April 4, 2012

Five SUNY Empire State College Students Earn 2012 Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence

Anita Brown (Green Island), Vicki Haas (North Collins), Kevin Lawson (East Bethany), Carolyn Polikarpus (Ghent) and Ryan Smithson (Schenectady) are 2012 honorees.

(ALBANY, N.Y. – April 4, 2012) Five State University of New York Empire State College adult learners were among those honored by SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher, who presented them with the 2012 Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence at the Empire State Plaza in Albany on Wednesday, April 4.

This year’s SUNY Empire State College honorees are Anita Brown (Green Island), Vicki Haas (North Collins), Kevin Lawson (East Bethany) , Carolyn Polikarpus (Ghent) and Ryan Smithson (Schenectady).

“The students we honor today have taken full advantage of the academic and extracurricular programs that SUNY provides both in the classroom and in the community,” said Zimpher. “These proven leaders, athletes, artists, and civic volunteers truly represent the power of SUNY. I congratulate all of the students being recognized today and thank them for the positive impact each has had on New York state, our university system and the communities we serve.”

“The academic achievements of our students are even more remarkable when their contributions to their communities and the demands of life are factored in,” said college President Alan R. Davis at a Saratoga Springs event prior to the Albany ceremony. “I join Chancellor Zimpher in praising their accomplishments and I am grateful to all at the college who support learning, and their faculty mentors in particular.”

Davis also pointed out that this year’s recipients reflect the different modes of learning at the college, face-to-face and online, and reflect the intellectual, social and geographic diversity of the college’s adult learners.

Selections are made after a rigorous multi-step selection process that evaluates the integration of a student’s academic performance with activities such as community service, leadership, athletics and/or high achievement in a career or the creative or performing arts.

More than 300 students from SUNY campuses across the state were honored.

Anita Brown 2012 Chancellor's Award Winner Center for Distance Learning BA interdisciplinary visual arts

Anita Brown, 2012 Chancellor's Award Winner

About Anita Brown

Anita Brown, of Green Island, a Center for Distance Learning student who earned a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in the visual arts, has been vice president of the Board of Education in the Green Island Union Free School District since 2003, and a board member since 1999, demonstrating exemplary leadership in her community at the same time as she both pursued academic goals and, with her husband, raised two daughters and cares for a mother battling breast cancer and a father with a seizure disorder.

Brown had earned an associate degree in 1986, then studied part time, before getting married and having children, which she and her husband agreed would be their highest priority. She stopped taking classes while she raised her children, though always knew she eventually would return to college. When her oldest daughter graduated from high school and her youngest began, she says, “I knew it was my time and I started looking at distance-learning programs through the State University of New York because I trusted the SUNY brand. That’s how I found Empire State College.”

Her first online class was with CDL Dean Tom Mackey, an introduction to digital storytelling. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “It made me feel like, ‘yes, I can do a photography business.’” Propelled by the experience, she has taken 20 classes in two years. Her professors describe her as a “student that turns theoretical and cultural learning into practical knowledge, which she applies to her community service.”

Except for one in-classroom course at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Brown’s studies were all online, which she appreciated for providing a way for her to interact with people with whom she otherwise would not have had contact.

“I took Italian with a professor based in Florence,” she notes. “I was in regular contact with students in Italy, Germany, all over the U.S., the Middle East – it enhanced overall learning and was a chance to learn about other perspectives.”

Now, Brown works full time at RPI in the career services office and also is an accomplished photographer who established her own business, Your Moments Photography, which she plans to grow. Seeking a way to contribute to her community as an artist, Brown photographed members of a Catholic Youth Organization basketball team and is donating 10 percent of the profits from sales of the photos to the Green Island Food Pantry. Leveraging her talents on behalf of charity, she also is holding a thank-you event featuring complimentary photo sessions of service members who have seen combat; is a volunteer photographer for Shoots for a Cure (photo sessions at no charge for cancer patients); and volunteers for the Family Photo Day in her community as a fundraiser for the yearbook.

