Cords of Distinction honorees, 2017. Back row, from left: Diego Barahona, Macson McGuigan, Quinn Kathrineberg, Mario Valladares, Elisabeth Wilder. Front: Mariah Martin, Madison List, Oksana Kittrell, Hannah Daley, Azariah Cox. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Tributes from faculty and staff to 2017 Cords of Distinction recipients

Ten graduating seniors were honored as Cords of Distinction recipients in a ceremony held Saturday afternoon, April 29, 2017 at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).

Faculty, staff and fellow students nominated the recipients, who were cited for their “significant and verifiable impact” on the university and on student life; for their contributions to developing the institution’s positive image; for substantial contributions to the Harrisonburg/Rockingham County area and beyond; for their high academic and social standing; and their embodiment of EMU’s shared values of Christian discipleship, community, service and peacebuilding.

Diego Barahona

Diego earned his degree in biochemistry and environmental sustainability, with minors in biology and chemistry. He is from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Dr. Matthew Siderhurst, associate professor of chemistry, presented the cords.

Diego Barahona.

I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Diego in his first year at EMU as I was on sabbatical. When I returned, I was looking for new research students and both Tara Kishbaugh and Doug Graber Neufeld told me I needed to talk to Diego. He turned out to be a great fit and it has been a joy to get to know him over the last two years. Together we’ve traveled to Hawaii twice and Guam once on research trips. We’ve hiked through jungle swamps (outfitted with radio trackers), across active lava flows, and over miles of hot dry dunes to reach a secluded green sand beach. He’s spent countless hours working in a fume hood synthesizing small organic molecules, more hours counting flies, and writing research papers. Through all this, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Diego complain about anything. 

Because of his hard work and scientific abilities Diego is a co-author on two peer-reviewed scientific paper and has presented several poster and oral talks about his research both on and off campus.

Diego has been an excellent student here at EMU. He is a thoughtful person who has demonstrated a keen interest in learning and new experiences. While excelling as a biochemistry major, he has also found time to earn minors in chemistry, environmental sustainability and honors.

Diego’s interests stretch beyond the classroom and have led him to serve with “gentle presence” as a Ministry Assistant for campus ministries, been an active member of Latino Student Alliance, worked with the Sustainable Food Initiative, and was a tutor for the Academic Success Center. Writing in support of his receiving this honor, Diego was described as the “most courteous person I know.”  Others said, “His grace, kindness, and compassion for people is admirable,” “always puts others before himself,” and “always friendly and supportive.”  I echo these comments.

I know I speak for many other EMU faculty and staff when I say that you exemplify many of the characteristics we love in our best students and I am very happy to present you with the Cords of Distinction.

Azariah Cox

Azariah Cox earned his degree in photography, with a minor in digital communications. He is from Forest, Virginia.

Brian Simpson, head track and field coach, presented the cords.

Azariah Cox was selected as the student representative to offer a toast to newly inaugurated President Susan Schultz Huxman’s at the Gala Celebration.

If I were told that I could use only one word to describe Azariah Cox, I would use the word tenacious. Azariah, affectionately called A.C. by those who know him, embodies tenacity. I could list his accolades and accomplishments, but that would only serve to describe A.C. the student. I think that a brief story would give you better insight to the type of man he is.

I took over the duties of head coach for EMU track and field this past August and  heard about A.C. prior to transitioning from Wilson, N.C. I am friends with Jason Lewkowicz who coached A.C. during his tenure as the previous head coach and he told me a story about A.C. that gave me insight into the type of young man that I would be dealing with.

When Jason called to congratulate me on getting the job here, he talked to me about the athletes. The first person that he mentioned was A.C. His exact words were “You’re gonna have to watch out for A.C.” I asked Jason if A.C. was a problem child. His response was “No No! Not at all, Coach! He’s just the opposite! He’s one of the greatest kids that you’ll ever meet. He just won’t quit. Even if the kid is hurting, he simply refuses to quit.”

So Jason proceeds to tell me a story about A.C. He had injured himself during a track meet — not a particularly debilitating injury but the type of injury that needed some rest which meant that A.C. needed to skip his race in the 110m high hurdles. Jason told A.C. not to run and to watch the race with him so that they could analyze the race together. A few minutes before the race, Jason begins asking if anyone had seen A.C. After several no’s, Jason finally runs into someone who knew where A.C. was: in lane 5 preparing to run the 110m high hurdle final. After throwing his hands up in frustration, Jason accepted the inevitable and sat down to watch the race. A.C. went on to finish fourth in the race.

