Alumni Association Award Honorees 2021

Texas' unprecedented winter storm prevented us from honoring these outstanding alumni in 2021, but their accomplishments and advocacy for the Holy Cross mission are worth celebrating every day.

Distinguished Alumni Award | Ellie Ghaznavi '89

Ellie Ghaznavi '89 is the owner of Alliance International, a company that produces earthquake shut-off valves, electric seismic switches, remote actuators and three-way valves. These tools prevent catastrophic fires during an earthquake by automatically shutting off natural gas pipelines. Since her graduation in 1989, Ellie has given generously of her time and talent as a frequent event attendee and active volunteer – for example, she spoke at graduation in 2009. She has also served on the St. Edward’s University Board of Trustees since 2010. In 2007, Ellie and her husband, Sina, established The Ghaznavi-Salamat Family Scholarship to provide recognition and financial assistance to outstanding students in the School of Natural Sciences. In 2011, Ellie received the Alumni Achievement Award. Now, we celebrate her recognition as the 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient.

How I decided on St. Edward’s:
I lived in Paris and attended Sorbonne University for two semesters. I was quite unhappy with the teaching methods there, and in June of 1985 I decided to move to Austin to continue my education at UT. As it was too late to apply to UT, and I didn't want to stay in Paris for another year, I applied to St. Ed's and was accepted to attend immediately; two months later, in August, I was a student at St. Ed's!  My original plan was to stay for a semester or two and transfer to UT, but I fell in love with St. Ed's and I never applied to UT.  I still love St. Ed's, and I am certain that UT would not have offered me any of the opportunities that St. Ed's has given me throughout the years.

A St. Edward’s experience I’ll never forget:
There are so many experiences that I cherish from my days at St. Ed's. If I were to pick one, I would pick the wonderful memories and friendships that were formed at the international club. Those friendships have lasted to this day. I was the first female president of the international club, and along with those friends involved in that club, we increased the membership by a few folds, raised money for good causes, and made it a huge success. I learned so much through my experiences at St. Ed's, and I know for a fact that those experiences have made me the person I am today.  I learned to stand on my own two feet, to find my own voice, and to pave my own path.  I am forever thankful to all the professors and mentors who helped me along the way.

My proudest accomplishment:
I think my proudest moment happened at the Honors Night of 1985. I was recognized several times that evening, but three of them meant the most to me:
1. During my Junior year, the honors program was formed.  I was proud to be among the first group of students selected to be part of that program which had a total of eleven students: ten were from St. Ed's, and one was an exchange student from Illinois. I was the only international student attending that program.
2. I was selected by the faculty and staff of the computer science department as the outstanding student in computer science for the academic year 1988-89
3. I also received the Presidential Award, which was a great honor.

The most valuable advice I received – and the advice I’d offer future students:
Dr. JD Lewis hired me at my first real job - to be a liaison at a program between SEU and IBM to teach IBM employees to become programmers. The confidence that he had in me taught me to have confidence in myself. I also received valuable advice from Dr. Virgina Daily, Dr. Richard Kopec, and Dr. Bill Quinn, All of whom were instrumental in my success at St. Ed's.  I owe my accomplishments to them. I think the best advice I can give is to be yourself and follow your passion.  Find out what you're capable of doing and if it gives you joy, then put your heart into it. Carve your own path. If you fail, learn from your failure, get back on your feet, and forge ahead. It is through the lessons learnt in experiencing failure that you can truly achieve and enjoy success. Have confidence in yourself that you can accomplish your goals with consistency and determination.

My hobbies and interests:
I love to travel the world and learn about different cultures.  I am happy that my family shares the same passions.  We enjoy skiing, spending time in the mountains, riding bikes and ATVs, walks, and rafting. I am also a researcher by nature, and when I find a new topic of interest, I enjoy digging into it and learning as much as I can.

