2020 Cross Scholars

About the Award

The K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award recognizes graduate students who show exemplary promise as future leaders of higher education; who demonstrate a commitment to developing academic and civic responsibility in themselves and others; and whose work reflects a strong emphasis on teaching and learning.

The awards honor the work of K. Patricia Cross, Professor Emerita of Higher Education at the University of California-Berkeley. 

AAC&U is pleased to introduce the recipients of the 2020 K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award.

abelson.gifSara R. Abelson

Health Behavior and Health Education, University of Michigan

PhD Candidate, Public Health, University of Michigan

MPH, Public Health, University of Michigan
BA, College Scholar, Cornell University

Sara Abelson has worked in higher education for more than a decade to improve mental health outcomes at colleges and universities across the US. She is currently a PhD Candidate, Rackham Merit Fellow, and Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health Scholar at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Her research addresses student mental health broadly, with a particular focus on marginalized student populations. Her dissertation employs causal methods and large-scale datasets to illuminate the effect of higher education policies on student mental health and campus experiences, with a goal of identifying opportunities to enhance equity across gender, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.

Alongside her research, Sara is deeply engaged in practice. She serves as a Co-Investigator and Lead for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Projects with the Healthy Minds Network, a research-to-practice network dedicated to improving the mental and emotional well-being of young people through innovative, multidisciplinary scholarship. Sara designed the Healthy Minds Climate for Diversity & Inclusion survey, which is now being used by campuses across the country. She works with organizations nationally to help educate university leaders—in the tradition of K. Patricia Cross—about students, their mental health needs, and universities’ responsibilities to them. These organizations have included the American Council on Education, Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, Great Lakes Colleges Association, National Center for Institutional Diversity, Jed Foundation, and others. Prior to her graduate work at the University of Michigan, Sara served as Vice President of the national nonprofit, Active Minds, from 2008-2016. In that role, Abelson created a powerful network of student leaders and programs that are improving mental health on hundreds of campuses across the country. The work has been showcased on NBC Nightly News and NPR, and in The New York Times & The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

In addition to her work nationally, Sara serves as a leader for diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Michigan through service and mentorship. She has volunteered for the LGBTQ and Trotter Multicultural Center on campus. She is Co-Chair of the Network for Doctoral Diversity in the School of Public Health, and on the University Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Board in Student Life and the Rackham Task Force on Graduate Student Mental Health. 


zuniga.gifMaría B. Alcívar-Zuñiga

Human Development and Family Studies, Iowa State University

PhD Student, Human Development and Family Studies,  Iowa State University

MS, Family & Consumer Sciences, Iowa State University
BS, Women's Studies and International Studies, Iowa State University

Maria B Alcivar Zuñiga is a PhD student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University (ISU) and a 2019 Mid-Iowa Health Foundation HealthConnect Fellow. Maria is a first generation immigrant from Ecuador and lived in the U.S. undocumented for 14 years. Her personal journey from an undocumented immigrant to a current U.S. citizen drives her desire to discover the short and long-term health-related consequences of immigration policies on immigrant populations. Maria’s long-term research goal is to develop a holistic understanding of the impact immigration detention and deportation has on the health and well-being of Latinx immigrant families and children. Her dissertation focuses on identifying the resilience and protective factors of Latinx families as they navigate legal violence (i.e. restrictive immigration policy and anti-immigrant environments). Her community work with immigrant populations, along with her academic background, contribute to her leadership and civic priorities in learning and teaching others about how policies in the U.S. create institutional barriers to the health and well-being of Latinx individuals across their lifespan.

Maria worked as a graduate research assistant under Dr. Janet N. Melby’s leadership for the Child Welfare Research and Training Project (CWRTP), an ISU entity that collaborates with the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) to ensure Iowa’s children and families receive services informed by best practice. As part of her graduate assistantship work with the CWRTP, Maria used her knowledge of Latinx culture to develop a culturally responsive model and tool for use by professionals who work with Latinx survivors of domestic violence. She presented the model and tool across the state of Iowa from 2015-2017. Each presentation refined the model and increased awareness. The model has been made available as a guideline posted on the Iowa DHS service training website. Maria also worked with ISU Human Science Extension and Outreach programs, such as Rural Family Speak about Health Project, JUNTOS: Para Una Mejor Educación, and Abriendo Caminos.

