Left to right: EMU Cords of Distinction recipients Alcinda Brubaker, Elizabeth Eby, Skylar Hedgepeth, Allison Shelly, Tahj'ae Coleman, Faith Manickam, Rodrigo Barahona, Hannah Leaman, Asha Beck, and Misrahim (Mizz) Nyagwegwe joined president Susan Shultz Huxman at her house for a brunch before commencement. (Photo by Derrick Chirinos / insets by EMU photographers)

Tributes by faculty and staff for 2022 Cords of Distinction honorees

Ten graduating seniors were honored as Cords of Distinction recipients in a ceremony Saturday afternoon, April 30, 2022, at Eastern Mennonite University.

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.

Rodrigo Barahona plays drums at the Good Weather Groovin’ event on Thomas Plaza.

Rodrigo Barahona

An environmental science and economics from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Rodrigo was honored by Micah Shristi, director of International Student Services.

Rodrigo Pablo Felipe Sebastian Barahona Barahona, or – to his friends–”Rodri”. Since the moment he first set foot on campus Rodrigo has consistently and constantly demonstrated welcoming, connecting, and generously serving others as his highest priorities. This is exemplified by the chill relaxed friendly creative presence that Rodrigo brings to any interaction and by the many and wide-ranging community building activities on his EMU resume:

1. International Student Organization (“ISO”). Unfailing participation, planning, and leadership of the club throughout his 4 years at EMU including 2 years as treasurer. Let me give you an example: Even this semester with an evening class at the same time as our weekly club gathering, Rodrigo still comes to the gathering as soon as his class is over even if it’s just for 5 minutes at the tail end of the gathering. Connecting with and supporting ISO members is so important to him. Rodrigo has also been an active member of the Latino Student Alliance.

2. Creative expression. Through participation in formal and informal music ensembles Rodrigo has (literally) helped to set the rhythm of campus life with his skills as a drummer with the EMU Jazz Ensemble and many other musical collaborations. I would be remiss if I failed to mention creative video collaborations with Jay Cho. 

3. He’s brainy. One major was not enough for this man. He needed two, so he’s graduating with a double major: economics and environmental science.  And surprise, surprise, Rodrigo uses his braininess to help other students by serving as an economics tutor in the Academic Success Center and an English language tutor in the Intensive English Program. 

4. Community service: Gardens, solar panels, field trips, vines, figs… Oh, my! 

All this and more… and always friendly, welcoming, unassuming, and non-judgmental. Rodrigo models creativity, compassion, and hard work to his peers. There will be a Rodri-shaped hole in EMU’s community fabric next semester. Thank you for everything, Rodrigo. These Cords of Distinction are well deserved.  

Asha Beck (left) talks with fellow nominee Hannah Leaman and President Susan Shultz Huxman at the Cords of Distinction breakfast.

Asha Beck

A digital media and communications major and Spanish minor from Linville, Virginia, Asha was honored by Professor Kathy Evans, education.

It has been an immense pleasure to work and learn alongside Asha Beck this year. Asha has a heart for people; she possesses natural leadership qualities; and she holds a deep passion for justice. 

Whether she is planning an event or working on an art project, Asha centers relationships with others as an essential part of all that she does. She cares for people and it shows in the way she listens empathetically and in the way she works to include people who have often been left out. She sees people, truly sees them, regardless of their status or of their ability to provide something in exchange – she simply sees them and includes them in the most genuine of ways. In thoughtful and compassionate ways, Asha embodies the tagline, “Belong Together,” and has helped to make EMU a place where people indeed do belong. 

Asha is also a natural leader. She has been a member of Safe Space since her first year at EMU; as one of the Leadership Council members this past year, she has worked to build community and support fellow students. In addition, she has held leadership in the Art Club and served as a senator with SGA. With her commitment to a relational ethic, her leadership takes on a quality of collaboration and invitation. I remember being at a Safe Space meeting where students were discussing the roles of president, vice-president, etc. and in part because of Asha’s leadership, they ended up settling on a leadership team model, where they all worked together to make decisions and plan events. I think they even rewrote the club constitution to reflect this commitment to a non-hierarchical leadership structure. 

Lastly, one of the things that I have appreciated so much has been Asha’s fierce commitment to justice and equity. Again, from a completely relational place, she is willing to have difficult and authentic conversations that demonstrate a willingness to learn from others’ perspectives. From caring for chickens to hosting conversations about healthy emotional boundaries, Asha has spoken out about important issues and has supported initiatives that create opportunities for education, advocacy, and a better EMU. 

