NEIU Distinguished Alumnus Award

The Northeastern Illinois University Distinguished Alumnus Award is the highest alumni honor the University bestows. It recognizes a particular achievement of note, a series of such achievements, or a career of outstanding accomplishment. Since the award's inception in 2005, Northeastern has recognized alumni who have distinguished themselves as preeminent in their fields, excelling in their vocations and avocations. 

Distinguished Alumni Award recipients:

2005: Daniel L. Goodwin (B.A. ’66), chairman and CEO, Inland Real Estate Group, Inc.
2006: Mirta Ramirez (B.A. ’72), founder, ASPIRA of Illinois
2007: The Honorable Luis V. Gutierrez (B.A. ’76), 4th Congressional District of Illinois, U.S. House of Representatives
2010: Jose A. Rico (B.A. ’99), director, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics
2011: Rae Lewis Thornton (B.A. ’91), Emmy Award-winning AIDS activist and educational speaker
2011: Dr. Robert Jordan (M.A. ’94), news anchor and reporter for WGN-TV News; owner, Jordan and Jordan Communications, Inc.
2012: Dr. Ann P. Kalayil (B.S. ’82), Great Lakes Regional Administrator of U.S. General Services Administration
2014: Linda Winer (B.A. ’68), chief theatre critic and arts columnist at Newsday
2015: Bill Pollakov (B.A. ’70), president and CEO, The Pollakov Financial Group Inc.  
2016: Thomas White (B.A. ’81), global head of human resources, Zurich Financial Services Group
2017: Alice McGee (B.A. '84), former chief publicist and senior supervising producer, "The Oprah Winfrey Show"
2018: Billy Ocasio (B.A. '92 Board of Governors), chief executive officer at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture
2019: Michael A. Orona (B.A. '92 Criminal Justice), Division Chief, African Affairs Bureau, U.S. Department of State

2019 Alumni Awards  

Distinguished Alumnus Award 
Michael A. Orona, B.A. '92 Criminal Justice

Michael A. Orona has spent the past 18 years working for the U.S. Department of State, where he has served in an array of senior-level foreign policy advisory positions. Orona currently serves as Division Chief in the State Department’s African Affairs Bureau, where he oversees foreign policy formulation and chairs senior-level U.S. government meetings focused on a variety of issues facing the continent.

During the Obama administration, Orona served as Special Advisor to the U.S. Department of State’s Under Secretary for Political Affairs during the tenure of Secretary of State John Kerry. From 2009-2013, he served at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he helped to facilitate the release of three human rights prisoners of conscience. From 2005-2009, Orona served as Deputy Director and later was promoted to serve as Director of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

In 2004, Orona helped to establish the U.S. State Department’s Atrocities Documentation Team, which included U.S. government officials and NGO representatives who were dispatched by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to investigate the violence in Darfur, Sudan. The evidence gathered by the team led directly to the U.S. government’s historic determination of genocide in Darfur.

Orona is widely recognized as an honest broker on U.S. foreign policy matters among Democratic and Republican administrations alike. He has earned four U.S. Department of State Superior Honor Awards and three Meritorious Honor Awards for his work promoting and protecting human rights throughout Asia and Africa.

In addition to being an alumnus of Northeastern, Orona is a graduate of the U.S. Marine Corps University - Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va., where he received the Foreign Area Officer Association award for exceptional research in international affairs. Orona is married with three children and lives in the Washington, D.C., area.     

Alumni Service Award
Flora Llacuna, B.A. ’79 Secondary Education; M.A. ’83 Guidance & Counseling

Flora Llacuna has served NEIU for 39 years, including 35 years of service in the Division of Student Affairs. She currently works as a student advocate and with Undocumented Student Resources. She began working at Northeastern Illinois University in March of 1979. Soon after earning her graduate degree, she started teaching Spanish courses at NEIU and was on a continuous rotation every fall and spring semester for decades, alongside her full-time role as an academic support professional. Throughout her time at NEIU, she has worked with an authentic spirit of care and concern for every student and person she has engaged with at NEIU, helping to strengthen NEIU’s reputation as a place where all students and community members can feel welcomed. Flora also served as the Coordinator of the National Student Exchange Program for 25 years where she advised exchange students; she worked with the Minority Student Mentoring Program for 25 years; and most recently, she oversaw the food pantry at Northeastern Illinois University, which provides fresh and canned foods to current NEIU students. In addition to being a student advocate and working with Undocumented Student Resources, Flora currently serves as a coordinator in the Division of Students Affairs at Northeastern Illinois University.  

