2020 Graduate Award Winners

Each year during the Assembly on Reunion Weekend, we honor those graduates who have gone above and beyond for both the Nobles and the larger global community living out our mission of leadership for the public good. A huge congratulations to this year’s award winners. We look forward to honoring them in person soon. If you would like to nominate a graduate for an award please email kbrown99@nobles.edu.

Young Graduate Award: Denna Laing ’10

Created in 2011, this award is given annually to a recent graduate who models the spirit and values of Noble and Greenough School as set forth in its mission statement. Through professional, academic, and/or volunteer roles, the recipient has demonstrated leadership for the public good and a commitment to serving others. The recipient will have graduated in the past 15 years and is nominated by the Young Graduate Committee and voted by the Nominating Committee.

Throughout her life, Denna Laing has been a natural leader. After a traumatic accident in 2015 left her with no feeling in her legs and limited movement of her arms, she has continued to persevere with a positive outlook and genuine commitment to inspiring those around her. For her commitment to bettering the world in the face of adversity, we are thrilled to honor Denna with the 2020 Young Graduate Award. 

As a student at Nobles, Denna was a standout athlete and respected leader in her class. She played varsity field hockey for three years, varsity ice hockey for six years, and was a senior prefect. On the ice hockey team, Denna was part of five ISL championships and two New England Tournament Championships. According to Coach Tom Resor, “Denna [was] the quintessential teammate: Dedicated and unselfish, she is sincerely concerned about the fabric of the group, and she loves being part of a team that works together to achieve a goal that is more important than individual accomplishments.” 

Denna became a natural leader throughout the school. A boarder for 4 years, Denna was a friendly face in the residential campus community, earning the Harrington Boarder of the Year award which was awarded to her by her peers. Denna’s smile and positive attitude were known well throughout the schoolhouse. Friend and teammate Marissa Gedman ’10 said, “she was legendary for her ability to connect with people from all backgrounds and unite the boarding community.”

Denna went on to play ice hockey for Princeton University where she scored an accumulated 77 points and was named captain her junior and senior years. After Princeton, Denna was recruited  to join the National Women’s Hockey League as a member of the Boston Pride. In 2015, Denna suffered a severe spinal cord injury while playing in the first Outdoor Women’s Classic which cut her career short. 

Denna’s injury never stopped her from inspiring those around her and chronicled her journey of recovery on her Facebook page. After working incredibly hard to earn her drivers license in 2020 Denna posted saying, “if you read my post and you start believing that maybe you can do it too then maybe there’s more awareness and more understanding and then maybe it becomes more of a standard and then all of a sudden it’s not all that hard…”

Many who knew Denna at Nobles have remarked on her ability to maintain her positive attitude.  Maura Sullivan said, “She has the ability to pull people along with her because of the way she approaches everything in her life. Denna showed up day in and day out and never cut corners when it came to preparing herself to be the best player that she could be. That type of work ethic and attitude carried over to everything that she did in the classroom as well.  Now, in hindsight, I wonder if that was all preparation for the challenge that Denna had handed to her four years ago.  Despite her injury, Denna hasn’t changed anything about the way she approaches life.  Her details have changed, but her attitude and work ethic have not.  She is still pulling people along with her in all the right ways.”

Denna has gone on to win the National Women’s Hockey League Foundation Award and Perseverance Award, and the Dana Reeve Hope Award in recognition of her advocacy for victims of spinal cord injuries. During her acceptance speech, Denna remarked on her commitment to inspiring others: “People seem to really respond to my positivity and energy, so I just every day try to make sure I’m continuing that, proving to people that things can get better, I can be better. That they can be better too.” 

Denna continues to work hard at her recovery and remains positive about the cutting edge spinal cord injury research. “Every day, as I do exactly what I told myself before that last shift: ‘All right Denna, you’ve got to pick it up, you’ve got to hustle, you’ve got to work your hardest.’” 

The Young Graduate Committee is thrilled to present Denna Laing with the 2020 Young Graduate Award for embodying the values of leadership for the public good.

