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Road Less Traveled Award

Every year, The Road Less Traveled Award is presented to a Hill Center alumnus who has demonstrated remarkable perseverance and is a shining example of what a confident, independent learner can achieve and whose accomplishments are often a direct result of the challenges he or she has overcome. The title of the award is taken from a line in Robert Frost’s famous poem. The spirit of the poem reflects the many challenges Hill students and alumni have faced, and continue to face, in their lives.  Students and alumni at The Hill Center often take the road less traveled because of their learning differences, which makes “all the difference” in their lives.  


Please take the time to review the great accomplishments of our distinguished Hill alumni below.


Road Less Traveled Award Winners: 

2017: Chris Fields

2016: Taylor Shenkman

2015: Brad Hutchens

2014: Kate Christensen

2013: Mike Richtsmeier

2012: Alicia Markham

2011: Wendy Heavner Gressett

2010: Tim Brower

2009: Ryan Frost

2008: Matthew Beason 

2007: Jennifer Diliberto 

2006: Brian D. Strahl 

2005: W. Keith Dodson

2004: Lee Huskins

2003: Charlie Atwater

2002: Henry Tanner

2001: Ruth Anderson McGranahan

2000: Stefan Lee Hooker


2017: Chris Fields

The skills and confidence Chris gained at Hill fostered his love of exploring new countries and new cultures and support his success every day as a Freight Specialist for Interra International, candidate for a Master’s Degree in Accounting at UNC-Chapel Hill, and loving husband to Sarah and new father to Aurora.  


“My teachers drove me to push myself. They did that by helping me not be afraid to ask questions, by helping me not be embarrassed about the way I learned.”


2016: Taylor Shenkman

Major Taylor Shenkman, the recipient of the Road Less Traveled Award is someone who knows something about working towards a dream. At age 5, Taylor decided he wanted to be a pilot. His mother said he watched “Top Gun” practically every day for the better part of 10 years. Taylor Shenkman


But it’s a long road from kindergarten to the U.S. Naval Fighter Weapons School.  From starting school at St. Thomas More to graduating from Jordan High School, Taylor spend many of those years with us at the Hill Center. He began his Hill Center career in August 1992 in the yellow house, and finished in June 2001, after two school years in this building. Many of us here in this room had the pleasure of teaching Taylor.

In the fall of 2001, Taylor started at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics.  After graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. He did officer training in Quantico, Virginia, and from there went to joint Air Force training in Oklahoma where he finished as the top Marine in his class.

Major Shenkman’s list of honors, achievements, and services to our country are numerous and impressive. He served on the USS Eisenhower. He received training at the Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, and at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina. He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, and to the western Pacific in 2011. He returned to the Middle East in 2013, and again in 2015.  His personal decorations include the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the Air Medal with Strike/flight numeral 6, given to individuals for “meritorious achievement while participating in sustained aerial flight operations, under flight orders.”

In March 2015, Major Shenkman graduated from the U.S. Naval Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN), fulfilling the dream he had since he was a little boy. He currently lives in Coronado, California, and recently celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary with his wife Annabel. In the fall, he plans to transition to the Marine Corps Reserves.

Few people have the determination, stamina, and drive to follow through on a goal they set in childhood.  Major Shenkman did just that, achieving a level of success in his field very few people ever attain. He has served his country with honor and distinction, and we are proud to call him one of our own. 




2015: Brad Hutchens

“To say this has been the most monumental and rewarding week of my life would be an understatement” is how Brad Hutchens, the 2015 Road Less Traveled Award winner, started off his speech at this year’s Senior Ceremony on May 14. Brad was accepting this award, which recognizes distinguished Hill Center alumni, just six days after he and his wife, Margo, welcomed their first child into the world. As a testament to his love of Hill, even after that monumental milestone he still considered receiving this award as “one of the highest honors” of his life. He shared that this was the realization of a goal he set for himself 15 years ago to the day when he sat in his very own Senior Ceremony and watched another distinguished Hill alum receive this same award.

After a diagnosed learning disability as a teenager, Brad discovered The Hill Center through a friend who was enrolled here.  As a glimpse into his future career, Brad then proceeded to “sell” his family on the idea that Hill was the only place he wanted to be for his senior year - and they agreed. For a lot of young men, their senior year of high school is a time to celebrate and reminisce with friends they’ve had their whole lives. For Brad, it was the beginning of a brand new chapter as he started at two new schools that fall. Brad now refers to this life changing year as ““the gift of a senior year at Hill.”