Community Leader Award
Helen Sinclair, B.A. '85 Nontraditional Degree Program

Sinclair has served as the chaplain for the Illinois Department of Corrections for more than 75 years. On Sundays, Sinclair journeys to Illinois state prisons to lead worship services. She sings, offers prayers, teaches about black history and shouts words of encouragement. She offers hugs and broad smiles. She listens as the inmates testify about how God has helped them find their better selves and a sense of peace. She is known in the community as the Queen Mother. “In her work, she found her name and her passion,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. “Sinclair has transformed into that spiritual mother for dozens of men, some who count her as their only family,” Jackson said. After her stepbrother, Eli Watson, was arrested and later died in custody in a prison, Sinclair’s family became more involved. While Sinclair’s contributions may be little known to outsiders, at Stateville Prison in Crest Hill, Illinois, the inmates and staff have a special affinity for her. Her image is painted on a hallway wall and the inmates dedicated to her their re-entry clothing closet, which provides suits for men to wear when they leave prison.

Outstanding GOLD Alumni Award
Angel Velez (B.A. '10 Justice Studies; M.A. '12 Educational Leadership) 

Angel L. Velez, M.A., is a Ph.D. candidate in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership with a concentration in History of Education and a graduate minor in Latina/o Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He is currently a Diversifying Faculty in Illinois Fellow as well as a former ENLACE Leadership Institute Fellow. He is a research associate in the Office of Community College Research and Leadership at UIUC on a National Science Foundation grant.  Over the years, Angel has been recognized for his teaching and public engagement. He has received five teaching awards from the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning, which ranks the top 5% of instructors at UIUC. In the Puerto Rican community, he is engaged in the development of the Puerto Rican Community Archives in Chicago. Angel was born and raised in Puerto Rico and is a proud product of the Chicago Public Schools and the City Colleges of Chicago. He loves spending time with his family, particularly traveling with his wife and son. Angel currently teaches as an adjunct instructor at Northeastern Illinois University.

Future Alumni Award
Francisco Sebastian, NEIU student 

Francisco Sebastian is an outstanding accounting major in the College of Business and Management, providing exceptional service to NEIU in many ways.

Francisco currently works as the payroll manager for the NEIU Independent, the University’s student-run newspaper, as well as provides all-around support for articles and student authors. He has served as the NEIU Budget Taskforce student representative, and helped the university identify cost efficiencies. Additionally, he has worked as administrative management for NEIU’s launch of the AARP’s Work for Yourself @50+ grant; volunteered to manage student volunteers at NETT Day and secured the event’s keynote speaker, Jason Kunish, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Chicago; and served as the assistant to the event coordinator for the College of Business and Management’s International Business Conference.

His work as a student does not stop there. Francisco also serves as the treasurer for five COBM clubs: CEO Club, Marketing Club, Accounting Club, APICS, and Investment Society. Beyond NEIU, Francisco volunteers to prepare free tax filings for Ladder Up, a community not-for-profit. Francisco’s dedication indicates he will be an outstanding NEIU alumnus, who will continue to give back to NEIU throughout his professional career.

2018 Alumni Awards 

Distinguished Alumnus Award 
Billy Ocasio (B.A. '92 Board of Governors) is the chief executive officer at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture. Previously he served as the senior advisor to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn appointed to work on social justice issues. He began his appointment on June 1, 2009, after it had been announced on May 12, 2009. Prior to his appointment, Ocasio served as the 26th Ward alderman in the Chicago City Council. Ocasio is a lifelong resident of Humboldt Park where he attended Von Humboldt Elementary School and Roberto Clemente Community Academy.

Alumni Service Award
Richard C. Lindberg (B.A. '74 and M.A. '87 History) is an award-winning author, journalist and lecturer who has written and published nineteen books about Chicago history, politics, criminal justice, sports and ethnicity. In 2012, his memoir of growing up, titled "Whiskey Breakfast: My Swedish Family My American Life," was named Non-Fiction Book of the Year by the Chicago Writer’s Association. His institutional history of NEIU, "Northeastern Illinois University: the First 150 Years" and a 2009 biography titled, "The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine" were both honored by the Illinois State Historical Society. Mr. Lindberg is a past president of the Society of Midland Authors, the Illinois Academy of Criminology and is a member of the Northeastern Illinois University Alumni Advisory Board. 

