This Sullivan Award Recipient Is Also a Gymnastics Star at Auburn University

As a senior on the Auburn University gymnastics team, Meredith Sylvia is a standout on the beam, but sports isn’t her only passion: She’s also a dedicated community servant leader and one of three recipients of the prestigious 2021 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, which honors students who place service above self.

Meet the other recipients of Auburn University’s 2021 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award.

Sylvia, who hails from Macungie, Pa., recently finished her time on the Plains as one of the gymnastics program’s most consistent beam workers, having competed in the event in all but two meets throughout her four-year career. The multiple SEC Academic Honor Roll honoree has also been a staple in the Auburn community since she arrived on the Plains in 2017, serving hundreds of people in greater Lee County.

Most recently, she has dedicated many hours to the Lee County Humane Society. With the restrictions that came from the COVID pandemic, Sylvia sought out other ways she could help the community and became a foster home volunteer, taking in animals from the local shelter. To this day, she has fostered animals that need homes and provided relief to over-flowing shelters in the area. Sylvia has cared for more than 20 different animals since the pandemic started last spring.


Prior to the pandemic, Sylvia spent many hours with local elementary and middle school students. The aspiring middle school teacher worked with Our House, a non-profit that provides resources to underprivileged families, tutoring and mentoring middle school and elementary students by providing help with classwork. In addition, she encouraged positive behavior and excitement for learning.

Related: Auburn’s Sullivan Award recipients are part of a proud lineage dating back 70 years

Sylvia had also served the community on many occasions with her team as well as the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. With the team, she has participated in the yearly Auburn Downtown Trick or Treat event, where athletes greeted fans and passed out candy to kids. Sylvia has also spent time with local elementary students, showcasing gymnastics skills and encouraging the importance of exercise. She has been involved in a handful of Habitat for Humanity service projects through Auburn SAAC. She volunteered in 2017 and then served as the coordinator of the service project in 2019.

Sylvia will graduate with a degree in conservation biology at the end of the spring 2021 semester. She plans on earning a Master of Arts in teaching and hopes to become a middle school science teacher.

The Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award has been presented at Auburn since 1951 as a reminder of the noblest human qualities exemplified by Algernon Sydney Sullivan, a prominent humanitarian and first president of the New York Southern Society, now the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation. Each year, Auburn bestows the honor on one male and one female student from the graduating class.

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Auburn Tigers website.

Esteemed Professor, Two Students Receive 2021 Sullivan Award from Auburn University

By Neal Reid, Auburn University

A highly esteemed professor and a pair of exemplary students at Sullivan Foundation partner school Auburn University have been selected as the 2021 recipients of the prestigious Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award.

Political Science Professor Steven Brown and College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) students William Illiano and Meredith Sylvia are this year’s recipients of the award, which is given annually by the university to individuals who embody high qualities and nobility of character.

Related: Auburn’s Sullivan Award recipients are part of a proud lineage dating back 70 years

Brown is the Morris Savage Endowed Chair for the Department of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). Illiano is a biomedical sciences major, and Sylvia is majoring in organismal biology.

Steven Brown—an Auburn professor since 1998—recently won the Award for Excellence in Faculty Outreach as part of Auburn’s 2020 Faculty Awards. He is an expert in everything from constitutional law and church-and-state issues to the Supreme Court and American legal history. He was the inaugural recipient of the Auburn University Parents Association’s Faculty Award in 2018.

Brown is a National Society of Collegiate Scholars Faculty of the Year Award recipient, is heavily involved in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute as an instructor and guest lecturer and is an award-winning writer who has been published regularly since 2002. He received the National Communication Association’s Franklyn S. Haiman Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Freedom of Expression in 2005 for his book, “Trumping Religion: The New Christian Right, The Free Speech Clause and the Courts.”