As Kathy Klein, Hill Upper School English teacher who introduced Brad at the ceremony, shared, “He arrived as a 17-year-old whose confidence was shaky, but from day one, he was totally committed to being where he was. He worked from the first bell to the last - no breaks.” This commitment to learning earned him the George Watts Hill Award, which honors students who embody exemplary citizenship, academic progress and community service, at the end of his senior year. Beside his academic success, Brad was also a friendly face to students and staff in the Hill halls, he wrote bills for the Student Council, and coached the Lower School basketball team.  

Brad went on to the University of Carolina, Wilmington after Hill.  He graduated in 2004 and then channeled his strong work ethic and fierce determination into his career in sales.  Today Brad sells dental equipment and has been promoted numerous times. He has also received multiple awards for his outstanding performance. Brad is a stand-out at his company, for which he wholeheartedly credits Hill.

During his speech, Brad thanked the Hill teachers who impacted his life so deeply. He shared with the students in the audience that even now, 15 years later, he still uses the skills he learned at Hill every day.  Whether it’s writing eloquent emails that are shared with the whole sales department because they are so poignant or using the math skills he reluctantly learned to piece together sales figures and important financial data, Hill is always with him.

His message to Hill seniors that day was simple – focus on the gifts that are unique to each of you. “You have also been given the gift of being able to attend The Hill Center. You are at a place that allows you to learn the way that you were meant to learn, achieve things that you may not have ever thought were possible, and to succeed. Let nothing hold you back, as you have the tools to face any challenge, and your time at The Hill Center will help you know how to use those tools to be the very best that you can be.”

The Hill Center is so privileged to have been a stop on Brad’s “road less traveled”. We know he will remain a staunch supporter of Hill and all students with learning differences as he continues on his amazing journey.


2014: Kate Christensen

This year was a first for the “Road Less Traveled” Award.  Our 2014 winner, Kate Christensen, is not only a distinguished Hill alumna but also a current Hill Lower School teacher.    


Kate came to The Hill Center the first time for her sophomore year and attended Hill until she graduated in 2008.  In her three years here she made a big impact on not only Hill but the entire community.  At Jordan High School Kate was involved in student government, athletics, and community service organizations as well as on the honor roll.  Due to her intense involvement in both academics and extracurricular activities, this is not the first award The Hill Center has bestowed on Kate.  As a senior, she won the 2008 George Watts Hill Award which honors students who embody exemplary citizenship, academic progress and community service.   In an exciting twist of fate, Bonnie Cheek, Kate’s high school math teacher and now fellow teacher, presented both of these awards to Kate a mere six years apart.  As Bonnie said at the Senior Ceremony on May 15th, “I ended my 2008 speech saying I look forward to walking the halls of The Hill Center for years to come and looking at the George Watts Hill plaque and seeing the name of Kate Christensen.  Now, I get to see her name on the Road Less Traveled Award also.  Kate, you have already made a difference.” 


After her three years at The Hill Center, Kate attended the University of Iowa where she received the University’s Heritage Award Scholarship.   While there, she also had the opportunity to study abroad for a semester in Copenhagen Denmark before graduating in 2012 with a degree in Elementary Education.   While she says she dreamed of being a teacher from a very young age, she credits her time in college and abroad with solidifying her passion for teaching, specifically working with students with learning differences similar to her own.  Even though she had solid career aspirations very early on, Kate admits college was not always easy for her, “I have tried to never use my learning difference as an excuse for why I couldn’t do something. Yes, school could be, and was, frustrating at times but with the support of my family and the dedication of the teachers at Hill, I learned strategies to help me deal with my learning difference.”  Going from a classroom of four students at The Hill Center to a college of over 30,000 students and lectures with 200 or more students was a huge adjustment.  As she worked to adapt to these new obstacles, one of the major things she learned was how to be her own advocate. “I learned along my way that learning differently from others does not mean you are better or worse than anyone else.  It does not mean you cannot accomplish your life goals. What it does mean is you may have to try different techniques and go down different paths than your classmates.” 


As an example, she shared that studying in college was different for her compared to a lot of other students.  Where most students could study in the library with friends, Kate quickly realized that this was not productive for her and she needed to find a quiet environment where she would not be disturbed at all.  Bringing it full circle, she explained that this is still the same way she prepares for her students and plans her lessons each day now that she is a teacher.  “Find what works best for you and use it to help you become successful.”