Community Leader Award
Shawn K. Woods (B.A. '98 Criminal Justice) is president and CEO of Shawn K. Woods & Associates, an organization committed to empowering businesses and individuals to unleash their full potential. An international trainer/facilitator, author and executive/life/career coach, he has delivered over 500 conferences including keynote presentations, bullying awareness seminars and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies, small business owners, government and non-profit organizations throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Africa. He has served as a law enforcement officer, decorated detective, assistant director of human resources for the Board of Education, as well as an investigator for the Office of the Executive Inspector General for the State of Illinois. 

Outstanding GOLD Alumni Award
Leslie Dubin (M.B.A. '09 Business Administration) teaches business, marketing, management and entrepreneurship courses at Oakton Community College. She is an executive and corporate leader. Along with business consulting, she is involved in academics, teaching and developing team management strategies. Leslie taught for several years in the Chicago Public Schools system. She served as vice president and operations manager for a Chicago-based textile firm, overseeing 200 employees over several locations throughout the United States. In 2014, Leslie was awarded the Ray Hartstein Excellence in Teaching Award for Part Time Faculty. Despite major health issues which surfaced in 2016, Leslie has continued to teach and develop course material for her school.

Future Alumni Award
Yadira Alonzo, current student, is a junior majoring in Anthropology and minoring in Linguistics and Biology. She is active in Northeastern’s Student Food Pantry, the University’s Undocumented, Resilient, and Organized Club, and in the Beta Beta Beta Honor Society. She traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, on an Alternative Spring Break Service Trip and Mexico as a member of Dreamers without Borders. Most recently, Yadira attended the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute where she received the Dr. Juan Andrade Jr. Scholarship for Young Hispanic Leaders. She also received a scholarship from the Illinois Latino Council on Higher Education. Yadira volunteers at World Relief Chicago, working with a Syrian refugee family.

2017 Alumni Awards 

Alumni Service Award
Dr. A. Michael Drachler (B.A. '68 Biology), is a proud graduate of Northeastern Illinois University who earned a B.A. in Biology with a second major in Elementary Education in 1968. Drachler received his medical degree from Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, completing his residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Cook County Hospital. Drachler has won numerous teaching awards, serves as the Senior Clinical Educator at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, and serves on various boards including as Vice President of the NEIU Alumni Advisory Board.

Community Leadership Award 
Dr. Jerry Watson (B.A. '93 Board of Governors), is currently an Associate Professor of Social Work at Rust College. Watson received a B.A. in the Board of Governors Program from Northeastern Illinois University; M.S.W. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Jane Addams College of Social Work; M.B.A. from Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois; and Ph.D. from Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss. His research focus continues to be diverse ranging from offender re-entry and African American men’s health to cultural and linguistic competency. Watson taught at DePaul University, Aurora University in Chicago, Jackson State University, and Mississippi Valley State University. Currently, he is a co-founder of Men Healing Men and Communities in Memphis, Tenn.

Outstanding GOLD Alumni Award 
Carlos Jiménez Flores (B.A. '06 Human Resource Development), is a writer, producer and film director. In 2015, he was featured in the NEIU Alumni: All Access Series where he presented and gave a film screening. In his presentation he demonstrated the lifelong value of a Northeastern Illinois University degree from the perspective of some of the University’s most successful and inspirational alumni. Jiménez Flores has been profiled by the Chicago Reader, Michigan Avenue Magazine and ABC7’s “Ñ-Beat.” A former high school and college dropout, Jiménez Flores earned his bachelor’s degree from Northeastern in Human Resource Development in 2006 after transferring from Wilbur Wright College. Jiménez Flores is the first Puerto Rican director to have two films theatrically released in the same year.

Future Alumni Leader Award 
Nicholas Martinez (NEIU student), is a current student at Northeastern Illinois University majoring in biology. He has served as president of the NEIU Student Government Association and has been active with the University’s advocacy issues in Springfield. He has also served on the Executive Board of the University Advisory Council and as the Illinois Board of Higher Education Student Representative.

2016 Alumni Awards

Alumni Service Award
Gloria Iverson (M.A. ’08 Special Education), special education teacher in Skokie/Evanston School District 60 in Evanston and owner of the Mini Man Monkey Brains candy store and Nixie Events and Gallery in downtown Skokie.

Community Leadership Award
The Honorable William (Willie) Delgado (B.A. ’82 Criminal Justice), Democratic member of the Illinois Senate, representing the 2nd District since 2006. 

Outstanding GOLD Alumni Award
Carrie Horton (B.S. ’14 Accounting), finance and accounting at Granger. 

Future Alumni Leader Award
Terrie Albano, student in the Nontraditional Degree Program and an English major.