Brown’s article, “The Girard Will and Twin Landmarks of Supreme Court History,” received the Supreme Court Historical Society’s 2017 Hughes-Gossett Senior Prize, which was awarded by Chief Justice John Roberts. Earlier this year, Brown’s book, “Alabama Justice: The Cases and Faces That Changed a Nation”—the companion book to his award-winning traveling exhibition—was awarded the Anne B. and James B. McMillian Prize in Southern History, and the exhibit was named a finalist for the 2020 Silver Gavel Award for Media and the Arts by the American Bar Association.

William Illiano

William Illiano, an Honors College member, has been awarded the Spirit of Auburn Presidential scholarship, served as president of Campus Kitchens and performed as an alto saxophonist in the Auburn University Marching Band and saxophone jazz band.

Related: Meet Auburn University’s 2020 Sullivan Award recipients

Illiano, who is from Fairhope, Alabama, has participated in a National Institutes of Health-funded study investigating racial disparities in health and sleep and has made the Dean’s List every semester since fall 2017. After graduation, he will become part of the Class of 2025 at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.

Meredith Sylvia

Meredith Sylvia was a standout four-year member of the Auburn gymnastics team and was named to the Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll from 2018-20. She served as a research volunteer in Placencia, Belize, where she surveyed local reefs and helped extract invasive lionfish.

Sylvia, who hails from Macungie, Pennsylvania, has dedicated herself to helping younger students by participating in Our House—a program that helps middle school students and provides encouragement and positive behavior for learning. After graduation, Sylvia plans to earn a Master of Arts in teaching and become a middle school science teacher.

Related: Read more about Meredith Sylvia’s commitment to serving others here.

The Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award has been presented at Auburn since 1951 as a reminder of the noblest human qualities exemplified by Algernon Sydney Sullivan, a prominent humanitarian and first president of the New York Southern Society, now the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation. Each year, Auburn bestows the honor on one male and one female student from the graduating class and this year also honored Brown as an exemplary faculty member.

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Auburn University website.


Sullivan Scholar Sarah Guest of Vanderbilt Aims to Become a School Leader

It’s a wonder that Sarah Guest, an M.Ed. candidate and recent recipient of the Sullivan Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Scholarship at Vanderbilt University, finds the time to attend classes. She already teaches third-graders at Eagle View Elementary in Antioch, Tenn., and holds a second part-time job as well. But it’s her goal to become a true education leader, and she believes the Sullivan Scholarship will help her fulfill that ambition.

“I would not be able to experience this world-class educational opportunity if not for the generous scholarship provided by the Sullivan Foundation,” she said. “My future plans to become a school leader will undoubtedly be shaped by the peers and professors whom I am able to access through this program, and I will be forever grateful for the valuable experience [the Foundation has] made possible for me.”

Related: Past Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner helps prepare girls of color for careers in science

In the following Q&A, Guest, a Roswell, Ga. native and master’s degree student in Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, talks about her Vandy experience thus far:

Q: Tell us about your background (where you’re from, interests, family, etc.). Why did you choose Vanderbilt, and what influenced your decision?

Guest: I was born outside of Birmingham, Ala., grew up outside of Atlanta, and have called Nashville home since 2006. I attended Vanderbilt for my undergraduate degree (BS ’10, Economics and Education), so Vanderbilt was at the top of my list for my master’s degree. Even a decade later, there are so many things that I love about Peabody. The faculty give personalized attention to each student, and I know that my intimate cohort of future leaders will be critical to my future success.

Q: What has been your favorite course thus far? What did you take away from that course?

Guest: My favorite course has been Organizational Theory and Behavior because of the combination of theory and practical application to case studies. The takeaways from the course that I can apply to my work right now within my role as an educator are that people develop sensemaking strategies to explain actions and situations and that there needs to be a combination of competition and corporate responsibility in the evolution of business.

Q: How is Vanderbilt preparing you to be a leader in education?

Guest: Already I have gained more confidence in my strengths as a leader in education even from my position as a classroom teacher and graduate student. Organizational theory, analytical analysis and systems thinking have all helped me think about education and education reform with different lenses. I have been leading from within organizations but without many official titles prior to coming to Vanderbilt, and I know that, moving forward, I will be able to dig deeper into more specialized classes that will prepare me for future endeavors.

