Alumni Association

Alumni Awards

Oberlin College Alumni Medal
Oberlin College Alumni Medal

The Oberlin Alumni Association has established five awards to recognize outstanding contributions and achievements to the College, to society at large, and to the Association: the Alumni Medal, the Distinguished Achievement Award, the Distinguished Service Award, the Outstanding Young Alumni Award and the Alumni Appreciation Award.

2023 Alumni Medal Recipient

  • Alumni Medal: Cynthia A. Brown ’74

2022 Alumni Award Recipients

  • Alumni Medal: Bonnie Green Millikan ’63 and Joel Millikan ’63
  • Distinguished Achievement Award: Dr. Joanne Chory ’77
  • Distinguished Service Award: John Palombi ’83
  • Outstanding Young Alumni Award: Jason Williams ’05
  • Alumni Appreciation Award: Dr. Barbara Distler ’84


The Alumni Medal is the highest honor that the Alumni Association awards. The Alumni Medalist exemplifies outstanding, sustained or unique service to Oberlin College.

Cynthia BrownForty years ago, Cindy Brown received a wonderful phone call, one asking her to help Oberlin alumni in the Columbus, Ohio, area to engage with the college and each other. Over the following decades, as the regional alumni coordinator in Columbus, Brown planned concerts, outdoor events, art museum lectures, and dinners. She invited Oberlin professors to talk with alumni about their fields and organized admissions events for prospective students.  

Brown also created volunteer opportunities through which alumni could build something enduring. On the grounds of a wildlife rescue organization, alumni and students dug ponds, erected bird shelters, and planted vegetation, creating a permanent exhibit about backyard wildlife sanctuaries. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources donated several thousand native plants, and the Oberlin volunteers created a display about riverbank health in downtown Columbus. 

Brown hosted receptions for Oberlin presidents and concerts by conservatory students at a historic governor’s mansion. She took part in a project that brought together the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Fisk University leaders, and Oberlin’s president for a lecture and concert, celebrating the two institutions’ historic relationship. She met alumni in Tokyo and worked with the Cluny Museum in Paris to host an event for alumni in Europe to meet with Oberlin’s president.

With the Oberlin Alumni Association, Brown chaired the nominations committee, served multiple terms on the trustee search committee, and led the executive board’s governance and bylaws committee.

Brown’s daughter, Kate Lansky, is a 2003 Oberlin graduate; her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Cunningham, was a student in 1872. Brown considers her time spent with alumni as a “spa for the soul” that leaves her renewed, inspired, and humbled. She wishes the same for all new graduates during the years ahead.

The Alumni Medal is the highest honor that the Alumni Association awards. The Alumni Medalist exemplifies outstanding, sustained or unique service to Oberlin College.

Joel and Bonnie MillikanBonnie and Joel Millikan met during their junior year at Oberlin while serving as freshman dorm counselors. Bonnie majored in English literature while Joel studied economics, played lacrosse, and co-captained the football team. During graduation, under the lanterns on Tappan Square, they became engaged; a year later they married in Philadelphia surrounded by Oberlin friends.

Both went on to graduate school, Bonnie earning an MEd from Cornell University in 1964, and Joel an MBA from the University of Chicago in 1965. Bonnie taught junior high school and was a private tutor, while Joel, a CFA, worked as an institutional portfolio manager and chief investment officer. In 1992, the couple began working together to create and build Cardinal Capital Management, an investment firm in Raleigh, North Carolina, focused on individuals, families, and trusts. They retired in 2012 to devote more time to volunteer work and their family.

Volunteering has long been an important part of the Millikans’ life. Bonnie relied upon scholarship funds and work opportunities to attend Oberlin, and she and Joel earned scholarship grants for graduate school, which they credit to their Oberlin degrees. This motivated the couple’s desire to raise scholarship funds for others. After graduating from Oberlin, they volunteered as admissions representatives and began decades of service as class agents. In 2013, they co-led their 50th Reunion Gift Committee, which raised more than $21 million and inspired Oberlin to grant them an Alumni Appreciation Award in 2014.

The couple’s fundraising efforts at Oberlin have largely focused on support for student scholarships awarded through the Class of 1963 Scholarship Funds. In addition, Joel was a panelist for gift planning seminars and serves as an Annual Fund lead agent. Through these efforts, he inspires annual giving from classmates by soliciting philanthropic dollars that support Oberlin's greatest needs. He also serves as the alumni lead of the Annual Fund stewardship calling team.

