The annual Evening of Excellence shines a spotlight on those who make the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences an essential part of the University of Florida. This year’s ceremony was held on April 12, 2019, at the Florida Museum of Natural History and celebrated the staff members, faculty, students, alumni and others who best exemplify the values inherent in a liberal arts and sciences education. Keep reading to learn more about all of our winners.
Liberal Arts and Sciences Partner Award: Disney Conservation Fund
The Disney Conservation Fund received the Partner Award for their long-term support of UF’s Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research to help save endangered sea turtles. Disney selected UF as one of only seven global organizations receiving these larger impact-focused “Saving Wildlife” grants. The goal is to increase awareness of threats to these species on a large scale and has provided more than $1 million in funding for the center to develop new research, community strategies and other conservation solutions to help protect
“We recognize and appreciate Disney’s understanding of the urgency of not only preserving but also bringing back populations of sea turtles,” said Karen Bjorndal, Department of Biology professor and Director of the Archie Carr Center. “Those of us who have spent our lives trying to save these animals are grateful.”
Superior Staff Award: Marisa Gates
Research Administrator Marisa Gates was recognized for her outstanding work supporting the CLAS Research Office. “Whenever she serves a person through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Research Office, Marisa assures them it will be okay and that she will help them handle whatever might come along,” said Beth Eslick, Director of the CLAS Research Office.
Faculty Achievement Award: Mark Rush and Laura Guyer
Volunteer of the Year: Linda Fischer Wells, Political Science ’61
Linda Fischer Wells ’61 was honored for her work as the chair of the Department of Religion’s Advisory Board.
Student Excellence Award: Emma Leone, Daniel Ally and Sujaya Rajguru
The three students recognized at this year’s event embody the spirit of a liberal arts and sciences education.
Emma Leone ’19 dual-majored in linguistics and psychology on a pre-med track. Along with receiving multiple scholarships, she volunteers at Shands Hospital and the Dance Alive National Ballet and Pofahl Studios, where she teaches dancers of all ages.
Daniel Ally ’19 majored in physics and mathematics and serves as the President of the UF chapter of the Society of Physics Students. He is known for going out of his way to help fellow students; in the spring 2019 semester, he was the main organizer behind the Women in Science Day Fair.
Sujaya Rajguru ’19 majored in history, served as a fellow in the Bob Graham Center and participated in a leadership role in the UF Band. As an intern at the Matheson History Museum, she was a researcher for an exhibit on the history of desegregation in Alachua County schools, which resulted in Rajguru publishing an article in The Gainesville Sun.
Horizon Award: Syed Balkhi, Anthropology ’11
Syed Balkhi was honored for his work supporting the Beyond120 program. At the age of 7, Balkhi started his first business in Pakistan. His entrepreneurial spirit has continued to this day, with his business OptinMonster ranking seventh in 2019’s Gator100, a list of the 100 fastest growing Gator-led companies. “We are inspired by Syed’s determination, passion, and entrepreneurial spirit as a student and beyond,” Kathryn Clark ’19 said.
Outstanding Alumna: Rhonda Holt, Computer and Information Science ’86
This award honors an alumna or alumnus who has made significant contributions to their field while exemplifying the breadth and depth of a liberal arts and sciences degree. Rhonda Holt, Vice President for Software Development and Operations at PBS, was honored this year for her long and distinguished career as a business and technology executive at a variety of organizations.
Lifetime Achievement Award: Tom Elligett, Mathematics ’75
Tom Elligett was recognized for providing both financial support and advocacy for the college. A partner at Buell & Elligett in Tampa, he is an appellate and trial lawyer who has participated in more than 500 appeals in the last 40 years. As an alumnus, he has given to the Dean’s Fund for Excellence every year since 1982, consistently supporting the greatest needs of the college.
Civic Champion: The Honorable Marjorie Turnbull, Political Science ’62
Marjorie Turnbull was honored for her dedication to serving the people of Florida since her graduation from UF. She began her political career in the Florida House of Representatives and has had a distinguished public career as a Leon County Commissioner, the Executive Director of Tallahassee Community College and a board member of many nonprofit organizations.
Lasting Legacy Award: Herb ’55 and Catherine Yardley ’56
Herb and Catherine Yardley were recognized for their decades of providing support to the college. Catherine, who passed away in 2018 and was honored posthumously at the ceremony, captured the Yardley’s commitment to education in her quote engraved in the Plaza of the Americas — “The first step to a good life is a good education. It is here for you.”
The Yardleys have invested in diverse areas across the college including the Speech and Debate Team, the Bob Graham Center, Student Affairs and outdoor spaces on campus. The Yardley Garden outside of Ustler and Farrior halls is just one example of how the Yardleys have improved the campus grounds by providing students and faculty with space for relaxation and contemplation.
“I’ve known the Yardleys for years and I am continually amazed by their generosity and vision, particularly in curating and encouraging creative and beautiful spaces on UF’s campus,” said Carter Boydstun, retired senior philanthropic advisor at UF and inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award honoree.