2018-19 Alumni Association Award winners
St. Cloud State University's 2018-2019 Alumni Association Award winners (pictured left to right): Diane Moeller '77 '82 (Distinguished Alumni Award recipient), Emmanuel Oppong '13 (Alumni Service Award recipient), Dr. Nirjal Bhattarai '08 (Graduate of the Last Decade Award recipient), Dennis Mergen '93 '12 (University Leadership Award recipient) and SCSU President Robbyn R. Wacker.
Diane Moeller ’77 ’82, recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award, graduated summa cum laude from St. Cloud State University in 1977 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Elementary Education with a minor in Music. In 1982, she earned a Master of Education degree from St. Cloud State.
In her 42 years of working in education, Diane is grateful for the many students and staff members whose lives have touched hers in ways that are measured in moments. For 22 years in the Rocori School District at Richmond Elementary, she was given opportunities to exercise teacher leadership. She taught graduate courses for teachers and became the state coordinator for Performance Learning Systems, a national company that produced courses. This role continued for 30 years, teaching over 5,000 teachers. Her classroom successes led to many accolades, the largest of these being Teacher of the Year in 1997 as well as being recognized at the state level as a Teacher of Excellence. As much as Diane loved teaching, her education had taken her to the next level, earning her administrative degree and doctorate (ABD).
The desire to lead pulled her to apply in the St. Cloud School District, becoming the principal of Kennedy Elementary in St. Joseph. In her 14 years at Kennedy, the school grew from 220 students to over 700. She oversaw the construction of a new school, which won numerous awards for its green components and was featured on a special CNN report. Kennedy was named a Minnesota School of Excellence and a Green Ribbon School from the U.S. Department of Education. Diane’s efforts to use the green elements to teach the students led to her being named the Minnesota Math and Science Principal of the year in 2013. Additionally, Diane was named the Minnesota National Distinguished Principal in 2006, an honor awarded at the White House.
Diane moved to the assistant superintendent position in the St. Cloud district where she oversaw curriculum, instruction, and assessment for the entire district. She retired from this position after two years, but came out of retirement to be the superintendent in the Morris School District, the executive director of the Benton Stearns Education District, the executive director of the Ignite Center at St. Cloud State, and is currently serving in her third year as elementary principal of STRIDE Academy in St. Cloud.
Emmanuel Oppong ’13, recipient of the Alumni Service Award, was born and raised in Ghana, West Africa and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Ghana. He then pursued his master’s degree in Community Counseling Psychology at St. Cloud State University, graduating in 2013 and completing the Strategies for Leading Successful Change Initiatives professional development program through the Harvard University Extension School in 2018. Due to his passion for helping the underserved, marginalized, underprivileged and minority population, Emmanuel also completed a graduate certificate in Chemical Dependency with the hope of treating individuals with drug and alcohol addiction.
Emmanuel’s civic engagement earned him a Minnesota Campus Compact President’s Award chosen by Campus Compact College and university member presidents and chancellors to give statewide recognition to effective leaders in the development of campus-community partnerships. His work within the St. Cloud community gained the attention of both Mayor Dave Kleis and former Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. Mayor Kleis appointed him in 2016 as Community Engagement Coordinator for the Mayor’s Office.
Emmanuel was nominated and selected to be one of Ten Outstanding Young Minnesotans in 2016 for his humanitarian and voluntary leadership. He was also awarded a 2017 Bush Fellowship, which is an investment in people who have a record of accomplishment and the potential to do even more for their community. Other awards he has received for his leadership include the 2015 Newcomer of the year for the Zeta Nu Sigma chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated; 2017 Voices Magazine Award for Community Advocacy, and the 2017 St. Cloud Times 5 Under 40 Award. He co-created and co-founded an award-winning Minority Leadership Program, the Jugaad Leadership Program to “Train, Place and Connect” the next generation of Emerging Leaders in Central Minnesota, designed to provide people of color and other underrepresented community members with the knowledge, skills and resources to become effective leaders in their various constituencies.
Dennis Mergen ’93 ’12, recipient of the University Leadership Award, graduated from St. Cloud State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Psychology including minors in Child and Family Studies and Human Relations in 1993. Immediately following graduation, Dennis began his work in teaching as an early childhood family educator in the St. Michael-Albertville school district from 1993-1998.
In spring of 1998, Dennis was offered the position of preschool teacher at the Lindgren Child Care Center. In 2008, he moved to the position of associate director, and in 2014 he was appointed as director of the Lindgren Child Care Center. During his tenure as associate director, he also completed his master’s degree in Higher Education Administration in 2012.
Dennis lives in Central Minnesota with his wife Ginny and sons Marcus, Jackson and Owen. One of Dennis’s favorite hobbies include coaching baseball for his sons’ teams.
Dr. Nirjal Bhattarai ’08, recipient of the Graduate of the Last Decade (GOLD) Award, was born and raised in Nepal and after finishing high school in Kathmandu, he came to St. Cloud State University and graduated with summa cum laude honors in 2008 in Biomedical Science and Chemistry. After completing his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in the field of virology in only three years with five peer-reviewed publications, he started working at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics first as a postdoctoral fellow and later as an Assistant Research Scientist where he continued to study effects of viruses on human immune system.
Currently, Nirjal is a principal investigator and a regulator in the division of cellular and gene therapies at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). He is involved in reviewing cell and gene therapy product applications submitted to the FDA and his lab performs cutting-edge research on gene and cell therapies. He also provides guidance to manufacturers developing these therapies and outreach to various stakeholders. He enjoys mentoring students and fellows both in research projects and regulatory review activities and one of his interests is to motivate young students to join STEM field and participate in research.
Nominations for Alumni Association Awards are accepted year-round. To submit a nomination for the 2019-20 selection cycle, visit www.stcloudstate.edu/alumni/alumniaward.