2023 Distinguished Leadership Honorees


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2023 CLAS Distinguished Leadership Award Honorees (photo credit: Kat Lawrence)

2023 CLAS Distinguished Leadership Award Honorees with CLAS Alumni Council President Andrew Baker ’15
(photo credit: Kat Lawrence)

2023 Distinguished Leadership Awards

On March 23, the Dean’s Office of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences (now CHESS), together with the CLAS Alumni Council, hosted the Inaugural Distinguished Leadership Awards at the Harris Alumni Center at Johnson Glen. The award recognizes the achievements of students, alumni, faculty and staff—and the many contributions of other individuals—who have worked to make the College strong.

Inaugural Honorees are:

Department of Communication Studies graduate Ohavia Phillips ‘15 was emcee for the evening. The honorees were recognized by Alicia Bertone, DVM, Ph.D., Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and John Smail, Ph.D., Interim Dean of CLAS, as well as by Andrew Baker ’15, president of the CLAS Alumni Council.

Margaret Kocherga, Ph.D. ’16, ’20

Margaret Kocherga, Ph.D.,’16, ’20 is an award-winning early-stage entrepreneur, scientist, TEDx speaker and choreographer. She has been featured in Bloomberg, The Business Journals, WSOCTV, Yahoo, and Charlotte Magazine. Originally from Ukraine, she finds joy in exploring other cultures and has visited 32 countries. She is the founder and CEO of Light and Charge Solutions, LLC and Margik Inc., which were founded with a focus on the commercialization of organic electronics materials and Organic LEDs (OLEDs).

Kocherga was recognized as an innovator by Charlotte lnno’s Inaugural Under 25 program and Charlotte Startups to Watch. With a Ph.D. in nanoscale science from UNC Charlotte, her main specialty is in the area of materials for organic electronic devices for lighting, displays, solar cells, and sensors. During her time at UNC Charlotte, she received the prestigious National Science Foundation award for Graduate workforce preparedness, which enabled her to partner with Charlotte Teachers Institute, James Martin Middle School science teachers, and her dissertation advisor Dr. Thomas Schmedake to implement advanced scientific research concepts, and to develop hands-on activities for students compliant with North Carolina state curriculum. In addition to being a scientist, Kocherga is also a professional ballerina. Her career path’s trajectory from the stage to the laboratory was the result of receiving a career-threatening injury. Impeded by the injury, she began her research in heavy-metal coordination chemistry during an undergraduate program, which led her to organic-inorganic hybrid materials for electronics.

Overcoming hardships is something Kocherga has learned to take in stride and uses to fuel her success. She currently participates in the entrepreneurial program Chain Reaction Innovations, in partnership with Argonne National Lab, to help accelerate her technology’s market readiness. She also recently won Golden Unicorn status on the television show, Unicorn Hunters, by receiving a unanimous vote from all seven judges. Her end goal is to help create a more sustainable future.

Boris “Bluz” Rogers ’06

Boris “Bluz” Rogers is an Emmy award winning poet, Director of Creative Engagement for Blumenthal Performing Arts and the coach of the three-time National Poetry slam Championship team, Slam Charlotte. The published author of three books is also a recording artist, and his voice is a progressive tool used to foster transformation. His poetry is universal and dismantles barriers.

Rogers has worked with several well-known organizations, such as CBS Radio, ESPN and SPEED TV, where he wrote and performed several introductions for NASCAR’s nationally televised shows. He also made an historic impact as the first performer—and African American performer—at the opening ceremony of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The city of Charlotte used his talent and voice to win the All-America City Award from the National Civic League in 2018. Additionally, his unique voice and style has been called on by the Carolina Panthers, the Charlotte Hornets and the Tony Award Winning show “Freestyle Love Supreme.” Rogers has shared the stage with many distinguished poets from Nikki Giovanni to Rudy Fransico, and he has opened for such iconic groups as Pink Floyd, OutKast, and The Roots.

Twig Branch ’11, ’16, ’18

Born in the chronological center of the Baby Boom, Twig Branch grew up in a small Upstate New York town. He attended Dartmouth College and graduated in 1977. In that same year, he joined the family business and co-founded a new division. In doing so, he made use of his Liberal Arts degree by blending early 20th Century distribution models, 17th Century naval compensation models, 19th land contract law, Shakespearean rhetoric, and emerging computational technology. The new division soon became the tail that wagged the dog.

Branch moved to Charlotte in 1994 and sold his portion of the company in 2004. Soon after retiring, Branch found his way to UNC Charlotte, where he talked his way into the graduate program. Despite sorely trying the patience of his professors, he obtained a Master of Arts in Religious Studies, a Master of Arts in History, and a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies. Branch continues to attend and enjoy classes exploring topics that are new to him. During his time at UNC Charlotte, Branch has helped establish the CLAS Salon Outreach Program, the CLAS Capitalism Minor, the CLAS Witness in Residence Program, the Slave Cemetery Project, the Pharr Buchenau Study Abroad Fund, the Ruff English Scholarship, the Mark West Travel Grant, the Meyer-White Scholarship, the Patrick Prize, the Odyssean travel Grant, Atkins OutLoud and several other curious initiatives. Branch engages in what he describes as recreational fundraising. He does this by searching out prospective donors and matching them with projects about which they soon become passionate. To date, Branch has helped raise nearly $5 million in donations in support of CLAS projects.

