Center for Distance Learning Mentor Sheila Aird Feted for Altes Prize for Community Service for Dedicated Advocacy Work

By Hope Ferguson, senior writer

January 23, 2012

CDL Associate Dean Janet Shideler, Altes Prize recipient Dr. Sheila Aird, CDL Dean Thomas MackeyCenter 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 in Saratoga Springs, where CDL is based. Aird works at the college's Niagara Frontier Center in Buffalo. (Photo at left: CDL Associate Dean Janet Shideler, Altes Prize recipient Dr. Sheila Aird, CDL Dean Thomas Mackey)

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 long-time 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.

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.

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.”

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.

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 Conference planning committee, the General Education Assessment Review of American history and Western civilization, and was co-chair of the 2010 CDL conference.

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.”

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