IC Alumni Make an Impact

A humanitarian who started working to improve education conditions in a village in Ghana while he was still an undergraduate. A beloved jazz studies professor who influenced Ithaca College’s School of Music. A businessman who invests in companies that give back—and gives back himself by mentoring business students. 

IC’s 2018 Alumni Award winners have walked different paths, but all have left a mark on the world, reshaping people and places at home and abroad. Another thing they have in common: no matter where their dreams have taken them, Ithaca College still feels like home.

“I was there at a time in my life when I was really finding what I wanted to do and what I was passionate about,” says actor Aaron Tveit ’05, recipient of the Outstanding Young Alumni Award. “The fact that I didn’t have to leave Ithaca College to satisfy the calling that I had was a testament to how incredible the school is. It was the perfect place for me, and I think it’s a perfect place for a lot of people,” Tveit says. “It’s a very special town, and it’s a special place up on that hill."

Meet the alumni award winners who have made a difference. 

Lifetime Achievement Award

Without Stephen “Steve” Brown ’64, MM ’68, jazz at IC just wouldn’t be the same.

At the time he retired from Ithaca College in 2008, Brown had been the School of Music’s director of jazz studies for 40 years. But his influence started well before that.

As an undergraduate music education major, Brown played guitar in the jazz ensemble as a freshman, and then took over directing after the previous student director graduated. Then he took a few years’ detour to teach music in the public school system on Long Island (and to jump into New York City’s jazz scene). Brown returned to Ithaca, pitching a new course of study in classical guitar.

“When I came back to Ithaca College, at the time, they did not offer any degrees in guitar—or a degree of any kind in jazz studies,” he says. “So when I returned as a classical guitar major, I was the first recipient of the master’s degree in classical guitar.”

The college hired him right after he graduated, both to teach courses and lead the jazz bands. His work led to the adoption of a BM degree in jazz studies in the late ’80s that he initiated.

And of course, Brown performed regularly— although he says many of his most memorable performances were one-night-only. “Don’t forget—I’ve lived up here for 40 years, and I became a permanent member of the faculty,” he says. “So I wasn’t out on the road like a full-time professional jazz musician. I was a full-time professional professor who played nationally and internationally at the same time. I had opportunities to play with really, really great people, but in many instances, there was only one concert that I did with them,” he says—often, when someone giving a concert upstate needed a last-minute guitar-player substitute.

Like the time he played with Ray Charles, who was giving a performance at Cornell University. One of the guys in the band was a former student of Brown’s brother, Ray, and recommended him.

“The guy that was booking the musicians called me and said, ‘We just fired the guitar player last night, and we need somebody for the concert at Bailey Hall,’” Brown recalls. He played the concert but rejected the offer to join the band full time.

For Brown, not attending Ithaca College would have been a discordant note in a family of musicians. His mother and father both graduated from Ithaca. So did his older brother, Glenn ’59, and then their younger brother, Ray ’68, his wife, Susan ’71, plus Brown's wife, Barbara Katz-Brown ’74, MS ’75, and more recently, their daughter, Randi, MS ’04, who received a master's degree.

“My mother used to make a joke that she paid so much money in tuition that we own a corner of the building,” he says.

Now they do, in a fashion. “In the bottom floor of the music building, the new wing, there’s the Brown Family Jazz Chamber Room, and it’s dedicated to my family,” he says. “There’s a plaque inside the door, and it commemorates the fact that all of us attended IC. That’s a legacy that I’ll leave behind, for sure. The best reward of my teaching career is the continued contact I have with former students. I play with and still keep in touch with them, and enthusiastically follow their developing musical careers.”

Brown says he has, to use the words of a friend, “retired to music”—spending much of his time writing, recording, and performing, both locally and internationally. He recently returned from Europe, where he toured with a band, Atlantic Bridge, co-formed with one of his previous students from his jazz seminars in Spain in the '80s.

“I play a lot with the former students all over the world,” he says. “It’s a great connection. My wife retired the same time I did, and so the finest part of all of this is that we can go everywhere together.”

Michael Serventi ’72
Edgar “Dusty” Bredbenner Jr. ’50 Distinguished Alumni Award

Ithaca College was a lifelong love for Michael Serventi ’72, who passed away in 2012 at age 61.

