Incredible stories uncovered by Student of Excellence Award program

The African-American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, International and Native American student program, or AHAINA, invites its juniors with a minimum GPA of 3.0 to compete for the Student of Excellence Award every spring.

AHAINA also offers peer mentorship, scholarship and internship information, a computer lab and study area, academic success workshops and seminars, academic recognition programs and guidance for transitioning freshmen.

“AHAINA gave me an opportunity to explore my cultural background and helped me focus on pursuing my goals,” Leslie Pridgen, who received the Student of Excellence Award in 2018, said.

Eligible students submit applications for the award. A committee then reviews the applications and selects one man and one woman. The winners receive recognition and a $2,000 tuition waiver.

The program started in the 1990s and has evolved over time. Three years ago, the application form switched from paper to ePortfolio.

“The ePortfolio is recognized as a high-impact practice for student success,” AHAINA director Andres Thorn said.

The questions presented in the application prepare students for applying for jobs or graduate school. The program included open-ended questions where students wrote about impactful experiences in their lives.

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“When we started asking questions like that, we started getting stories,” Thorn said. “Some students were telling us about horrific life circumstances that they had to overcome in order to be a Seawolf.”

The 2018 winners, Leslie Pridgen and Alexandra Ellis, both went through life-changing trials to be where they are today.

Alexandra Ellis and Leslie Pridgen received the 2018 Student of Excellence Award. Photo courtesy of AHAINA.

Pridgen, a social work and human services student, was homeless at one point and stayed at Brother Francis Shelter.

“They gave me the tools to help me get up on my feet,” Pridgen said. “I’m grateful, thankful and blessed. So many people I know refuse to take the services that the community offers.”

It was his desire for independence that motivated Pridgen to accept help from Brother Francis Shelter, Bean’s Cafe and Catholic Social Services.

“A lot of good things have been happening to me since I pulled myself out of the trenches,” Pridgen said.

Brother Francis Shelters offers jobs and staff training. It helped him start a career in human services. Pridgen began volunteering at the Veterans Administration, where he currently works.

Ellis, an English student who aspires to teach at the college level, turned away from drugs and alcohol in 2014.

“I’ve gotten to follow my dream. I would not have been able to do that if I hadn’t totally change my life at 17 and been willing to choose a different life,” Ellis said.

The ePortfolio format allowed Ellis to tell the story of how she restarted her life.

“I think narratives carry a lot of power,” Ellis said. “I felt like I had a chance to tell my story in a way that I felt represented the power of it.”

She was also prompted by ePortfolio and AHAINA to discover more about her Cherokee background. After asking her dad about their family history, she discovered a passion for the culture.

“I got to start learning a little bit of my language and how we got from being Longfoots to Ellises,” Ellis said. “It made me really proud of how much language we’ve held on to and how many artifacts we’ve held on to. [I discovered] just how proud my family is to be [Cherokee] and I hope to carry that forward in my education.”

Ellis plans on taking a Cherokee language class this summer.

Ellis and Pridgen passed on the award to the 2019 Students of Excellence on April 6.

For more information about AHAINA, call 786-4070 or visit the Multicultural Center in Rasmuson Hall Suite 106.