In 2018, she was invited to be part of a bi-national research project funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) called “Health and Well-being of U.S. Children of Deported Parents” led by Dr. Ana Martinez-Donate, associate professor in the School of Public Health at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Maria is also actively involved with the Latinx community across the state of Iowa and for the last six years she has dedicated her time to advocate for immigrant rights. She supports and has volunteered with various organizations serving the Iowa Latinx community such as, Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Dream Iowa, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Ames Sanctuary Interfaith Partners (ASIP), and Al Exito.

While she continues to engage in several community and research projects that keep her connected to the immigrant population, she recognizes that the current immigration system and institutions of justice, work in favor of perpetrating trauma on Latinx children and communities across the nation. As such, in 2018 she obtained funding from Helen LeBaron Hilton Fund to engage with Latinx families at the Iowa local level and raise awareness and understanding of immigration related stresses, family strengths, and acculturation in an effort to improve individual and family well-being. In 2019, she was recruited to develop a new ISU Extension and Outreach curriculum, ¡Salir Adelante! Caminos a Nuestro Futuro (Pathways for our Future). This program was set up to promote career and college readiness among Latinx youth and their families. The curriculum aims to strengthen relationships between parents and youth, families and educational institutions, and encourage participation with local community programs. It also aims to increase Latinx families’ confidence to navigate processes and systems expectations for post-secondary success. Finally, it builds support systems and knowledge resources that assist families in reaching their goals and dreams for their future.

Her personal experiences, graduate education, curriculum development skills, and civic leadership, enables her to continue to raise awareness about the pain and resiliency of living in an anti-immigrant, sociopolitical environment. Maria believes that her current work and future endeavors will have a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of Latinx families.

Maria has not only made strides within the research field, but also mentors the next generation of leaders, and has made real-life impact on the lives of minoritized populations within Iowa.


christian.gifCiara R. Christian

Language, Literacy, and Culture, University of Maryland Baltimore County

PhD Student, Language, Literacy, and Culture, UMBC

BA Political Science, Howard University
MA Applied Sociology, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Non-Profit Sector, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Ciara Christian is a doctoral student in the Language, Literacy and Culture Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).  Her research explores digital media platforms, specifically podcasts, as spaces for knowledge production, identity formation, and organizing for Black identity, Black feminism, and Black thought more broadly.  Currently, as a graduate research assistant in the Vice President’s Office for Student Affairs, Ciara works to coordinate, facilitate, and assess programming to help students across campus develop the skills to engage in difficult dialogues about race and other social justice issues.  She additionally has held graduate assistant positions in the Gender and Women’s and Sexuality Studies Department, as well as with the Shriver Center, UMBC’s hub for service-learning and community engagement.

Ciara came to UMBC after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda (2013-2015), where she worked primarily on English language communication skills both at her school and in her community of Kibungo.  Additionally, she worked on gender equity projects, serving as her cohort’s representative on the Gender and Development Committee for Peace Corps Rwanda, and she co-founded a committee to address racial equity for volunteers and trainees within the Peace Corps post.  These experiences led her to UMBC to obtain a Master of Arts in Applied Sociology as a Peaceworker Fellow, a program designed to support returned volunteers interested in continuing the spirit of Peace Corps while pursuing graduate study.  As a Peaceworker Fellow, Ciara worked in various capacities including co-designing the campus’ Grand Challenges Program--a two-year program in which undergraduate students of various disciplinary backgrounds learned to work collaboratively to solve complex societal challenges. She also served on the leadership team of a project to explore the potential of applied learning experiences as potent opportunities for affective competency development in undergraduate students.

With each opportunity for teaching and learning, Ciara approaches her work with an intentional lens for equity and inclusion.  Both in her professional and academic capacities, her work strives to examine and dismantle inequitable hierarchies of power.  Her work in this area is most explicit with the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation project at UMBC.  As part of this project, Ciara has consulted campus programs and one graduate level Sociology course on incorporating measures to ensure more racial equity in their design, curricula, recruitment, and programming.