Distinguished Graduate Award: Elizabeth Söderström ’80

In addition to unquestioned character and moral qualifications, the recipient should have achieved excellence in his or her chosen field of endeavor. The recipient should also have demonstrated interest in the cultural, economic, governmental, or sociological development of our society.

Elizabeth Soderstrom ’80 has spent her professional career as a water scientist working strategically with a variety of organizations to solve global problems surrounding this vital resource. For her work in the biological sciences, specifically her leadership in environmental science and river management, she is being honored as the 2020 Distinguished Graduate at Noble and Greenough School.

At Nobles, Elizabeth was a prefect, played field hockey and basketball and was involved with theatre, acting in Rhymers of Eldridge. She was the business manager for the Nobleman and also contributed articles and photography as well as writing for the Graduate Bulletin. She received the Wiswell Prize in English and honorable mention for the Little Memorial Essay. Elizabeth’s sister, Elaine Soderstrom Anderson ‘83 and brother, Christian Soderstrom ‘82, are also graduates. Her experience at Nobles and the faculty members in particular, had a profound impact on her personal and professional trajectories and she has close friendships with faculty members Dick Baker and Tim Carey who remain mentors to her and inspired her love of language and creative writing.

Elizabeth notes that through photograpy, Joe Swazye taught her to see light, patterns and texture, and also character in a person’s face. More subtly, he taught her to pause, observe, think and savor. Ted Gleason was the first person she knew who spoke of standards of love, building community, knowing what matters, and living a life of service. These might be common conversations today but back in 1978, it was a new language. But after three years of morning assemblies, she started to understand these concepts. And over her career, she has often asked – what really matters here? How can I build community? How can an organization love?

Her English teachers, Tim Carey and Dick Baker, taught her to appreciate the rythmn of a sentence, the power of word placement, the development of character. Dick’s class in Everything you Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask fueled her tendencies to test assumptions. From this class, she vividly remembers reading Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley and realizing that her view of the world was not the real one, but rather a perception colored by her socially constructed filters. Although she no longer question everything (“turns out that was exhausting”), she is driven by curiosity and asks many questions of my colleagues. She wants to understand their culture, their backstories, what fuels their perceptions – important information in negotiating multi-dimensional and conflict-ridden water issues. She writes, “And if you know Tim Carey, there is no one who better embodies humility, kindness, and humor – critical skills I have tried to emulate in my efforts to build partnerships and engender trust.”  

Although it is hard to point to a particular choice she has made in her life and trace it back to something she learned or experienced at Nobles, she deeply feels the influence of those high school years. 

“The teachers at Nobles and the community at large demonstrated in their daily actions what they cared for and what they stood for and this model combined with their interest and belief in me showed me how to live a life of service, how to care for and learn from others and the great joy in doing it.”

Elizabeth went on to Stanford University where she received a B.A. in English Literature and a B.S. and M.S. in Biological Sciences. She also holds a Ph.D. in Wildlands Resource Science from the University of California, Berkeley. Following her Ph.D., Elizabeth was a Science and Engineering Diplomacy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science first working in the Center for Environment at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, DC for four years and then at USAID’s Regional Center for Southern Africa based in Gaborone, Botswana for six years. In this work, Elizabeth contributed to the creation of the International Coral Reef Initiative; advised the Government of Botswana on designating the Okavango Delta system as a Ramsar site making it the third largest Ramsar wetland in the world; and created and implemented a strategy for USAID assistance in managing transboundary rivers in southern Africa. 

For the next seven years, Elizabeth was the Director for the Sierra and Africa Rivers Program of the Natural Heritage Institute. Highlights of her work included launching a large-scale meadow restoration initiative in California’s Sierra Nevada resulting in hundreds of acres of meadows being restored for habitat and water quality; envisioning and working with partners to develop the Deer Creek Tribute Trail that pays tribute to unsung actors and victims of the gold mining Era including the Chinese pioneers and the Nisenan tribe; and managing a three-year USAID-funded project to collaborate on the joint management of the transboundary Okavango River   with a full range of stakeholders from communities to the tripartite commission between Angola, Namibia and Botswana.