Alumni Achievement Award | Alain Cabrera '12, MBA '15

Alain Cabrera '12, MBA '15 has more than ten years’ experience in the banking industry, including positions at BB&T, BBVA Compass, AmeriPro Funding, Green Tree Lending, and JP Morgan Chase. Since November 2018, he has served as Vice President of Mortgage Lending with Pegasus Bank. Alain has been involved as a Lifelong Hilltopper since 2016, when he first began volunteering through the Alumni Association Board of Directors. He has also given his talent as an event host for Career and Professional Development and as an Alumni Peer Fundraising Volunteer. In addition to serving through St. Edward’s, Alain has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in the Dominican Republic. We are honored to recognize Alain with the Alumni Achievement Award.

How I decided on St. Edward’s:
I decided to attend St. Edward’s University after learning about the New College Program.  The New College Program allowed non-traditional working college students the ability to return and complete their undergraduate degree.  The program’s flexibilities allowed me to work full-time and attend course at night so that I could advance in my career.  I was quickly taken by how St. Edwards streamlines the process, once accepted, compared to larger university.

A St. Edward’s experience I’ll never forget:
During my time as a graduate student, I was accepted to participate in a Habitat for Humanity Trip to the Dominican Republic through St. Edward’s.  I spent a week with some of those most talented, inspiring, and bright undergraduates of St. Edward’s.  From Fulbright scholarships winners, SGA members, and all-around amazing individuals who are making a strong impact in their communities, at St. Edwards, and in their lives.  We worked as a team pouring concrete, shoveling dirt, and painting homes for a deserving family.  As of today, we still keep in touch.

My proudest accomplishment:
Besides completing my degrees, receiving this award! This accomplishment is pretty high on my list.

The most valuable advice I received – and the advice I’d offer future students:
I will share this advice to any prospective student saying, “I can’t go back to school, I don’t have time, or I don’t think I can do it.” Yes, you can! Whether it’s for job security, promotion, or to better provide for your family, you have options, you can do it, I am proof of that.  Your family will thank you, your career will thank you, and most important you will thank yourself.

My hobbies and interests:
Ha! I am still looking.  Anyone have any ideas?

Alumni Service Award | Josie '80, MAHS '85 and Chris Ryan '80

Josie and Chris Ryan are upholding a lasting family legacy on the Hilltop. Several members of their family, including their son Andrew ’12, came to St. Edward’s to earn a Holy Cross education. Josie and Chris have worked tirelessly for St. Edward’s, having both served on the Alumni Association Board of Directors and by giving their talent as Admission Volunteers. Josie recently retired as a Therapeutic Counselor and Program Director with the Allen K. and Carolyn H. Bird Education Center. Chris oversees two programs at the University of Texas Dallas. There, he is Director of Rhetoric and Professional Communication, and during COVID-19, he led the university’s conversion to online instruction.

How we decided on St. Edward’s:
Josie: My older sister discovered St. Ed’s and was a Hilltopper while I was still in high school. During my family’s visits, I fell in love with St. Ed’s and decided that it would be my university, too. Having attended Catholic schools throughout my school years, I wanted to attend a Catholic college. St. Ed’s was just the right size for me, and I liked being in Austin. The deciding factors were that it felt like family and I was also attracted by the academic and spiritual opportunity of being taught by the Brothers of Holy Cross and IHM sisters. To this day, I find that to be one of the most rewarding experiences.
Chris: St. Edward’s had been top of mind for me for many years. I had heard St. Ed’s stories since my early childhood from my Dad (SEU class of 1952) and my Mom, who marred my Dad prior to his senior year at St. Ed’s. We also had visitors at our home in New Jersey who included Brothers of Holy Cross and classmates of my Dad, all of whom introduced and reinforced the special nature of St. Edward’s. When I was nine years old my family took a trip to Austin and visited the campus while on vacation, which was the first opportunity for my siblings and me to see St. Ed’s. We all loved it. Later, my elder siblings enrolled at SEU, and I visited once again. When it came time to apply to colleges, I had a few in mind, but St. Ed’s was at the top of the list, so I decided early in my senior year of high school that I would go to St. Ed’s.