Upon completion of her degree, Ciara looks forward to gaining even more rich experiences in higher education as a professor.


del_rosario.gifZachary del Rosario

Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, Stanford University

PhD Stanford University Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering 2020

Co-advisors: Gianluca Iaccarino and Art B. Owen
MS Stanford University Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering 2018
BS Olin College of Engineering Mechanical Engineering 2014

Zach is an engineer who speaks statistics; his professional goal is to help engineers and scientists tackle the uncertainty in their work. He works on aircraft reliability, the intersection of data and physical sciences, and machine learning for novel materials discovery. Across these applications, Zach uses a combination of rigorous statistics and an engineering mindset to achieve physically-relevant and confident results.

In addition to technical research Zach is passionate about education, particularly for under-served communities. In his graduate studies at Stanford University, he served as the president of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) student chapter to create new learning opportunities for graduate students, and to create a community to foster interest in evidence-based pedagogy. He co-founded the outreach program SeeME to connect Stanford graduate students to local middle- and high-school students through short courses on STEM topics.

This organization aims to

  1. equip graduate students with the pedagogical training often missing in their graduate education, and;  
  2. connect youth underrepresented in STEM to enthusiastic teachers, in order to spark interest in a potential career.


nachman.gifBrett Ranon Nachman

Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, University of Wisconsin–Madison

PhD Candidate, University of Wisconsin-Madison

M.S. Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, University of Wisconsin-Madison
B.A. Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University
A.A. Journalism, Scottsdale Community College

Brett Ranon Nachman is a PhD Candidate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education, specifically in the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis department. His research primarily concentrates on the depictions and experiences of autistic college students, particularly in community college settings. Brett's core research interest stems from his own identities as an autistic community college graduate. His  work also centers on LGBTQ campus climate issues, inclusive teaching practices, and community college STEM transfer students' experiences. Brett's research scholarship prioritizes several factors, including: acting with transparency and thoughtfulness in discussing identity management issues; presenting findings that drive change in how campuses provide more student-centered learning; and elevating the perspectives of underrepresented student populations. Brett's work has been published in outlets including Community College Journal of Research and Practice, Teachers College Record and Frontiers in Psychology.

Since 2017 Brett has served as a graduate student researcher with College Autism Network (CAN), which addresses advocacy, research and training related to autism in postsecondary education. As part of CAN, Brett has helped spearhead programming for the annual College Inclusion Summit, which gathers administrators, disability specialists, researchers, educators, students, and autistic self-advocates to discuss ways to best support and involve autistic college students in creating welcoming postsecondary education experiences. Brett launched and facilitates the College Autism Network Virtual Association of Scholars (CANVAS), which features a list-serv, monthly online meetings with guest presentations, and resources. Under Brett's leadership, CANVAS has cultivated a community of more than 250 members from all around the world to share tools and insights. He and his colleagues have also developed an online list of college-based autism programs that serve students in their transitions into and through postsecondary education.

Outside of his research, Brett places effort in forming new skillsets as an educator, whether in teaching courses across numerous levels and platforms, presenting workshops through the Delta professional development program, and offering guest lectures about his autism/higher education work across different spaces at University of Wisconsin-Madison. A common thread that ties Brett's teaching is his commitment in having students collaborate on learning outcomes, follow their passions and skillsets in developing meaningful projects, and create inclusive spaces through forming classroom guidelines. Brett also prioritizes offering detailed formative feedback to students, and seeks the same in return in his own development as an emergent educator. In addition to teaching, Brett has served as the Graduate Student Representative on the National Board of Directors for The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi since 2018. Over his undergraduate and graduate school years, Brett has led seven student organizations and mentored students in various capacities (e.g., orienting incoming and prospective students to campus, reviewing college applications, helping students plan campus events). Brett serves as a reviewer for multiple peer-reviewed education journals and academic conferences.

Brett adheres to several principles as a scholar, educator and leader. First, help colleagues in leveraging their strengths to be their best. Second, view each moment as a chance for self-growth. Third, make every space as equitable as possible based on individuals' varying identities, experiences, and learning preferences. Fourth, take initiative by creating opportunities for positive change, instead of waiting for change to arrive. Finally, pay it forward. Brett thanks leaders in his life, from SCC faculty and UW-Madison mentors, to colleagues across academia, for providing continued inspiration and support. He aims to carry on that tradition of "giving back" within his research and identity-based communities.  


valentine.gifDouglas R. Valentine

Sociology, University of Missouri

PhD Candidate, Sociology, University of Missouri

MA, Religious Studies, University of Missouri
BS, Psychology and Religious Studies, Bradley University

Doug Valentine is a doctoral candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Missouri in Columbia where is he also pursuing graduate minors in College Teaching and Women’s and Gender Studies, as well as a graduate certificate in Higher Education Administration. He earned his Master of Arts from the Religious Studies Department at the University of Missouri in 2012. His research agenda broadly centers on three sociological concerns: the body, social inequalities, and religion, drawing on multi-disciplinary graduate training in religious studies and sociology.