After graduation, Kate left behind the cold Iowa winters for good and returned to Durham, NC where she became an integral part of Hill’s 2013 Summer Program.  Due to her excellent work during the summer, she was promptly offered a job as a Hill Lower School teacher for the 2013-2014 Academic Year.  When she accepted the position, she also earned the distinction of becoming the first former Hill student to become a full-time faculty member.  Happy to be back at Hill, Kate explained, “All the paths lead me back to where I first found acceptance and success.  I am beyond lucky to have spent my first year teaching at such an amazing place with even more amazing students.”


Looking back on her journey so far she realizes now how lucky she was to have attended The Hill Center as a student.  To return as a teacher and work with her beloved former teachers and students like her is just icing on the cake.  “I am humbled, honored and happy to call myself a teacher at The Hill Center.”



2013: Mike Richtsmeier

Every year, "The Road Less Traveled" Award is presented to a Hill Center alumnus who has demonstrated remarkable perseverance and is a shining example of what a confident, independent learner can achieve. This year's recipient, Mike Richtsmeier Class of 1999, embodies all these characteristics and more, and The Hill Center was honored to have him as the keynote speaker at the Senior Ceremonies on May 16th, 2013.


Mr. Richtsmeier's former teacher and tutor, Sara Gray Horne, had the privilege of introducing Mike to the audience last Friday. While Mike was her student for many years, Ms. Horne considers him more of a "pseudo-son" than a former pupil. Both she and Mike fought back tears as she reflected on their time together at Hill and the many memories they have shared since.


Like most eighth graders, Mr. Richtsmeier admits his focus was primarily on sports when he started at The Hill Center. Even Ms. Horne's earliest memory of Mike was of him holding a lacrosse stick and gushing about his favorite college, Notre Dame. Lacrosse was definitely an important part of Mike's middle and high school experience – he helped Durham Academy win four consecutive state championships – and many of the lessons he learned from playing the sport carried over to his education and later his career. Fearlessness, drive, and a focus on achieving excellence are all skills that can be attributed to his time spent on the lacrosse field and at The Hill Center. So it was not a surprise to anyone that after five years at Hill and a lot of hard work and dedication, Mike was able to achieve his ultimate goal of being accepted to his beloved Notre Dame University.


In true multi-sensory style, when Mike addressed Hill he brought along his high school backpack filled with various objects to illustrate the many facets of his life since leaving The Hill Center. While the backpack held items such as bird calls and wax for his surfboard, it also contained some of the short stories and books of poetry he now enjoys reading. Mike admitted that even he is surprised at the joy he finds in reading these days, and remarked that he has come a long way from the time when he only enjoyed reading Sports Illustrated. While he definitely made us laugh, Mike's central message to the Hill students was a serious one: embrace the importance of being well rounded, do what you love, and peruse your dreams even if the journey is difficult at times.


Today, after travels ranging from the coast of California to the woods of New Hampshire, and many locations in between, Mike is happily settled in his hometown of Milford, NY, and married to his lovely wife, Molly Streck. Having originally shied away from teaching due to a lack of confidence in his spelling, Mike remained his fearless self and pursued his dream to teach middle and high school. As a testament to the validity of that decision, Mike won the prestigious "Teacher of the Year Award" for the Milford School District in 2011. His passion and enthusiasm for teaching was evident as he spoke to Hill parents, students and the senior class.


We are very appreciative of the thoughtful message Mike presented, and embodied, during his return to The Hill Center, and we can't wait to hear what is yet to come for this year's "Road Less Traveled" honoree, Mike Richtsmeier.



2012: Alicia Markham 

The Road Less Traveled Award is given annually to the Hill alumnus who has demonstrated remarkable strength and perseverance.  This year’s recipient, Miss Alicia Markham, has chosen the road less traveled many times and it has truly made all the difference.


Alicia’s former teacher, Becky Rohn, honored this year’s winner with a touching and good humored speech. Mrs. Rohn reflected on Alicia’s struggles at Hill, from math to her outlandish tardy excuses, “I was delayed because there were workers in a man hole. I was late because there was an elderly couple rollerblading down the middle of Ridge Road, and they wouldn’t move over.”  Someone should have hinted to try the road less traveled.


Miss Markham graduated from Riverside in 1998 and earned a merit scholarship to Sweet Briar College where she double majored in history and art history, earning a Bachelor Degree with honors. This honor did not come easy either, often having to spend extra hours studying long after her roommates had left for some fun.


She graduated from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education where she earned a Master of Teaching degree.  After graduation, she moved to Winston Salem to teach AP World History at Salem Academy.


The next road she ventured down was the road to Tanzania. She received a Fulbright hays scholarship in 2011.  This scholarship is given by the US Department of Education.  During her trip, she developed a course based on her studies, and it will be available to teachers all over the country.  As part of this project she has gone to schools in Winston Salem and to Hill sharing her experiences and a few thousand photos.


