2016 Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence

By Suzanne Lazar, student, SUNY Empire State College; editor, The Student Connection; and Helen Edelman, manager, Exchange

April 25, 2016

“Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence recipients are the pride of SUNY Empire State College,” said Merodie A. Hancock, president of SUNY Empire. “My congratulations to these outstanding students who, like their faculty mentors and the professional and support staff who have helped them achieve their academic goals, are among SUNY’s very best. This year’s chancellor’s award recipients have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to their communities, which is a hallmark of SUNY Empire across the state, and the highest levels of academic achievement." 

This year, SUNY Empire State College recognized five students for their above-and-beyond contributions and academic performance. I had the honor and pleasure to meet three of the recipients of this year’s Chancellor Award for Student Excellence in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. before they embarked on a short trip to Albany, N.Y. for the ceremony for all SUNY students who won the awards. Along with Helen Edelman, manager of Exchange, we interviewed the award winners and learned a great deal about their lives and experiences at ESC.

Kim Russell, an online student from Metairie, La., was among the five SUNY Empire State College students selected to receive The Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, SUNY’s most prestigious student honor. She will receive her Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies this spring.

Russell, who is legally blind, served as the keynote speaker for the systemwide SUNY FACT2 Disability Symposium, where she delivered “My Journey Through the Darkness.” In her fall 2015 speech, she focused on her experiences, what led her to this point in her life and the challenges and opportunities higher education has presented to her.  FACT is the Faculty Advising Council on Teaching and Technology.

Russell, 50, has a GPA of 3.75. Her extraordinary accomplishments include marching with the National Federation of the Blind on Capitol Hill and speaking in front of Congress and the Senate to help enforce the rights of the blind and elderly blind.

The Louisiana Center for the Blind newsletter published her article “The Phone Call That Changed My Life.”

Russell was teaching hairdressing and an advisor for Phi Theta Kappa, but being legally blind was a barrier and I had to work school into my work schedule. It required a lot of self-discipline."

She added, "Even being in Louisiana and even working online, I was not isolated. My computer has adaptive technology, I could email my professors and my mentor and was interacting with them all the time. It was very convenient. School is 'me time.' It made me a complete person. Now, I can look at different subjects in a way I never did. My advice to students is 'never give up on your dreams. It's worth it. Keep forging ahead.'"

A passionate volunteer for the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina, she said of the process, "It's slow, but steady. You get used to a new norm." She added, "We have two hands. One to help ourself and one to help others."

Eric Schultz, a disabled veteran from upstate LeRoy, N.Y., who served in the SUNY Student Assembly as a college representative, was among five SUNY Empire State College students selected to receive The Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, SUNY’s most prestigious student honor. The chancellor’s award recognizes academic excellence and the quality of a student’s community service, accomplishments in the creative and performing arts, leadership, campus involvement and/or in several other categories.

Schultz will receive his B.S. in Social Science and Anthropology from the college this spring. Currently, he is a research associate at the University at Buffalo Archeological Survey, Spaulding Lake dig site in Clarence, N.Y., and is licensed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as part of his role as a founder of the Western New York Osteological Survey.

Schultz’s many accomplishments include founding the Western New York Osteological Survey, which focuses on the study of bones, preparing and analyzing specimens for cataloging in his home lab; volunteering as a research associate at the University at Buffalo Archeological Survey, making significant contributions; and presenting at SUNY Empire’s annual Student Academic Conference (StAC) in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

He called his mentor "comforting and consistent" and added, "We found a mutual method of communicating and my mentor acted as a guide for me in building relationships and created a perception for me that I was the only student." 

Because of its flexibility, said Schultz, "ESC is the best thing that ever happened to me. It's been life-changing. If I couldn't study independently, I would not have gone to college. ESC was stable and I could learn without distractions, at a monastic level."

It was Professor Julie Gedro's class that helped him learn to be candid about his disorder, he said. She discussed being open about gender preference and that inspired him to be open about his own differences. 

His advice to others: "Take up the challenge. See what would happen if you make studying your No. 1 priority." 

Jaime Lopez was among five SUNY Empire State College students selected to receive The Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, SUNY’s most prestigious student honor. The award recognizes academic excellence and the quality of a student’s community service, accomplishments in the creative and performing arts, leadership, campus involvement and/or in several other categories. 

Lopez, a union apprentice from Queens, N.Y., who created a museum exhibit dedicated to the electrical industry, served on the wage and policy committee of his local union, which helps negotiate contracts for members, and is the co-owner of a fair-trade coffee plantation in Armenia, Columbia with his father. He has a Bachelor of Science in Labor Studies.

Lopez, 29, is an apprentice with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local 3. He was a student with the college’s Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor studies and graduated in March of this year with a 3.95 GPA.

Lopez’s exceptional accomplishments include serving as a member of an international youth movement for labor rights in the U.S. and overseas, for which he traveled to Geneva, Switzerland in 2012 to participate in an international residency course concurrent with the 316th session of the governing body of the International Labor Organization. He has also traveled to Lima, Peru to promote his ideals.