The Millikans value the strong, long-lasting friendships they made at Oberlin with classmates of diverse callings and backgrounds. “We were taught, mentored, and inspired by some of Oberlin’s most storied professors,” they say, specifically acknowledging Freddie Artz, Andrew Bongiorno, Tom Flynn, Dewey Ganzel, Clyde Holbrook, Ken Strand, and Robert Weinstock. “These good folks taught critical analysis, independent thinking, encouraged original research, then guided us to graduate school. George Langler, the director of financial aid, was a friend and guide to us, as he was to all Oberlin students in the 1960s.”

Beyond Oberlin, Bonnie and Joel raised three children who have added six grandchildren to the family. Both are elders in the Presbyterian Church and have been active in resettling refugees from Vietnam and Nepal and residents from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Joel led disaster recovery teams to New Orleans and to eastern North Carolina, while Bonnie led a large Backpack Buddies program and volunteer teams working with the InterFaith Food Shuttle in Durham, North Carolina.

Bonnie and Joel have been active leaders with the Haiti Reforestation Partnership, which has planted more than 15 million trees in the mountains of Haiti. They recently led a successful fundraising project to build an emergency services communication tower in the Adirondack Park community of Inlet, New York.

The Distinguished Achievement Award honoree has demonstrated in his/her life outstanding contributions and achievements that reflect Oberlin’s values in a career field.

Dr Joanne ChoryJoanne Chory received an A.B. degree in biology with honors from Oberlin College, OH, a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and conducted postdoctoral research at Harvard Medical School. In 1988, she joined the faculty of the Salk Institute, where she has remained. Dr. Chory is currently professor and director of the Plant Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, HHMI Investigator, Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology and Director of Harnessing Plants Initiative (HPI). Dr. Chory is known for her studies that have shown how plants alter their shape and size in response to changes in their environment.

Dr. Chory has served on numerous advisory committees and editorial boards, and has received multiple awards, most recently the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2018), Gruber Genetics Prize (2018), TED: The Audacious Project (2018), TED Talk, Vancouver (2019), Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research (2019), and the Pearl-Meister Greengard Prize (2020), BEZOs Earth Fund Award (2020), Paul Ecke Jr. Award of Excellence (2022), and the National Autonomous University of Mexican UNAM – Honorary Degree for Outstanding Achievements in Biological Sciences (2022). She is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the German National Academy of Sciences (Leopoldina), the American Philosophical Society, National Academy of Inventors, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Joanne Chory is a foreign member of the Royal Society of London, a foreign affiliate of the French Academy of Science, and is an associate member of EMBO.

The Distinguished Service Award recipient has demonstrated in his/her life service or volunteer activities that reflect Oberlin’s values by directly improving the quality of life for humanity.

John PalombiJohn Palombi graduated from Oberlin in 1983. While on campus, he played rugby, enjoyed Fencing club, and intramural sports. John is a lifelong avid sports fan, and regularly attended Cleveland baseball games with the Peace and Baseball Fan Club. As an adult convincing his kids how cool he was in college, his best story involves a road trip to Cleveland to see The Who.

After leaving Oberlin, John attended DePaul University College of Law and graduated in 1987. Following a few years with state agencies and such, John moved on to what has become his life’s work--representing indigent clients on death row. John is in his third decade now of doing this work, in which he has represented indigent clients in Illinois, Kentucky and Alabama, arguing cases in state and federal courts. John’s work with indigent defendants in the South has allowed him the opportunity to stand in the gap for clients from impoverished backgrounds, often clients of color. Serving in this capacity has given John a front row seat to men and women thrown away by society, and allowed him the gift of experiencing the grace, kindness, and humanity they have to offer.

While in Kentucky, John litigated with the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. During his time there, he was part of the team that represented Ralph Baze before the United States Supreme Court in Baze v. Rees. Litigation in the Baze case had an impact across the country and resulted in an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in many states. In 2008, John joined the Federal Defender Office for the Middle District of Alabama. As an Assistant Federal Defender, John works closely with his clients on Alabama’s death row. He has argued and won cases in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of those clients; and, won in the United States Supreme Court in Melson v. Allen. John regularly consults with attorneys across the country regarding end stage litigation for death row clients.

