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Alumni Promise Award

The purpose of this award is to recognize alumni who have achieved significant levels of accomplishment in the early to middle stages of their careers. It is designed to publicly acknowledge these “rising stars” who have exhibited exceptional talent and promise.


Abigail Blount

Captain Blount is a 2014 alumna of the College of Arts and Sciences, graduating magna cum laude with an interdisciplinary degree in linguistics and Spanish. At the age of 30, she has reached the rank of US Army Captain, and is one of only 92 women ever to complete Army Ranger School. Captain Blount is one of an elite group of female AH-64 Apache Helicopter Pilots and is regarded by her peers as a motivator, mentor, and glass-ceiling breaker.

In addition to these accomplishments, Captain Blount won the Regional Golden Gloves Boxing Championship for the east coast in 2019 and was named Outstanding Female Boxer in North Carolina in 2019. She volunteers her time as a coach and mentor for youth at her hometown gym in Fayetteville, North Carolina, especially to young girls needing confidence to compete in combat sports.

Perhaps the most poignant summary of Abigail Blount’s character comes from one of her nominators, as follows:

“Abby has persevered to achieve her goals, never quit on her dreams and maintained an optimism about the goodness of humanity and the unlimited potential of every human being. But probably the quality I most admire, is that Abby never sees her achievements as an end in themselves – she wants to forge a path to motivate and lead others. I’ve always seen her go to bat for the underdog, or take time to really see others and help them believe in themselves. And consistent with that compassion is the humility I see, as she never draws attention to herself or her accomplishments, but always acknowledges the team members around her, the leaders who have invested in her, and her family who have loved and supported her. If anyone deserves recognition for outstanding achievements and character, it is Abigail Blount.”

Achievement in Humanities

Jordan T. Kuck

Jordan Kuck is an assistant professor of history at Brevard College, where he teaches European and global history. He holds two degrees from the University of Nebraska at Kearney and obtained his PhD from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2014. At UT, Kuck studied under Professor Vejas Liulevicius.

Kuck has published a number of articles and book chapters on the history of Latvia, including Kārlis Ulmanis, his authoritarian regime, interwar Latvia, and transnational fascism and totalitarianism. Two of his publications were solicited by the Latvian government and Latvian Institute of International Affairs as part of the centennial celebration of Latvian independence. He is currently working on a manuscript on the Ulmanis regime and his chapter on transnational totalitarianism in Latvia will appear in the forthcoming edited volume Dictatorship and Daily Life in Twentieth-Century Europe.

During his career, Kuck has received a number of prestigious awards, including a Fulbright, a U.S. Department of Education Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship, and an Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (AABS) grant. While at UT, Kuck received the J. Wallace and Katie Dean Graduate Non-Service Fellowship, a number of departmental awards, and in 2011 was selected as a recipient of the Chancellor’s Extraordinary Professional Promise Award.

Achievement in Visual or Performing Arts

Alexandria Shiner

Shiner received her Master of Music from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 2016 and her Bachelor of Music from Western Michigan University. She has garnered much critical acclaim in a short time. Shiner was a 2020 Grand Finals Winner in The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

She is a recent graduate of the Cafritz Young Artists Program of Washington National Opera, which is one of the most prestigious training grounds for young operatic talents in the world. According to the Director of the Cafritz Young Artist Program, Shiner “is now the most remarkable young dramatic sopranos of her generation”.

She is a 2021 Jensen Foundation Vocal Competition Third Place winner, 2019 Sara Tucker Study Grant recipient, and she placed second in the Young Artist category of the 2016 Orpheus National Music Competition for Vocalists. Shiner also competed as the Mid-South Regional Winner in the 2016 National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) Artist Awards in Chicago.

She visits UT several times a year to connect with faculty, alums, and local opera companies.

Due to the disruption caused by COVID-19, there were no awards in 2020.

Achievement in Natural Sciences

Morgan M. Steffen received her PhD in microbiology from UT in 2014. She is an assistant professor at James Madison University where she teaches and mentors students in research. Her area of focus is microbiology, particularly as it pertains to the toxic cyanobacterial blooms that are becoming a problem across the US and around the world. Most recently, Steffen led a team of university and government scientists that examined the potential causes of the Toledo Event in 2014, which resulted in shutting down the water supply to the City of Toledo, Ohio, during the August 2014 holiday weekend leaving approximately 500,000 residents without water. Her efforts combined molecular biology, limnology and satellite data with mathematical models to find the environmental drivers of the problem. Those data now inform utilities managers how to avoid the same circumstances in the future.

A brief review of Dr. Steffen’s CV will quickly reveal the level of respect she has earned from her colleagues both near and far. She collaborates with the best environmental microbiologist worldwide, reflecting her status as a recognized authority in environmental microbiology. She has received two NSF grants in the last three years. In 2018, James Madison University honored her with the Research and Scholarship Outstanding Faculty Award. Steffen has remained a tireless recruiter for the UT graduate program in microbiology. Fall 2019 will see a third student in just three years join microbiology from JMU biology. The ability to recruit the very best undergraduates from a top undergraduate biology program like that at JMU is a major advantage to UT faculty.

Achievement in Visual and Performing Arts

Crystal Wagner graduated summa cum laude in 2008 with her Master of Fine Arts in studio art with a concentration in printmaking. Wagner has already established herself as a significant artist with recognition of her work through major exhibitions and commissions both in the United States and abroad. Her promise is already realized, and her resume offers of record of the impressive work ethic of this young and very talented artist.