Branch married the love of his life, Barbara, in 1981. Together they raised a fantastic child named Hilary Elspeth Branch. The couple shares a passion for travel and they have wandered through over 100 countries, having many grand adventures. The Branchs strongly believe in serendipity and the kindness of strangers. The couple is also committed to helping CLAS students explore the world by creating travel grants. Finally, Branch believes in virtuous circles and the value of living a life less ordinary—and he tells a spellbinding story of a shipwreck he experienced.

Shawn Long, Ph.D., In Memorium

After receiving a doctorate from the University of Kentucky, Shawn Long, Ph.D. began his career at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This university was his home for 20 years, and Shawn loved Charlotte and Niner Nation. Every time he spoke about Charlotte it was always with excitement. Long loved teaching. He loved his peers and colleagues but especially, he loved the students. After leaving Charlotte he became the first black dean at Kennesaw State University.

Long could always light up a room with his radiant smile. His mother recalls when he was only 5 years old and she was in the student center at Southeast Community College in Cumberland, Kentucky. At that time, someone played a song by Michael Jackson and Shawn immediately began his Michael Jackson routine. The center was full of students and young Shawn had their full attention. When the song ended, the students broke out into applause. You can say that Long was never shy!

He also took his career very seriously, receiving many awards in his lifetime, including the prestigious Lyman T. Johnson Torch of Excellence from the University of Kentucky’s African American Alumni. His motto was “Service to others is an important component of my professional and personal life.” Long’s final achievement was writing and receiving a large grant for Kennesaw State University’s Humanities and Social Sciences Department, where he left his carbon footprint here on earth.

Long died in 2021, leaving behind his loving mother and stepfather, Blanche and Charles Edwards. He is also survived by his two brothers, William (Billy) and Brannon; two uncles, Harvey and John Long; two aunts, Jacqueline Thomas, and Aunt LaNora (Aunt Nora-Faye); and cousins Elizabeth Long-Wilder and Erik Thomas. When accepting the CLAS Distinguished Leadership Award, the family thanked each and every member of the College for keeping Shawn’s name alive. If everyone speaks his name, they noted, he will never be gone or forgotten.

Nancy A. Gutierrez, Ph.D., Dean Emerita

Nancy A. Gutierrez, Ph.D. retired as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in June 2022, a position she held for 17 years. Early in her career, she held faculty positions at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Immediately prior to coming to UNC Charlotte, she spent twenty years as a faculty member and administrator at Arizona State University.

At UNC Charlotte, Gutierrez was a strong advocate for the liberal arts and sciences. For example, she created LEADS, a program that provides opportunities for CLAS students to apply their education in real world environments. She also worked with faculty to develop an Office of Interdisciplinary Studies that advances interdisciplinary thinking broadly in research, as well as undergraduate and graduate curricula. Other areas of emphasis during her career include the role of the scholarship of engagement in promotion and tenure decisions, globalization in the curriculum, and faculty leadership in the changing higher education environment. She was a key player in the development of the Charlotte Teachers Institute, an award-winning professional development program for CMS K-12 Teachers.

Gutierrez received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Denison University (summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa), and a master’s and doctorate degree in English Literature from the University of Chicago. A scholar of early modern English literature, Gutierrez has published on Shakespearean drama and early modern women. She has served as President of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, as Treasurer for the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women and Gender, and as President of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (2013-14), a national association of over 500 baccalaureate degree-granting colleges of arts and sciences. A highlight of her community and professional service is her six years of service to North Carolina Humanities, where she served as Board chair, 2019-21.

Event Memories

Ohavia Phillips ’15 is an electrifying media personality from Brooklyn, New York who has achieved significant eminence in the local and international media scenes. She is a successful media figure, skillful communicator, content creator, and emcee, as well as the host of her own popular, live-audience talk show. Ohavia has also been featured in numerous international and local magazines, including Southpark Magazine, Charlotte’s Creative Newspaper, Charlotte Magazine, and Elevate Magazine, because of her enormous talents and skills. After graduating from Walden University with a master’s degree in crisis communication and public relations, Ohavia carved out a strong niche for herself in the crowded media landscape by projecting a distinct and refreshing voice. To emphasize this, she is the host of a new podcast called “Beautiful people with Ohavia Phillips,” sponsored by Queen City Podcast Network and Orthocarolina. She is a strong-willed communication expert who thrives in a uniquely prepared personal brand while pursuing a bigger dream to establish a multimedia company that creates positive content and meaningful dialogue while bringing communities together. Queen City Nerve named her the Best Local Celebrity and Best Activist and over the years, her stellar career has been featured with many brands, businesses and radio stations, including Power 98, Praise 100.9, and NPR(WFAE) Charlotte. She is currently an In-Arena Host with the Charlotte Hornets and Greensboro Swarm and a media business owner full-time.

Ohavia Phillips ‘15 was the emcee for the 2023 CLAS Distinguished Leadership Awards.