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Honoring Our Alumni

During the 2022 Alumni and Philanthropy Award Ceremony, we honored five alumni for outstanding professional achievements, service, and philanthropy.

Abigail Blount (’14), Alumni Promise Award

Captain Abigail Blount graduated 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 Captain 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.”

Jack E. Williams (’64), Volunteer Service Award

Jack Williams is an outstanding alumnus of the College of Arts and Sciences, where he earned a degree in history in 1964. With the exception of six years early on, Williams spent his entire career (36 years) bettering the university and the college in his work as VP of Development, Senior Advisor to the President for Philanthropy, Director of Special Gifts, and Vice Chancellor of Development and Alumni Affairs.

Williams has exhibited an incredible passion for the College of Arts and Sciences and the university as a whole. Before the UT Foundation existed, Jack was recruiting major donors to give to groundbreaking capital and operating projects on campus. He was extremely involved with development of the Carousel and Clarence Brown Theaters.

After Williams retired from UT in 2006, he continued to nurture donors, particularly retired and current faculty. Notable among his lifelong friends are the late Charlie Brakebill and our distinguished President Emeritus Joe Johnson, whom he visits on a regular basis.

Williams is known for his innate ability to educate and inspire fellow board members in a quiet manner, always ensuring that others receive credit for a job well done and shying away from being in front of the camera. In fact, he was usually taking the pictures, and his wonderful photographs documented many UT alumni events.

Christopher Elkins (’01), Professional Achievement Award

Christopher Elkins joined UT as a graduate student in our microbiology program in 1995 and received his PhD in microbiology in 2001. Elkins is an internationally recognized expert in antibiotic resistance and microbial pathogen detection. He is regularly sought as an expert speaker for national and international scientific conferences and has played instrumental roles as an agency representative for both the FDA and CDC. Elkins has authored, or co‐ authored, more than 65 peer-reviewed scientific publications and five books or book chapters. He has also held leadership roles for the American Society for Microbiology, and served as an editor or on the editorial board of four different scientific journals.

Elkins has made significant contributions to research aimed at identifying and combating microbial pathogens, including SARS‐CoV‐2 (aka COVID‐19). He has successfully led the development and coordination of scientific research and pathogen surveillance programs. In addition to his professional accomplishments, Elkins volunteers his time and talent as an advisory board member to the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Microbiology.

Karen Sisk (’74), College Philanthropist Award

Since earning her UT degree in mathematics education in 1974, Karen Sisk has been boosting education in multiple areas with generous gifts to three departments within the College of Arts and Sciences. She is endowing professorships in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, scholarships in math, and support for programs in music, in addition to supporting the College Fund for Arts and Sciences. Having previously served as a member of the UT Chancellor’s Associates and UT Foundation’s Alliance of Women Philanthropists, Sisk is the epitome of the extraordinary impact that volunteer service and philanthropic giving can have on our college.

She has endowed the Gerald D. Sisk Professorships for named chairs in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. The chairs recognize excellence in teaching and research in the fields of mineralogy and petrology, and with these funds, the department has been able to attract two outstanding scientists to its faculty. The professorships were established in memory of her late husband Gerald Sisk, a 1975 graduate of UT, a graduate gemologist, and a recognized authority on gemstones, who co-founded Jewelry Television. Sisk’s generous donation is the largest single gift ever received by this Department.

Additionally, she has committed to funding the Karen L. Sisk Scholarship Endowment in the Department of Mathematics, which will provide scholarships to undergraduate students. The scholarship will support the mission of the mathematics department to expand access to a mathematics degree to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Finally, Sisk has supported the School of Music, including the Pride of the Southland Marching Band, of which her late husband was a member. She has given to scholarship and enrichment funds at the School of Music, as classical music remains an interest of hers, as well as to the College Fund for Arts and Sciences at the Dean’s Circle level.

Heath Shuler (’01), Dean’s Distinguished Alumnus Award

A 2001 graduate with a BA in psychology, Heath Shuler is the co‐founder of Integrated Strategy Group, a management consulting firm, and also serves as a senior advisor to Baker‐Hostetler, one of the nation’s most respected law firms. Shuler has used his education in psychology to achieve amazing success in a variety of fields. He has served as a professional athlete, entrepreneur, public servant, chief government officer for Duke Energy in North Carolina, Democratic Member of the House of Representatives, and not least, an NFL quarterback. In 2009, he was inducted as an SEC Legend in recognition of his career as the Vols’ quarterback.

Shuler’s leadership is exemplified through his service in Congress as well as his diligence in starting Heath Shuler Real Estate – one of the largest real estate firms in East Tennessee– and as the co-founder and senior advisor for the Integrated Strategy Group. Shuler is a well-known strategic communications professional and inspirational speaker on topics including leadership, crisis management, government relations, policy development, analysis, and advocacy.

In his professional life and political activities, Shuler has always been willing to help students at UT and at other private and public educational institutions. His track record while serving as a congressman was supportive of public education, higher education, and arts and sciences.

Click here to learn more about our annual awards and previous alumni awardees.