Serventi made his mark on the campus through numerous and varied roles over the years—notably, as a member of the IC Board of Trustees for more than a decade, as a cochair (with his wife, Gail Weir Serventi ’72) of the President’s Associates giving club during the ’90s, and as a key fundraiser for the construction of the Athletics and Events Center.

And Michael left a powerful mark on those he met through the college, many of whom became his lifelong friends. At his funeral service, recalled his son, Jesse, fellow IC grad Charlie Miracle ’71 eulogized Michael in front of a crowd of several hundred people in the local high school auditorium.

“He asked all of the Ithaca folks to stand and probably, I don't know, 75 to 100 people stood,” Jesse said at the awards ceremony. “It was such a powerful moment.”

Michael’s affinity for Ithaca developed early on, thanks to several older friends who attended the School of Music, says Gail. During his high school years, he would make the drive from his hometown of Perry, New York, on weekends to visit. So when it came time to decide on a college himself, Ithaca was the obvious choice.

As a business administration student at the college, Michael made an impact early on, becoming active in student government, the President’s Host Committee, and the Interfraternity Council. He was a distinctive presence around campus, says Gail, who was friends with him through the Greek system even before they began dating as juniors.

“He was 6’5” and wore a size 15 shoe,” she says with a laugh.

The two married in 1973 as Michael was earning his MBA in Boston and then set out for Atlanta as he began his career with Johnson & Johnson. Later, they returned to Perry to take up his family’s business, Lew-Mark Baking.

Michael’s family eventually sold the business to a larger commercial bakery, and he then served on several private and public companies’ boards. All the while, he was active at Ithaca College—and not just in the aforementioned roles.

Michael served on committees including the Business Professors Alumni Advisory Committee, the Audit and Finance Committee, and the Young Alumni Leadership Council, among others. He was part of search committees for past college leaders and acted as a local area representative for the Office of Admission. And he was a distinguished executive lecturer in the School of Business.

Fundraising for the college was an area where Michael shone, says Gail. When they worked together for the President’s Associates, they would call people to ask for gifts.

“That was not in my comfort zone at all,” she recalls. “Mike really taught me how to ask people for money.”

His skill helped bring the Athletics and Events Center, the college’s largest construction project to date, to life— helping to raise $65.5 million in support of the center. 

“That was, I think, his legacy for Ithaca,” Gail says. “That was his final mark.”

Michael is survived by Gail, as well as his son, Jesse, who spoke at the awards ceremony, and daughter, Michaela, and their families.

Steve Gonick ’85
Volunteer Service Award

Stephen “Steve” Gonick ’85 is thinking about professional wrestling.

Not as a next career move—but because right after his interview with ICView, he was hopping on a FaceTime call with a current business student whose dream job is with World Wrestling Entertainment.

“I’m either going to talk common sense into him or help him get that job,” Gonick says.

Probably the latter.

Gonick is a fixture at the School of Business, serving both on the dean’s Business Advisory Council and as a member of the Investment Advisory Board. In his role as the school’s executive and entrepreneur in residence, Gonick visits campus at least once a month for a few jam-packed days of giving lectures, speaking in classes, and meeting one-on-one with students to help them prepare for their careers.

By his estimates, he mentors about 125 students each year and, since 2014, has guided some 700—most of whom he has stayed in touch with.

“Honestly, it’s like a shot of B12,” Gonick says. “I love working with students. Maybe I’m living vicariously. And I’m trying to set an example to them, of giving back.”

His extensive mentee network led Gonick to help the School of Business form a Young Alumni Network, which connects current students with recent graduates who have common interests or a similar career trajectory.

“So you have a student who wants to work for Unilever one day, and then you know we have a young alumnus at Unilever to connect him with,” Gonick says. “Because those young alums are really the ones that can help these students get their jobs. I was very concerned that if I got hit by a bus, all of this data that’s in my head about these students and where they are would be lost,” says Gonick, whose efforts earned him the Alumni Volunteer of the Year Award from IC’s Business Advisory Council in 2016.

When he’s not on campus, Gonick dedicates time to the investment company he set up with his wife, Denise, which invests in socially responsible startup businesses. In that capacity, he’s a cofounder of Passport for Good, which works with schools, churches, and other entities to encourage volunteerism—and then uses software to track and measure its impact.

During his own undergrad tenure, Gonick majored in personnel administration and industrial relations.

“At the time it was basically human resources,” he explains. “But when I got out of school, I did what most kids do when they don’t really have a good understanding of what they want to do: go into sales.”