As Jason is walking towards A.C. to give him a few choice words about ignoring his order to not run the race, he notices that A.C. has this huge smile on his face. Confused, Jason asks A.C. why he was smiling despite finishing fourth and not medaling. A.C. responded “Coach, I didn’t win, but I helped my teammates. I just put three points towards our team score.” Jason told me that he stood there speechless as A.C. walked off as happy as a kid in a candy store.

A.C. was happy not because of what he had accomplished for himself. He was happy because of what he had accomplished for others. He refused to quit not for any sort of vainglorious achievement. He refused to quit to make those around him better and this truly makes him a distinct and distinguished person.

Azariah, you have impressed me with your academic accomplishments. Graduating from EMU was no easy task. Your athletic accomplishments speak for themselves. What has most impressed about you, sir, is your selfless and tireless pursuit to make those around you better. Never lose the grit and determination that has gotten you to where you are. I love you like a son and will always count it an honor to have been your coach.

Hannah Daley

Hannah Daley.

Hannah earned a degree in chemistry with a concentration in environmental sustainability and a minor in mathematics and physics. She is from Lothian, Maryland.

Dr. Laurie Yoder and Dr. Tara Kishbaugh, professors of chemistry, presented the cords.

Imagine a word cloud: lime green and orange text, an edgy font. In large letters, read EMU and Hannah. In only slightly smaller text notice campus, community, hockey, guide; and then served, worked, helped, positive, leader, people, impact, and team. Can you see the picture of Hannah emerging? These are the words that her peers and professors have offered in attempts to capture the many ways that Hannah has shaped the EMU community.

As a scientist, she is a creative problem-solver who invites others to appreciate the value of science. Hannah’s sought many opportunities to practice science: from an internship with NOAA and NASA, to summer experiences testing for caffeine’s effect on athletic performance or doing geoscience in Michigan, to her many years of studying water quality and stream restoration in Bergton. Hannah has brought her curiosity, a strong work ethic, and optimism to bear on these projects. She has trained others in her protocols and describes her work in an accessible manner, which encourages others to join her in her scientific endeavours. Hannah works in a way that demonstrates keen awareness of the interplay between science and the community. Who else would think to demonstrate the principles of quantum mechanics using sports equipment?

Hannah is warm, welcoming, and encouraging— she builds community wherever she goes.   Hannah’s passion for community plays out in athletics, as she positively impacted the varsity hockey team both on and off the field;admissions, as she enthusiastically led scheduled and impromptu tours for prospective students; student life, through her work in residence life, campus ministries and intramural athletics; and academics, as she served as a peer tutor and learning assistant in chemistry classes.

Hannah’s deep faith is the foundation of her desire to serve her community at EMU and beyond. Through her humility and love for others, she has emerged as a Christ-like servant leader.

So, Hannah, this campus will miss a particular lime green skateboard zipping down the sidewalk. And as you have blessed us repeatedly with your signature line, now we return the same to you: “God Bless.”

Quinn Kathrineberg

Quinn earned a degree in English with secondary licensure (6-12). She is from Salina, Kansas.

Amy Springer Hartsell, assistant undergraduate dean, and Student Government administrative representative, and Dr. Deirdre Longacre Smeltzer, undergraduate dean, presented the award.

SGA co-presidents Quinn Katherineberg (left) and Elisabeth Wilder recognize their adviser Ken L. Nafziger.

Amy Springer Hartsell: Quinn offered an opinion piece to the EMU community in the Weather Vane two months after her arrival on campus. Her article was titled, “Transfer Reflection: Identity Crisis Toward Discovery.” As soon as I finished reading, I was composing an email to Quinn and wrote this: “I just finished reading the article you wrote for this week’s Weather Vane and want to commend you for it. Twenty-six years ago, I transferred to EMU from Hesston and I experienced a similar transfer process as you described in your article.” I had never met Quinn but hoped I would. Here was a new transfer student who put clear, honest, wise and eloquent words to my own transfer experience – 26 years ago! Quinn ended that piece by writing, “Thanks, EMU, for welcoming me into the community since opening weekend. I’m looking forward to seeing how I will be impacted here, and also how I can impact EMU.” Well, Quinn, you’ve made a big impact on EMU.

