Two recent SUNY Cortland graduates and two just-graduated seniors were honored with the 2020 State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence.
The award recipients are:
The award is given to students within the SUNY system’s 64 campuses who have been recognized for their academic success while also balancing leadership roles, campus involvement, athletics, career-related pursuits, community service or achievement in the arts.
Each year, SUNY campus presidents establish a committee to review and select outstanding graduating seniors. The nominees are forwarded to the Chancellor’s Office for a second round of review and the selection of a group of finalists.
Each honoree will receive a framed certificate and a medallion to wear during Commencement, a ceremony that cannot be held on SUNY Cortland's campus as scheduled, l due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alternative plans will be explored to move the on-campus ceremony to Spring 2021 while virtual Commencement activities were held the weekend of May 16-17.
“SUNY’s Chancellor’s Award for Excellence winners are the champions of their campuses, each showing a tireless devotion to their academics and extracurricular pursuits, as well as their care for their fellow students as mentors and leaders,” said SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson as she announced the awards. “They are inspiring, and I have high expectations for how they will contribute to our society as we rebound from this current pandemic that separates us today.”
It also wasn't possible this spring for the students to be invited to Albany to receive the award directly from the chancellor and a campus representative, usually President Erik J. Bitterbaum. Instead, each SUNY student recipient was invited to submit a brief video about themselves for SUNY to share.
A complete listing of student recipients is available online along with the videos from Chancellor Johnson and the awardees.
Including this year’s honorees, 96 SUNY Cortland students have earned the Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence since the program began in 1997.
Here’s a closer look at each of the honorees, who in this unusual moment in time have ideas to share with classmates on how they are completing their semester through distance learning and how the pandemic is affecting their early careers:
An honors student from Brandon, Florida, Asha Goldberg’s desire to learn and inspire change has taken her not only across the country but around the world.
“I am most grateful for the people I got to meet,” said Goldberg. “Listening to people’s stories is the greatest gift.”
An inductee of the Cortland chapter of Phi Kappa Phi, the national interdisciplinary honor society, Goldberg’s academic accomplishments also include a Senior Academic Achievement Award, given to the top five students in Cortland’s School of Education.
As a recipient of the Charles A. Gibson scholarship from SUNY Cortland’s Study Abroad office, Goldberg spent a semester in India researching the sustainability of Indian education systems.
With her findings, she wrote and presented a research paper on "The Allotment of Educational Resources for Schools in America and India" at the Mangaluru National Seminar on Sustainable Social Development, an international sociology conference, in Spring 2018.
Alongside Jeremy Jimenez, a professor in the Foundations of Social Advocacy Department, Goldberg helped analyze and restructure the university’s Gender, Race, and Class Issues curriculum to incorporate the impacts of climate change on Southeast Asian communities.
Her ability to lead is apparent; she served first as treasurer, then president of Cru, the on-campus inter-denominational Christian organization for college students, and as a student representative on the university Faculty Senate’s Educational Policy Committee.
SUNY Cortland recognized Goldberg’s achievements as an exemplary role model for other students on campus in 2017 when she was awarded the Outstanding Student Leadership Award.
“As I have worked in different capacities throughout the campus, I have learned from many different people that to best prepare for the future is to live in the present. To work hard wherever you’re at currently and to care for the community you are placed in.”
Beyond the walls of the School of Education building, Goldberg has volunteered at assisted living facilities and with multiple non-profit organizations that are passionate about feeding the hungry and homeless.
Goldberg is currently in New York City managing her semester of student teaching in an online format.
“While my face-to-face interactions with the kids have lessened, through the powers of Google Classroom and Google Hangout, I am still able to check in on my students, do read alouds, provide supplemental math videos and more!”
I started this quarantine working from the moment I woke up to the time I fell asleep,” Goldberg said.
“Creating a more balanced work schedule and dedicating time with the Lord to pray and wrestle through things with Him has been the most helpful thing for me.”
Nilsen was no stranger to leadership roles and campus involvement.
In high school, Nilsen was president of the youth group for her local Rotary Club. In college, she accepted the position as president of Hendrick Hall Council during her freshman year at the university, making her leader of her residence hall. Committed to building a community within the hall, she led the council in events such as fundraisers to raise money for Adopt-A-Family.
“It was definitely challenging to balance academics with other responsibilities like serving as a residential assistant, a COR 101 teaching assistant and Zumba instructor,” Nilsen said.
Along with several other awards and scholarships, her sustained campus involvement earned her one of only two prestigious scholarships presented this year by New York state’s higher education labor union, United University Professions. The UUP Scholarship is awarded to students who are social justice advocates and are committed to advancing union values. Nilsen is only the fourth SUNY Cortland student to receive this award since the scholarship was founded in 1998.