St. Edward’s experiences we’ll never forget:
Josie: There are so many memorable experiences that come to mind.  Having spent six years on the hilltop as a student (undergraduate and graduate studies) and working at St. Ed’s provided many wonderful, fun, and unforgettable moments with friends, students, faculty, and staff.  I had a blast with my sisters of Omega Sigma Psi, a sorority service organization we had at St. Ed’s in the 70’s and shared many unforgettable moments with friends.  However, meeting my future husband and getting married at the chapel on campus — I would say rates high on the list. That was a significant SEU moment that has positively shaped the last 40 years of my life. St. Edward’s affords students many opportunities to get involved in a variety of activities and projects.  I enjoyed being a part of student government, sorority, intramurals, and campus ministry.  I also benefitted from working in different areas of the university and helping with their accomplishments from translating publications for Br. William Dunn to Spanish, to working with Joe Sprug and the library staff in the transition of the Scarborough-Phillips Library, and contributing to the day to day activities in the Development Office.  As an alum, I’ve enjoyed serving on the Alumni Board and helping with the regional Dallas chapter since the 90’s.  All great experiences.
Chris: It is nearly impossible to narrow down so many great experiences and memories to one particular experience. I had many good encounters with the faculty and staff that I remember well today. The same goes for my relationships and fun times with many fellow students. Of course, meeting Josie and sharing many experiences with her, including getting married at the chapel on campus, are big parts of my memories of St. Ed’s. Additionally, after graduating from SEU and going to UT for graduate school, I returned to St. Ed’s as a member of the Admissions staff for two and a half years, during which time I added many more great experiences and memories. More recent years have been filled with many additional great experiences at Alumni events and as a St. Ed’s parent during the years our youngest son (Andy, SEU class of 2012) attended.

Our proudest accomplishments:
Josie: Being a recent retiree, I feel a good sense of accomplishment in ending a 23-year career in education, preceded by several years of work in corporate America and Human Services.  I am most proud of my family and being a part of their lives and especially happy with the bond I have with my grandchildren.
Chris: Specific to St. Ed’s, being selected as Man of the Year of my graduating class (1981) was something that I was proud of. In the context of my lifetime, my family and my two careers in corporate information technology services (25 years with EDS/HP) and education (12 years, so far, in teaching and administration with The University of Texas at Dallas) would top my list. Earning my Ph.D. to enable my second career is also something that I’m happy to have accomplished. In my teaching I try to model aspects of the many great professors I had at St. Edward’s, though admittedly, they set a very high bar that is challenging to even approach. 

The most valuable advice we received – and the advice we’d offer future students:
Josie: Upon coming to St. Ed’s, I received advice that I came to value from one of my high school teachers.  Sister Denise always encouraged me to explore subjects that interested me and she would tell me, “Don’t be afraid to dive in and immerse yourself in knowledge.” I took that to heart when studying in my major field of study. Additionally, I received advice from my parents who told me do my best and reminded me that they were only a three-hour drive away. That advice—pretty much kept me on my toes during my freshman year. My advice to today’s students resounds with that of my high school teacher. Study what you enjoy and are passionate about and immerse yourself in it.
Chris: When I entered college, I was unsure as to what my major would be. I was torn on whether to go with what I liked most and what appeared to be the best majors for career opportunities. My parents advised me to go with what I enjoy most, and I did. I would share that same advice with others: study what you enjoy and let the career work itself out.

Our hobbies and interests:
Josie: My hobbies and interests are in the midst of change, since I retired just three months ago. I continue to enjoy my participation in the Alumni Dallas chapter and other advisory boards that I serve.  Additionally, I enjoy, writing, gaming, spending time with my family, especially my grandchildren, and staying in contact with friends. I look forward to resuming travel and visiting with friends now that we are beyond COVID quarantine measures.
Chris: Certainly one of my top interests is St. Edward’s. Aside from Josie’s and my involvement in Alumni activities in Austin and the DFW area, I follow the Hilltopper sports teams closely, attending games when possible, watching internet televised games from home at other times, and keeping track of scores and standings. Separate of that, for many years I enjoyed running (including 5K to marathon distances), but now I enjoy long walks, especially in the mountains when we can get away from Plano. I also enjoy traveling and have visited all 50 states and several countries. These days, my favorite pastime is being with our grandsons.

