Two Alumni Honored With Needham High School George Dennett Distinguished Career Award

Brenda Gael McSweeney. Photo by Kassia Karr
Brenda Gael McSweeney. Photo by Kassia Karr

Today two Needham High School alumni received the George Dennett Distinguished Career Award.

Brenda Gael McSweeney, Class of 1961 and Kunal Shah, Class of 2000 were selected because of their significant contributions in a variety of business and creative settings. McSweeney is a faculty member and scholar at Boston and Brandeis Universities while Shah is group manager of rentals at Zillow.

When contacted by the Needham High Achievement Award Committee, Shah felt sheepish about being nominated because he is at the beginning of his career. He responded in large part because he knew how proud his parents would be; Kunal’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from India and when they were ready to have children they researched where to live based solely on the quality of the area school system. They debated different professional opportunities and bigger houses, but when his mom learned about the Needham schools, she declared the search over.

Shah graduated from Needham High School in 2000 and then earned his Bachelor’s of Science with honors in IT and new media from Rochester Institute of Technology. After graduating from college, Shah lived in New York City where he ran the technical side of the website CollegeHumor, and even had a bit part on The CollegeHumor Show on MTV where he played the “IT guy” before the show was canceled.

While at Needham High, Shah played on the tennis team and was a member of the chess team.  He also served as co-editor in chief of the school newspaper, and contributed to a non-school sanctioned, student-published humor magazine. In hindsight, Shah recalls that he could have done better in school.

“[I was a] painfully underachieving student, who played out stereotypical teenage rebellion --constantly fighting with [my] parents, skipping classes and ignoring homework. Senior year, [I] got kicked off the tennis team for failing a semester of stats class.”  

Despite this tumultuous time, which he doesn’t, by the way, recommend, Kunal learned that most high school mistakes are not permanent.  He feels fortunate to have had a top caliber high school education, and is appreciative that NHS did an incredible job of preparing him for the days when he started “actually working hard.”

Throughout his career, Kunal has been involved with several startups in an advisory role and has made seed investments in companies that he thinks are bound for greatness. Currently, he sits on the board of a bay area startup called Imgix, and to give back to the community, he also volunteers with a nonprofit called Reading Partners where he works one-on-one with elementary school students that are falling behind in their reading abilities.  

His advice to NHS students today is  to keep making yourself uncomfortable and try new experiences, new places, new people, and be ravenously curious.

Shah now lives in San Francisco.

Dr. Brenda Gael McSweeney remembers her years at Needham High School as a time when she was “active, engaged, studious… harried!” In some ways, life hasn’t changed much.

Since graduating, she has kept up the same intensity and committed herself with the same passion to both her work and her community. McSweeney’s career has been devoted to promoting social and gender equality. She spent 30 years working for the United Nations Development Programme, working around the world on pro-poor community based initiatives and policies that boosted people-centered development and gender equity, and then in 2003, was designated the first-ever visiting scholar at Boston University’s Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, where she has taught for a decade. She also is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. Despite her academic responsibilities at two prestigious universities, she finds time to volunteer in her community.

Looking back, McSweeney remembers truly enjoying her time at Needham High.  She was involved in a variety of organizations including the Junior Classical League, Library Club, Glee Club, Choraleers, Yearbook committee, the Ski Club and the Candy Cane service club. As a member of these groups, she recalls learning how to be a leader and work as a team, as well as how to produce outstanding work within critical deadlines while maintaining good humor.  

An NHS staff member who had particular influence on McSweeney was Mr. Muir, her Latin teacher.  He imparted a love of languages and curiosity about other cultures that influenced McSweeney’s decision to work in places around the globe.  In fact, McSweeney believes that her overall experience at Needham High supported her to be a serious student with a global vision.

Upon graduating third in her class at NHS in 1961, she attended Smith College where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history, and later was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Paris. She also received a Master’s and Doctorate from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts University).

McSweeney has published numerous books and articles on gender equality issues and is actively involved in several organizations related to her career and community, including  the Advisory Board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Network of Chairs on Gender, Council of Advisors Unbound Visual Arts, Allston-Brighton Historical Society, Board of Directors and founding chairperson of the Women’s History Group.  Throughout her career, McSweeney received governmental honors for her work with the United Nations, as well as academic honors. Most recently, she was designated a “Legendary Local” of Allston-Brighton.

Given her lifetime commitment to education and advocacy, it is no surprise what McSweeney’s message to students is.

“Think about social justice all along the way: each of you can make a powerful difference,” she said. “Encourage and make space for the shy classmates - everyone has an interesting viewpoint, from which all can mutually learn. Dream big: then make it happen!”

In 1990, Needham High School established the George Dennett Distinguished Career Award as a way to connect accomplished NHS graduates with NHS juniors who are beginning to think about higher education and career choices after high school. It was named after NHS’s long-time teacher, coach and award architect. Every year the Distinguished Career Award Committee solicits nominations of alumni who have graduated at least 10 years prior to the award date who have made significant contributions in a variety of business and creative settings.

Past recipients include Charles Baker (’75), past president/CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare and 2010 gubernatorial candidate; James S. Gracey (’45), admiral, U.S. Coast Guard (Ret.); Jeff Taylor (‘78), founder and former CEO of Monster.com; Bert Jacobs (’83) and John Jacobs (’86), co-owners/founders Live is good, Inc.; and Sunita L. (Pandya) Williams (’83), NASA astronaut and naval aviator.

Award recipients are honored at an awards ceremony every October.  In attendance are faculty, community leaders, family, friends and the current junior class.  Award recipients are then recognized by the Superintendent of Schools and NHS principal at a lunch reception hosted in their honor.


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