2023 Cougar Servant Leadership Awards

The Cougar Servant Leadership Awards are presented to leaders with tremendous dedication, exceptional service, and outstanding leadership that have helped transform Chicago and Illinois. The categories recognized are Education Equity, Public Service, Alumni Achievement. A Corporate Champion Award is also presented to recognize our committed corporate partners transforming the lives of CSU students. 

The following awardees were honored at the annual 1stGEN Scholarship Gala: Elevate, presented by BMO, on Friday, October 6, 2023. 


Spark Foundry is a global media agency brand within Publicis Media, a key division of Publicis Groupe. Spark Foundry harnesses a startup spirit with a powerhouse soul by combining an entrepreneurial, innovative business approach with the resources, capabilities, and marketplace reach of Publicis Media, Ad Age’s 2023 “Agency Network of the Year.” The agency leverages best-in-class industry talent in over 50 countries across the world, including the USA, UK, MENA, Poland, Australia, and China. Spark Foundry has received numerous industry accolades, including Ad Age's 2022 "Media Agency of the Year,” Adweek's 2022 "U.S. Media Agency of the Year,” and a shortlist for Campaign US’s 2023 “Media Agency of the Year.” 

Leo Burnett is a creative solutions company founded on the idea that "what helps people helps business." By solving human problems with the power of creativity, Leo Burnett delivers value for people and prosperity for brands. To learn more about Leo Burnett and its rich, 88-year history, visit LeoBurnett.com.

CSU has benefited greatly from partnership with Spark Foundry and Leo Burnett, including pro bono support for the rebranding of the University as well as scholarships for CSU students who have a desire to learn and experience the career paths available within the advertising industry.


Karen Freeman-Wilson of Chicago Urban League brings a passion for equity and social justice to her work advancing economic, educational, and social progress for African Americans through direct service and advocacy. Having served in the public arena most of her professional life, Freeman-Wilson has deep experience in addressing issues that impact urban communities, including but not limited to being the first female to lead Gary, Indiana as Mayor, and being the first Black female mayor in Indiana, before moving to Chicago to impact change here.

BannerAfter ten years in corporate America, Liz Thompson of Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education Group (CAFE Group) shifted gears as the founding executive director of City Year Chicago in the early 1990’s before moving to Denver to lead a multi-million dollar expansion of an early childhood education school. Her passion for philanthropy and education grew, pursuing board leadership at several nonprofits. Today, Thompson leads the CAFE Group, providing financial and programmatic support to Leaders of Color whose proximity to current and historical challenges in education allows them to influence philanthropic decisions and create meaningful and relevant solutions designed to catalyze lasting systemic change. 

BannerThe Latino Policy Forum is the only organization in the Chicago area that facilitates the involvement of Latinos at all levels of public decision-making. Its goals are to improve education outcomes, advocate for affordable housing, promote just immigration policies, and strengthen leadership within the community. The Forum analyzes to inform, influence and lead, understanding that advancing Latinos advances a shared future. 

BannerDr. Cheryl D. Watkins of Monarch Education Consultants, LLC,  is an alumna of Chicago State University and an award-winning educator who rose through the ranks during her career with the Chicago Public Schools over three decades. She served as a teacher, professional development leader, assistant principal, principal, instructional support leader, deputy chief of schools before retiring, as chief of schools. In this role she provided educational leadership and instructional support to more than 70 principals and assistant principals, as well as more than 700 teachers, on the south, far south and southeast sides of the city. In 2020, Dr. Watkins founded Monarch Education Consultants, LLC, to provide consultation to districts and individual schools to improve instruction and academic achievement.