Related: Special education major Morgan Crowe receives Algernon Sydney Sullivan Scholarship at Lees-McRae College

Q: What work or activities have you been able to participate in outside of the classroom? How have those activities complemented your studies?

Guest: I currently work fulltime as a third-grade teacher as well as working part-time at an office. In both work environments, I am able to observe how theories are at play and how conflict could be avoided or resolved more effectively. In meeting with parents who have additional stressors at play due to COVID-19, I have been able to put into practice what I have learned about having difficult conversations. I have also been able to facilitate discussions at school with my students and my colleagues about equity and equality that incorporated theories and evidence from articles that we read in class and/or books recommended to me by others in my cohort.

Q: Which faculty or staff member has made a significant impact on you? How have they influenced your development?

Guest: Professor Mark Cannon has made a significant impact on the way I think about problem-solving and having difficult conversations. The readings and discussions in his class are applicable across facets of my life besides business.

Q: How have you adapted to the current environment at Vanderbilt with the adjustments made in response to the pandemic?

Guest: At Vanderbilt, the adjustments to online learning has been smooth and has made me feel safe. Being online for my first semester has been a unique experience. However, I feel connected to my peers and my professors.

Q: In what ways have the adjustments made in response to the pandemic enabled you to thrive this academic year?

Guest: During my first year, the adjustments due to COVID-19 have allowed me to increase my technical literacy and my ability to collaborate online. It honestly has been a huge advantage to add to my skillset as companies are increasing remote employment opportunities, and most companies are part of global networks that will continue to increase their use of technology to connect.


Dr. Sarah Imam of The Citadel Teaches Students the Human Side of Medicine

In today’s age of advanced medicine, high-tech equipment and cutting-edge facilities, healthcare professionals might not always remember that their patients are people, too, with life stories that matter to them and to those who love them. But Capt. Sarah Imam, M.D., a past Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner, hasn’t forgotten. And as a professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at Sullivan Foundation partner school The Citadel, she doesn’t let her students forget either.

When personal narratives become engulfed in a medical worker’s rapid-fire shuttle from one patient to the next, an important part of the healthcare equation gets lost. Dr. Imam wants to make healthcare more personal. In 2018 she started a study-abroad program in Lithuania to give students an opportunity to gain shadowing experience with healthcare professionals for four weeks. But Dr. Imam required her students to do more than just observe. They had to reflect on what they’d seen and write case studies.

Related: Professors at The Citadel develop courses to help students address UN sustainable development goals

“A student shadowing a neurosurgeon may see a case of a hemorrhage, for example,” she said. “And that student may see a surgical repair. We want them to learn more than that. We want to know what brought the patient to the point of treatment that the student witnesses and what the treatment plan is beyond that point. Students need to understand the whole picture and realize that they’re dealing with a living, breathing person, not just a case. And that requires compassion.”

Due to COVID-19, The Citadel was forced to suspend its Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 study-abroad programming. But prior to the pandemic, students took full advantage of the opportunity to experience a different kind of healthcare system in action. Lithuania, which offers universal healthcare, ranks in the top 20 percent of healthcare systems worldwide. Dr. Imam wanted to expose students to this system, where they could observe its strengths and weaknesses while also learning the importance of empathy in medical care.

According to Dr. Imam, the study-abroad program allowed students greater access to patients than they might get in the U.S., where patient privacy laws restrict access. With admission to healthcare graduate programs becoming increasingly competitive, private companies that offer medical shadowing experience abroad have become commonplace, she noted. “What makes The Citadel program different is that we give them academic credit hours and we give them much more than just a superficial shadowing experience. We teach them to ask questions and to study what they are seeing. They get to know the patient and put a history with the medical case.”

Dr. Sarah Imam

Dr. Imam joined The Citadel faculty in 2015. While pursuing her M.D. at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), she came in second place for the school’s Resident/Fellow Research Award in 2005 and won the Junior Investigators Award from the American Academy of Neurology that same year.

