Addressing a crowd of 400 people might be a daunting task to some. But Sabrina Farmer, who spoke to such a group inside the Boeing Freedom Pavilion at the National WWII Museum, is used to performing under pressure. As vice president of engineering at Google, Farmer is one of the company’s few employees who has worked on every single one of Google’s products, which means she makes decisions that impact billions of people and make billions of dollars.
She was honored Thursday as the winner of the 2023 University of New Orleans Homer L. Hitt Distinguished Alumni Award at the Distinguished Alumni Gala presented by Energy and Google. Avril Habetz, managing partner for Northwestern Mutual of Louisiana and Mississippi, was named the 2023 Norma Jane Sabiston Distinguished Young Alumna of the Year. The four academic colleges and Privateer Athletics also honored distinguished alumni.
Farmer is the 40th honoree to receive the Homer L. Hitt Distinguished Alumni Award. A native of Marrero, La., she earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University. A year after graduating, she founded the Scholarship for Women in Computer Science at UNO.
“I credit UNO for everything I’ve accomplished,” said Farmer, who participated in a fireside chat-style conversation with Habetz and emcee Clancy DuBos. “I felt like UNO made a bet on me, and I felt like I needed to pay them back the entire time.”
Farmer, who said she was the first woman in her extended family to attend college, helped rewire computer labs in the computer science department as a student. It sparked an interest in problem-solving that has continued to drive her throughout her career. She said UNO provided a foundation for her professional growth that is unsurpassed.
“What I tell students now is don’t underestimate how far you can go as a UNO graduate. I have worked with people from Cal Tech, MIT, Harvard and Princeton, and let me tell you, I can totally hold my own,” Farmer said.
Habetz oversees the market development of eight district offices in two states. She began her career at Northwestern Mutual in 2007 as an executive assistant. Since then, she’s taken on greater responsibilities in various leadership roles, and, in June of 2023, she was promoted to managing partner of Louisiana and Mississippi. She encouraged recent UNO graduates to seek out both mentors and sponsors.
“The difference between a mentor and a sponsor is a sponsor is going to be an advocate for you when you’re not there,” Habetz said. “They’re going to be the person in the room when you’re not in the room to help you further the development of your career.”
• The College of Business Administration honored Joseph M. Dempsey, chief financial officer of Crescent Crown Distributing, LLC.
• The Dr. Robert A. Savoie College of Engineering honored Kimberly S. Cook-Nelson, executive vice president of nuclear operations and chief nuclear officer of Entergy.
• The College of Liberal Arts, Education and Human Development honored Jericho Brown, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and director of creative writing at Emory University.
• The College of Sciences honored Frank Juge Jr., an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Central Florida.
• Privateer Athletics posthumously honored Wayne Cooper, who played for 14 years in the NBA and served as an NBA executive for another two decades. His award was accepted by his widow, Denise.
The Distinguished Alumni Gala was also the first major alumni event attended by the University’s new president, Kathy Johnson, who assumed her role earlier this month.
“The collective contributions of alumni are the legacy of the University of New Orleans,” Johnson said. “I take such pride in learning about those being honored tonight and those that have been honored in the past. Each of you helps to influence the culture and the reputation of UNO through your actions, your advocacy and your relationships with others.”
In addition to the fireside chat, attendees were treated to a selection of poems read by Brown, who earned his MFA from UNO and has published three collections of poetry.