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December 8, 2011

Aird Receives Prize for Community Service

Center for Distance Learning Mentor Sheila Aird, Ph.D., was recognized on Tuesday, Dec. 13, as the recipient of the 2011 Jane W. Altes Prize for Community Service. The ceremony took place at 113 West Ave., in Saratoga Springs, where CDL is based. Aird works at the college's Niagara Frontier Center in Buffalo.

Jane W. Altes presents Altez Prize for Community Service to Sheila Aird

Aird was recognized for her work on the board of the IMAGE Initiative Inc. a Syracuse-based organization that mentors young at-risk African-American and Latina women, ages 13 to 18, and that seeks to boost  self-esteem through programming and service to the community and abroad.

Altes, who attended the ceremony with her husband, Wally, was a longtime vice president for academic affairs at  the college, in addition to serving for nearly three years as interim president after the departure of the college’s founding president, James W. Hall, in 1998.

The IMAGE Initiative, Inc. was founded as a graduate school project by Aird’s daughter Nicole Watkins, who joined the event via Skype. Aird serves on the board of directors.

Prior to the presentation, a brief video was shown showing scenes from the organization's conference in March, including dance workshops and speakers such as a young black female Delta Airlines pilot.

Jane Altes presented the award to Aird.

“I am always astounded and impressed that year after year, not only are there prize recipients, but there are so many who are appropriate for the prize,” she said. “There is a strong connection with what we do professionally and community service. I am glad to see this continuing.”

Altes joked that if she came back in 50 years, the college still would not have run out of apt recipients for the prize. Aird is the 11th recipient of the award. Prior to the ceremony, Altes said she is not always able to travel to be present when the award is given, so was gratified to be able to do so this year. She and her husband live in the Capital region.

Aird, visibly moved, said, “I was not expecting this award. I knew about it; I knew it was fantastic, and I know that there are a lot of people in this college doing extraordinary, exemplary things.” Aird said she was prompted to get deeply involved with the IMAGE Initiative, Inc. after feeling powerless after the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, and following the devastating Haiti earthquake nearly two years ago.

The group has since instituted an exchange with Haitian young women. The American girls have sent care packages and letters, and a pen-pal program with the younger girls is underway. One school in Haiti is using the abundant correspondence to teach English at the school.

 “We nominated Dr. Aird for the Altes Prize because she exemplifies this award through her dedicated service to the community and the ongoing connections she makes to her teaching, mentoring and research,” said CDL Dean Thomas P. Mackey when Aird was selected for the award in March. “Everyone at CDL is proud that Dr. Aird has received this award, an honor that she lives every day through her extraordinary service.”


From l-r: CDL Associate Dean Janet Shideler, Sheila Aird and CDL Dean Thomas Mackey.

Other speakers during the ceremony were President Alan Davis, who noted the expansion of the term community in the wake of great technological change; Nicole Watkins, president of the IMAGE Initiative, Inc.; Pat Isaac, Ph.D., a mentor for the School for Graduate Studies, and advisory board member for the IIMAGE Initiative’s C.H.O.I.C.E.S. program. Provost Meg Benke, Ph.D. introduced the prize winner.

Aird is deeply involved with the organization’s C.H.O.I.C.E.S program, aimed at building young women’s belief in themselves, their potential and their call to serve others. When she started working on this project, the young women were not only unfamiliar with Haiti, they were also unaware of its importance to the colonial empire as well as its connection to Louisiana, she says. This year, participants took part in a collection drive – providing toiletries, first-aid items, flip flops, soap, and other much needed items – to the young women in Haiti. They also sent messages to their counterparts in Haiti, in an initiative called Voices across the Water.

A mentor of historical and cultural studies, who concentrates on matters related to the African Diaspora, historical archaeology, historical preservation and public history, Aird also is the area coordinator for global studies. She has served the college community on last year’s All College planning committee, the General Education Assessment Review of American history and Western civilization, and was co-chair of the 2010 CDL conference.


Sheila Aird and partner Michael Williams

The  young women are referred to the program by guidance counselors in three Syracuse schools. Seven years ago, the program had 30 students. The conference this year drew more than 200 girls, Aird said. “I am part of a fantastic group of women that freely give of their time to help these young women meet their full potentials."

Our ultimate goal is to reach these young women and teach them that they are important. One of our missions is to introduce them to social activism and community service on a global level, then to bring it back to a local level,” Aird said, explaining that the girls will next design their own community action projects from beginning to end. Aird said the organization would like to begin to reach out to girls as young as 11 to have an even greater impact. The C.H.O.I.C.E.S group generally meets once a month. The conference is annual.

 About SUNY Empire State College
Celebrating its 40th anniversary throughout 2011, SUNY Empire State College was established in 1971 to offer adult learners the opportunity to earn associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the State University of New York. Students learn through independent studies, online courses, seminars and residencies. Learners also may earn credit for prior college-level learning from work and life experience.

 The college serves more than 20,000 students worldwide at 36 locations in New York state and online. Its 60,000 alumni are active in their communities as entrepreneurs, politicians, business professionals, artists, not-for-profit agency employees, teachers, veterans and active military, union members and more.

For additional information, visit www.esc.edu. For more on the 40th anniversary, please follow this link.




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