ECU Alumni Association names 2023 Robert H. Wright Alumni Leadership Award recipients
Five mission-minded, bright and dedicated East Carolina University students have been honored as the 2023 recipients of the Robert H. Wright Leadership Award by the ECU Alumni Association.
Ono Abhulimen, Matt Blount, Teresa Hupp, Calli Jon Massengill and Wrenn McCrae Whitfield have each been recognized with the honor for their leadership and the impact they have made at ECU. The award is one of the most prestigious given to undergraduate seniors and is named for Wright, the first president of East Carolina Teachers Training School and East Carolina Teachers College. The recipients honor his legacy of using leadership to influence positive change through their academic achievement, integrity and service. The students will be honored at ECU’s spring commencement ceremony on May 5.
“This year’s award recipients represent the best of Pirate Nation through their academic achievements, service and leadership,” said Amanda Putzer, executive director for alumni relations. “They truly uphold the legacy of our university’s first president, leading the way for others with integrity and determination, just as Robert Wright did when he led East Carolina.”
Abhulimen, from Winston-Salem, is an Honors College student. She will earn a bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in molecular and cellular biology from the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences.
Shawn Moore, supervisor in the Center for STEM Education, said Abhulimen has a knack for quickly understanding complex issues, collaborating toward a common goal and building cohesive, diverse project teams. She has demonstrated those skills throughout her undergraduate experience.
She is the founder and president of Students for Equitable Health Outcomes, which she created as a freshman to advocate, educate and raise awareness for health equity. She sees SEHO as a lasting legacy of her leadership and service at ECU.
During a study abroad experience in Italy, Abhulimen shadowed surgeons in a diabetic foot care department at a Milan hospital, inspiring her to form and lead a team of students to conduct biomedical engineering-based research. Her team created a color-changing bandage that could detect infections based on the pH change of the infected wound using a natural indicator.
“Ono is a bright and ambitious person who possesses amazing integrity, an admirable work ethic, and an unparalleled commitment to excellence,” Moore said. “Ono’s ability to fuse problem-solving skills and creativity with her ability to recognize strengths among peers when engaging in new activities greatly exceeds my expectations and sets her apart as an exceptional student.”
Abhulimen also started a community service initiative to 3D print and paint custom toys for children at ECU Health Maynard Children’s Hospital and TEDI BEAR — the largest children’s advocacy center for victims of child abuse and neglect in North Carolina.
She plans to attend the Brody School of Medicine this fall.
Greenville’s Matt Blount is majoring in public health in the College of Health and Human Performance with a concentration in pre-health with minors in composite natural science and business administration.
As a freshman, Blount helped start HealthDemic, which played a part in the creation of flu and COVID-19 vaccine clinics on campus for ECU students, staff and faculty. The clinics helped vaccinate hundreds of ECU personnel; the model is still used today.
He is a founder of Delta Tau Delta fraternity at ECU. In most semesters, the fraternity carries the highest new member GPA, total member GPA, community service hours and philanthropy money raised. Starting Delta Tau Delta was, in part, an effort to change the stereotype around Greek Life and to show positive contributions to the community.
His advisor and health and human performance instructor, Julie Kulas, said Blount’s integrity and authenticity have made an impression on the undergraduate public health faculty. He has continually been recognized for his accomplishments in and out of the classroom.
“Matt is authentic. He came to ECU confident in who he is and what he wanted to do in his time at ECU. When he sets his mind to a project, you know that it will get done to the highest of standards,” Kulas said in her nomination. “Matt is the pure embodiment of ECU’s motto ‘servire.’ He used this time to make an impact on ECU.”
Blount started the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation One Walk in Greenville as a part of Delta Tau Delta. He led the effort in honor of his mom, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was a nursing student at ECU. Through these events, Blount has raised more than $70,000 for Type 1 diabetes research since February 2022.
After graduation, he plans to enroll in graduate school at ECU to obtain a master’s in business administration before attending medical school. He wants to become a family medicine physician specializing in sports medicine.
She studied with nursing colleagues in Antigua, Guatemala, where she enhanced her Spanish skills and worked in community health. Hupp helped in the distribution of water filters, provided lessons on hygiene and disease prevention, volunteered at a malnutrition center for mothers and children, and served in pop-up clinics for rural communities around Antigua.
Hupp engaged in research with Kim Larson, professor of nursing science, to investigate advanced care planning engagement within the Latino population in eastern North Carolina, leading to multiple co-authorships and presentation opportunities.
“In my 16 years as an ECU nursing faculty, I have never known a nursing student who has excelled equally in the academic, leadership and community engagement spheres as Teresa has,” Larson said. “Teresa has an impressive academic record, but her impact at this university is unmistakably virtuous. She will soon be a highly competent nurse, with a lens that sees beyond the walls of a hospital and considers societal impact on the health of marginalized people.”
Hupp also served as the executive vice president for the Panhellenic Association, the largest women’s organization at ECU. She led efforts to bring speakers to campus for the general student body, served as a Panhellenic representative on university-related boards and assisted in planning and implementing fall formal recruitment.
She plans to work at Novant Health in Charlotte as a women’s health nurse in the graduate residency program.
Calli Jon Massengill
Massengill, from Benson, will receive her bachelor’s degree in special education and will soon be in a classroom pursuing her calling to be an educator. She is a Maynard Scholar in the College of Education and a Chancellor’s Fellow in the Honors College and has taken opportunities to lead throughout her time at ECU.
She hosted blood drives in the College of Education, led an effort to pass legislation in the Student Government Association to support sexual assault survivors, and served as a mentor to prospective high school students interested in ECU’s College of Education.
Massengill also participated in research on the implementation of positive behavioral interventions and supports in the Czech Republic with Tosha Owens through the Department of Special Education, Foundations, and Research.
Dionna Manning, director of the education community of scholars, described Massengill as a dedicated, humble and passionate leader.
“Calli Jon is such a joy and keeps us laughing. I know she will be a wonderful teacher,” Manning said. “Calli Jon is an educator to her core, and her future students are going to be so lucky.”
After graduation, Massengill plans to teach in a Title 1 school in eastern North Carolina before pursuing a master’s degree in school administration.
Wrenn McCrae Whitfield
Whitfield, from LaGrange, is earning a degree in biochemistry with a concentration in biology from the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences and a minor in business administration with an entrepreneurship certificate.
Grace Chen, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Biology, said Whitfield was dedicated to creating positive change and put forth an incredible effort in helping establish the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s Hyde County Outreach Clinic. She served as the project coordinator for the clinic, which provides oral health care to the residents of Hyde County.
“Wrenn strives to better the people and communities around her through her knowledge and talents. It is her personal mission to leave the people and places she encounters better than they were previously, and she has been empowered to live out this mission during her time at ECU,” Chen said. “She clearly spends her time in pursuit of something greater than herself and is a model community member that we should all strive to emulate.”
Whitfield also is the founding executive board member of the Rotaract Club of ECU and ECU Smile Squad Honor Society, through which she had the opportunity to serve the greater Greenville community. Additionally, she started a partnership with JOY Community Center and Soup Kitchen, giving student organizations the opportunity to participate in activities for children and oral health education events.
After graduation, Whitfield will attend the University of North Carolina Adams School of Dentistry.
ECU is in the public phase of the Pursue Gold campaign to raise half a billion dollars. This ambitious effort will create new paths to success for Pirates on campus, across the country and around the world. Donor gifts during the campaign will keep us constantly leading and ready to advance what’s possible. Learn more at pursuegold.ecu.edu.