Doug’s dissertation project explores socially mediated articulations of ars moriendi, or the good death, in the contemporary United States, focusing on the rising popularity of natural burial options, funeral subsidies for the victims of violent crime, and online death-planning companies. Using these cases, he seeks to address the following research questions. 1. Why is each of these articulations so important to the broader concern for the good death? In what ways do these cases show the social, rather than isolated, reality of death and dying? 2. What structural forces drive each of these articulations and what do individuals, families, and friends do to navigate the achievement of ars moriendi? 3. Why is the achievement of ars moriendi so important? He is also fascinated by the sociology of body modification and the shifting social landscape of tattoo acceptance.

Doug began his graduate school career with a singular focus: to one day teach at the university level. Fostering critical thinking and the sociological imagination in students is a major objective of his pedagogy. In his time at the University of Missouri, he has crafted unique, interdisciplinary undergraduate courses in sociology and religious studies, blending his research interests and background in social science and the humanities. He is most proud of his work in the MU Honors College to facilitate thought-provoking and academically rigorous classes, including courses on the American death industry, the sociology of body modification, multi-disciplinary theories of personal identity, and social relations. Through his scholarship and undergraduate courses, he seeks to engage the public and expose students to the world of social science research and knowledge production. In addition to his work at the University of Missouri, Doug has developed numerous online courses in sociology, religious studies, and anthropology for Bradley University in Peoria, IL and Central Methodist University in Fayette, MO, where he also served as an academic advisor and online program coordinator. His most rewarding teaching experiences come from his work with the Missouri Scholars Academy, a summer gifted education program for rising high school juniors housed within the MU Honors College. As a faculty member since 2012, Doug has taught courses on social inequalities, religion, world mythology, and science fiction.

Doug has been awarded for his teaching accomplishments on several occasions. He received the Green Chalk Teaching Award through the University of Missouri College of Arts & Science in both 2012 and 2017 as a graduate student in the departments of Religious Studies and Sociology, respectively. Selected by the Arts and Science Student Council, this award is based on undergraduate student nominations. In 2017, he was the first annual recipient of the Irma Mathes Award for Excellence in Teaching through the Department of Sociology at the University of Missouri. Finally, in April of 2019 he was the first graduate instructor to receive the MU Honors College Outstanding Faculty Award for his contributions to Honors education.

In addition to his teaching responsibilities, service is an important component of Doug’s involvement at Mizzou. He is on the advisory board to the MU Teaching for Learning Center where he advocates for graduate-centered pedagogical training at the university level and the executive board for the Missouri Scholars Academy. He has been a member of the Graduate Professional Council, MU’s graduate student government, since 2015 where he has written and sponsored multiple resolutions related to student equity and graduate rights. In 2018-19, he was the chair of the Student Fee Review Committee which oversees graduate and undergraduate student fee allocations each fiscal year. He also served on the Chancellor’s Task Force for Parenting and Pregnancy Policy and the Strategic Enrollment Planning Committee which helped draft Mizzou’s new strategic plan. At the departmental level, he has served as president of the Sociology Graduate Student Group and was a charter member and creator of a pedagogy reading group for graduate students and faculty. Most recently, Doug became a Student Director of the Midwest Sociological Society where he is involved with the Student Issues and Teaching & Learning Committees.

Outside of his academic work, Doug fundraises for St Jude Children’s Research Hospital annually as a member of the St. Jude Memphis to Peoria Run, a 465-mile relay-marathon raising over $1 million annually for cancer research and family support. He does this in memory of his sister, Laura, who passed away in 2004 after battling cancer much of her life. He also sits on the St Jude Runs Scholarship Committee, which awards college scholarships to St Jude patients and siblings in the Midwest region. In his free time, Doug enjoys running and spending time with his wife, Chandra, and two sons, Hollis and Simon.



