Six Kent State University graduates and one current student will be honored by the Kent State University Alumni Association as the winners of the 2019 Alumni Awards.

Recipients are chosen based on their exceptional contributions in their chosen profession, in their communities and at Kent State. 

"The alumni association received many outstanding nominations that truly represent the diversity and success of our graduates," said Lori Randorf, assistant vice president of alumni relations at Kent State. "These alumni award recipients exemplify the characteristics of Kent State graduates and the impact they have on their professions and society."

The following are the alumni who are being recognized in each category.

• Matthew Likens, president and CEO of GT Medical Technologies Inc. and a resident of Mesa, Ariz., will receive the Distinguished Alumni Award. Likens graduated from Kent State in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. The Distinguished Alumni Award honors a graduate who has made outstanding contributions in their chosen profession, demonstrating extraordinary service to Kent State as well as their community, state and nation. This award is the most prestigious honor given by the alumni association.

The company that Likens leads — GT Medical Technologies Inc. — is a medical device start-up company with a mission to improve the lives of patients with brain tumors.

"One of my philosophies is trying to achieve one’s potential," said Likens. "I think all of us have more potential than we give ourselves credit for. Sometimes, one of the real great things in life now is seeing younger people develop in their careers, even our children, and letting them know their potential is unlimited."

Likens and his wife, Nancy Saucke Likens (KSU, ’75), reside in Mesa, Ariz., and are active members of the First United Methodist Church where Nancy leads the church council, Likens is a member of the finance committee and they both sing in the choir. Their son, Greg Likens, is an accomplished sports-talk radio host in Miami and their daughter, Alexa Likens Flowers, is employed by Medtronic Corp. Alexa and her husband, Peter Flowers, live in Golden Valley, Minn.

• Judy Isaacson Elias, founder and president of Heroes to Heroes Foundation and a resident of Fort Lee, N.J., will receive the Distinguished Citizen Award. Elias graduated from Kent State in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in social work. The Distinguished Citizen Award honors a graduate who has accomplished extraordinary service to the public through a nonprofit organization and exceptional community service. This award recognizes individuals who have unselfishly and generously contributed their time for the enrichment of others and the betterment of their community.

Heroes to Heroes Foundation is dedicated to helping American Combat Veterans who have attempted suicide or are on a path to self-destruction due to PTSD and/or moral injury, through spiritual healing and peer support programs.

"My career was fun and lucrative, just not fulfilling," said Elias. "Founding and building up Heroes to Heroes required all the skills I had and more. Having the opportunity to redefine my life as a life of service at the age of 50 and continue to learn and develop has been a gift."

Elias splits her time between Fort Lee, N.J., and Roanoke, Va., with her husband, Zev. She has two sons and daughters-in-law, Mitchell and Aliza Schaffer, and Ari and Marissa Schaffer.

• Dr. David M. Jarzen, a research associate at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and a resident of Lakewood, will receive the Professional Achievement Award. Jarzen graduated from Kent State with a bachelor’s degree in biological science in 1967 and a master’s degree in botany in 1969. He earned a doctorate in geology from the University of Toronto in 1973.

His work incorporates a global view, aiming to understand the evolution of plant life during earth's history, with an emphasis on fossil floras recorded from the Paleogene, Neogene and Cretaceous periods. He has published approximately 400 scientific papers, including refereed papers, popular articles and professional reports.

"I am motivated by the need to be certain that as many people as possible are aware of the beauty of the world we live with, and that they (students, colleagues, friends and family) are given the opportunity to ‘brush elbows with nature,’" said Jarzen.

 With his best friend, field partner and wife, Susan, Jarzen explores the natural history of the world at every opportunity.

• Dr. Cheryl Thompson-Stacy, Ed.D., president emeritus of Lord Fairfax Community College and a resident of Stephens City, Va., will also receive the Professional Achievement Award. Thompson-Stacy earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1979, a master’s degree in education in 1982 and a master’s degree in business administration in 1993, all from Kent State. 

Of Lord Fairfax Community College’s many achievements throughout her tenure as president, Thompson-Stacy said she is most proud of the high satisfaction rates reported by students and employees.

"It is so rewarding to see students that I have worked with very closely achieve success in their chosen career fields," said Thompson-Stacy. "To think about the role that you played in those students achieving that success is just so heartwarming. It is a wonderful feeling to know that you make a difference."

Thompson-Stacy resides in Stephens City, Va., with her husband Larry Stacy. They have three sons, Tim (Ravenna), Justin (Cincinnati) and John (Kailua, Hawaii) and three grandchildren, Eva Rae, Rowan and Cullen Stacy.

The Professional Achievement Award pays tribute to the superior achievements of alumni in their chosen profession. This award showcases a record of distinguished career achievements, complemented by a history of outstanding contributions.

• Sandra E. Zirke, chief operating officer emeritus of Neola Inc. and a resident of Cuyahoga Falls, will receive the Kent State Advocacy Award. Zirke graduated from Kent State in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in education, and then returned to earn a master’s degree in education in 1973 and an education specialist degree in 1980. The Kent State Advocacy Award honors a graduate who has contributed significant time and talent to Kent State or the Kent State Alumni Association on a consistent basis, bringing favorable attention to the university.

Zirke was a teacher in both the Stow and Cuyahoga Falls city school districts, and was an administrator in the Woodridge Local School District. She has served on the Cuyahoga Falls Public Library Board of Trustees for the past 30 years, previously serving as president and currently serving as treasurer. She is also secretary on the board of trustees for the Ladies Cemetery Association (Oakwood Cemetery).

"I try to let people know how important I think volunteering is – it’s a way for me to give back to the people and organizations that impacted my life," said Zirke. "I’d like to make Kent State strong for the people following me, just as those did before me."

• Connor Whelan, director of marketing and external engagement at the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns and a resident of Lafayette, La., will receive the Outstanding New Professional Award. Whelan earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management from Kent State in 2016. While at Kent State, Whelan ran for the Golden Flashes’ cross country and track and field programs. He earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Arkansas in 2018.

The Outstanding New Professional Award honors a recent Kent State graduate who shows outstanding achievement in their chosen profession and in their community. This award spotlights future leaders among Kent State alumni who show continued dedication to their community, profession and the university.

"I would like to be remembered as someone who cared about student-athlete welfare," said Whelan. "Joel Nielsen, Kent State University Director of Athletics, gave me time in his office when I was a student, and I would like to be able to help and guide student-athletes in that way."

• Elena Neoh, a current Kent State student studying human resource management and music technology, will receive the Golden Flash Award. Neoh is on track to graduate in spring 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. The Golden Flash Award honors a Kent State student who promotes Kent State spirit, pride and tradition.

She was born in Malaysia, an only child to a single parent, and has always aspired to grow and learn in a global environment. Neoh is also an aspiring writer. In the spring of 2019, she studied abroad in Sydney, Australia, at the University of Technology.

Prior to Australia, Neoh studied abroad in Florence, Italy. She was a part of the Freshmen in Florence (FIF) program, where she was chosen to model a dress for an Italian gala. It was during FIF that Neoh connected with her fellow students and created bonds that have turned into lifelong friendships.

"University is more than an institution for academic success," said Neoh. "I seek experiences that channel my passions into contributions that give back to the community."

In addition to her travels, she has been involved on campus through volunteer work with Unified Basketball, the Education Abroad office and tutoring sessions with students on campus.

All award recipients will be honored at a ceremony in the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center on Sept. 20.