She added the Sullivan Award to her list of accolades in 2019. The award is given to Citadel faculty members and students “in recognition of high thought and noble endeavor.” Examples of her service and compassion can be found in her work at the Lowcountry Food Bank, Random Acts of Kindness, the Special Olympics Buddy Dance, a free medical clinic, and MUSC volunteer programs.

Related: Honors student who fed thousands and rape survivor advocate receive Sullivan Awards at The Citadel

And that’s just scratching the surface of Dr. Imam’s accomplishments. As the pandemic began to worsen last spring, she led an initiative to address a critical shortage of personal protective equipment for South Carolina’s healthcare workers. Teaming up with The Citadel’s James Bezjian, Ph.D., and Daniel Hawkins, Dr. Imam began to manufacture N95 medical masks using 3D printers in The Citadel Makerspace, an innovative lab in the Daniel Library.

Together, the three colleagues have expertise in 3D scanning, 3D printing and medicine. Bezjian is a professor of entrepreneurship and the director of the Innovation Lab in the Baker School of Business. Hawkins is an academic technology librarian who also serves as the faculty advisor for the student Makerspace Club.

“At a time when there were so many people on the front line risking their lives and there was panic about the unknown, it was gratifying to be able to do something to help,” said Dr. Imam.

this is a photo of a 3D printer used by Dr. Sarah Imam to create protective masks for healthcare workers

Dr. Imam and colleagues at The Citadel used 3D printing to create more than 1,000 masks for healthcare workers.

The Citadel team began printing the MUSC-designed masks, which are made out of a firm plastic material, at the end of March and continued through the first week of August. With the help of a couple of cadets and some volunteers, the trio produced 1,000 masks during that four-month period. The parts for each mask took nine hours to print, but the really labor-intensive challenge, according to Imam, was the assembly, which included putting together a filtration cartridge and attaching a rubber tubing seal and a piece of elastic.

Fortunately, a team of volunteers from the Rotary Club of Charleston and the Corps of Cadets pitched in to get the work done. “There was a lot of momentum, and it spread like wildfire,” said Dr. Imam. “We had people volunteering to help us from all over. Even kids were mailing in parts that they manufactured from home on their own 3D printers.”

Before long, the initiative had spread across the state. Coastal Carolina University also agreed to use its 3D printers to create masks, and the entire South Carolina Commission of Higher Education joined the effort, committing all of the state’s public universities to the project.

3D-printed masks

Communities in Charlotte, Chicago and New York also followed The Citadel’s lead and began producing masks for local use.

As faculty administrator for The Citadel Health Careers Society, Dr. Imam also oversaw a project last fall for Soldiers’ Angels, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that provides aid, comfort and resources to active-duty service members and veterans. Students in the society, joined by others from The Citadel, spent a Friday morning in early October volunteering with Soldiers’ Angels and supplied food assistance to low-income veteran families in the Charleston area. About 250 veterans were served, and each received about 70 pounds of food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, grains, frozen chicken, many varieties of frozen meals, canned goods and drinks.

“We simply have the best at The Citadel,” Dr. Imam noted. “Not only did this group of cadets and students volunteer, they did so wholeheartedly and with enthusiasm. They interacted with the veterans, addressed them with courtesy, asked them about their branch and thanked them for their service.”

Related: Cadet leader at The Citadel walks 24 hours straight to learn empathy with Black Americans

In total, 25 cadets, one veteran graduate student and three members of the faculty and staff turned out to help veterans in need. “I had students from across the school, from all majors—not just those that are pursuing a health career—who joined in with [the event],” Imam said. “These students genuinely care about our community and our veterans.”