“I do photography because I love it and it’s my side business,” she says, “but, I also understand that there are people in need and those we should thank, and I don’t know another way to do it.”

She recalls photographing a soldier who was on his way to Afghanistan, and how pleased she was to gift him with a small album of photos to take on his tour of duty.

Additionally, she was the founder of her community’s athletic booster club, which she now serves as secretary, initiated an Athlete of the Month program and volunteers for the Green Island Food Pantry.

Brown has been a team leader and Relay for Life Committee member for the American Cancer Society since 2005, working in fundraising. As one of her activities for the ACS this year, she is creating a video for the Survivors’ Ceremony, which will include photos submitted to honor or remember cancer patients and their caregivers.

At the college, she has been a member of Student Activity Fee Committee, reviewing proposals from students and alumni around the state; was a panelist at the Student Activity Conference in 2011, discussing her experiences as a CDL student; and was a co-presenter with CDL Dean Tom Mackey at the CDL Conference in Saratoga Springs.

She considers her ability to balance family, academic, professional and civic commitments her greatest accomplishment, though she admits that it sometimes has been overwhelming.

"Through Empire State College, I learned what I want to be,” Brown says. “I plan to go on and get a master’s degree in teaching so that I can teach at a community college or through the Center for Distance Learning. I know there are lots of people in the same boat I was in and I want them to finish, the way I did.”

She opted out of a prior-learning assessment because, she says, she wanted formal reinforcement of her knowledge through readings, discussions, interaction with professors and the opportunity to do guided research.

“Getting my bachelor’s degree done was my bucket list,” she concludes.

About Vicki Haas

Vikki Haas 2012 Chancellor's Award Winner Niagara Frontier Center BS Business, Management and Economics with a concentration in business studies

Vikki Haas, 2012 Chancellor's Award Winner


Vicki Haas graduated from the Niagara Frontier Center with a Bachelor of Science in Business, Management and Economics with a concentration in business studies. She was the recipient in 2011 of the C. Penn Wettlauffer Scholarship for achievement of academic excellence in the final year of her degree program.

As a student, Haas coordinated and facilitated the college’s first-ever Harvard case study course in strategic management as part of her degree program. The model included student-generated collaborative documents, discussion boards, presentations and both face-to-face and teleconference meetings at the business residency program, where she was student ambassador.

She also has worked with students to complete orientation in the ANGEL online learning environment, as well as provided general technical and academic assistance relating to their studies. She is in the process of creating a help desk for students.

“I love teaching and helping people to find easier ways to do things,” she says.

In addition to her responsibilities as a student, Haas is the owner of Haas Management Company, established to educate citizens about the dangers of radon gas, a leading cause of lung cancer. Starting as a small company that provided outreach and education in schools and through public officials, HMC has grown into a full-service woman-owned business with state-of-the-art electronic monitoring equipment. She is the only woman performing radon testing in the Western New York area. From 2007-2010, she provided technical assistance through the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning for 39 municipalities regarding regional storm water, local laws and permanent funding mechanisms for storm-management programs. She decided to return to school when she realized that in order to advance in management, she would need a bachelor’s degree.

“It has worked out better than I ever could have imagined,” she says. “I had known for years that I wanted to go to Empire State College, and had been taking one course at a time, as well as documenting all of my accomplishments that could be evaluated for prior-learning credit.”

When budget cuts forced a layoff, she took the opportunity to return to school full time.

“One thing that’s been important is that professors have asked me to do something outside my comfort zone, and that’s opened doors for me. I came in wanting to study business, and suddenly I am studying Western civilization and history – I enjoy every aspect of it.”

Additionally, Haas has been involved in public outreach and education for adults returning to college; advocated for the “go green” initiative at the business residency program; and is part of the planning committee for the 2012 Student Academic Conference.