John is the grandson of Italian immigrants. He has a deep love of Italian food, trivia, and sports of all kinds. John enjoys spending time in the kitchen—making pasta from scratch and baking fresh bread. You are also likely to find him up at 3 a.m. to catch a soccer game or watching cricket. He is a lifelong Steelers fan, and a card-carrying supporter of Liverpool football club. John lives in Montgomery, Alabama with his wife Nancy. He has six children, Daniel, Kayla, Kristin, Gregory, Thomas and Jared. John also has two grandchildren, Everett and Louie Mae, for whom he hopes to leave this world a better place.

The Outstanding Young Alumni Award recipient must be 40 years of age or younger at the time of consideration and have distinguished himself or herself in one or more of the following areas: professional career, service to humanity, and service to Oberlin College.

Jason WilliamsBorn to teenage parents and being raised in Lorain, Ohio, Jason learned grit and developed a deep understanding of poverty. 

During the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic, he lived in the poorest neighborhood, in one of the poorest cities in Ohio. He learned to avoid gangs, drug fiends, and survive a historically underachieving school system. From the ages of seven to 17, Jason’s father was absent, and his mother was incarcerated, initially sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison. Given those circumstances, there was a 99.9% chance that his fate would end in death, incarceration, or a life of poverty. 

However, the painful lessons from his childhood prepared him for the ups and downs of life and business. Through the hardships of his youth, Jason learned to work independently, became detail- oriented and well-organized. The skills that allowed him to maneuver through various pitfalls allowed him to succeed in life. Just as he saw the potential in himself, despite those tough circumstances, he sees opportunities where others do not. Despite his hardships, Jason attended Oberlin College, becoming a first-generation college graduate. He founded (and co-founded) five different companies, including a nonprofit organization, Get with the Program Inc., that addresses the lack of pathways and access to STEM fields for underserved and underrepresented youth. 

Jason currently works as a business advisor for the Small Business Development Center. And according to his kids, he is “the best daddy on the planet!”. Jason recognizes that his presence ensures that others from similar backgrounds have the confidence and will to excel. Through his pursuits, he avoided the pitfalls that ensnared his friends and family. He represents hope, brilliance, and the beauty of when you pursue your dreams. He is an example of what is possible.

The Alumni Appreciation Award honoree has performed a unique service or made a unique contribution to the Oberlin College Alumni Association.

Barbara DistlerBarbara Distler is a native New Yorker, licensed clinical psychologist, career counselor, and artist/photographer. At Oberlin, she designed her own major in Child Development and spent a semester as a guest student in the Eliot Pearson School of Child Study at Tufts University. Barb was active in extracurricular activities, including OPAC (photo co-op), SANE (anti-nuclear), EXCO, president of Kadima (Reform Jewish group), photography editor of the yearbook, and a resident counselor in Talcott.

Barb has been Class President since 1989. She loves planning reunions and helping her classmates feel connected to both Oberlin and the cluster. She also did alumni interviewing of prospective students, and for 10 years she was the Regional Coordinator in Chicago. During that time, she single-handedly organized the first Oberlin Serve-A-Thon. She received the Oberlin Volunteer of the Year Award for this endeavor, and alumni chapters around the country have since held community service days based on her model.

Oberlin’s values are reflected in Barb’s professional decisions to work for nonprofits, hospitals, and schools. For 16 years she was a staff psychologist at university counseling centers. She has extensive experience in teaching and curriculum development and has taught preschool, elementary school, twice-exceptional children, Hebrew School, college students, doctoral candidates, photography, and English as a Second Language. She has helped businesses resolve employee and wellness concerns and has been interviewed multiple times for newspapers and books.

Photography has always been Barb’s passion. She is an active photographer/artist and her images have been in over 20 exhibits. She previously interned at the International Center of Photography. She has lived in two countries working on photographic essays and she has received 2 individual artist grants.

Barb lives in NYC and works full-time as a psychologist and career counselor. She remains dedicated to her photography and also spends time baking, writing, traveling, dancing, and is in the process of revitalizing the NY Oberlin alumni chapter. She loves hearing from and socializing with fellow Obies.


Do you know exceptional Obies who are dedicated to serving Oberlin College and Conservatory? Nominate them for an alumni award! Nominations should be submitted to the Office of Alumni Engagement by June 30. More information can be found via the below links: