Western Oregon University Announces Recipients of Alumni Excellence Award

Top left: Dr. Gustavo Balderas, Ph.D., bottom left: Mark Zook, right: Katherine Cook

Monmouth, Ore.  – Western Oregon University is proud to announce the recipients of the prestigious Outstanding Alumni Awards for 2023. Since 1985, Western has selected one award recipient, however starting this year, additional honorees were added to recognize the many accomplishments of our graduates. Awards include  the Alumni Award for Service to Community, the Alumni Award for Professional Achievement, and the Service to Western Oregon University Award. 

These awards recognize alumni who have made significant contributions to their professions, communities, and to the university itself. These exceptional individuals embody the spirit of excellence that Western Oregon University holds dear.

This year’s honorees are:

Gustavo Balderas, Ph.D. ‘90 is receiving the 2023 Alumni Award for Professional Achievement.

Balderas has been an educator for 34 years and a school superintendent for 13 of those years in three states.  He has been named National Superintendent of the Year by the National Superintendent Association, the National Bilingual Association, and Oregon Superintendent of the Year.  Balderas is also the President of the National Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents as well as president-elect of The National School Superintendents Association.  Nearly 21 years ago, he also co-founded the Oregon Association of Latino Administrators.

Balderas shares that he is most proud of the work done during his time as a school superintendent, specifically in the areas of promoting equity and disrupting systems to create new ones that create greater access and opportunity for all students. He adds that when he worked as the Superintendent in the Eugene School District, they increased the graduation rate by 18 percentage points, closed gaps, and increased Black/African American graduation rates by 31 percent, Latino graduation rates by 29 percent, and students in special programs by 27 percent. 

Balderas holds a Doctor of Educational Leadership from the University of Oregon, a Master of Science in Curriculum and Instruction from Portland State University, and a Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education/Interdisciplinary Studies from Western Oregon University. 

“Dr. Balderas has spent his career dedicated to educating our youth, promoting equity and inclusion, and creating systems that provide greater access and opportunity for all students,” said Doug Ladd, president of Western’s Alumni Board of Directors. “His professional achievements have made a large impact in the school districts he has served, and we look forward to seeing more youth benefit from his work in the educational system.” 

Katherine Cook ‘02 is receiving the Alumni Award of Excellence.

Cook is proud of her career path, emphasizing that she didn’t take shortcuts and faced many challenges with faith and hope. She started out as a solo journalist in Southern Oregon, gradually progressing to becoming a weekend anchor and reporter in Medford. Later, she worked in Colorado Springs, where collaboration with a photographer improved her storytelling. Then, Cook landed her dream job at KGW in Portland, where she’s worked for 16 years, impacting lives through journalism.

Cook has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a recent regional Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Writing and a Northwest regional Emmy for Best Reporter in 2022. She’s also received an Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, received a Feature News Report from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, received a Mark Twain Award for featured reporting from the Western Regional Associated Press, and was named Most Memorable Portland Media Stars of All Time by the Oregonian. Cook holds a Bachelor of Arts in Speech Communication from Western Oregon University and is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Cook also values giving back and volunteers with organizations such as Medical Teams International and at her church. She also delivered the commencement address at Western in 2009 and emceed the Western Athletics Auction fundraiser from 2010 to 2019. Cook emphasizes the importance of mentoring others, inspired by her own mentors.

“Katherine exemplifies everything we hope our alumni can achieve. She is an award-winning journalist and engaged in her community. Through her journalism she has inspired, given hope, made a difference in the lives of others, and brought joy to her community,” said Doug Ladd. “What impressed the selection committee most however was her willingness to give back to Western with her time and talents. She has done great things in her career and we are excited to see what her future holds as well as continuing her relationship with Western.” 

Mark Zook ‘89 is receiving the Service to Community Award.

Zook is currently the President & Chief Executive Officer, Chief Credit Officer of Marion & Polk Schools Maps Credit Union, which is a 1.3 billion dollar community-chartered credit union serving 75,000 members living or working in eight counties in the Willamette Valley.  