She also has been co-chair of the Western New York Earth Day Family Expo, Inc., a nonprofit organization created to inform and inspire the community to protect and enhance the environment. She designed a website for the event and created a Facebook presence, and is active in all facets of this volunteer organization, from membership meetings to an event at the Buffalo Zoo, an effort that requires working with 20 environmental agencies.

“It is both my passion and my interest to do community outreach and public education related to environmental issues,” she says.

Haas also has been a proactive participant in fundraising events for the Western New York Queen Team for Breast Cancer; last year her team earned the WNY Most Team Spirit Award and was recognized as the top fundraising team in the history of the local organization. Her sister, who is battling breast cancer, inspires Haas’ “strength and determination.”

Additionally, Haas is a fundraiser for the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra for middle- and high school-aged youngsters, and assisted with the production of “Love Knows No Boundaries-Flight 3407,” a CD made by Western New Yorkers in memory of Continental flight 3407 families who lost loved ones in February 2009 in the crash of a plane flying from Newark, N.J. to Buffalo.

It hasn’t always been easy juggling work, school, two children and community commitments. “It’s been a haul,” says Haas. “My car and my house have been like classrooms for me. I live in a rural area and have a son who is a musician, so we spend a lot of time on the road.”

Haas thinks it’s been good for her own children to see her as a student. “Sometimes I help them, sometimes they help me,” she says.

“Because of SUNY Empire State College, I can do something that’s gratifying, not just because it’s a paycheck,” she says. ”I think when you’re an adult student, you take things very seriously, you don’t take it for granted. It’s exciting to be at a time in my life when I can focus on the rest of my life.”


2012 Chancellor's Award winner Kevin Lawson Genesee Valley Center BA Human Development

Kevin Lawson, 2012 Chancellor's Award Winner

About Kevin L. Lawson

Kevin Lawson graduated from the Genesee Valley Center, Batavia Unit, with a Bachelor of Arts in Human Development with a concentration in psychology. Previously, he had studied at Buffalo State with a goal of being employed in law enforcement.

“I started taking civil service exams and I got a job. At that point, I had to decide between employment with benefits and a pension, or continuing school. I picked work, and now, 25 years later, I am a student again,” he says.

During his tenure as a student, Lawson was a research assistant and co-author with Dr. Gayle Stever for a project investigating the social implications of social media, specifically Twitter, for celebrity fans. He studied how such media creates perceptions among fans of their relationships with celebrities. He was also a nominee for the Rochester Area Colleges Outstanding Adult Student Award.

“It was hard to go back. I had a very rewarding career. I was remembering, suddenly, what it was like to do papers and research, and it was a little daunting. But there are so many new resources available – I can work from my living-room recliner on my laptop. This eased the transition,” he said. “Also, I had an outstanding mentor who kept me motivated.”

In the past, Lawson was the recipient of The Meritorious Service Medal in 2009 from the United States Army for service during active-duty mobilization while serving as detachment first sergeant for the Small Arms Readiness Group. He was responsible for all primary marksmanship training on all small-arms weapons systems for deploying expeditionary forces. His efforts resulted in more than 3,000 warriors being qualified on their weapons. He has been mobilized stateside twice, including to Fort Drum, where he prepared soldiers for Iraq, “to move from a target range to real-world situations,” he says.

Lawson was selected to lead a team in the development of a new-weapons training strategy for West Point Military Academy; under his leadership, the team achieved 100 percent weapons qualifications for its incoming freshman class in 2000 for the first time in the academy’s history. He retired from the U.S Army Reserve at the rank of master sergeant.

He was also a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officer who was recognized with a Captain’s Commendation for lifesaving actions for rescuing a man and his two grandsons from their lost boat on Lake Ontario. He retired from DEC after 23 years after being assaulted in the line of duty, which resulted in an injury to his shoulder that made it impossible for him to continue his work. However, he continues as a sportsman educator instructor for DEC, teaching hunter safety and ethics.

Lawson is a youth mentor for the Royal Rangers Program of the Assembly of God Church in Batavia. He teaches skills such as land navigation and fire building and ties those lessons into a program building self-esteem, confidence and leadership skills for young men. He is also a scoutmaster and adult leader for the Boy Scouts of America, Iroquois Trail Council, and serves on the training committee in Seneca District, where he is responsible for teaching leadership and outdoor skills to future adult leaders.

He is also a volunteer service provider for Care-A-Van Ministries in Batavia, providing outreach to those in need in his community. He helps provide meals and services, including grocery and clothing distribution. He also performs vehicle maintenance, logistical support and driver services to the ministry.

In addition, Lawson is a folk artist and wood carver whose work has been included in the Genesee/Orleans Art Council directory, and has exhibited his work.

As a student, Lawson was challenged to balance his family life with work, civic and academic commitments, as well as with serious health issues, surgeries and extensive physical therapy. He considers his graduation the beginning of a new chapter in his life. “It was unfinished business,” he says.

Through prior-learning assessment he was able to enter the college with advanced standing.

“The whole experience is positive,” he says. “I recommend it to anybody, especially returning students, who would like this very conducive learning atmosphere.”

He admits,“I’ve had a high-adrenaline life. I was in charge of a lot of people and at 48, retired, you say, ‘what’s next?’ Now I want to go on and get a degree that will allow me to work as a counselor with returning veterans.”

About Carolyn Polikarpus

2012 Chancellor's Award winner Carolyn Polikarpus Northeast Center Community and Human Studies

Carolyn Polikarpus, 2012 Chancellor's Award Winner


Carolyn Polikarpus graduated from the Northeast Center with a Bachelor of Studies in Community and Human Studies with a concentration in peace and community studies. She was the winner last year of the Warren and Hortence Cochrane Scholarship available to undergraduate students who are studying community and human services, social theory or social structure and change.

As a student, she produced a term paper, “Poverty and Racism in Urban Social Problems,” described by her professor as equal to a literature review at the level of a master’s thesis or the foundation of a Ph.D. dissertation, and wrote about African American intellectual theologians. For her field project she made a trip to Weeksville, in Brooklyn, and to 125th Street in Harlem. Her thorough written report about this experience showed both depth and breadth.

This is an amazing story for a woman who, by 17, had dropped out of high school on Staten Island and was the mother of twins. She continued her education later on with night classes leading to a Regent’s Diploma, then took some classes at Monmouth College. “But raising my children and making a living took over,” she says. Ultimately, she developed a career as a mainframe computer programmer, which she stuck with for 30 years before retiring.

Meanwhile, something momentous changed her life. “There was an opening,” she said. “A friend asked me to come with her to a workshop at Green Haven maximum security prison, and I thought, ‘I hate groups and I hate workshops,’ but I said, ‘yes,’ and I honor my commitments. When I got in there, I knew I was where I was supposed to be.”

Now, Polikarpus is co-president of the Alternatives to Violence Project/NY, a grassroots, volunteer program dedicated to reducing violence in homes, schools, prisons, streets and society. AVP offers experiential workshops in prisons, schools and communities. Polikarpus is the liaison with prison administration and outside volunteers. Additionally, she is coordinator of AVP/NY at the Green Haven Correctional Facility. All of her work for the organization is as an unpaid volunteer.

“We promote healing and nonviolence within the prison, but we need healthier communities on the outside, too,” she says. “I returned to college partly because I know that the credential of being a college graduate will help me facilitate my work. I always loved school and Empire State College is the perfect solution for me with its flexibility and incredible support.”

Because Polikarpus conducts weekend-long workshops and has two part-time jobs, she needs a situation that allows her to work when she can and at a distance. The college enables her to fulfill her academic goals as she continues to meet other challenges.

“It was grim and the doors were clanging and the walls were high, the first time I went into a prison,” she says. “Scary. Now, I go in on a Friday, when nobody is making eye contact, and when I leave on Sunday, people are sharing in a circle. The process is very meaningful for me and being at the college was the right step at this point on my path,” she says.

Additionally, she was a presenter at the Student Academic Conference, discussing “From Poverty to Prison: How Do We Change the Path?” The presentation explored the factors that have created and perpetuate the existence of poor urban communities of color affected by crime, incarceration and despair. She examined the historical, sociological and psychological forces that keep inner cities struggling with poverty, unwed-teen pregnancy, unemployment, drugs and disproportionate levels of incarceration. She considered solutions and reviewed the issues based on perspectives formed during 15 years of volunteering in a maximum-security prison and as a student of African American studies.

As well, Polikarpus was invited by the dean of the Northeast Center to conduct a workshop at a center retreat on communications strategies for conflict resolution. She enhanced the presentation by including a former inmate from Green Haven program who has since rejoined the community, is married, working and “doing wonderfully,” she reports. “In fact, he is a student at Empire State College.”

She has facilitated workshops at the Hudson Correctional Facility, Greene Correctional Facility, Green Haven Correctional Facility, Fishkill Correctional Facility, Elmira Correctional Facility and Eastern Correctional Facility, and has led community workshops in Chatham and Philmont, both in New York. She also has attended international gatherings for AVP in Kenya and Guatemala, and has facilitated an AVP workshop at a prison in Costa Rica.

Delaying college was the right move for Polikarpus, because she was exposed to experiences that help her to understand herself and her purpose. In the long term, she would like to work with prisoners re-entering the community. 

Polikarpus was especially gratified by the process of writing her essay for the prior-learning assessment, she says. “In the process of defining what I had experienced, I talked about what I had done that would be college-level creditworthy. I loved it.”

Ryan Smithson Chancellor's 2012 Award Winner Northeast Center BA Interdisciplinary Studies/English/History

Ryan Smithson, 2012 Chancellor's Award Winner

About Ryan Smithson

Ryan Smithson is a graduate of the Northeast Center with a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies with concentrations in English and history. He was the recipient of the Nicholas Pekearo Endowed Scholarship in Creative Writing for a student who is committed to writing and has a body of work. Smithson is the author of “Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year Old GI,” published by Harper Collins in 2009. The book is a cathartic memoir that recounts his personal experiences in Iraq, which he was prompted to write because he believes the media tells only “half the story” about the GI experience. The book was reviewed and received a star in Kirkus Reviews, and was noted as a “lucid recounting of the intensity of battle and the pain of losing comrades,” which for Smithson was a source of personal enlightenment. The book has been called “deeply penetrating, remarkable and compelling.”

As an author, he has been invited to speak to the Texas Library Association, Young Writer’s Institute at Skidmore College, Niskayuna High School, Averill Park High School, Glens Falls High School and at the Empire State Book Festival about “Ghosts of War.” He also has spoken across the country to students and his book has been incorporated as required reading in local high-school curricula. He was nominated by the American Library System for the Best Book for Young Adults.

Additionally, he completed a project examining Adolf Hitler’s memoir, “Mein Kampf,” which has been described as being “graduate-level quality.” He has been evaluated by professors as “superb, superlative” “showing superior analytical abilities,” “thorough, diligent, thoughtful and helpful to other students.”

Smithson is an inductee of the Alumni Hall of Fame at Columbia High School in East Greenbush in recognition of his accomplishments after high school. He joined the Army Reserve immediately after graduation, when he was 17; at 19, he was deployed to Iraq, where he served as an Army engineer for 12 months.

Prior to attending Empire State College, Smithson was a student at Hudson Valley Community College, where his book manuscript started as an essay for a course. When he read it aloud, and saw its impact, he decided to expand on it. Today, Smithson is involved in several other writing projects and he keeps a journal of ideas as they occur to him to sustain the momentum.

