Bryden Alumni Awards gala celebrates the impact of York University grads

“This evening we are here to honour and celebrate four outstanding individuals who illustrate the remarkable impact and contributions that York alumni are making – not only in their own communities, but worldwide.”

These were part of the opening remarks by York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton at this year’s 17th Annual Bryden Alumni Awards.

Guests gather for a group photo at the 2017 Bryden Alumni Awards

Held on Nov. 23, in downtown Toronto at the Royal Ontario Museum, close to 300 guests filled the ROM’s elegantly decorated Currelly Gallery & Canada Court to celebrate the achievements of four noteworthy York University alumni.

York alumnus David Common

Filled with red-and-white pride, the evening was hosted by alumnus CBC Host and Correspondent David Common (BA ’99) and featured performances by accomplished violinist Sarah Davidson-Gurney (MA ’12) and dancers Andrea Valdez Levin (BFA ’13) and Rachelle Haynes (BFA ’11, MA ’14).

At York University,” Lenton said, “we graduate globally educated citizens who are successful both as individuals and as public-spirited agents of social change, as illustrated so well by tonight’s award recipients.

As each of the 2017 Bryden recipients took to the stage to accept their awards, it was apparent that, with a York University education at their foundation, they were indeed challenging the status quo; impacting and transforming not only their communities but the world at large in varied and progressive ways.

Bryden recipient Rudy Buttignol

“When I graduated, documentary filmmaking was considered a marginal activity – dismissed as a mere stepping stone to a ‘real’ job in fiction filmmaking,” said Rudy Buttignol, CM (BFA ’82), president and CEO of the Knowledge Network and recipient of the Tentanda Via award. “But the explosion of new cable and satellite television channels changed everything … in Canada at the time, there wasn’t much of an independent documentary industry to support this demand. So a group of like-minded filmmakers banded together and [we] created one.”

An innovative champion of Canadian documentary filmmaking, Buttignol, also an award-winning producer and founder of the Hot Docs Financing Forum, was recognized for his unconventional and daring leadership success and transformation of the public broadcaster Knowledge Network.

“Working at what I love every day for over four decades has been its own reward,” said Buttignol. “Being recognized by my alma mater is unexpected and very much appreciated.”

Bryden recipient Abdullah Merei

The second award of the night, “One to Watch,” was presented to Abdullah Merei (BASc ’09, MBA ’15), senior director of Compression Systems, Evertz Microsystems Ltd. A passionate lover of technology, leading the design, development and marketing of industry-changing products and solutions for major broadcasting and media networks, Merei was quick to thank his family and friends for their support.

“I cannot claim that this is just my award,” Merei said as he accepted his award. “The sacrifices and trust that my parents had in me growing up and ensuring I receive the best education possible plays a big role in who I am.”

Even while keeping busy making significant accomplishments in the media and entertainment field, Merei has never forgotten his York University roots. Eager to give back and help others succeed, in 2011 Merei created the Merei Family Scholarships (making him the youngest of Lassonde’s major donors) and regularly seizes the opportunity to act as a mentor and role model to undergraduate students.

“I was lucky enough to be able to pursue my engineering degree without worrying about tuition or other expenses. My only worry at the time was getting good grades,” Merei shared. “When I graduated and started working, I wanted to give back by helping ease the stress that tuition and other expenses bring … it is because of that, I created six yearly scholarships for students in need of financial assistance, for the top performers and for women in engineering. Engineering remains a male dominated filed and my hope is that the scholarships will help make a difference.”

Bryden recipient Colleen Johnston

An inspiring leader with a distinguished career in the finance industry spanning over 30 years, Colleen Johnston (BBA ’82) was honoured with the Outstanding Achievement award. Johnston has received numerous top industry awards including being recognized by Women’s Executive Network as one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women three years in a row, and one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking in 2011, for the third year in a row, by American Banker. When accepting her award, Johnston acknowledged the hard work, perseverance and discipline she learned at York before speaking about the importance of leadership.

“If I could help build the best teams with the very best people and make it about them and not me – the sky was the limit,” she said. “And that’s why I’m here today accepting this award – because of the incredible people who have helped me along this journey.” In closing, Johnston shared, “The years at York University were some of the most significant years of my life. The school has continued to grow and thrive and take its place on the world stage… I am proud to be a continuing member of the family.”

From left: YUAB Chair Francesca Accinelli; Vice-President Affinity Market Group, TD Insurance, Anna Kavanagh; Bryden recipient J. Mark Lievonen; and, York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

The evenings final Bryden Award recipient J. Mark Lievonen, CM (BBA ’79, MBA ’87, Hon LLD ’15), former president of Sanofi Pasteur Limited and a renowned business leader with more than 30 years of industry experience, spoke passionately about his time at York University as he accepted the Outstanding Contribution award.

“My time at York University played a pivotal role in my personal and professional development, and in fact in my life,” Lievonen said. “Among other things I learned about were the importance of education, critical thinking, leadership, mentorship, and community involvement…but most importantly, I met the wonderful woman, Lori Walters, who would become my wife on the first day of orientation at McLaughlin College in September 1975.”

Beyond his work in the biopharmaceutical industry, Lievonen has a remarkable dedication to volunteerism and has made numerous life-changing contributions to York, both through his time and expertise via numerous boards, professional partnerships and financial donations – the Outstanding Contribution Award reflects his spirit and commitment.

Before leaving the stage, Lievonen thanked York University for “an unsurpassed education, and for instilling in me, a broad and diverse outlook on life that I continue to reflect on every day.”

As the night came to a close, Francesca Accinelli, the new chair of the York University Alumni Board, reminded everyone to begin thinking of deserving alumni for the next awards ceremony. “Looking ahead to the 2018 Bryden Awards, soon we will be considering the next great alumni to recognize and we need your help – who knows? You just might see your nominee receiving a Bryden Award next year.”

If you know of a York graduate who is making an outstanding impact and deserves to be recognized with a Bryden Alumni Award, email To see more images from the evening, visit the Bryden Photo Gallery Facebook page.

A special thank you to Premier Sponsor TD Insurance. Affinity program partner providing home and car insurance for York University alumni, students, employees, and retirees.