The 2024 recipients of EMU's Cords of Distinction award pictured at a celebration on Friday, May 3, 2024.

Tributes by faculty, staff for 2024 Cords of Distinction honorees

Ten graduating EMU seniors were honored as Cords of Distinction recipients in a special ceremony on Friday, May 3, 2024, at Martin Chapel.

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The honor is one of the university’s most valued, cherished and meaningful awards given all year. It recognizes graduating students who have made outstanding contributions to the university, community or society over the course of their college careers.

“These students participate in high levels of engagement outside of classes and recognize the importance of the social and civic aspects of engaging in the local community,” said Celeste Thomas, director of multicultural student services and chair of the Cords of Distinction committee. 

As EMU President Dr. Susan Schultz Huxman described in her opening remarks, the 10 students chosen “beautifully enact our mission.”

“[These students] help make the world a better place, more humane, more peaceful, more inclusive, and more attentive to serving marginalized communities,” she said. “They are living epistles of our values and aspirations. They validate who we are, what we do and why we matter.”

Recipients of the award were presented with blue and gold cords to wear at Commencement on Sunday.

Watch a video recording of the ceremony here.

Hannah Landes Beck

A liberal arts major and neuroscience minor from Linville, Virginia, Beck was honored by Shannon Dycus, vice president of student affairs and dean of students.

Beck served as a member of the leadership team of Safe Space (now known as the Queer Student Alliance), as a community advisor with residence life and was a Student Government Association (SGA) representative to the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (CODI). She served as SGA co-president for the past three semesters. 

Outside EMU’s campus, Beck interned with the ARROW Project in Staunton, Virginia, a nonprofit that provides mental health services to underprivileged populations.

“Your small contributions will linger here in this community,” Dycus said. “I have literally witnessed Hannah work harder to ensure it was not just her voice but those marginalized voices getting to speak for themselves to ensure their agency and their presence.”

Ariel Morales Bonilla

A political science and history major and Spanish minor from Richmond, Virginia, Bonilla was honored by Professor Mary Sprunger, history.

Bonilla was co-captain of the men’s soccer team and served on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). The Latino Student Alliance (LSA) benefited from his work as a grant writer, fundraiser, president and historian. Bonilla also served as vice president of SGA this year. 

Bonilla recently finished a successful semester as a policy intern with The Latin America Working Group, which helps with advocacy and outreach to influence U.S. policy in El Salvador, Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia. 

“He brings energy and enthusiasm into every situation, along with a steady calmness,” Sprunger said.

Betty Debebe

A biology major and business administration and psychology minor from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Debebe was honored by Micah Shristi, director of International Student Services.

Debebe’s wide range of leadership roles include treasurer for SGA and as an embedded writing tutor for college writing and public communication classes. She served International Student Services as a student employee for several years, providing airport pickups for new international students and assisting with new student orientations. 

Debebe also volunteered with Church World Service, the Harrisonburg International Festival and worked with the Shenandoah Valley Biotechnology Symposium. She’s helped connect EMU students with Ethiopian and Eritrean students at James Madison University. 

“Her efforts helped form and maintain institutional and personal relationships that have blossomed and grown over the years,” Shristi said. 

Indigo Gott

A music: interdisciplinary studies and social work major from Bluffton, Ohio, Gott was honored by Professor Deanna Durham, social work and sociology, and Professor David Berry, music.

In addition to participating in student organizations and music ensembles, Gott was an advocate for LGBTQ+ students. They developed a guide for faculty and staff on how to better support LGBTQ+ students on campus. Gott served as a Royal Ambassador, as a leader for Safe Space and is deeply committed to inclusion, creating spaces for students to feel heard and valued. 

“You have challenged us to do better,” Durham said. 

Gott brought a special sound to jazz ensembles as its lone jazz flute player. For their senior recital, Gott incorporated both of their majors in the “very first neurodiverse-accessible concert in EMU history,” Berry said.

Rubi N. Long

A social work major from Washington, D.C., Long was honored by Celeste Thomas, director of multicultural student services.

Long’s impact has been broad. She’s touched the lives of many both on- and off-campus and has a heart especially for those in the margins who are sometimes overlooked or even forgotten, Thomas said.

