This year’s honourees were Denise Góñez-Santos, a highly respected educator and member of Niagara University’s Board of Trustees, who was conferred an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters; Carol Doyle-Jones, Ph.D., associate professor of education at Niagara University, who received the Vincentian Mission Award; Niagara alumnae Tracia McKissic, director of NU’s Teacher Education Field Experience program, who received the St. Louise de Marillac Award, and Theresa Schmidt, program director at Heart, Love and Soul, who received the Blessed Frédéric Ozanam Medal; and John P. Sauter, Ph.D., assistant dean for Academic Affairs in NU’s College of Arts and Sciences, who received the Caritas Medal. Special recognition was also given to two graduating Vincentian scholars, Andrew Passow and Katrina Belcastro, who received honour cords during the event.
Denise Góñez-Santos, who also gave the keynote address, has focused her career on bilingual education and children learning English as a second language. She was honoured for her extraordinary work in this area and her dedication to supporting children in the margins of our community.
Góñez-Santos began her career as a bilingual education teacher at Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy in Buffalo, in the same neighbourhood where she lived and grew up. In 1989, she joined Erie 1 BOCES as a resource specialist/coordinator for what was then known as the Bilingual Education/ESL Technical Assistance Center. Over the next more than 30 years, she provided leadership as the program evolved into the Regional Bilingual Education – Resource Network West, one of eight centers funded by the New York State Education Department to ensure academic success for students who do not speak English as a first language. The center provides technical assistance, professional development, and resources to the 98 schools that comprise its service region. While she recently stepped down as its executive director, she remains active with the center as a school improvement specialist.
Dr. Carol Doyle-Jones, academic chair of Niagara’s Ontario Educational Studies department and the coordinator for the bachelor program in Professional Studies, was recognized for her commitment to form teachers who understand, appreciate, and create learning environments that deeply embrace the rich and varied traditions of our Indigenous neighbours. In recent years, Dr. Doyle-Jones has directed her research, which focuses on critical literacies, culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms, and social justice through children’s literature, toward Indigenous education. She has also collaborated with her colleagues and other educators and artists from various Indigenous communities to create an education series that brought conferences, workshops, and a video series led by educators, storytellers, Elders, artists, cultural leaders, and language specialists from multiple Indigenous communities to our campus in Ontario.
Tracia McKissic, who has been a member of NU’s faculty since 2002, was honoured for her dedication to Niagara University’s aspiring educators. McKissic monitors the placement of teacher candidates, oversees practicum and clinical agreements with school districts, and was instrumental in developing a pilot residency model for teacher preparation, through which Niagara’s graduate teacher candidates are employed as paraeducators, teaching associates, interns, and substitute teachers. These placements are primarily in schools where at least 80% of the students are living in poverty. Following the launch of this pilot program, the College of Education’s teacher preparation programs experienced a 72% increase in enrolment, including a 300% increase in enrolment of teacher candidates of color.
Theresa Schmidt has dedicated herself to serving the poor, feeding the hungry, and comforting those in need. As an undergraduate at Niagara University, she was a member of the very first cohort of Vincentian Scholars. As part of this program, which forms leaders in the Vincentian tradition—academically, practically, and spiritually—she participated in the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty, an immersive eight-week long volunteer program in Klagetoh, Arizona, focusing on the multiple dimensions of poverty in the United States. She also volunteered at Heart, Love & Soul, a not-for-profit hunger-relief and social care agency in Niagara Falls. After graduating from NU in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in social work and a minor in poverty studies and subsequently earning a master’s degree in social work, Schmidt returned to Heart, Love & Soul, where she currently serves as program director, overseeing social care services targeting especially homelessness and poverty.
Dr. John Sauter, who has been a strong advocate for student social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts throughout his more than 20-year tenure at Niagara University, was recognized for his tireless work in promoting DEI and his support of the university’s LGBTQIA+ students. He created and maintains a collegewide DEI website that highlights multicultural majors, minors, and student organizations, and he serves as the college’s liaison with the Ostapenko Center for Race, Equity, and Mission, as well as the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Since 2021, Dr. Sauter has overseen the Niagara University Opportunity Program, which seeks to make higher education possible for students who are both educationally underprepared and economically disadvantaged. As such, he cross-trains staff on advising, university systems, technology, and collaborative practices across the disciplines and provides hands-on advising support and guidance to individual NUOP students.
To begin the event, the national anthems of Canada and the United States were performed by Niagara University theatre senior Samantha Campbell, ’23, and, following remarks by the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., Niagara University president, Vincentian scholar Julianna Struzik, ’25, closed the ceremony with a benediction.