Rising Star Award | Jovahana Avila '19

Jovahana Avila '19 has a tremendous career in government and public service. She’s worked the Texas State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., with the League of Women Voters of Texas, with Austin Mayor Steve Adler, U.S. House of Representatives member Luis V. Gutierrez, and with the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Jovahana earned her position as a financial crime compliance analyst at Goldman Sachs in Dallas before she graduated in 2019. A high achiever, Jovahana also volunteered with the Alumni Association before graduation – giving her talent as a Reunion Volunteer and Alumni Peer Fundraising volunteer. She also served as President of the Latino Student Leaders Organization, as a participant in the Service Break Experiences program through Campus Ministry, and as a Senator in the Student Government Association. Her Rising Star Award is well-earned.

How I decided on St. Edward’s:
The location. It was in the heart of Texas politics.

A St. Edward’s experience I’ll never forget:
I'll never forget participating in my service break experiences both domestic and abroad ("S.B.E.") through Campus Ministry. I did one every year as a student, because I strongly believed in the fundamentals of building community, doing justice, living simply and engaging spiritually.

My proudest accomplishment:
I am most proud of the relationships I built while I was a student at St. Edwards. I connected and learned from inspiring professors and peers, especially in the Political Science and Writing and Rhetoric Departments.

The most valuable advice I received – and the advice I’d offer future students:
Most valuable piece of advice I've received: "Advocate for yourself." My advice: If you have the privilege, vote in every single election. Every single one.

My hobbies and interests:
Long nature walks, listening to podcasts and finding new local coffee shops.

Rising Star Award | Jana Soares '15

Jana Soares '15 excelled during her time on the Hilltop, earning a Presidential Award for her academic excellence and her research studies in Biology. Jana received a Fulbright, which allowed her to conduct postgraduate work at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia where she studied antibiotic resistance. She earned her MBA from Texas A&M University in 2017. Jana’s passion for technology led her to a career at Google, where she works as an Associate Product Marketing Manager. She volunteers with YCP Silicon Valley as their Vice President and Director of Marketing. We are delighted to have Jana as a recipient of the Rising Star Award.


How I decided on St. Edward’s:
There is no other way to explain it other than once I stepped foot on the Hilltop, it felt like home. The campus was beautiful and peaceful. I had the chance to sit in on a class with Dr. Goering and really could picture myself there that fall. And once I met and spoke to Bro. Larry, I felt that St. Edward’s truly was a welcoming community that cared about its students.

A St. Edward’s experience I’ll never forget:
There are so many wonderful experiences it’s difficult to pick. I think some of the ones that stand out to me are preparing for move in weekend with fellow Resident Assistants – the excitement from new students and parents is unparalleled and those weekends were some of the most energizing, going to Festival of Lights with friends and family – this is such a beautiful campus tradition, and participating in retreats and service projects – I was so appreciative of these opportunities to spend in reflection or volunteering in the community.

My proudest accomplishment:
My senior year, I met with my advisor, Dr. Baynham, about my plans for graduate school after college. During the conversation she asked if I’d ever considered applying for a Fulbright – I hadn’t, and she said I should. I was humbled later that year when I was selected as a recipient of a Fulbright award and thankful for all those who supported me and mentored me along the way.

The most valuable advice I received – and the advice I’d offer future students:
The most valuable piece of advice I received was from my parents to never sacrifice my health and wellbeing for a grade, a project, etc. Since childhood, they’ve instilled the importance of getting proper sleep, developing healthy food habits, and finding ways to de-stress through sports, clubs, or other activities. Having that focus to prioritize what’s important in life, helped my decision making and to always keep things in perspective. My advice to students is something that is also rooted in the mission of St. Edward’s University: “have the courage to take risks.” Challenge yourself to seek out something new each year – whether it’s an internship, an elective class outside of your major, a volunteer project, a leadership role in a club, or a hobby. It may be uncomfortable at first, but the experiences where you can step outside your comfort zone bring new perspectives and accelerate growth and learning. As you do this more and more, you will gradually gain more confidence to go after harder-to-reach goals and down the line, this will set you up to handle transitions in life and in your career.

My hobbies and interests:
I love to travel to new places within the US and abroad to experience different cultures – there is so much to see and learn about. I also enjoy being out in nature and taking photos of scenic landscapes.