Ms. Rohn presented Alicia with the award and Alicia struggled through tears to thank her family and teachers for their support. Many people in the audience shared tears with her as they listened to the emotional acceptance speech.


Hill is honored to declare Alicia Markham as the 2012 winner of the Road Less Traveled Award.  Her next road and probably not her last will start with a move to the Triangle this summer and a December wedding to David Morris.

2011: Wendy Heavner Gressett 

Wendy Heavner Gressett attended The Hill Center from 1978-1980.  Wendy is a pioneer and trail blazer because of all of the “firsts” she has achieved as a Hill Center student and alumna.  Wendy took the road less traveled from her very first experience with The Hill Center coming from South Carolina to be part of the program.  A Hill Center first for sure.  She came to Hill as a bright, enthusiastic, eager-to-learn fourth grader who struggled with reading.  Her smile was and still is infectious.  She embraced everything that was taught to her.  Although her road in secondary school was not “bump free”, she was able to earn an undergraduate degree from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  A first for her Hill Center class.


Wendy was also the first of her Hill class to become an intern in the Summer Program before going to graduate school.  Then she was the first in her Hill class to earn a Masters Degree in Education, with a focus on developing programs helping high school students who struggled with learning differences to make a successful transition from school to the work forms.


Wendy was the first alumna to become a member of The Hill Center Board of Directors.  She served from 2005 – 2011.  She continued her tradition of contributing her time and talents to Hill by chairing the first Hill Auction in 2007 which was become a successful fundraiser supporting our academic program.


A very important contribution is that Wendy’s two children have also been students at The Hill Center. Both children thrived during their time at Hill and transitioned back to their base schools as successful, independent learners.


On every front, Wendy has contributed boundless energy, vision and commitment to The Hill Center.  She continues to support Hill efforts to reach and teach more struggling learners through her work in the public school and her community networking.

2010: Tim Brower 

Tim Brower attended The Hill Center from 1977 to 1981.  After graduating high school, he went on to Guildford College.  Tim has scarcely left a stone unturned since he graduated from Guilford College in 1987, with a degree in studio art and philosophy.  From there he worked in a few art galleries in San Francisco and Minneapolis before receiving a Masters in Fine Arts in Sculpting from the Chicago Art Institute.  After graduate school, Tim opened his own art gallery in Chicago, providing exhibition space for the works of young artists.  He later closed the gallery and married Holly Greenberg, also an artist, with whom he moved to Syracuse, New York.  In a small town outside of Syracuse, Tim and Holly decided to purchase a small church built in 1831, and convert it to become their home and art studios.  Tim soon thereafter accepts a position teaching sculpting at Colgate University.


Tim and Holly renovated their home again when they had children. After all of the renovations, Tim decided to go back to school to receive a Masters Degree in Architecture. Tim is currently teaching at Syracuse University School of Design. How many Roads Less Traveled can one person take?  No journey of this proportion can be easy or come without bumps and ruts in the road but the foundation was built for him at The Hill Center.



2009: Ryan Frost  

Ryan attended The Hill Center in 11th and 12th grades, graduating from Durham Academy in 1993.  In his senior year, he was an All-state lacrosse player, co-captain of the State Championship lacrosse team and was named Athlete of the Year.  He was an honor roll student both at Hill and Durham Academy. He is an Eagle Scout, and he received the first–ever George Watts Hill student Award.  He graduated from Franklin and Marshall College where he also played Division III varsity lacrosse.  He received Masters of Science degrees in education and in athletic administration from Springfield College.  While at Springfield, Ryan served as the Offensive Coordinator for the lacrosse team for 3 years, helping them advance to the NCAA tournament twice.  For 6 years, Ryan was the Director of Middle school physical education and the head varsity lacrosse coach at The Kinkaid School in Houston, rebuilding a sagging program and leading them to the Texas final 4.


Ryan is in his second year as the Athletic director at Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire.  He and his wife Meredith have two daughters Caroline and Natalie.  His parents are Claudia and David Frost of Chapel Hill.


Ryan has maintained close ties with The Hill Center, returning to speak to student groups about college life, balancing academics and athletics and coping with learning differences.  In the acknowledgements in the opening pages of his Master’s thesis, along with his family and friends, he included the teachers at the Hill Center, thanking them for their support and guidance.  His enthusiasm as a coach is contagious.  He is constantly “in the game” with his players, encouraging them and praising their success and providing instruction for how to make the next play even better.  His players recognize his help, his encouragement, his knowledge of the game and his impact on their lives. 