Asha’s care for the earth, her love for people, and her concern for all of life have led her to be one of those quiet champions for a more just world. I look forward to seeing where Asha’s path continues to take her. 

Alcinda Brubaker walks across the commencement stage.

Alcinda Brubaker 

A marketing major from Keezletown, Virginia, Alcinda was honored by Celeste Thomas, Director of Multicultural Services.

I am humbled to stand before you today to share the accomplishments of this wonderful young woman, Alcinda Brubaker. It was my pleasure to serve as her adviser for the Black Student Alliance as well as mentor. I have come to not only know Alcinda as a talented young woman but I have been blessed to have the honor to get to know her heart. 

Alcinda began her journey at EMU in 2010 and in the words of Langston Hughes, “Life ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor—Bare.” Despite all of your challenges you have kept climbin’ and reachin’ landin’s, and turnin’ corners, and sometimes goin’ in the dark, but you have followed your own advice and have never given up! 

You have given so authentically and unselfishly of yourself to the EMU community, the greater Harrisonburg community, and to the well-being of the numerous students you have mentored. Your impact will be felt for years to come. You have impacted not only the BIPOC community but you have left your footprint on the entire campus. On campus you have served the following: Royal Society Ambassadors, Art Club, Black Student Alliance, The Weather Vane, Student Life, and the Department of Business and Leadership to name a few. Additionally, you have served Gift and Thrift, Harrisonburg Renaissance, International Festival, Beats for Mozambique, and Divine Unity Community Church. Your reach has been broad. 

You are passionate about making a difference in the lives of those who are marginalized. You recognize the privilege that you hold and work hard to make the playing field equitable for everyone. You live your favorite quote by Ghandi, which is, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” You have worked hard to overcome adversity and you are resilient beyond words. 

I leave you with these words from Amanda Gorman: “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” You are BRAVE! Look what a war orphan from Mozambique has accomplished when given the opportunity!

Tahj’ae Coleman is honored by Celeste Thomas, Director of Multicultural Services at the Cords of Distinction ceremony.

Tahj’ae Coleman

A psychology major from Willingboro, New Jersey, Tahj’ae was honored by Celeste Thomas, Director of Multicultural Services.

I am well pleased to have had the opportunity to walk alongside Tahj’ae during her journey at EMU. In the words of Maya Angelou,“Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? ’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells Pumping in my living room.”

Tahj’ae is a deep thinker. She is one who sits back and observes situations before contributing. She takes it all in and comes to the table informed. She does her research. She has a heart and genuine concern for people and creates opportunities for those who are less fortunate than herself.  

Tahj’ae is a true advocate for social justice. She not only assisted with the creation and painting of the Black Lives Matter Mural but has on numerous occasions raised her voice and spoke truth to power in the EMU Weather Vane newspaper. She unapologetically shared her passion about the inequities happening in the world and on campus. She stood up with confidence, bravery, self determination and empowerment while serving her people.

She carries that same passion in her service with the Black Student Union, the Student Government, Psychology Club and Royal Ambassadors. It wasn’t enough to just be a part of these organizations, she held leadership roles in all of them. She always shows up in spaces as her authentic self and this is a unique gift.

Additionally, she has worked at Covenant House where she was able to counsel homeless youth and guided them in the direction of working toward a positive and productive future. In an effort to assist students in having a better college experience, she is conducting research on how childhood verbal abuse can create low self-esteem in college students and can ultimately create a lack of sense of belonging in college.  

Tahj’ae has taken being a young woman of color on campus very seriously. It is not lost on her the importance of representation to underclassmen of color and that regardless of one’s ethnicity, your hard work will pay off! To paraphrase Maya Angelou: Tahj’ae, Bringing the gifts that Your ancestors gave, You are the dream and the hope of the slave. You Rise, You Rise, You Rise!

Elizabeth Eby practices for the EMU theater production “Noah’s Flood.”

Elizabeth Eby

A major in peacebuilding and development and Bible, religion and theology from Goshen, Indiana, Elizabeth was honored by Professor Justin Poole, theater program director.

Throughout her four years at EMU, Elizabeth Eby has been a standout student, always dedicated, hardworking, fearless, and passionate. She has juggled multiple activities with patience and a smile on her face, contributing greatly to group dynamics in diverse settings.

Elizabeth has served as Pastoral Assistant (then Student Chaplain) for two years, as a hymn sing student leader, as planner and leader of campus worship services and the Sunday Night Worship service during the pandemic shut down period. 

