Create Change: Health Leadership Award

The “Create Change: Health Leadership Award” was established to honor and carry forward the legacy of Mathew A. Kleiner, CU ’93. It is awarded to Cornell University students who demonstrate the courage and commitment to create change that will enhance the health of the Cornell community. The award recognizes the personal investment of time, energy, dedication, and vision that effective leadership requires. Made possible by the generosity of Matt’s family and friends, this award is administered by Cornell Health, Matt’s partners in creating change during his years at Cornell.



Cornell University students who have demonstrated a personal commitment to working for change critical to the health and well-being of the Cornell community are eligible for the award. Students must have involvement in or with two or more of the following:

  • Cornell student organization(s)
  • Residential community(ies), such as a residence hall, fraternity or sorority, or co-op
  • Health-related committee, organization, or cause (at Cornell, in the Ithaca area, in high school, or at another university)
  • Coursework related to health, psychology, communications, policy, or other relevant subject matter
  • Personal experience with a health concern (their own or that of a close friend or family member) that is of broader concern to the Cornell community

Application & selection process

Awardees will provide materials that:

  • describe a health problem/challenge of particular concern to the Cornell community
  • demonstrate ways in which the project seeks/has sought to engage others to address the problem/challenge
  • assess the impact of the project on the awardee, on other people involved, and on the community
  • identify future opportunities and challenges
  • reflect on ways in which their personal involvement as a leader and agent for change extends the impact and inspiration of the person honored by the award: Matt Kleiner

Cornell Health staff members will recommend students based on their demonstrated commitment to a project, including what they have accomplished and who (individuals and communities) they have engaged as partners and allies. The award serves to acknowledge students who have provided important leadership to improve the health of the Cornell community. 

The awardee will be selected by the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives. 


Recipients will receive a financial award in recognition of the personal investment of time, energy, dedication, and vision that effective leadership requires. 

Mathew A. Kleiner, CU '1993

When Matt Kleiner came to Cornell in 1989, he was, in many ways, a “typical Cornell student.” Successfully launched from his childhood in Queens, New York by a strong and loving family, he came to Cornell with academic qualifications, professional ambitions, and personal aspirations. Matt lived on west campus, played intramural sports, served as an RA, was a successful “pre-law” student, and had lots of friends.

But no one who knew Matt well would have called him “typical.” He was uniquely funny, generous, gregarious, idealistic, political, passionate, loyal, and caring. He was also HIV+ at a time when fear, ignorance, prejudice, and discrimination made it difficult for many people to speak about, learn about, or do anything about AIDS. Matt kept his secret for his first two years at Cornell: two years during which he saw (too many times) his peers, even his friends, taking risks with their sexual health; two years during which he heard (too many times) the assumptions that friends and strangers alike made: “AIDS doesn’t happen to people like us.”

When Matt was a junior, something remarkable happened – a convergence of the values with which he'd been raised, the support of an extraordinary group of friends, frustration at silence and denial in the face of a growing epidemic, and a sense of personal mission. Matt broke his silence. He talked with friends, teachers, teammates, and co-workers. He spoke with administrators, custodians, health care providers, and counselors.

Working in partnership with the former health promotion department (now Cornell Health's Skorton Center for Health Initiatives), he conducted dozens of workshops and classes reaching thousands of Cornell students, staff, faculty, and members of the local community. He wrote articles for the Cornell Daily Sun. He helped train sexual health educators, peer counselors, and resident advisors. He was the teaching assistant for a class on AIDS and Society and the student leader of Cornell AIDS Action. He spent endless hours helping to create strategies and policies for addressing AIDS-related issues on campus. He changed the culture of Cornell.

His matter-of-fact approach, comedian's timing, sex-educator's frankness, counselor's sensitivity, insider's knowledge of Cornell student life, and occasional well-placed impatience made him an extraordinary educator. He resisted the temptation to make his programs just about him, always preferring to work with partners. Matt refused to allow his audiences the distance, comfort, or pity that might have come with casting him as "innocent victim." Pushing people to consider their own assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors, he often was intentionally ambiguous about his sexual orientation and the source of his infection. A heterosexual man and hemophiliac who became infected through a blood transfusion he received as a teenager, Matt fought just as hard against homophobia and sexism as he did for personal and social change on a campus, in a world living with HIV.

Matt graduated from Cornell in 1993 and continued his work as an AIDS educator and activist while a student at New York University law school. Even during the years he worked as an assistant district attorney in the appeals bureau of the Manhattan district attorney's office, even as his health faltered, Matt made time to speak to a wide variety of audiences about HIV infection, protected sex, and the particular concerns of hemophiliacs exposed to the virus that causes AIDS.

Matt was never a single-minded activist. His greatest passions were for his friends, his family, and his wife, Jennifer Butler Kleiner. Loving, supportive partners to each other in more ways than most couples experience over decades, Jenny and Matt fulfilled their deepest dream of having their own family: their triplets, Abigail, Samuel and Megan, were born on January 1, 2003.

Matt lived with HIV for more than half his life. He lived and fought with AIDS for seven years. Matt died on February 27, 2003, leaving all those who loved and admired him bereft and, simultaneously, enlivened by the ways in which he inspired and changed us.

Matt’s family and friends have established the Matthew A. Kleiner Create Change: Health Leadership Award at Cornell University to honor Matt and to ensure that people will continue to be inspired and changed by this special man. Acknowledging the impact one courageous human being can have, the award in Matt’s name will support Cornell students who demonstrate a personal commitment to working for change. The award will be given on a regular basis (as funds allow) to a student who has the leadership skills or potential to engage others, as Matt did, in creating healthier, safer, more compassionate and caring lives and communities.

Cornell Health is privileged to administer this award in the spirit of Matt Kleiner whose leadership was central in our efforts to raise awareness, reduce fear and prejudice, provide clear information, implement policies, and create change during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. In remembering the story of Matt’s impact on this community and telling it to future generations of student leaders, we know Matt will continue to inspire change for a better, healthier world.