University of New Orleans gala to celebrate alumni contributions and success in business and community

Editor’s Note

This article is brought to you by the University of New Orleans.

The University of New Orleans will celebrate the achievements of its graduates at the 2021 Homer L. Hitt Distinguished Alumni Gala on November 4. The recognition goes to those who are making a significant impact in their professional spheres, the New Orleans region and the country. 

This year’s Homer L. Hitt Distinguished Alumnus of the Year is David Gallo, president and chief executive officer of Gallo Mechanical, LLC. The Norma Jane Sabiston Young Alumna of the Year is Lacey Merrick Conway, president and chief executive officer of Latter & Blum.

The in-person ceremony will also recognize the 2020 honorees, who were celebrated in a virtual format last year because of the pandemic. The 2020 Distinguished Alumnus is Timothy Adams, a business executive and the mayor of Bowie, Maryland. The 2020 Young Alumna of the Year is Sheba Turk, an author and co-anchor of WWL-TV’s Eyewitness Morning News.

“So much pride emanates from the event around the university, our city and our alumni because our alumni play such a critical role in business and in our city,” said UNO President John Nicklow. “It’s a time to come together and celebrate our graduates and their success, especially these honorees that embody the spirit of UNO so well. The event also reminds all of us how important the only public, research university in New Orleans is to our city, the region and the country. 

For Gallo, the decision to attend UNO for his bachelor’s degree in management was based largely on logistical reasons. He grew up near campus and wanted to continue living at home. He was also working at Gallo Mechanical and wanted a college experience that could accommodate his budding career.

David Gallo is the 2021 Homer L. Hitt Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.

Provided photo

It didn’t take long for Gallo to embrace the UNO experience. His business and engineering courses laid the foundation for future success. He made friends and learned teamwork through his involvement in intramural sports, especially flag football, and a fraternity.

“UNO was very good to me. I’ve always been proud of graduating from there, but it’s only been more recently that I’ve become involved again,” Gallo said. “There are some good things going on there which will help the university and the city. I’ve seen how important UNO is to the city of New Orleans and the businesses that operate here. There are so many UNO graduates who are leading and doing well at companies throughout New Orleans.”

Gallo is optimistic that trend will continue, especially because of UNO’s commitment to diversity and making higher education affordable for everyone.

“It’s all about the ability for everyone to get a high quality education,” he said. “They have a fantastic faculty and the students are tremendous.”

For Conway, a New Orleans native, returning to her hometown for her master’s degree in business administration was an ideal opportunity to reset while helping advance her career.

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“I went to a really large college for my undergraduate, and it was such a nice shift to come back to UNO for my graduate program,” she said. “I felt like I had a lot of one-on-one attention because the classes were smaller. It felt like you could take a breath and settle down for a bit. It was a nice time to focus.”

Lacey Merrick Conway is the 2021 Norma Jane Sabiston Young Alumna of the Year.

Provided photo

Conway said she was “completely flattered, surprised and grateful” when she learned about her honor. As she continues her involvement with the university, she hopes to encourage current students to take part in the many networking opportunities that are available.

“I think UNO has done a great job of offering students the chance to reach out and see what jobs are available,” Conway said. “I would tell them to take advantage of that. The people at UNO are willing to provide that help. They want everybody there to succeed.”

When Timothy Adams was ready to further his education with a master’s of business administration, UNO was high on his list because of the strong reputation of its business program. He enrolled as a graduate student and soon learned that he had made the right decision.

“It gave me the basis to really understand business and tie it in with my undergraduate degree,” Adams said. “It really gave me the tools I needed to move forward, especially when I entered the defense industry. At that time, you needed a technical degree and an MBA to move forward in that field. I had checked those boxes and had a solid foundation that I developed at UNO. It really propelled my career and made me feel confident when I started my own business.”

Adams founded Systems Applications & Technologies, Inc., a professional services firm, in 1989. In 2019, he was elected the first Black mayor of Bowie, Maryland. Even from afar, Adams remains closely tied to UNO and is proud of its accomplishments, especially in recent years.

“I will always say that the University of New Orleans is a gem for the state of Louisiana,” he said. “We are becoming recognized nationally in many areas and I think the administration is doing a phenomenal job in moving the university forward. Everyone is working hard and doing so in a smart way.”

When Sheba Turk graduated from UNO in 2011, she never imagined the university would recognize her as one of its outstanding alumna just a decade later. Back then, she was finishing a stretch of time in which she moved to New York for college, changed her mind and returned to New Orleans, enrolled at UNO and began working full time. She was determined to work hard, but didn’t know where her career or life would take her.

“I think that’s why this award was so shocking to me,” she said. “But I also hope it can encourage other students to keep working even when things are hard. You just have to keep moving forward.”

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Turk said the support of UNO professors was crucial to keeping her on track and creating a learning environment where she felt safe and supported.

“For the first couple of years, I kept to myself, but I spoke to one of my English professors during my senior year because I was struggling to balance work and class,” she recalled. “I think a lot of UNO students go through that. Most of them are commuting and working and have a lot of things going on in life. I always tell them to talk to their professors. They are a lot more understanding than people sometimes think.”

At the gala, the university will also honor distinguished alumni from its four academic colleges and athletics. Those honorees are:

  • College of Business Administration: Melonie Johnson, President and Chief Operating Officer of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from UNO.
  • College of Engineering: Tony Cibilich, President and owner of C&C Marine Repair in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. Cibilich earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UNO.
  • College of Liberal Arts, Education and Human Development: B. Jeffrey Brooks, a partner with the law firm Adams & Reese. Brooks earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UNO.
  • College of Sciences: Sabrina Farmer, vice president for engineering site reliability at Google. She is the founder of the Scholarship for Women in Computer Science at UNO, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science.
  • Privateer Athletics: Dr. Robin Martin, deputy director of strategy, planning and management for the postsecondary success team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Martin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from UNO, where she played basketball.
  • Nicklow said the gala is the perfect chance for alumni to reconnect with those in the UNO community who helped them along the way as well as other graduates who have experienced their own successes. Those reconnections feel especially meaningful this year after so many months of people being apart because of the pandemic.

    The University of New Orleans Distinguished Alumni Gala takes place in 2017.

    Provided photo

    “I think people enjoy seeing friends who they may not have seen for many years and learning what’s new at the university,” he said. “I always have a moment where I am just awe-inspired at the success of all of these alumni in the room and their impact on the world. It’s incredible.”

    The gala will take place at 7 p.m. November 4 at The National WWII Museum, Boeing Freedom Pavilion, 945 Magazine Street, New Orleans. There will be reduced capacity and advanced safety measures in place. The event will also be live-streamed for those who cannot attend in person. For tickets or more information, visit


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