In theater Elizabeth’s contributions onstage and behind the scenes have helped launch and sustain a significant growth period for the theater program. From her first leading role, playing Belle in Beauty and the Beast during her freshman year to her unforgettable portrayal of doomed rockstar Mercutio in U2 Romeo and Juliet and the featured dancer in the opera Noye’s Fludde Elizabeth has demonstrated remarkable skills as a performer. Elizabeth has been the recipient of multiple Irene Ryan Acting nominations from the Kennedy American College Theater Festival. She was even one of the select few to make it to the finals round in this year’s regional competition, beating out theater majors from much larger programs. Elizabeth has also been a community teacher for the after-school program On the Road Collaborative at Thomas Harrison Middle School, demonstrating her commitment to nurture another generation of artists. 

Elizabeth Eby’s presence at EMU has made this a better place, and I look forward to seeing where she goes from here!

Field hockey athlete Skylar Hedgepeth on the EMU turf field.

Skylar Hedgepeth

An elementary education major from Smithfield, Virginia, Skylar was honored by Ashley “Stick” Kishorn, head field hockey coach.

Skylar Hedgepeth has connected with a tremendous amount of people during her time at EMU. I realize there are so many individuals who could speak on behalf of Skylar tonight. I am truly honored to have the opportunity to present Skylar Hedgepeth for this recognition of Cords of Distinction Award. 

Skylar has taken opportunities to be a leader in a wide variety of roles on campus and throughout our community by participating as an active member with Eastern Mennonite Student Women’s Association and the Committee of Diversity & Inclusion.  As Celebration co-president and a Student Chaplain Assistant, Skylar exemplifies her passion to serve others through EMU’s student-led worship service. She dedicates her summers to Fuge Camps, where she works as a bible study leader to create change in the lives of students. Skylar’s compassion and selfless contribution to others will continue to guide her as she pursues her future as an educator. In addition to her activities, Skylar’s dedication to academic excellence has allowed her to maintain a 4.0 Cumulative GPA and hold a spot on the EMU Deans List each semester. She has been recognized as a member of the NFHCA All – Academic Squad and a Scholar of Distinction. 

In the recruiting process four years ago, I could tell that EMU and the field hockey program would be a good choice for Skylar and for our program, but more importantly Skylar was a perfect fit for the EMU community as a whole. Skylar already possessed many of the values and characteristics, and of course the field hockey skills to make a prominent contribution to EMU Athletics. Skylar made an immediate impact on the field hockey program starting her career leading the team in goals as a freshman and earning the EMU Rookie Athlete of the Year Award. Sklyar also earned All-ODAC recognition during her freshman and junior seasons. As she finishes her field hockey career, she leaves her mark on the program and her name in the record book, finishing 17th all time in scoring. Additionally, Skylar’s work ethic and determination allowed her to participate as a dual-sport athlete and also played softball and lacrosse.

Beyond the statistics and her capabilities as an athlete, Skylar exemplifies what you hope each and every athlete who comes through the program will aspire to be. You hope that they will get involved and be active participants in the community, you hope that they will be able to grow their faith, and you hope that they will grow as leaders and be able to advocate for themselves and for others. She has taken full advantage of the Division III athletic experience and submerged herself into the EMU community. She cares deeply about women’s representation, she is vocal about the rights of underrepresented groups, and steps up to share her faith with others. I am grateful for the opportunity to have coached Skylar. I could not be more proud of her and the impact that she will have on future students as an elementary teacher.  

Hannah Leaman speaks at Lavender Graduation.

Hannah Leaman

A mathematics major with secondary education licensure and a minor in Honors from Bakersfield, California, Hannah was honored by Professor Daniel Showalter, mathematics.

During her first three years at EMU, Hannah quickly established herself as a disciplined student, talented writer, and a master of mysteries. For example, did you realize that Hannah shares the title of reigning world champion of the Kryptos Codebreaking Competition held by the University of Central Washington? But rather than selfishly limiting her sharp wits to her own academic pursuits, she invests them in helping others. As one nominator said, “Hannah has so courageously spoken out on important issues on campus and done so with grace, thoughtfulness, and compassion. She has been a quiet and fierce advocate for a better EMU.” 