In 2008, she joined American Rivers where she was the Senior Director of Conservation and Development also for seven years. At American Rivers, she helped build the California program through integrating strategy development with fundraising. In this positon, she raised millions of dollars for river restoration projects that included floodplain and salmon habitat restoration; acquisition of water rights for instream flows; and green infrastructure projects to address stormwater issues. One of her successes in this position was initiating the acquisition of Ackerson Meadow – 400 acres of critical wetlands and meadow habitat that is home to many endangered species including the Great Grey Owl. Eventually Ackerson Meadows was added to Yosemite National Park becoming the largest addition to the Park since 1949. 

Having worked with the federal government and with NGOs, Elizabeth is now working in the field of philanthropy. She started as Program Manager at the Resources Legacy Fund in 2015, focusing on diversifying organizations advocating for sustainable water by bringing the voices of Latino communities and business to the table. As Strategic Partnership Officer, Elizabeth then helped launch The Water Foundation, a new pooled-fund philanthropy aimed at transforming water management across the Western US. Here, she supports the efforts of the Water Foundation and its grantees to promote safe and affordable drinking water for underserved communities; to identify and negotiate “grand bargains” that result in river restoration as well as economic vitality for surrounding communities; and to implement “multi-benefit” stormwater projects in urban areas that provide much needed green spaces while also reducing flooding and increasing water quality. Throughout this work, the Water Foundation funds short-term policy changes, but also supports longer term systemic changes such as diversifying who makes decisions about water and changing the stories we tell about this important resource.

In addition, Elizabeth has always been an active member in environmentally focused organizations. She is currently on the boards of directors at TreeSisters US, Stockholm Environmental Institute US, and the Consensus Building Institute. Previously, she served on the board of directors of the South Yuba River Citizens League, and on the advisory board of the Switzer Foundation. 

Elizabeth lives with her husband of 23 years, Steve Rothert, her 14 year old daughter, Tova, several dogs, goats and chickens on a tiny farm in Nevada City, California – a “small but mighty rural community on the western slope of the Sierra in Northern California.” Dick Baker, officiated at Elizabeth and Steve’s wedding in 1997 on a Cape Cod barrier beach. Tim Carey and other Nobles graduates were also in attendance. She enjoys river rafting, backpacking, cooking, gardening, back-country skiing, archery, and horseback-riding. Elizabeth practices Buddhist Vipassana meditation at the Mountain Stream Meditation Center where she helped found the Family Program. She also completed Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training at the School of Medicine, Center for Compassion and Altruism. Elizabeth is a member of Squaw Valley Community of Writers and completed the Stanford Novel Writing Certificate Program in 2018. She is currently working on a novel that takes place in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. 

 We are thrilled to honor Elizabeth as the 2020 Distinguished Graduate.

Lawson Service Award: Jeanne Hilsinger ’76

This award recognizes a graduate who has given the greatest service and effort to Nobles projects, activities, and/or organizations.

As a graduate, parent and past Trustee, Jeanne has dedicated much of her time and knowledge to Nobles. Starting in 2005, Jeanne became a class agent for the Annual Nobles Fund.  She was elected by the graduate community as the representative Graduate Trustee in 2006 and sat on several committees including the long-range planning committee, finance committee, 6th grade, and sustainability and experiential learning committees.  In addition, she has volunteered on her 30th, 35th, and 40th Reunion committees. Jeanne’s commitment to Nobles touches all parts of the community from students to graduates, as she has been a great contributor to networking panels. In 2017, Jeanne worked with a Nobles student on her senior project which included organizing a panel celebrating Nobles Bold Women. Jeanne is the owner and executive director of Mavel, an engineering company that manufactures hydroelectric turbines. 

Jeanne has two sons, one who graduated in 2019 and the other who will be in Class III next year. 

Thank you, Jeanne, for all you have done to help Nobles!