Distinguished and Rising Star alumni honored

Distinguished and Rising Star alumni honored


The SUNY Cortland Alumni Association will award its most prestigious annual honors during Alumni Reunion 2024. Four graduates will receive the Distinguished Alumni Award and one will be honored as a Rising Star. 

Distinguished Alumni are those who graduated more than a decade ago and have enjoyed a productive and notable postgraduate career.  

The Rising Star Award recognizes more recent alumni who graduated up to 10 years ago and have demonstrated a strong foundation for their future.

This year’s award recipients are:  

  • Rosita M. Stevens-Holsey ’65, Distinguished Alum

  • Kevin Conley ’90, Distinguished Alum

  • Stacey A. Hengsterman ’93, Distinguished Alum

  • Minerva D. Francis ’05, Distinguished Alum

  • Savannah G. Brancato ’20, Rising Star


Distinguished Alumni

Rosita Stevens-Holsey ’65 


Rosita Stevens-Holsey graduated from SUNY Cortland with a bachelor’s in education, earned a master’s in education from Boston University and taught in New York state for two years. She then became a systems engineer for IBM, one of the first Black professionals hired by the organization.

Later, she founded a management consulting and executive search firm in Atlanta, Georgia, becoming director of the Regional Minority Purchasing Council in partnership with the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Savannah Chamber of Commerce. 

“Rosita has enjoyed a long career which has led her down many different avenues, from education and beyond, each tackled with grit and determination,” said nominator Heather Spanella, of Preserving Pauli Murray, LLC, the nonprofit Stevens-Holsey founded to share the legacy of her aunt, a civil rights legend. 

In 2008, Stevens-Holsey followed her love of teaching back to a Maryland classroom. 

Since retiring from teaching in 2022, she has dedicated herself to promoting the memory of her aunt, Pauli Murray, an activist, a co-founder of the National Organization for Women, attorney, labor organizer, author, poet, professor and the first Black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. In 2012, Murray was recognized as a saint by the Episcopal Church. 

She recently co-wrote a biography, Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist & Civil Rights Activist, which was given a distinguished Septima P. Clark Book Award by the National Council for the Social Studies. 

In recognition of her career, Stevens-Holsey has been honored with awards including Black Businesswoman of the Year, Outstanding Minority Business of the Year, Outstanding Educator of the Year, and the U.S. Department of Defense “Outstanding Service” Award. 

She’s currently a board member with the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice and the National Women’s History Alliance, a member of the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, the NAACP and the National Organization for Women. 

Kevin Conley ’90


Kevin Conley graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in health education from SUNY Cortland and went on to have an exemplary career as an athletic trainer and university administrator. 

Nominator M. Kathleen Kelly, associate dean of academic outreach and advising at the University of Pittsburgh, said she has seen Conley ascend through roles at Pittsburgh that include program director for athletic training, department chair and now as associate dean for undergraduate studies in its School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.  

“In each of these roles, Kevin has demonstrated considerable aptitude and a profound allegiance to the academic and professional mission of the university and school,” Kelly said. “In addition, he has had an unwavering commitment to the success of the hundreds of students he has taught and mentored, and to the professional development of the faculty he has worked with for more than 30 years. 

Conley uses his position to give guidance and leadership to seven undergraduate programs and their curriculums in the School of Health and rehabilitation Sciences, and previously helped graduates as part of the University of Pittsburgh Alumni Association Leadership Council from 2007-14. 

He’s served in additional leadership roles at the school and university, including chair of the SHRS undergraduate academic policies committee, the dean’s leadership council, elected positions on the University Faculty Assembly and Faculty Senate, the University Undergraduate Advising Committee, the Provost’s Advisory Council on Undergraduate Research and the University of Pittsburgh Pre-Health Professions Committee. 

This year, he was selected as one of five faculty representatives to be a part of the Atlantic Coast Conference Academic Leaders Network. 

Stacey Hengsterman ’93


Stacey Hengsterman is president and CEO of Special Olympics New York, one of the largest Special Olympics chapters in the world. The statewide nonprofit serves more than 42,000 youth and adult athletes with intellectual disabilities. 

Prior to her current job, Hengsterman spent two decades shaping state higher education policy as a top advisor to the SUNY chancellor and board of trustees.  

As a mother whose family includes a son with Down syndrome, she works to expand access to the Special Olympics’ life-changing programs.  

Under her leadership, Special Olympics New York has earned the highest rankings from both Charity Navigator and Guidestar and has been named a “Top Workplace” by the Albany Times Union. 

“The impact of her vision and leadership cannot be overstated,” said nominator Casey Vattimo, senior vice president of external relations for Special Olympics New York. “More and more people with disabilities, and their families, are joining Special Olympics because Stacey has found a way to reach them. More and more school districts are joining the movement, improving school climate by including students with disabilities not only in sports but in every fabric of the high school experience. More and more New York businesses and corporations are employing people with disabilities because Special Olympics has shined a light on their valuable contributions.” 

Hengsterman’s work as a member of the Pioneer Bancorp Board of directors led her to be named to the 2021 Upstate Power 100 list by City & State news organization. She is one of just 30 recipients of the 2020 City & State Above & Beyond Award, which recognized women leaders in New York who make notable contributions to society. 