For the Zook family, Western is their family university with Mark’s father, sister, and nephew as alumni. His 14-year-old daughter plans to attend Western as well. For the last 15 years, Zook has been the CEO of Maps Credit Union in Salem, Oregon. His career at Maps has spanned 31 years and prior to becoming the CEO of the Credit Union, he was responsible for the operations of the Credit Union and was the CEO of MSA, Maps Credit Union’s holding company. 

Zook is most proud of the organization he’s created at Maps.  They employ approximately 325 people and serve close to 80,000 members in the mid-Willamette Valley.  They are known as a welcoming place to work and as an innovator in financial services. Those who know Zook in the industry would say that he is an innovative leader.  As the CEO of MSA (and carrying through as CEO of Maps), he realized he had a knack for building companies and founding or co-founding many new companies in the credit union world that have now grown into key providers in the space.  These companies include Advanced Reporting, Evergreen Armored Transport, CU Benefits Alliance, Maps Insurance Services, Ongoing Operations, CUW, CU Equipment Finance, CU Capital Management, and Painted Hills.

Maps is recognized by the industry for its work in creating a stronger credit union system. Their subsidiaries have been honored by the NACUSO trade association twice.  First for the creation of CU Benefits Alliance as a “New Company of the Year” in 2014 and “Credit Union of the Year” in 2018. 

Zooks has served in several capacities for Western as an alumnus.  He served on the Western Alumni Board in the mid-1990s, served on the Western Education Consortium Board for six years under Hilda Rosselli Ph.D., former Dean of the College of Education at Western, and served on the Western Budget and Finance Committees for several years under Mark Weiss and John Minahan.

Community service is a significant aspect of Zook’s life, with a notable highlight being the co-founder of the World Ocean School in Boston, where he served as director for 16 years. He is currently involved in several organizations, including the Salem Health Board of Trustees and the Oregon Community Foundation’s Mid-Valley Leadership Council. Zook has also served on various committees and boards, such as the Salem Keizer School District, the Willamette Education Service District, the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Salem Keizer Education Foundation, among others.

In 2011, he established the Maps Community Foundation, dedicated to promoting financial literacy, community vibrancy, and economic empowerment in the Mid-Willamette Valley. This foundation contributes approximately $500,000 annually to support scholarships, community impact projects, financial education, and disaster relief activities in the region, benefiting organizations including the WOU Foundation.

Additionally, Zook is actively engaged in the credit union industry, serving or having served on several industry partner organizations, trade associations (NACUSO and the Go West Association), business partners (Ongoing Operations, Trellance, and NBS), and the boards of start-up organizations aimed at serving specific niches within the credit union sector.

Zook holds a Master of Science in Educational Leadership from the University of Oregon, a Master of Science in Business Administration from Southern Oregon University, and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Western Oregon University. He also has advanced education in Executive  Bank Management from Emory University, and a Vineyard Operations Certificate from the Northwest Wine Studies Center at Chemeketa Community College.

“Mark is a leader within the financial industry and is committed to serving his community, including his time as a volunteer board member at Western,” said Doug Ladd. “Mark has continued to inspire innovation within his industry and makes community service a priority in his career. We know that Mark’s dedication to community service will continue to make a difference in many lives for years to come.”

Western Oregon University takes great pride in the accomplishments of its graduates, and these awards are a testament to the enduring impact of an education from Western. The university extends its heartfelt congratulations to these award recipients for their remarkable achievements and contributions to their respective fields and communities.


The Western Oregon University Foundation was founded in 1965 and is the fundraising arm of Western Oregon University. A nonprofit corporation, governed by a volunteer Board of Trustees with IRS 501(c)3 status, the WOU Foundation’s scholarship program includes more than 250 donor-funded scholarships. In addition, the foundation manages nearly 300 funds for academic and student programs. As of 2023, the WOU Foundation has approximately $26 million in assets and a permanent endowment of $22 million.

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