"My father always told me to engage in studies," he said. "Going to Empire State College has made all the difference. I especially like how minds come together for discussion." He prefers learning in a classroom to studying online, because he craves the interaction. 

To attend school, Lopez had to work full time and even overtime, but, he said, "It was worth it to be part of such an esteemed group of men and women, to rise to their level."

He is also proud that his friends' children, sister, nieces, nephews and cousins will see him achieve academically and may be inspired to do the same. He said, "When it comes down to it, kids watch their parents and guardians and me being in school while they are in school sets a good example for their future.”

He has remained deeply involved with the college and is working to globalize the movement to educate

Lopez's next project is to videotape interviews with 50 workers for the Library of Congress. He said the interviews will be a "portal for discussion about what they want to do with their lives."

Layla Abdullah-Poulos '10, M.A.L.S. candidate, a mother of six from Long Island, was among five SUNY Empire State College students selected to receive The Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, The State University of New York's most prestigious student honor. The formal ceremony to recognize all recipients from across the statewide system was on April 5 in Albany, where students met with SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

Abdullah-Poulos ‘10 is slated to graduate this spring with an M.A. in Liberal Studies and a GPA of 3.95.

Her graduate work focuses on adult learning, the educational experiences of women of color and the emergent sociocultural identities of native-born American-Muslim women.

Her nomination recognizes her for founding and serving as president of the Empire State College Minority Students in Action club; authoring and presenting numerous scholarly papers; and writing for The Student Connection, the college’s student-run, online newsletter, on topics that assist students in achieving academic success.

In 2014, she was awarded the Foner Fellowship in Work, Culture and Social Change by the college, which is given to superior students enrolled in the college’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. Her consistent involvement in college and community reflects her goal to be an educator who enriches the higher-education experience for students through heightening awareness of ethnic diversity.

Also in 2014, she presented at the Popular Cultural Association/American Cultural Association national conference and the Milton Plesur Graduate History Conference on “Islam’s Introduction to the American Cultural Stage: The Black Muslims.” The paper demonstrates how a group known as the Lost-Found Nation of Islam emerged in African-American communities and became a major catalyst for the introduction of Islam onto the American social, cultural and religious stages.

Abdullah-Poulos also is a member of the Student Wellness Advisory Committee and received a Student Service Award for exceptional service, on the recommendation of college faculty and staff, as well as community leaders, for her work as a peer tutor, learning coach and developer of multiple community-based activities.

As a homeschooler, Abdullah-Poulos develops curricula for multiple grades in accordance with New York state standards, as well as coordinates activities to fulfill her children’s socialization needs.

Omar Richards '15, a student of social science, has received The Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, The State University of New York's most prestigious student honor. The award, which was bestowed on April 5 in Albany, at a ceremony with SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, recognizes academic excellence and the quality of a student’s community service, accomplishments in the creative and performing arts, leadership, campus involvement and/or in several other categories.

Richards is an advocate for expanding educational opportunities for formerly incarcerated citizens, founded two student clubs, organized two other student groups and recently organized and moderated a symposium titled “Education Inside and Out of Prison.” He has a Bachelor of Science in Social Science. His creativity, organizational skills, marketing acumen and tireless efforts have made possible many events and supported a lasting student-activities infrastructure for the college’s nontraditional students.

He has produced, directed and edited a series of video diaries designed to tell the stories of the difficulties faced by formerly incarcerated individuals in pursuing an education.

Richards has fostered persistence, academic excellence and wider engagement with nontraditional students through his role as vice president of the college’s Black Male Initiative (BMI) and as a peer coach/tutor at the college’s Brooklyn location. He has helped students with educational planning, course registration and financial aid. BMI is a forum for black male students, where they can freely discuss their problems and issues in an open, familiar and understanding environment. Through sharing experiences, discussing problems and crafting solutions, BMI bolsters confidence, supports its community and keeps black male students actively engaged in the journey to graduation and future success.

Richards founded and led Empire State College Education for All, an organization dedicated to expanding educational opportunities within SUNY and at other public educational institutions for formerly incarcerated individuals.

He also was president of the Voices Poetry Group, founded the SUNY Empire State College Art Club and was a featured student speaker in 2015 at the New York City commencement ceremony.

Richards also organized and moderated a symposium titled “Education Inside and Out of Prison” and presented in a video-conferenced collegewide panel on “Race and Policing” with students and faculty from four different locations. In addition, he organized financial literacy workshops open to all students and the surrounding community.

About The Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence

The Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence was created in 1997 to recognize students who have best demonstrated and have been recognized for the integration of academic excellence with accomplishments in the areas of leadership, athletics, community service, creative and performing arts, campus involvement, or career achievement.

Each year, campus presidents establish a selection committee, which reviews exemplary students. Nominees are forwarded to the chancellor’s office and subject to a second round of review. Finalists are recommended to the chancellor to become recipients of the award. Each recipient receives a framed certificate and medallion, which traditionally is worn at commencement.

Did You Know

The Cultural Diversity forum will be live streamed on April 27.  

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