Still, it wasn’t until our cross-cultural to Thailand together that I truly began to see Hannah’s poetic soul and transformative presence. Although I may not have earned the same 15 credits as the students on the trip, I learned just as much, and a large portion of my growth took place from reading Hannah’s journal. She taught me how an event can be interpreted quite differently by people with different backgrounds and how our past experiences color our present perceptions. She introduced me to inspirational leaders like Glennon Doyle. And her unique way of articulating social dynamics and personal tensions changed the way I organize my thoughts. Yet, Hannah is not only an eloquent writer; she backs her words up with her actions. When a member of our cross-cultural broke her ankle, I took care of the basic needs, but Hannah quickly perceived that the student’s emotional needs and feelings of inclusion were just as important. Without any prompting, she organized a daily rotation of support for the member – a task that required numerous hours and lasted the entire trip. And this is just one peer; everyone respected Hannah. At one point, when Hannah was wrestling with some personal issues, she asked my 9-year-old daughter Ellie if she had an extra stuffed animal to share; this was a breakthrough moment in Ellie feeling connected with Hannah. As Ellie said, “Anyone who understands the power of bonding with a stuffie can be trusted.” Here are some other comments written by her cross-cultural peers: “Hannah’s curiosity shines and is a huge asset.” “Hannah, you balance strength of character and genuine thoughtfulness, peppered with giddy enthusiasm for the beautiful things in life” “Hannah, you make things happen. You are very intelligent in the way you care for others.” “Hannah, I always enjoy conversations with you. They never stay as small talk for long.” And, my personal favorite, “Hannah is badass but also so kind and loving. The combo makes her even more badass.”

This spring, I’ve been supervising Hannah’s semester of student teaching. In terms of content and pedagogy, she was a star, which was no surprise. Behavior management, however, can be much trickier even for experienced teachers. On Hannah’s first day of middle school instruction, she took a stand when she heard some culturally inappropriate comments. That day would have gone so much more smoothly for Hannah had she chosen to ignore the comments, but she has never been one to opt for the easy way out. Another incident occurred a couple weeks later when the cooperating teacher was absent – this one had the potential to emotionally endanger other students and was personally directed at Hannah when she tried to intervene. Rather than hold a grudge against the students who were responsible, Hannah regrouped that night, and then entered into a mediated restorative process in the following days. This process not only helped heal her relationship with the students but also helped the students sincerely and willingly change their speech and behavior as a result. 

Hannah, may you continue to sustain your balance as a dancing daffodil and a badass advocate for this world. 

Faith Manickam serves food at the International Food Festival.

Faith Manickam 

A biology, pre-med major and chemistry minor from Hesston, Kansas, Faith was honored by Rachel Roth Sawatzky, director of Student Programs, Student Life.

Cords of Distinction are presented to EMU students who make positive contributions to student life and the institution at large, while maintaining good academic standing. It is my distinct honor to present this award to Faith Manickam who has both met and exceeded these criteria in her academic and community engagement endeavors throughout her time at EMU. Biology professor Jeff Copeland indicates that Faith distinguished herself in the classroom and in preparation for medical school, but that she is not just a great student, she is also a great classmate. Professor Deanna Durham also reflected on Faith’s academic giftedness, adding that Faith also offers “a presence that encourages others to share; she pauses before speaking and you can see her wondering about how to put her questions into words. She is sensitive and mindful of others, giving space and a kind smile. I’ve enjoyed hearing her process in class, reflecting about identity and faith, aware of the larger world yet fully immersed where she is.” Deanna also noted with appreciation, “Faith shows up again and again: for SGA; campus events; poetry readings; speakers; convocation; and so on. And she not only shows up but she engages deeply in discussions and conversations, lingering to talk…she doesn’t want to miss an opportunity to learn more.”

In my own experience of Faith I have found that she embodies the words of musician and philosopher, Jimi Hendrix: “knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.” I have yet to meet another student who can hold space with such compassion and confidence. Dean of Students Shannon Dycus reflects, “Faith has both natural and learned leadership skills. Watching her in leadership means getting to witness the ways she is actively attentive to the needs of people around her – you see her eyes moving with care. Faith’s leadership is centered in possibility – always asking the questions of how we can show up. The spirit that drives this in her motivates others to the generative care she holds.” 

Not only is she wise and thoughtful, Faith is also a great conversationalist. I value the many conversations that have spilled over from a scheduled meeting into an extended personal conversation. Over the course of those conversations, Faith and I have discovered numerous shared experiences and deep connections. If Faith and I had gone to college together, I hope that we would have been friends; and in any case, I am very glad we are friends now.

Faith, as you set your eyes toward the next phase, I want to offer you this advice for life, in the words of Indian writer and political activist Arundhati Roy: 

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.

Faith – good luck and on behalf of EMU, thank you for your leadership and the spirit in which you offered it.

Mishram (Mizz) Nyagwegwe thanks Carlin Kreider after his Cords of Distinction presentation.

Misrahim (Mizz) Nyagwegwe

A recreation and sports management major from Norristown, Pennsylvania, Mizz was honored by Brian Martin Burkholder, University Chaplain, and Carlin Kreider, Campus Missionary, Every Nation Campus.

