Alumni Achievement Awards

Recognizing Outstanding Alumni

A cornerstone Dakota Days event, the Unleash Your Legacy Alumni Achievement Awards celebrates outstanding alumni for their personal and professional achievements, service within their communities and loyalty to USD. Honorees are recognized in four categories: Emerging Leader, Service to the University, Public Service and Professional Achievement.

Nominations are now open!

The USD Foundation & Alumni Association is now accepting nominations for the 2024 Alumni Achievement Awards. Click the button below to submit your nomination by June 7 at 11:59 p.m. Recipients will be announced this summer.


EMERGING LEADER: Recognition will honor an alum who best exemplifies leadership in public service or professional accomplishment. Eligible nominees include alumni who have graduated from USD within the past 10 years.

SERVICE TO THE UNIVERSITY: Recognition will honor an alum who best demonstrates a unique contribution and sustained service that will leave a lasting impact on the university community, whether through employment, public service, organization leadership or a combination of considerations.

PUBLIC SERVICE: Recognition will honor an alum who best exemplifies leadership in public service or community service in the spirit of volunteerism. Consideration for this category is based on the breadth and depth of the service and in the context of the commitment to lifelong service engagement.

PROFESSIONAL ACHIEVEMENT: Recognition will honor an alum’s record of professional and career service at the local, state, national or international level. This award honors an alum who has distinguished himself or herself through meritorious service to the profession itself and/or society through demonstrating the university’s liberal arts values such as critical thinking, diversity and inclusion, and communication.

Meet the 2023 Recipients

Award recipients were recognized at the Unleash Your Legacy reception and Alumni Achievement Awards ceremony on Friday, October 6, 2023, during the 108th Dakota Days.

Melissa Dittberner, Ph.D. ’12, ’14, ’18 – Emerging Leader

Dr. Melissa Dittberner, or “Dr. Mo” to anyone who knows her, is a self-proclaimed lifelong learner with a passion for addiction studies, people and making the world a better place. She received her bachelor’s, master’s and Doctor of Philosophy degrees at USD, where she currently teaches students about the importance of addiction, counseling and prevention in health sciences. With over 10 years of experience in addiction studies, harm reduction and grant evaluation, Dr. Dittberner is also the co-founder and CEO of Straight Up Care, a virtual platform that connects peer supports to those in recovery from the impacts of addiction and mental health.

Driven by her own lived experiences, Dr. Mo actively researches college substance use, adult pedagogy and telehealth technology with one mission in mind: to help people learn to help themselves.

Vance Thompson, M.D. ’82, ’86 – Professional Achievement

A Gregory, South Dakota native, Vance Thompson, MD has been practicing laser vision correction (LASIK) and cataract surgery in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the state he grew up in, since 1991. Dr. Thompson is also a Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine. After receiving his bachelor’s in Chemistry and Doctor of Medicine degrees at USD, Thompson completed his ophthalmology residency at the University of Missouri, followed by a Corneal and Refractive Surgery Fellowship at Hunkeler Eye Clinic in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the founder of Vance Thompson Vision a 6 state, 7 practice comprehensive anterior segment practice spanning across the upper Midwest.

Dr. Thompson has had the honor of being involved at the beginning of many eye surgery technologies worldwide. He has been a leading international researcher and principal investigator in over 100 FDA-monitored clinical trials on advanced eye surgery. He has performed over 110,000 eye surgeries helping people from all around the world.

Dr. Thompson has been the chairman of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS) Refractive Surgery Committee and serves on the executive committee of the ASCRS as Vice President/President Elect. He will be inducted as president of the ASCRS in Boston this spring. He is a prolific writer and teacher of Cataract Implant and Refractive Laser Eye Surgery. He has numerous publications and book chapters, including being a co-editor of the textbook Refractive Surgery. Dr. Thompson lectures and teaches throughout the world on advanced eye surgery techniques and technologies.

Nancy Gallagher ’77 – Service to the University

Nancy Gallagher has long been a supporter, volunteer and advocate for student success at USD. Having grown up in Yankton, South Dakota, Gallagher stayed close and received her bachelor’s degree in business management in 1977 from USD, starting a lifelong connection to the Coyotes. For more than four decades, Nancy and her husband, Tom, have dedicated their lives to ensuring students at USD have the ability and opportunities to reach their full potential.