Dr. Deirdre Longacre Smeltzer: As a leader, you have exemplified key attributes of effective leadership: you’ve communicated in a clear and positive way; created space for a variety of perspectives; and maintained a non-anxious presence as you navigated difficult decisions. Your commitment to advocating for students and to bringing about positive change in your community is clear – through the leadership roles you’ve held on the Student Government Association, the Student Women’s Association, and the Student Education Association, through your hard work as a writing tutor, and through your musical and service outreach to the broader community. All of these activities have been carried out quietly, with cheerfulness, determination, and a commitment to excellence, but without seeking the spotlight for yourself. You have modeled integrity and grace. And through the many ways you’ve made EMU a better place, your true north has shone through: that is, to serve as a voice for those on the margins. We are so glad you chose to continue your journey at EMU.

Oksana Kittrell

Oksana Kittrell.

Oksana earned a degree in psychology and a minor in youth ministry. She is from Big Island, Virginia.

Celeste Thomas, multicultural student services co-director, presented the award.

It is my distinct honor to present this award to Oksana Kittrell, a young woman, who has truly earned it. Oksana has exceeded the criteria for this award in her service and spiritual endeavors. Oksana is not only academically gifted (graduating in three years), but is creative, athletic, musically inclined, a smart leader, possesses a genuine concern for the well-being of others and has one of the most electric smiles that you will ever see.

Not only has her well-served talents benefitted Eastern Mennonite University, but she has also committed her time and gifts to the greater Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.  Oksana is a kind, intelligent, honest and genteel young woman.

Oksana is mature beyond her years and possesses a level of responsibility and dependability not rivaled by many. She never settles for mediocrity and has high standards for those with whom she works. She has served as a mentor for a young girl in Harrisonburg, a teaching assistant for developmental psychology, a volunteer for Multicultural and International Student Services, director of the gospel choir, a LEAD lunch coordinator, an intern for University Accord, a leadership team member for Fellowship of Christian Athletes, MLK committee co-chair, and a member of Diversity and Inclusion Committee. In addition, she was the secretary, activities coordinator, and co-president of the Black Student Union. Furthermore, Oksana was instrumental this year in planning and implementing the Town Hall on Race, Civil Rights Tour and the President’s Ball.

Oksana, Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” You have touched the lives of many through all of your hard work, service and dedication. Many persons’ lives changed for the better due to your presence and unselfish dedication, exemplified to the greatest extent during your cross-cultural experience in Egypt where you served the least of your international neighbors. You have the heart of a servant and the fortitude of an extraordinary leader.

Oksana, you live a life that is demonstrative of Luke 12:48, “to whom much is given, much will be required”. You are wonderfully created by God and in the words of your favorite poet Maya Angelou:

Now you understand/Just why my head’s not bowed. / I don’t shout or jump about/ Or have to talk real loud. / When you see me passing, / It ought to make you proud. / I say, / It’s in the click of my heels, / The bend of my hair, / the palm of my hand,/ The need for my care. / ’Cause I’m a woman/ Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That’s me.

Oksana, you may not know exactly where God will call you in your vocation, but what is known is that your future is bright and you can do and be anything your heart desires, smiling while you do it. I wish you the many blessings God will provide for you as you matriculate into the dual MA of Divinity/MA of Counseling Program in the fall.

Madison List

Madison earned a degree in religious and intercultural studies. She is from Arlington, Virginia.

Lana Miller, undergraduate campus pastor, presented the award.

Brave, consistent, full of heart, spirit of compassion, resilient, clear devotion to God, present, insightful, wise, inspirational, committed, joyful and faithful – just a few words that come to mind when describing Maddie. Her contagious smile and sparkle in her eyes have encouraged more than one person to persevere, even when the way seemed difficult. I know this encouragement from firsthand experience as Maddie’s life witnessed to me throughout the first four months of my very difficult pregnancy. And this speaks to her character, as she impacts people in profound ways as she lives her life seeking to follow Jesus.

Maddie List (front, left) with other students participating in the summer 2017 Ministry Inquiry Program.

As a first-year student, Maddie joined campus ministries as a Ministry Assistant. (This is not the norm, as most first year students wouldn’t be invited to serve in this kind of leadership role before completing their first semester of college.) She started learning how to care for other people as a MA in orientation, even before she knew what it meant to be a first year student. As an MA, she led weekly Bible studies and devotions, while also praying for, encouraging and supporting those on her hall in their faith formation.

In addition to this role, in her first year, she was part of a student-led group that organized a campus-wide vigil during the Listening Process entitled “Come Unite,” bringing students with opposing views regarding the hiring policy together to worship God. In latter years, Maddie has provided leadership as a Community Advisor and Pastoral Assistant where she has helped plan worship services and retreats, shared her personal story in chapel, wrote devotionals, mentored, supported and encouraged younger students. Not only has she mentored students at EMU, but through Intervarsity at James Madison University, has mentored a student who provides leadership to their discipleship team.

Not only has Maddie been involved with learning outside of the classroom, she is deeply invested and contributes greatly to life within the classroom. Nancy Heisey professor in the Bible and Religion Department writes, “Maddie is one of the best student presenters I’ve ever had; she prepares, speaks with authority and clarity, and knows how to round-out a presentation to hold people’s attention.”

While Maddie’s accomplishments are impressive, they are even more impressive in light of the fact that she has done this all of this while suffering from the symptoms of Lyme disease and chronic fatigue syndrome. She isn’t defined by her illness, but rather, she has let the chronic pain she feels be a teacher, helping her to be a more open, vulnerable and sympathetic to others. She has learned to ask for what she needs, recognize her own limitations and also view her limitations as a blessing, in that it has strengthened her reliance on God. Her journey hasn’t been easy, but her perseverance is a witness.

Maddie, the EMU community honors you today with the Cords of Distinction and we encourage you to continue service in the church and community as an expression of God’s love and faithfulness. We’ve been blessed to journey with you and thank you for your leadership and presence as a student at EMU. May God bless you as you continue to strive to be a blessing to others.                                                                                                                                         

Mariah Martin

Mariah Martin.

Mariah earned a degree in nursing. She is from Greencastle, Virginia.

Lisa King, instructor of nursing, presented the award.

As a nurse, it is important to understand that you cannot always fix people or solve their problems. This can be a discouraging thought when entering a field in which your work is to assist others to healing and wholeness. In a reflection that she wrote for MCUSA about her time in Haiti, Mariah Martin said this: Sometimes love is knowing that your action won’t solve the problem, but not letting that stop you from doing what you can.

Mariah has embodied this definition of love throughout her time here at EMU. Her awareness of the ongoing work needed to make this world a more just and loving place to exist has not discouraged her but rather motivated her. Mariah has provided leadership for the Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and traveled to Haiti working with Midwives to safely welcome new life into this world. She has volunteered her time with the Blue Ridge Legal Services as an interpreter, served as a youth sponsor at Community Mennonite Church and was the coordinator for flash seminars held last Spring.  When she could have been discouraged by an injury in her last of four seasons of field hockey, Mariah took it as an opportunity to learn new leadership skills. As a teammate and friend put it, “Mariah is positive, caring, and intentional in every situation life confronts her with.”

I could go on to list all of the work Mariah has done around the community and here on campus, but I think it’s most important to hear from Mariah herself about what is behind the wonderful work she does:

“College is a time of self-discovery and exploration. In this journey to find an identity it can be easy to let the world dwindle down to just one’s self in a single moment. Opening up my world to serving others broadens my view and assures that I do not lose perspective. I am a small piece of a vast and beautiful puzzle. By living in the best ways that I can, I add to the tapestry of humanity.”

Macson McGuigan

Macson McGuigan.

Macson earned degrees in digital media and environmental sustainability with a concentration on environmental/social sustainability and a minor in photography. He is from Berryville, Virginia.

Dr. Jerry Holsopple, professor of visual and communication arts, presented the award.

In Lithuania, I suggested to the students that their motto should be “embrace the mystery.” Macson came to personify that from discovering lost family connections, to dipping his feet in the Baltic Sea to get the perfect time-lapse, from exploring the old towns to doing handstands in the forest and even mimicking the ballet moves in Tallinn.

Macson does more than embrace the mystery, he demonstrates joie de vivre in most aspects of his life. He fully engages in his creative work with a sample reel featuring Daughter of the Stars, an advocacy video about protecting the Shenandoah Mountain for the Virginia Wilderness Committee; the inauguration gala videos; O2O Keeping Florida Wildlife Connected: The Ocala to Osceola Corridor produced by a select group of students receiving scholarships to the North American Nature Photography summit in Florida; slider tutorials for VACA; documentaries for Common Grounds; and numerous other student films as camera operator, producer or animator.

Night after night during rehearsal and performance of Distant Witness, he manuvered around the stage under a camera as part of the team integrating live video into the award-winning production. He volunteered time or images at the Nature’s Best Awards gala in Washington, DC; EMU marketing; Wild Virginia; LCC International University and Campus Activities Council.

Beyond these and other accomplishments, he fully embraces life, people and the natural world. His exuberance is contagious. He likes to sing Rain Down, savor a good kebabia, wade a stream, photograph an owl, or have deep conversations over a cup of tea.

Macson welcomes the big challenges, tries out new gear and techniques, remains sensitive to the subject, works the late nights and completes the production with minutes to spare. His commitment to social change and enthusiasm with meeting unique and amazing people remains constant. Macson ran two half-marathons with me. Like any good running companion he pulls you along toward the finish line, and like everything else he does, he will finish strong. Macson, embrace the mystery that is around you and is yet to come.

Mario Valladares

Mario Valladares.

Mario Valladares earned degrees in business administration, economics and accounting. He is from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

M. Esther Showalter, multicultural student advisor, presented the award.

It is my distinct honor to present this award to Mario Valladares, a young man who exudes joy and brings life to his surroundings. Mario is a charismatic leader who uses his gifts to connect people and take pleasure in life regardless of the circumstances.

Mario is a vibrant student and proof that you can make time to be a good student and be fully involved in college life. I don’t know how he managed, but he always had a big smile with so much energy and ready to go the extra mile. As a leader for the Latino Student Alliance he was fully committed, helped with the growth of the group and was resourceful in the LSA major events. He often called or texted to say “What do you need? Is there anything else I can do to help?” A good example of that was the banquet. He contacted many musicians so we ended up with more groups than we anticipated and the banquet was beautiful thanks to his many connections. Mario, it is going to be very hard to replace you, especially for our first activity of the year. Who is going to say during the mixer “Shall we dance?” Mario, your cheerful personality will be greatly missed.

Mario, you are one of kind and we have been blessed to have you in our midst these last four years. Faculty, staff, your peers and I are grateful for your lively presence and involvement with student government association, united student organization, being part of the luncheons with the international student organization, and giving your time and insights to the cross-cultural committee and business department committee. Thank you for representing EMU at the International Student Leadership Conference. I am especially thankful that you set aside time to go on Wednesday afternoons to Skyline Middle School to spend time with the teenagers and be part of their lives.

Mario, you have impacted our lives and brought humor and delight into our busy schedules. We have been blessed by your warmth and sweet presence. I have no doubt that you will succeed and enjoy the next chapter of your journey.

Elisabeth Wilder      

Elisabeth earned a degree in social work and a minor in pre-law. She is from Hesston, Kansas.

Elizabeth Wilder.

Dr. Carol Grace Hurst, professor of social work, presented the award.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 begins with a depressed person bemoaning the torment and struggle of life caught “in an outcast state” and fearing that God is deaf to this suffering until a particular person is remembered. Then, the outcast finds hope–“Like to the lark at break of day arising, From sullen earth, Singing hymns at heaven’s gate.” Elisabeth May Wilder came to EMU after two years at Hesston where she was awarded Hesston’s Lark of the Year. She describes herself as an idealist, believing that “amidst the suffering, chaos, and violence of this world there can be hope, change, and peace.”

Elisabeth packed her EMU years full of thinking deeply, making relationship connections, and becoming a leader in the community. When she lived in Parkwood Apartments during her first year, she could frequently be observed interacting with other residents as they came and went from her spot in the hammock on her porch. Elisabeth made an immediate, substantial and significant contribution as a Student Government Association senator and was elected SGA co-president for 2016-17. Elisabeth walked with others with a leadership vision of working within systems, clubs, and organizations to make them better and more collaborative, facilitating between people and spaces, becoming a bridge-builder between groups and administration.

As an appreciative leader, she recognized others’ contributions so keenly, she would regularly pen thank you notes. She is vocal in her support for LGBTQ people in the church, and blogs for The Mennonite. Elisabeth was on the Social Work is People leadership team, and part of the planning team for Take Back the Night. She was a co-leader of Student Womens’ Association, a member of the Undergraduate Honors Council, and first coordinator of an EMU theme house.

Elisabeth also brought her considerable writing, analytic, relational talents and humor and inquiring mind to seeking justice. She is the winner of the Intercollegiate 2016 Francis J. Ryan Undergraduate American Studies Paper Award for a paper titled Caitlyn Jenner, Phyllis Schlafly, and Other Transgender Rights Crusaders. And runner-up in the 2016 C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest with a speech entry titled Make Change, Not Hashtags. She built effective cross-cultural alliances in summer internships in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and Bogotá Columbia. She contributed to a book entitled The Little Book of Restorative Justice: For Kids, and completed her social work practicum furthering immigration justice work with Washington Office on Latin America.

If you find yourself depressed, doubting, downcast, or cynical that your efforts matter, please remember Elisabeth May Wilder. Elisabeth, we want to thank you for walking with us here, thank you for your idealism and your practical engaging make it happen charisma. Thank you for being the Lark at break of day reminding us to sing together and make the world a better place.