Edgar Virgüez

Environmental Sciences and Policy, Duke University

PhD Candidate, Environmental Sciences and Policy, Duke University, USA (expected 2021)

MSc, Environmental Sciences and Policy, Duke University, USA (expected 2020)
MSc, Environmental Engineering, Universidad de los Andes, Colombia
BSc, Chemical Engineering & Environmental Engineering (double major), Universidad de los Andes, Colombia

Edgar Virguez is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Nicholas School of the Environment (NSOE)’ Environmental Sciences and Policy Division at Duke University. Having taught sixteen courses in two different countries and investing more than seven hundred hours on direct class instruction, he has aligned his intention of becoming an educational innovator with the idea of promoting the development of asset-based frameworks that leverage on cultural wealth from underrepresented groups. He believes that the most pressing global challenges (e.g., climate change) will be solved by leaders that are able to reconceive their worldview perspective and design solutions that integrate viewpoints from citizens belonging to all societal groups. For this purpose he has defined a teaching philosophy based on three traits: a) enabling engagement of marginalized populations using digital components, b) making excellence inclusive by promoting cross-cultural and multicultural understanding, and c) encouraging integrative global learning by incorporating elements of cultural heritage.

For the last three years, he has worked as an Instructor of the Record of a service-learning course at Duke, where participants enhance their Spanish communication skills while generating digital media to connect with children from a Colombian NGO. His most recent efforts are being supported by the Bass Digital Education Fellowship, a pioneer program supported by Duke Learning Innovation and Duke Graduate School that aim to enhance the training of young pedagogues interested on integrating digital technologies and digital pedagogy to improve the learning process.

Edgar’s research evaluates the transition of the electric power sector from carbon-intensive to deeply decarbonized using a multidisciplinary framework that incorporates operations research, data science and geospatial analysis. In recognition to his contributions to this field, he has been awarded several scholarships (~$198,000 USD) to complement the internal scholarship received by the NSOE. He has being named a Rodolfo Llinas Scholar, an Energy Doctoral Fellow and an inaugural member of the Energy Data Analytics PhD Fellowship. This last program, hosted by Duke´s Energy Initiative and sponsored by the Sloan Foundation, was launched with the objective of recognizing next-generation scholars in their quest to draw knowledge on the interaction of energy application areas and data science methods. His experience as fellow of this programs allowed him to be prepared to pursue an inquiry-based method to formulate and answer critical research questions using a multidisciplinary approach.

In addition to his academic and research projects, Edgar has a high commitment to improve the educational experience of students at Duke by engaging in institutional service. While being the co-president of the NSOE Advocacy Council (NPAC), he launched the first PhD Week comprised of events that supported and empower student governance and initiatives and promoted the exploration of diverse career paths. More recently, he led the efforts that resulted in NPAC being awarded a Graduate School Professional Development Grant to institute a year-long seminar to support mental health of the students. In order to ensure his actions would benefit all students at Duke and not only his peers at the NSOE, Edgar has engaged in institution-wide initiatives being a current member of Duke’s Board of Trustees Resources Committee and previously serving in Duke’s Board of Trustees Strategic Task Force: Activating the Global Network. The latter, seek to structure the foundation for one of the five projects of Duke’s Presidential Strategic Framework: next-generation engagement platforms to extend and deepen all aspects of university life. As an active and highly engaged contributor, Edgar has been recently appointed to the search committee of two leading positions at Duke: the university’s Executive Vice President, and the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs.

Before pursuing graduate studies at Duke, he worked for a decade promoting the adoption of cleaner fuels in transport and industry throughout Latin America, while simultaneously advancing his academic and administrative career at Universidad de los Andes where his last appointment was Head of Research Cooperation. During his tenure at this role, he developed strategic alliances with institutions across the globe (e.g., German Research Foundation – DFG, Max Planck Institute, Arizona State University, University of Queensland) to increase the impact of the university’s research.

While Edgar devotes a significant time to pursue his professional activities, his most valuable time is dedicated to the facet he values the most: his role as a husband of Temis Coral, father of Hannah Maria and owner of Brownie (the coolest Old English Sheepdog: https://www.instagram.com/mrbrowniethefluffiest/).