From co-chairing the comprehensive capital campaign -- Onward -- to establishing the International Opportunity Fund, Gallagher has unwaveringly shown her dedication to student success through her service, leadership and generosity. In addition to financial contributions to the university through many channels, her involvement in programs, like Women in Philanthropy and as a Board of Trustees member for the University of South Dakota Foundation, has made her a driving force in some of the university’s latest and greatest achievements.

Matt Michels ’80, ’82, ’85 – Public Service

Matt Michels, a Vermillion native, has always had an intense desire to serve others. Michels attended USD where he worked as an orderly and EMT and earned a nursing degree in 1980. He then worked as a nurse while he obtained his bachelor’s of science degree in health services administration in 1982 and his juris doctorate in 1985. He went on to be a commissioned United States Naval Officer, spending time in both the Philippines and Florida, before marrying Pierre native, Karen Lindbloom, and coming back to South Dakota.

Michels joined a Yankton law practice with Don Bierle where he practiced health care and hospital law along with other aspects of legal services to individuals and nonprofit organizations. For the past 30 years he has also served on the board of Lewis and Clark Behavior Health Services and the Yankton Housing Commission.

In addition, Michels was honored to represent District 18 as a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives from 1999-2006. Having served as both the Speaker Pro Tempore and Speaker of the House, Michels holds the distinction of being the longest serving Legislative Presiding Officer in South Dakota history.

Matt ended his career in elected office by serving as South Dakota's 38th Lt. Governor from 2011-2019 alongside Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

The Cash Family – Legacy Family of the Year

The Cash family, made up of four generations of Coyotes, began their USD journey in 1898 with first generation student Theodore Halla, who enrolled in the University's five-year prep school and graduated in 1903 with Bachelor of Commerce degree. He returned to USD to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, including one year of law, in 1923. He earned his JD, then designated an LLB, from USD School of Law in 1935, becoming the first of four generations of this family to attend USD's law school.

With roots planted, daughter Margaret Halla Cash Wegner and her late husband Dr. Joseph Cash each acquired bachelors and Master of Arts from USD, leading to what became a lifelong connection to South Dakota, the university, and its history and traditions. Both Margaret and Joe were dedicated Greek life members, spending many years during and after college supporting Alpha Phi and Phi Delt. Dr. Cash joined the USD faculty in 1968 as a history professor and became the first USD graduate ever to be named Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, a position he held for ten of the 23 years he spent on campus. Margaret devoted decades of service to the Alpha Phi House Corporation, USD Faculty Woman’s Club and USD Foundation.

Being Vermillion residents, the Cash children spent their childhood involved in USD activities – from the USD Pup Club and mowing the Alpha Phi lawn, to marching in Dakota Days parades and attending any USD sporting event they could. While attending USD, Joseph, Sheridan (Robert Anderson) and Meredith found their success in various corners of campus. Joe later became an assistant professor in the USD Medical School. Well-known and respected across the state, the Cash family continues to represent the South Dakota legal system with fourth generation Cash Anderson, the most recent USD law school graduate. In addition, both Sheridan Cash Anderson and Robert Anderson have recently received the USD law school’s McKusick Award, a high honor that was also bestowed on Sheridan’s other Grandfather, Judge J.R. Cash, shortly after its inception many years ago.

Following the deaths of Dr. Joseph H. Cash and Dr. Joseph Mark Cash, the Cash family established the Joseph M. Cash MD and Joseph H. Cash PhD Scholarship, a four-year academic scholarship; the Dean Joseph H. Cash Award for Excellence in Writing, given yearly to three students of the College of Arts and Sciences for the best original papers submitted in any of its departments as judged by a committee of professors; and the Joseph H. Cash Memorial Programming Fund Endowment that supports the annual Cash Lecture, an enrichment open to students, faculty and the public dealing with topics concerning South Dakota history, the Native American tribes within its boundaries, or with mining history.

The Cash family fiercely supports everything USD stands for. Their commitment to the state, the university, and the success of its students is evident in everything they do.