Dr. Imam cares just as much. She “embodies the richest qualities that define the Sullivan Award,” according to a statement from The Citadel, and “for the spirit of love and helpfulness that she has exhibited.” But she’s happiest in the classroom. “I found my calling in teaching,” she notes on her LinkedIn page, “and I love what I do.”

this photo shows Dr. Sarah Imam of The Citadel receiving the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award

Dr. Sarah Imam receives the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award (photo by Louis Brems – The Citadel
SY 18-19, South Carolina Corps of Cadets Graduation, Corps, Cadets)

Past Sullivan Award Winner Helps Prepare Girls of Color for Careers in Science

As a college student at Virginia State University, Dr. Cagney Coomer often wondered why she was the only Black woman in her science classes. And she wasn’t particularly satisfied with the answer she was given. “People would say people of color weren’t interested in science,” she recalled.

Coomer knew better. And on her way to earning her doctorate in biology at the University of Kentucky (UK), a Sullivan Foundation partner school, the Lexington native set out to prove those people wrong. She founded the Nerd Squad, a nonprofit that encourages girls of color to become interested in STEM fields. The program uses kid-friendly activities to inspire curiosity and demonstrate that science is for everyone—and that it’s a lot more fun than you might think.

Related: George Mason University senior Clare Yordy organizes summer camps for kids impacted by cancer

Coomer, who wrapped up her Ph.D. at UK earlier this year, also received the prestigious Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award from the university for her work with the Nerd Squad and her dedication to serving others.

Coomer’s doctoral research at UK focused on genetics and unlocked the secrets of a pair of genes in the eye. “I studied two genes that had been studied in other organs, but their function in the retina was unknown,” Coomer said. “I found they’re involved in photoreceptor maintenance, survival and regeneration.”

Her dissertation advisor, Associate Professor of Biology Ann C. Morris, said Coomer “has produced an impressive body of research during her Ph.D., and she is relentlessly curious and excited about developmental biology and genetics. She is passionate about encouraging young people from underrepresented groups to believe in their potential, and she is herself a successful role model for these students as she demonstrates every day her enthusiasm and commitment to a career in scientific research.”

Coomer is also following a dream from her childhood. “Honestly, I wanted to be a scientist since I was eight,” she said. “Over the course of my years, I worked with plants, and I worked in fields. I finally got the chance to work with model organisms that were associated with human diseases—that was my real interest.”

But it wasn’t her only interest. She also wanted to make sure future young women of color could follow in her footsteps as scientists and help solve the mysteries of the universe.

“I think there are many obstacles that contribute to the lack of women of color in STEM,” Coomer says. “One is the lack of opportunity and exposure to STEM curriculum and careers. There’s the disconnect that comes with lack of representation, and there is the racism that is entrenched in STEM fields.”

Members of Dr. Cagney Coomer’s Nerd Squad

“In my city, students in [low-income] communities only get science in the 4th and 6th grades and then get biology in the 9th grade,” she added. “This leaves the students without a strong scientific foundation, resulting in those students being intimidated by math and science. Unfortunately, in the black community, scientists are rarely highlighted because history calls them innovators instead of scientists. The lack of proper labeling also creates a false sense that people of color don’t do or participate in science.”

As in every other field, representation in the sciences matters, and Coomer believes schools should incorporate more scientists of color into the educational system. “We also need students to get a strong science curriculum throughout K-8 before they are presented with biology. Furthermore, universities should be doing a better job with science outreach and building connections with the community. The NIH should not be giving money to universities or labs that aren’t giving back and building up the next generation of scientists to take our place.”

Related: This sustainable restaurant will top its pizzas with rejected veggies to combat food waste

In the meantime, Coomer has taken it upon herself to help girls of color discover the wonders—and the career possibilities—of science. With the Nerd Squad, she and a group of local volunteers design and facilitate the kind of culturally relevant activities that make girls sit up and take notice. Instead of getting bogged down in standard projects like dissecting frogs or collecting leaves, the kids make perfume, plant trees, cook food and, in one innovative project, learned how to create cosmetics.

