed greatly to the building of my character, and introduced me to friends that have lasted a lifetime.”

Among his many endeavors working with and in support of children and education, he has taught elementary and special education, is a past president of the Massachusetts Association for Approved Private Schools, and a former chair of the Council of Affiliated State Associations, a subcommittee of the National Association of Private Special Education Centers. He is also a founding incorporator of the Massachusetts Association for Applied Behavior Analysis.

Over the years, not only have his agencies served nearly 10,000 children and families, but he has helped develop graduate training programs for behavior analysts to help prepare future leaders.

Littleton was an inaugural recipient of the UMass Amherst Salute to Service Award in 2012 and has served as a trustee of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Foundation.

“I left UMass with a firmly grounded appreciation for the fact that we are one people, sharing one planet, and that both must be respected and nurtured if we are to enjoy a healthy and prosperous existence.”



Melissa James

Melissa James ’10, Distinguished Young Alumni Award

James is president and CEO of The Tech Connection, a Boston-based recruitment firm that supports the professional development of diverse, underrepresented, technically talented people with individualized career planning and job placement. James strives to help them reach their highest potential by helping them create their own individual pathway to success.

“When I came to UMass, I felt like I had found my home, and I knew this was a great place for me to grow,” she says. Early on, she joined the Universal Programming Council, a pivotal move that she credits for much of her career success. “Little did I know that what I was doing at UPC would give me all the leadership skills that I use every single day,” she says. “From those experiences, I learned that there is nothing that I couldn’t do.”

After graduation, she volunteered to provide free legal advice on immigration and housing to help people going through foreclosures. “I knew that problem all too well as I am the daughter of two immigrants,” she says, “so when I thought about the impact that I could have, I knew it had to be something with finding job opportunities for diversity candidates.” This led her to a job at Google as a member of its diversity inclusion team and, eventually, to create her own firm.

“In the last two and a half years, we’ve now helped more than 7,000 people get amazing jobs,” she says.

At the root of James’s work is her passion for community service. She is founder of the first-ever Black Tech Boston Meetup, a platform created to celebrate the impact of technology in African American communities. This year, she is hosting an inclusive innovation leadership conference designed to help millennials think strategically about how they can advance their careers. “We’ll have over 1,000 millennials coming to learn to develop their leadership skills,” she says.

James recently received the U.S. Presidential Service Award and the 2015 Pursuer Award from the African Youth Excellence organization for her dedication to the community. She has been featured in numerous news outlets, such as the Improper Bostonian, Bay State Banner, Boston Herald, and Bloomberg Business. The Boston Business Journal recognized James as a “Woman on the Move” in 2015.



Danielle O'Connor Dean

Danielle O’Connor Dean ’10, Distinguished Young Alumni Award

Dean was a lover of math from a very young age. She remembers as a kindergartener riding in the car with her father as he posed math problems to her and discussed negative numbers. Unsure of where her future path would lead, even midway through earning two bachelor’s degrees (one in psychology, with a minor in mathematics and statistics, and one in organizational behavior through statistical analysis), it isn’t surprising, especially since both her parents are computer engineers, that she chose a career in technology.

Today, she is a senior data scientist lead at Microsoft Corporation in the Algorithms and Data Science Group within the Cloud and Enterprise Division. She leads an international team of data scientists and engineers, working on machine learning solutions within the field of artificial intelligence that address a wide range of business needs.

She is the lead author of three major publications and coauthor of the data science modeling book, Data Science with Microsoft SQL Server 2016.

Within the international data science industry, Dean is a sought-after speaker. She has presented at more than 20 conferences in the last three years, including conference keynotes at SQLbits and SQL Nexus and had a featured speaker role at the Strata & Hadoop World Conference in Singapore in December of 2015.

“Because I’ve had amazing role models in my life, like my parents, and I know not everybody has been so fortunate,” she says, “I mentor girls through the Girls Who Code organization. They always ask me how I got to where I am today, and what advice I would have for their career.

“There are two pieces of advice that were really key to my growth,” she says, “learning to think from different perspectives in a cross-disciplinary manner and seizing the opportunities around me, especially those that seem just out of reach or that would make me grow. I am incredibly thankful for the University of Massachusetts because it was the foundation for realizing both of these pieces of advice.”



Léonce Ndikumana

Léonce Ndikumana, Distinguished Faculty Award

Ndikumana is a professor of economics and the founding director of the African Development Policy Program at the UMass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute. He is a member of the United Nations Committee on Development Policy and the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation and is one of the most prolific and influential researchers worldwide in his areas of expertise.

His research and scholarship are dedicated to helping some of the world’s most impoverished people through focusing on macroeconomic policy in Africa. He investigates critical development issues, notably the problem of capital flight, globalization, and the effectiveness of aid in African development.

In accepting his award, Ndikumana reflected on his childhood in Burundi and the enormously long odds he faced to complete elementary and secondary education, go to college in the United States, earn his doctorate, and become a professor at UMass Amherst.

Talking about his current work, he says, “One of the programs at the Political Economy Research Institute is to go to Africa and organize capacity-building workshops for government officials in topics that are pertinent to African development, including how to reduce poverty through financial inclusion, to deal with the political economy of economic reform in post-conflict countries. My colleagues have been working in conflict countries and designing policies in those states is very difficult. How do you choose priorities when everything is a priority? With my colleagues at UMass, we go around to listen to policy makers, but also give them some tools that make people’s lives better.”

Since 2013, Ndikumana has led training workshops for senior African policy makers on emerging issues, such as capital flight, macroeconomic policies for poverty reduction and employment creation, policy reforms in fragile states, and financial inclusion for sustainable development.

Ndikumana is often called upon to contribute his teaching expertise at African institutions. He is an honorary professor of economics at the Stellenbosch University and at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Next year, he will be starting a new program with UMass faculty teaching courses in South Africa for UMass students and University of Cape Town students.