Minerva Francis ’05


During the course of Minerva Francis’ studies, she became a member of three national honor societies, Kappa Delta Pi, Eta Sigma Gamma and Chi Alpha Epsilon, and her published articles have informed the fields of social work, drug treatment counseling, and corrections, including probation and parole. 

Nominator Mechthild Nagel described Francis as a “pioneer” and “amazing ambassador” for Cortland’s Kenyan student exchange program. 

After graduation with a B.S. in international health from Cortland, she earned a master’s in community health from Brooklyn College, an advanced certificate in project management from the CUNY School of Professional Studies and a doctorate in health education and behavioral science from Columbia University. 

She went on to New York University as a pre-doctoral fellow behavioral scientist from 2018 to 2021. There, at one of the country’s oldest and largest behavioral science research and career training grant programs, Francis developed her knowledge and skills in drug use research. 

Francis became the managing director for New York City Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, recruiting more than 50 volunteer faculty mentors and 125 undergrads for STEM fields. 

Since 2022, she has had a post-doctoral fellowship for the Partnership to End Addiction, a New York City program that provides physical and mental health services. While there, Francis has served as a project director and managed the budget and hiring processes for the initiative. 

A certified health education specialist, she is a board member of SUNY Cortland’s Sophia’s Garden Institute, which seeks to introduce philosophy concepts to young students. 

Active professionally and in the community, her memberships include the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children, the National Black Child Development Institute, Academic Consortium on Criminal Justice Health, the NIH HEAL Justice Community Opioid Intervention Network, the American Public Health Association, New York Academy of Medicine and the American Psychological Association. 


Rising Star Award 

Savannah Brancato ’20


Savannah Brancato balances a promising early career in laboratory research on HIV and other retroviruses at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, with a remarkable four years as a philanthropist to rural villagers in Ghana.  

In early 2021, Brancato began as a research technician at Cornell University in the laboratory of Robert A. Dick. He promoted her before moving his research to Emory University in May 2023, bringing Brancato with him. She currently serves as an electron microscopy technologist and lab manager in the university’s Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology. 

“My lab’s research aims to better understand HIV and other similar retroviruses on a molecular level,” wrote Brancato, who has given two professional talks on her research subject and served on career panels for future scientists.  

Her work helps push the boundaries of sample preparation and electron microscopy to generate high resolution viral protein structures.  

“These structures can help characterize the mechanisms of action and effects of existing antiviral drugs and provide insight on how to design more potent and effective compounds,” she wrote. 

Four years ago, Brancato co-founded The Genuine Project, a 501.c.3 non-profit organization whose purpose is to support charitable initiatives worldwide. Already the group has helped the Siwdu community in Cape Coast, Ghana, achieve a public restroom facility serving 1,000 residents. By forming partnerships with the local community and enlisting volunteers from Cape Coast Technical University, The Genuine Project effectively leveraged the students’ expertise in engineering and construction to move the project forward. 

At Cortland, Brancato earned a B.S. in biochemistry with an overall GPA of 3.3. An Undergraduate Research Fellow in the chemistry laboratory of Associate Professor Katherine A. Hicks, she helped investigate purifying and crystallizing bacterial metabolic enzymes to further understand their structural, mechanistic and kinetic characteristics for future bioremediation efforts. Brancato received the department’s 2020 Outstanding Student Research Award in Chemistry, presented to a graduating senior majoring in chemistry or biochemistry.


Robert Bookman '76, Esq., 2023 Distinguished Alumni recipient, and Natalie Yoder '21, 2023 Rising Star recipient, also will be presented their awards at this year's Alumni Reunion.

More information and registration details for Alumni Reunion 2024 are available at RedDragonNetwork.org.Distinguished and Rising Star alumni honored

More News

Residence hall donations get a second life

Residence hall donations get a second life

SUNY Cortland partnered with Cortland ReUse to collect departing students’ unwanted items. 

Cortland's Nick Marola Receives SUNYAC Award of Valor

Cortland's Nick Marola Receives SUNYAC Award of Valor

The Red Dragon’s starting shortstop did his part to help save a life.

Twelve students conducting sponsored research this summer

Twelve students conducting sponsored research this summer

This cohort's studies range from biology and chemistry to political science and fine art.

Juneteenth festival planned for downtown Cortland

Juneteenth festival planned for downtown Cortland

Fourth Cortland event on June 15 celebrates the enforced end of slavery on June 19, 1865.

Distinguished and Rising Star alumni honored

Distinguished and Rising Star alumni honored

Reunion 2024 will recognize a new crop of outstanding alumni.

Alumni awards to honor educators, volunteers

Alumni awards to honor educators, volunteers

The SUNY Cortland Alumni Association will present the awards at this year’s Reunion.

CICC chooses “Air” as 2024-25 academic theme

CICC chooses “Air” as 2024-25 academic theme

Organizers seek ideas from the campus community for the coming year’s lectures and activities.

Tribute to a groundbreaking educator

Tribute to a groundbreaking educator

Marjorie Dey Carter '50 quietly blazed a trail in American urban education.

Women’s lacrosse earns SUNYAC championship title 

Women’s lacrosse earns SUNYAC championship title 

The Red Dragons, under third-year head coach Kelsey Van Alstyne, made their 26th NCAA tournament appearance.

SUNY Cortland is new host for New York State Envirothon  

SUNY Cortland is new host for New York State Envirothon  

The annual science contest will bring hundreds of high-achieving high schoolers from around the state to campus.