“When I started at HVCC, I wanted to go into criminal justice, and that’s what my degree is in. I still would like to work in that field. But, I also would like, someday, to teach writing at the college level,” says Smithson, “and I am enrolled in a master’s program at the College of St. Rose so I can get to the place with my credentials and experience that I can help other people reach their own goals.” He gets up early every day so he can write for a few hours before work and family commitments take over. Smithson, who currently works for a fuel company, is married and has a son.

Smithson has represented Empire State College at numerous events, including at the New York State Capitol as part of a panel for educators about the needs and goals of veterans on campus, 2009; as the subject of a feature article in the college’s alumni magazine, Connections, 2009; as the featured veteran/student author in the college’s publication, Mentoring, 2011; as the invited guest speaker/reader for Veteran’s Recollections, a college event organized in honor of Veteran’s Day, held at the New York State Military Museum, 2010; as an invited guest speaker/reader for the War Stories class at the Northeast Center, 2010.; and as an invited reader at the Northeast Center’s “War Stories” performance at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady, 2011. Coming up later this month, Smithson will perform in a “War Stories” reading, again at Proctor’s, as well as be the featured subject in the college’s foundation publication, The Impact Report.

Additionally, Smithson is a “big buddy” for Cindy’s Comfort Camp at Double H Ranch, a program that matches volunteers with a school-aged child who has experienced the death or serious illness of an immediate family member. Smithson and the child spend the weekends hiking, fishing, swimming, riding horses, playing sports and doing arts and crafts, and participating in healing circles with other big and little buddies. There is also a ropes course and talent show. He calls the experience “humbling and rewarding.”

He is a tutor for English-language learners though the Literacy Volunteers of Rensselaer County, working with students who need help speaking. In the past, he worked with a Japanese employee at the University at Albany nanoscale research plant who could read and write English but needed help in conversation. From the experience, Smithson learned how to prepare a curriculum, address a student’s need and to teach English.

“When you’ve been in a war,” says Smithson, “you realize you don’t have all the time in the world. You might have a hard time doing it, but you find a way to fit it all in. I picked Empire State College for my undergraduate degree because of the flexibility – sometimes I am working at 3 a.m. or 11 p.m., but I also really like the small groups and face-to-face experience.”

Smithson also enjoyed the prior-learning assessment process during which he had the opportunity to think through what he knows about the publishing industry and the writing process.  “It was a challenge but the support here softened the blow,” he says.

Of the opportunity to write a book that has had so much meaning for him and others, Smithson says, ”I learned something doing it and the writing turned it from being a haunting memory to a healing experience.”

About the Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence

The Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence was created 15 years ago to recognize students who have best demonstrated, and been recognized for, the integration of academic excellence with accomplishments in the areas of leadership, athletics, community service, creative and performing arts or career achievement.

Each year, campus presidents establish a selection committee, which reviews exemplary members of their college communities who are graduating. Nominees are then forwarded to the chancellor’s office and are subject to a second round of review. Finalists then are recommended to the chancellor to become recipients of the Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence.

Each recipient received a framed certificate and medallion, which is traditionally worn at commencement.

About SUNY Empire State College

SUNY Empire State College was established in 1971 to offer adult learners the opportunity to earn associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the State University of New York.

In addition to awarding credit for prior college-level learning, the college pairs each student with a faculty mentor who supports that student throughout his or her college career. Students engage in guided independent study and coursework onsite, online or a combination of both, which provides the flexibility for students to learn at the time, place and pace of their choosing.

The college serves more than 20,000 students worldwide at more than 35 locations in New York state and online. Its 63,000 alumni are active in their communities as entrepreneurs, politicians, business professionals, artists, nonprofit agency employees, teachers, veterans and active military, union members and more.

For additional information, visit www.esc.edu.


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