Rita Castañon and Jesse West have left such a mark on Sullivan Foundation partner school Carson-Newman University, they were both featured in a season 3 episode of the Amazon Prime series, “The College Tour.” They’re also the recipients of the 2022 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, the highest honor presented to students at the university.
Clad in his Eagles football jersey, West, a team captain, extolled the virtues of a Christian education at Carson-Newman on “The College Tour” and even led his teammates in prayer for the camera. Castañon talked about the opportunities the university offered to her as an immigrant and pointed out that she will graduate without any student debt. “It was here that I followed my passions for advocacy, mental health and accessibility to a higher education,” Castañon told the show’s viewers.
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A Morristown, Tenn. resident, Castañon is a political science and psychology major. A first-generation college student, she has used her time at Carson-Newman to the fullest. Beyond excelling as a student, she has sought ways to help those in need, particularly those in the local area navigating the challenges that face a large Spanish-speaking community.
As a student, Castañon has served in roles for the Student Government Association, Eagle Production Company, Gamma Sigma Sigma, the Center for Community Engagement, and a member of both political science and history honor societies: Pi Sigma Alpha and Phi Alpha Theta.
Castañon is also president and co-founder of one of the university’s newest organizations: PODER, which stands for “Pursing Our Dreams, Embracing Our Roots.” The organization reflects Rita’s own servant heart, as it seeks to empower immigrant students and promote cultural awareness. Through PODER, she met with state legislators to lobby about issues affecting undocumented college students. She obtained a prestigious internship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington, D.C., becoming one of two Tennesseans to participate in the program.
Dr. Amanda Ford, an assistant professor of history, said of Castañon, “Rita is a perfect example of the kind of educated citizen and worldwide servant-leader we are trying to help build at Carson-Newman.”
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West, a religion and communication major from Palmetto, Fla., has developed a presence both on and off the playing field during his time at Carson-Newman, demonstrating leadership and servant skills.
As a member of the Eagles football team, he earned the Roy Harmon Award for exemplifying Christian values. He served as a team captain and member of the football leadership council. West is a CoSIDA All-District honors recipient for excellence in competition and in the classroom, a three-year member of the South Atlantic Conference Commissioner’s Honor Roll, and three-time Eagle Scholar.
West was also a member of the Faith & Justice Scholars Program, completing over 400 hours of community service over the past four years at Appalachian Outreach and The Store. He served as a Residence Life assistant and chaplain and on the leadership team for Baptist Collegiate Ministries. He earned the Robert and Irene Shurden Award for the Outstanding Religion Junior. And he’s a member of Alpha Lambda Delta honor society who made the Carson-Newman Dean’s List every year.
“Jesse West conducts himself with poise and a winsome grace,” said Dr. David Crutchley, dean of the School of Biblical and Theological Studies. “He is gifted but always speaks with a voice of humility and concern for others. He is mature and wise beyond his years and has mentored other students on his journey at Carson-Newman consciously and unconsciously through his life example and witness.”
Carson-Newman President Charles A. Fowler said the Sullivan Award recipients have made their professors and fellow students proud. “Their accomplishments are truly inspiring, and we are delighted to call them our own,” he said. “As a Christian institution, we are committed to helping our students become educated citizens and worldwide servant-leaders. Jesse and Rita’s servant leadership is already having an impact, and we look forward to seeing how God is going to use them.”
This article has been edited and expanded from the original version appearing on the Carson-Newman University website.