One of his first sales jobs involved phonebooks for U.S. West, one of AT&T’s newly divested Regional Bell Operating Companies for a local phone service, known as the “Baby Bells.”

“I got to call on all different types of businesses, like a plumber, or a law firm, or a big utility company,” he says. “It got me into marketing.”

Gonick worked in marketing for various pharmaceutical and consumer product companies. He took a leap of faith during the recession in 2009, leaving Johnson & Johnson to form Adirondack Funds, a mutual fund firm.

When he left Adirondack in 2014, Gonick says, it was a chance to take stock of the situation and what he wanted to do. The School of Business’s executive and entrepreneur in residence opportunity came up shortly after.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t I just do something that makes my heart feel good?’” he recalls. “And my vehicle was Ithaca College and the students.”

Erin Stevens ’00
Professional Achievement Award

(By Nancy J. McCann)

Helping cancer patients has given Dr. Erin Stevens ’00 a glimpse into—as strange as it might sound—the good side of cancer.

“The good side of cancer? Cancer teaches you what’s really important in life,” she says. “So what are the important things you really need to be doing?”

For Stevens, one of only roughly 1,000 practicing gynecologic oncologists in the country, making an impact is one of those important things. Until late 2018, she worked at the Billings Clinic in Montana, the only site for this specialty in all of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and half of South Dakota and Idaho. Some patients drove eight hours for her care.

“What I love about gynecologic oncology is caring for a woman through the course of her cancer,” says Stevens, who recently moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to practice at Prevea Health. “I’m the person she sees when she’s diagnosed, the one who’s in the operating room with her and who’s going to give her chemo. I’m the person who follows her in remission until we say she’s cured, or follows her through the course of her life until she dies of cancer. That’s me. To have the patients and families trust me so much—that relationship is amazing. It’s an honor and privilege to do what I do.”

Stevens studied psychology at Ithaca before heading to New York Medical College. A Bomber track and field standout, she held the school records for shot put and 20-pound weight throw. “Coach Jim Nichols was a huge positive influence on my college career and my life,” says Stevens. “He really made sure you followed your passion. Ithaca College and the town of Ithaca made me into the person I am today. I really liked the liberal, open-minded community.

“I did my residency in OB-GYN and loved the surgical aspect of it, but more importantly, I loved my patients in gynecologic oncology. They were these amazing, strong women who were diagnosed with cancer, doing whatever they could to get treated and healthy. Or, if they were dying, died amazingly gracefully. It was the patients that made me fall in love with oncology.”

After completing her residency at Stony Brook University Medical Center and a gynecologic oncology fellowship at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Stevens headed west to Big Sky Country in 2013.

Stevens took her work beyond where most would go by shaving her head in support of her patients. For the 2017 Relay for Life, an annual, community-based fundraising event of the American Cancer Society, Stevens promised to go bald if her goal of $25,000 was reached. She raised nearly $31,000 and was among the top 1,000 fundraisers in the country. At midnight on the night of relay, Stevens sat on stage with her hairdresser and her patient, Kelli Kundert, age 34 at the time, by her side. (Kelli was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2015. Stevens did her surgery, chemotherapy, and is now following Kundert in remission.) Stevens’s long locks were donated to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, a national program that makes free, real-hair wigs for women with cancer. “

It’s amazing what shaving my head means to other people and what it means to me now,” she says. “In the beginning, people were thanking me, congratulating me, telling me I looked beautiful. I would say, ‘I hope you go up to cancer patients and tell them they look beautiful.’

“Cancer makes you live your life in the moment and doesn’t let you put things off,” Stevens says. “I’ve chosen to live my life as if any moment I might be sitting on the other side of my table in the office as the patient.”

Aaron Tveit ’05
Outstanding Young Alumni Award

Taking more than four years to earn a degree is known as a “victory lap.” For award-winning actor Aaron Tveit ’05, however, earning his final credits was more of an encore—a well-deserved one after detours from the classroom to star in movies, television shows, and Broadway productions.

Tveit’s big break came during a musical theatre workshop during the fall of his junior year, when a visiting alumnus—the music director for the national tour of Rent—had the students do mock auditions to get them used to the process.

“Afterwards, he pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, you’re perfect for our show. Can I take your phone number if anything comes up?’” recalls Tveit.