Dave McCusker, the head master of Cardigan Mountain School summarizes his feelings about Ryan and the work he does at his school by saying, "When Ryan Frost arrived at Cardigan, he had the biggest possible shoes to fill.  He was replacing a beloved athletic director of 40-plus years, who is a legend in our community.  Ryan's commitment to the people, students and adults, is truly commendable.  His highest praise probably comes from his predecessor, who is unfailingly supportive of all of Ryan's efforts.  We are all fortunate to call Ryan Frost our colleague and friend."


Ryan’s story is like many of yours. He has chosen the road less traveled many times and he has truly made a difference. In 1993, when I introduced Ryan as the George Watts Hill award winner, this was said, "Ryan has high standards, high ideals and serious goals.  I have never known him to compromise any of these, and he refuses to accept less than the best from himself."  The same could be said of him today.  Holding to these high standards and never accepting less than the best of himself has required Ryan to take the road less traveled on numerous occasions.



2008: Matthew Beason 

Matthew Beason, Class of 1995 was presented with “The Road Less Traveled” award May 15, 2008.  


Attending The Hill Center from tenth to eleventh grade, Matt took English and writing. He graduated from Jordan High School in 1995 and from Kenyon College in 1999 with a degree in philosophy.  Graduating college meant that Matt had to choose a path and he made a temporary choice to wait tables.  Little did he know, this decision would turn into a career path for Matt.  He has since been a manager and/or co-owner of such Durham favorites as Nana’s, Pop’s and Rue Cler.  At these restaurants Matt has provided guests with a warm welcome, delicious food, and, when conversation would allow, high praise for The Hill Center.


Along the way, his path has been enlarged to accommodate his wife, Grace, and his dog, J.P.  Matt is currently the co-owner of Six Plates, a wine bar in Durham. While we don’t know where the road will lead Matt in years to come, we are very glad that it has led him back to us this year as the 2008 recipient of the Road Less Traveled Award.



2007: Jennifer Diliberto 

Jennifer Diliberto, class of 1991, has taken many roads less traveled, made many difficult choices, and reaped many rewards.  She attended The Hill Center from 6th through 9th grade and was described by her Hill Center teachers as a motivated, determined, and dedicated student who enjoyed the challenge of facing her learning struggles head-on and conquering them. It was in Jennifer’s early years at Hill that she took her first road less traveled, choosing not to give up on herself or to think it was someone else’s fault if she found her challenges overwhelming. She did choose to persevere, set her goals high and believe she could realize them.


After graduating from Chapel Hill High School, she went to Western Carolina University to start her journey to become a teacher. She wanted to help children become confident, independent learners like herself. Although there were many naysayers who told her she could never reach this goal, she received her degree and began her teaching career at Hickory Day School in Catawba County.


She commanded respect as a young teacher and did very well at Hickory Day School - but she had more to do and this time it was to earn a master’s degree in education at North Carolina State University. While in Raleigh, Jennifer came back to The Hill Center as she learned The Hill Center’s teaching methods in our summer program. But that is not the end of her story.  She took another road less traveled to UNC-Charlotte to earn a Ph.D., giving her the title of Dr. Diliberto.  Jennifer did her own teacher training around the state and is now working with college students as an assistant professor of special education at Greensboro College. 


She still has many roads less traveled yet to take, many more choices to make, and many more rewards to reap. She is soon to be published in the educational journal Literacy Research and Instruction with findings from her dissertation that add new data to support the importance of teaching syllabication with an article entitled “Effects of Syllabication Instruction on Reading Achievement.” Jennifer is living her dream of helping struggling students appreciate and maximize their learning styles by teaching more people to become stronger more empathetic educators. The Hill Center is very fortunate to have Jennifer Diliberto as a role model for both students and teachers.



2006: Brian D. Strahl 

Brian attended high school at The Hill Center and graduated in 1988. He was a student who made quite a transformation during his time here. He changed from a student who did not have high aspirations when he started to a student who after experiencing his success asked, "Do you think I could go to Duke when I graduate?"


Though he did not attend Duke, he went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from UNC-Greensboro and later continued onto NCSU to receive his PhD. Afterwards, Brian completed his post doctorate work at UVA. He has now returned to the Triangle and is teaching at UNC-CH in the department of bio-physics and bio-chemistry.


He has been the recipient of two notable awards from the Pew Charitable Trust Foundation (one of 15 awarded in the US) for research and a President's Award for scholarship and research. 


He has crafted a very successful career for himself and gives much credit to his time at Hill for paving the way. He is married and has three small children.



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