Well, what does one say to honor Misrahim (Mizz) Nyagwegwe upon his recognition as a recipient of the EMU Cords of Distinction? He is a beloved son, thoughtful brother, dedicated uncle, friend to many, basketball player and valued teammate, mentee, and mentor to peers. What stands out most clearly is the loyalty Mizz extends to the people for whom he cares. Mizz is always willing to go the extra mile to care for and benefit others, sometimes setting aside his own preferences, motivated by a desire to see those around him grow and improve.

When observing Mizz in action, it is his steadfast presence that stands out. When Mizz is there, he is there. His contributions to the well-being of others, or toward meeting the goals of the team, or advancing a shared purpose are steady and consistent. He shows up and offers what he has to offer with an unassuming yet confident presence and he brings joy by sharing his warm smile and friendly personality.

It seems that Mizz finds great joy in serving others. He is a four year member of the men’s basketball team – elevated to co-captain his senior year, a ministry assistant and student chaplain assistant contributing to the intentions of campus ministries and the Office of Faith and Spiritual Life, a community advisor with residence life, a rec sports intern helping to organize and run events, and a dedicated student leader with Every Nation Campus as they moved from having affiliate status to being an official EMU student club.

In addition to his on campus involvements, Mizz has been active at his church serving on the parking team and as an Armor Bearer and he participated in a spring break mission trip to Myrtle Beach. He also contributed to the Royals Read program with the men’s basketball team reading to area children.

Our hope for Mizz is that he continues to pursue God and grow in his own understandings of his purpose – his vocation. May God bless Mizz with a deep knowledge and experience of the love God has for him, and may Mizz continue to find ways of reflecting this love outward so it in turn blesses others who cross his path.

Mizz, congratulations on being honored with the EMU Cords of Distinction.

Allison Shelly talks with fellow students at an athletics orientation.

Allison Shelly

A political science major with minors in Honors, journalism, community organizing and development, and history from Collinsville, Mississippi, Allison was honored by Professor Ji Eun Kim, political science.

Salt and light. Allison Shelly is the person who recalls what Jesus said to his followers: To be salt and light of this world, affecting and influencing the people, community, and the world around us. As shared by multiple enthusiastic nominations, Allison made a “significant and verifiable impact” on all of us during her four years at EMU. 

As her colleagues appreciated her presence and active work in every corner of our campus and beyond, succinctly reviewing Allison’s list of countless positions and accomplishments is highly challenging. She was the SGA co-president during COVID and polarized election year, a position in which she helped the campus organize “Race Matters,” “LGBTQ+ Matters” orientations, hosted town halls, co-hosted a convocation event reflecting on political polarization on campus. Her peers also called her a great leader of EMU’s Cross Country, Track & Fields, and EMU Triathlon teams. Allison served as a Community Advisor for first years as well as the EMU Honors mentor. She also worked in the Visual Arts in Worship Documentary team, a collaborative work between EMU and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Except for the semesters when she was off -campus, either for her Middle East Cross-Cultural or to work as a Community Organizing intern at Congregation Action Network in DC, her name always appeared on the Weathervane, where she served as the writer and photographer. You may have also come across her bright, friendly smile at Common Grounds as she was our barista for four semesters. Allison’s active campus engagement was also accompanied by her excellent academic standing. As a major in political science with four minors (in history, community organizing, journalism, and honors), she has been an all-A Dean’s list student with a perfect GPA. 

Now while Allison’s resume certainly shines with numerous accolades, it is who she is and how she does the work that really makes her deserving of this award. Allison is a person who tirelessly holds on to the values of justice and equity in all aspects of her life. She is empathetic and genuinely cares about others, especially those whose voice has been silenced and or marginalized. It is no surprise that her research topics have always centered around the issues of unjust political systems that suppress others and perpetuate injustices (e.g., examining the mistreatment of Kurds, assessing the international human rights regimes that are inherently limited in addressing ongoing violence). Allison is passionate about the ways in which we can create real change, yet she approaches others with great nuance and humility, hoping to communicate and understand the complex emotions that others or herself may experience in this arduous journey for justice. Her attentive listening skills and thoughtful presence invite and challenge us to become more loving and caring people. Last year, Allison shared three values that she wishes to engrain in the foundation of her being and purpose: First was “initiative” (with the wisdom that her actions may not create immediate social change). Second, a mindset of “abundance.”  And lastly, “creativity” which often blooms the most when we are limited. I feel blessed to have been able to work with Allison these past four years, who truly inspires us with such a desire to improve herself and the world around her. I look forward to seeing her continue to walk this journey guided by her values.