A few months later, they called Tveit in to do a final callback in New York. He was driving back to Ithaca from the audition when he got the call to join the Rent cast as Steve and understudy for Mark/Roger.

“I was really lucky that all those things fell into place,” says Tveit, who had almost ended up at Cornell University as an applied economics major before deciding at the last minute to go to IC’s School of Music instead. He transferred into the musical theatre major as a sophomore.

From that first run in Rent, Tveit has gone on to have a varied career with starring roles across media: on stage in theatre productions including Hairspray, Next to Normal, Wicked, and Catch Me if You Can, among others; in films such as Les Misérables; and on television in shows like Gossip Girl, Graceland, Ugly Betty, and Law & Order. A few roles have called on skills across formats, like his role as Danny Zuko in Grease: Live that aired on Fox in 2015.

Tveit’s latest turn brings him back to Broadway this summer as Christian in Moulin Rouge! The Musical. And his performance has already garnered rave reviews after the musical’s world premiere in Boston. New York Times critic Ben Brantley called Tveit’s Christian “a role he was born to play.”

Although theatre has the most challenging schedule, it’s also the most rewarding, Tveit says.

“Stage for me is where I started and where my heart lives a little bit. I’ve missed it,” he says. “I’ve been waiting for the right timing and right opportunity and right show and part to come back.”

Tveit’s rising star meant it took additional time to complete his degree. Between three years of classes at Ithaca and some advanced placement credits from high school, he was only 12 credits shy of the requirements to graduate.

The college eventually determined Tveit could receive internship credit for his professional work, leaving him with just one three-credit science requirement to navigate—which he aced with an online biology course shortly after he finished shooting the Les Misérables movie in 2012.

“When I started taking that science class, I then really realized how much it actually meant to me to finish my degree,” he says. “I was a little bit on the ‘11- year program,’” Tveit jokes, “But I was very excited that I finally got it done.”

Christopher H. Toone ’13
Humanitarian Alumni Award

Several stops into a Semester at Sea during his sophomore year, Christopher H. Toone ’13 and his shipmates arrived at their first sub-Saharan port, in Ghana.

“We all piled in the back of a van and then drove down dirt roads,” Toone says of the journey to the rural African village of Akatim. “When we finally got there, I truly felt like we were in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “There was no cell service; there were no electrical towers in sight.”

In what became a pivotal moment for him, Toone saw village children going to school in a downpour.

“The roof was leaking, so it was raining inside the classrooms,” he says. “That resonated with everybody who was there. We decided that we needed to do something about it.”

Back on the ship, Toone and his friends started holding regular meetings to brainstorm ways to help. The Senase Project—a nonprofit aimed at eradicating poverty through community development—was born.

“There was a notary on board the ship, so our articles of incorporation were notarized somewhere in the Pacific Ocean,” says Toone, who has served as chief executive officer of the 501(c)(3) since its inception in 2010. “By the time we got off the ship in San Diego, we actually had our bylaws and our incorporation certification waiting for us. Then we went back to our respective colleges and just kept pushing along from there.”

Back at Ithaca College, Toone balanced running the Senase Project with his studies in athletic training. Since graduating, he has worked with the U.S. Ski Team, and is currently with a professional ski racing team. He travels to Ghana for the Senase Project at least once a year, and uses WhatsApp and email to build relationships in the interim with the local government, village elders, teachers, and students’ families.

The nonprofit’s first goal, of course, was building a new primary school in Akatim to rectify the situation that Toone had seen during his semester abroad. Fueled by growing community interest—with more than 100 kids attending—classes now run from kindergarten through junior high.

“It was an, ‘If you build it, they will come’ kind of thing,” says Toone.

But the work of building the school highlighted other cracks in the village’s education system. So the Senase Project expanded its efforts, collaborating with village leaders and the government on ventures that promote accountability and sustainability.

For example, the group has promoted teacher training, distributed solar lanterns to village families to enable students to study at night, and implemented hand-washing stations to promote hygiene. Since 2015, a Sponsor a Student program has paired U.S. donors with village families.

“Our ultimate goal is to create this reformed idea of what public education looks like in Ghana—to work with the government on that, work with the parents, and make it successful through three areas: the environment, teacher training, and community collaboration,” he says. “So then we’re going to take this and we’re going do it in these three schools, and then these three schools, and slowly but surely we’d hopefully see some change.”