“She humanizes and builds rapport with everyone who crosses her path,” Thomas said. “No one is left out. She is the friend that everyone goes to and relies upon.”

Long has natural leadership qualities and used them with On The Road Collaborative as a youth leader and at Our Community Place as a case manager intern. She is a member of Black Student Alliance, is a community advisor and residence director and served on the search committee for the head of residence life.   

Ashley N. Mellinger

A nursing major and Spanish minor from Harleysville, Pennsylvania, Mellinger was honored by Instructor Wendell Shank, Spanish. 

Mellinger has a heart for service. Before arriving at EMU, she worked as a paramedic and as a firefighter. At EMU, she served as a peer educator, a member of the Campus Activities Council and as a tutor in the Academic Success Center. 

“Ashley became recognized by her classmates as a devoted friend who would check in assessing a friend’s day, health, mental state or simply how their studies were going,” Shank said. “She would prioritize a friend who was down or drive a friend to a doctor’s appointment.” 

Mellinger was also the one with HAZMAT training, certification to drive a fire engine, the friend with CPR training and the one who could recognize or diagnose almost any illness, Shank added.

Sarah E. Moore

A psychology major and peacebuilding minor from Weyers Cave, Virginia, Moore was honored by Professor Cathy Rittenhouse, nursing.

Moore is hope personified. She is seldom not doing something to make the campus a better place and using her influence to make a difference in the lives of others, Rittenhouse said. 

She worked tirelessly with Peer Educators to make the campus safer and more informed. She served as a leader for LSA, the Psychology Club, Gospel Choir, as an Intensive English Program tutor, volunteer with admissions and intern with Our Community Place. 

“Sarah is a blessing to all she meets,” Rittenhouse said. “EMU is a stronger, healthier and far livelier place since Sarah has been here. She offers bright hope for a better tomorrow.”

Luz Belen Hernandez Rosario

A biology major and chemistry minor from Harrisonburg, Virginia, Rosario was honored by Maria Esther Showalter, instructor and program director for language and literature.

As a first-generation high school and college graduate in STEM, Rosario demonstrated her passion will lead her to her purpose, Showalter said.

She served as a Royal Ambassador giving guided tours in Spanish, as a conversation partner in the Intensive English Program (IEP) and as a student instructor for biology. Rosario also was a Spanish interpreter for the Remote Area Medical free clinic and for Just Neighbors, which offers immigration legal services.

“Her commitment to Latinx Student Alliance and willingness to share about the beauty of Hispanic culture to the EMU community throughout these four years has been phenomenal,” Showalter said. 

Rachael N. Saeli

A social work major from Towson, Maryland, Saeli was honored by Merry Yirga, admissions counselor.

Saeli was an active member of Black Student Alliance and was involved in the painting of the Black Lives Matter mural and the creation of the Barbershop Talk podcast.

She helped plan and execute convocations, panels, town halls and talkback events. She also served as a community advisor for residence life and volunteered as a conversation partner with IEP. Outside of campus, Saeli volunteered at Brightview Senior Living Communities in Towson, Maryland, and interned at Jubilee Housing in Washington, D.C.

“In every community, there are quiet influencers, individuals whose subtle yet profound contributions shape the experiences of those around them, often without their own awareness or widespread recognition from others,” Yirga said. “Rachel is a prime example of this here at EMU.”

Riley Quezada

A music education major from Mount Jackson, Virginia, Quezada was honored by Professor Kathy Evans, education.

Quezada is a talented musician, a beautiful vocalist and a future music educator who worked with faculty members to create amazing concerts. 

Quezada also provided passion, support and leadership for EMU’s justice, equity and belonging initiatives by being a member of CODI and working through the Office of DEI to help plan Lavender Graduation, Queer History Month and other campus events. They have been active in Student Education Association and LSA and provided visionary leadership as Safe Space transitioned into Queer Student Alliance.

“While Riley has been active in so many things at EMU and beyond, what impresses me most about Riley Quezada is their heart,” Evans said. “Riley is an all-around beautiful human being.”

The 2024 Cords of Distinction Committee included: Brian Martin Burkholder, Kathy Evans, Trina Nussbaum, Deanna Durham, Braydon Hoover and Justin McIlwee.

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