Wagner is gaining a significant international reputation for her work that combines printmaking and sculpture, which often uses recycled and repurposed materials in the creation of large-scale, site-specific installations. She maintains a diverse studio practice, which also involves the creation of smaller-scale dimensional print-works. When she was in graduate school in Knoxville, the Knoxville Museum of Art acquired one of her early pieces that combined print media and sculpture. Today, another work by Crystal graces the museum just beyond the entryway. Early on, the KMA recognized her significant promise, with a commitment to including her work in their permanent collection.

Wagner’s art is represented by galleries in San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, and Paris. She was a 2015 recipient of the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Grant. The pace of her professional activities is astonishing. She has a number of exhibitions and projects scheduled into 2020, with a one-person exhibition at the prestigious international art festival Art Basel in Miami, Florida. Despite her growing international recognition, she has also remained present in Tennessee with a significant project during a residency in 2017 at the Cheekwood Fine Arts Center in Nashville. She also came back to Knoxville in 2015 to work with UT students in the creation of a major installation in the Art and Architecture Building for an alumni exhibition during the Southern Graphics Council International Printmaking Conference. Wagner’s professional record of exhibitions and commissions is notable, and anyone who sees her work can appreciate its sheer beauty and ingenuity. The ability of the arts to enrich our lives is clearly evident in her labors.

Achievement in Natural Sciences

Peter Knappett earned a PhD in geology in 2010. After graduating, he received a prestigious Marie Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Hemholtz Center for Environmental Health from 2010-11 in Munich, Germany, and from 2012-13, took another postdoctoral position at the Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He is an assistant professor at Texas A&M University with plans to submit his tenure dossier this fall. Knappett’s research focuses on microbial contaminants and arsenic in alluvial aquifers in Bangladesh, Mexico, and the Southeastern United States. His accomplishments include 31 peer-reviewed journal articles, $430,000 in research grants, and advisor to a dozen graduate students. He also received the 2014 Kohut Early Career Award from the Hydrogeology Division of the Geological Society of America. Knappett collaborates with faculty in the UT Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, hosts speakers, and supports EPS with regular monetary contributions.

Achievement in Humanities

In 2000, Clayton McDonald graduated from the Language and World Business Program with a concentration in Spanish. Today, he is the head of global Sales for INTL FCStone, Inc., a publicly held financial services firm specializing in international currency trading in the developing world. He is one of the most active LWB alumni who returns to campus each year to guest lecture and attend poster presentations. His interactions with our students help them envision a career with a degree in Spanish. One student commented, “I had always viewed as being paid to travel as an aspiration I could only dream of, but after hearing from Mr. McDonald, it is now a goal that is more in reach.” In 2015, he established the Clayton McDonald Undergraduate Travel Abroad Scholarship for LWB students. McDonald began his career as a trader at INTL FCStone and worked his way up to his current position. His success reflects the message we try to get across about a degree in the humanities – it can lead to a successful and productive career anywhere in the world because the ability to communication in any language will always be a significant key to success.

Achievement in Humanities

Katherine Sharp Landdeck (’02) earned a PhD in history and worked at the Center for the Study of War and Society while enrolled in graduate studies. She is an associate professor of history at Texas Women’s University with a research focus in public history. She has been recognized globally for her expertise on the Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II, including work with the media and in documentary films.

Katherine was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work as Contributing Producer and Historian on the film “Silver Wings, Flying Dreams: The Complete Story of the Women Air Force Service Pilots.” Other documentary film work includes as historian on the PBS station KERA’s Emmy-winning film “High Hopes” and the Gracie Award-winning film “We Served Too.”

Achievement in Performing Art

Conrad Ricamora (’12) received his MFA in theatre and in the five years since, has distinguished himself as an artistic talent, playing major roles on and off Broadway and on television. Conrad’s most visible and current work is as the featured character, Oliver Hampton, on ABC’s hugely successful legal series, How To Get Away With Murder, starring Academy Award winner Viola Davis. He has also just completed reprising his breakout role as Ninoy Aquino in a new production of the musical Here Lies Love, by David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim, for which he received a Theatre World Award and was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical. Conrad is also a generous and eloquent supporter of UT and the Department of Theatre.

Humanities Achievement Award

George Demacopoulos (’92) completed a bachelor’s degree in history at UT and a master’s degree in theological studies (with highest honors), at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 1995. He went on to complete a master’s degree and a doctorate in religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the founding director of Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center which is now a major research institute devoted to the history and culture of Orthodox Christianity.

Social Sciences Achievement Award

Cortney Piper (’03) earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. A member of the UT swim team, she was named to the Academic All-SEC team and the Lady Vol Honor Roll. She has been recognized as one of the top 40 under 40 in Knoxville, and is a member of the Political Science Advisory Board. Since 2008, she has served as president and founder of the Knoxville-based firm, Piper Communications, which specializes in clean energy communications consulting in the private and public sectors.

Humanities Achievement Award

Chad Goldman (’93), who received a bachelor’s degree with a major in Spanish, is chief creative officer for OmniForce LLC, headquartered in Los Angeles, with offices in four countries. The company and its subsidiaries, RaceForce LLC and CauseForce LLC, provide strategic marketing, sponsorship acquisition and production support, publicity, planning, logistics, training, and charitable components for athletic events.

Visual and Performing Arts

Kristin Lewis (’02), who received a master’s degree in music, is an internationally known operatic soprano. She formed the Kristin Lewis Foundation which provides scholarship funding for a promising vocal student to study for a week in Vienna, Austria.