Over the course of her time at the university, her GPA ranged from 3.85 to 4.0 and her hard work earned her a place in the top 5% of her academic class.
Following graduation, Nilsen started as an English as a New Language teacher for Schenectady City School District, teaching students at various proficiency levels in grades one through five.
“Fortunately, I’ve been able to convert to online teaching during this difficult time with the outbreak of COVID-19,” Nilsen said. “I am thankful that I am still able to work and serve my students.”
To ensure her classes have access to content and to assist students with their online learning experience and language development, she leads virtual seminars on Google Meets.
“My heart goes out to all first responders and essential workers who are working each day to protect and help others,” Nilsen said.
Stoj found herself tackling two majors, a minor, and the Honors Program during her time at SUNY Cortland.
An anthropology and biology major with a minor in Asian and Middle Eastern studies, Stoj faced challenges with unifying two very different majors. She persevered and will graduate in May 2020 with two degrees.
“It was definitely a challenge to fit in all the requirements that I needed in a four-year time period,” Stoj said. “There was very little overlap between requirements outside of GEs.”
She conducted a variety of research projects, including studying milkweed hybridization under a biology fellowship.
Exploring the two majors and her passions helped Stoj discover the field of ethnobotany, in which she aspires to receive her doctorate.
As a campus Green Representative, Stoj had the opportunity to educate herself and her peers about living a more sustainable lifestyle. She designed bulletin boards and led interactive programs in dorms.
“It is one thing to speak about sustainability and another to put it into practice,” Stoj said.
Her programs ranged from recycling challenges to workshops where participants made sustainable and environmentally friendly laundry detergent and beeswax wraps. These experiences showed Stoj that she could implement environmentally friendly practices into her own life.
Stoj also had the opportunity to study abroad in India at St. Aloysius College, a goal she had since her first year at Cortland. With her two majors, Stoj couldn’t find the time to study abroad until her final semester.
“I think it is a little unconventional to study abroad your final semester, but for me I think it was really the perfect time,” Stoj said.
While in India, she had the opportunity to travel and experience the range in landscape and culture from one city to the next. One of the most eye-opening experiences she had was in Bajpur, where one of her professors conducted research on Devadasi women who were forced into religious prostitution.
Stoj’s experience in India was cut short with the outbreak of COVID-19. She continues to meet with her professors online who are now 8,000 miles away. Stoj plans to return to India later in 2020 after receiving funding from a Fulbright-Nehru Student Research grant to conduct a study on the usage of plants in the ancient Indian style of Ayurvedic medicine during the Iron Age of 1,500 to 600 BCE.
“I think that once we make it through these times people will be stronger, and maybe even have a deeper appreciation for school,” Stoj said.
Breanna Washington ’19
A scholar, leader, and champion for positive change, Washington was an active force on the SUNY Cortland campus.
“I’m grateful for receiving this award and still being recognized within the Cortland community, especially after graduating,” Washington said of receiving the award.
A December 2019 graduate who completed her studies through Cortland’s Urban Recruitment of Educators (C.U.R.E.) program, Washington received numerous scholarships during her time at Cortland for her campus involvement, leadership and academic achievements. These included the Faculty Senate Memorial Scholarship, the Student Government Association Scholarship, the Lambda Phi Delta Service Scholarship, the Marjorie Dey Carter Scholarship, the Yuki Chin Scholarship, the Sigma Delta Phi Scholarship, the Resident Assistant Award, and the Diversity Abroad Scholarship.
“Scholarships made higher education accessible for me,” Washington said.
While at Cortland, Washington also took an opportunity to embark on a month-long volunteer service project to Thailand. There, she taught English to children in grades 1 through 6. She taught five classes per day while achieving her goal of increasing English literacy abroad.
“Teaching is hard," Washington said. “It’s something you have to be dedicated to.”
On campus, Washington was a member of multiple clubs. She is a chartering member of SUNY Cortland’s N.A.A.C.P. chapter and is a cofounder of Curly Kinky Coily, established in 2017.
With Curly Kinky Coily, Washington helped promote natural hair celebration. The club’s events included a DIY hair care and skin care event where attendees could create hair or skin care products for themselves.
Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Washington has been mindful of the guidelines in place.
“I’ve been quarantining and social distancing,” she said. “I only go out for the necessities.”
Washington earned her teaching certification after graduating from Cortland. She plans to pursue her master’s in education in the fall with a plan to teach in the future.
Prepared by Communications Office writing interns Victoria VanEvery and Dean Zulkofske