“This past semester, our subject science was biochemistry, and we turned our STEM club girls onto cosmetic chemistry—because what middle-school girl doesn’t know about makeup?” Coomer said. “First, they learned the chemistry behind making many products, from soap to lip gloss to bath bombs. Then, in the second semester, they had to develop their own cosmetic lines, from packaging to the recipes, making commercials and selling them to the community at Science Night.”

The girls also get to learn from other Lexington-area women of color who work both in STEM fields and other professions. These volunteers act as positive role models and mentors to the girls, encouraging them to think beyond the limits imposed on them by systemic racism and sexism.

“[Coomer] has reached literally hundreds of kids, mostly kids of color and kids in poverty, with the message that STEM is for them,” said Tanya Torp, a 2016 Sullivan Award winner at UK. “She hosts science fairs, bringing hundreds of family members to show up for their kids where schools have failed to see that kind of parent participation.”

Told by some that women of color weren’t interested in science, Dr. Cagney Coomer founded the Nerd Squad to prove them wrong.

Coomer has now moved on to a post-doctoral stint at Dartmouth College, where she is studying the differences between the right and left lobes of the brain. But her passion for steering girls and women of color toward STEM careers continues. And she said she has learned a thing or two from the girls under her tutelage over the years.

“They taught me to stand in truth,” she said, “that I am a scientist, and how can I encourage them to follow their dreams when I won’t step fully into mine?”

“They taught me how to talk science—they became my sounding board,” Coomer added. “If they could understand what I’m doing, then I could get anyone to understand. They helped me find my way as a scientist.”

Want to help further the Nerd Squad’s mission of nurturing future women scientists of color? Donate to this GoFundMe fundraiser and help the organizers reach their goal of $10,000.

In addition to a direct interview with Dr. Coomer, this story also incorporates materials from an article appearing on the University of Kentucky website.

Zachary Wilson Receives Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation Scholarship at Rust College

Freshman Zachary Wilson of Columbus, Miss., was named the newest beneficiary of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation Scholarship at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rust College.

Wilson held many leadership positions while attending high school and has been very active since arriving on the Rust campus.  He is Rust College’s newly elected Mr. Freshman and is the brother of Cameron Wilson, who has been named Mister Rust College.

Related: Eric Johnson develops Rust Innovation Lab to promote leadership and entrepreneurship at Rust College

Tianna Smith of Houston, Tex,, was awarded Rust College’s first Sullivan Scholarship in 2019. Smith is active at Rust College through basketball, the NAACP and her position as Sophomore Class Officer.

The Sullivan Scholarships recognize college students and members of the college community who put service to others before self-interest. Scholarship recipients must report their service and/or social entrepreneurship activities, engage in Sullivan Foundation marketing efforts on campus and attend one Sullivan-sponsored weekend retreat during their freshman and sophomore years.

The Sullivan Scholarship provides $10,000 for attending a Sullivan Foundation partner school and is renewable for four years.

Rust College receives Sullivan Scholarship funding in the form of an endowment from the Sullivan Foundation. In 2018, the foundation began a strategic planning process to redesign its existing scholarship program in order to deepen its relationship with students, faculty, and schools. The foundation ultimately determined to collaborate with its partner schools in the creation of a redesigned scholarship program that not only supports service-minded students, but also engages students, faculty and staff in the foundation’s programming, including twice-yearly Ignite Retreats for student changemakers and faculty, study-abroad opportunities and entrepreneurship support.

The Sullivan Foundation also offers opportunities to become Sullivan Ambassadors on its partner school campuses. Eric Johnson, who currently serves as Rust’s Student Government Association president, is also a Sullivan Ambassador. Eric is the founder of the new Rust Innovation Lab on the Rust College campus.

Related: Special education major Morgan Crowe receives Sullivan Scholarship at Lees-McRae College

Dr. Vida Mays, the Sullivan Foundation campus liaison and Rust College’s director of grants and contracts, will work with Wilson and fellow scholarship recipients over the coming years to attend retreats and field trips to further develop their community leadership skills.

Located in Holly Springs, Miss., Rust College is a historically black, co-educational, senior liberal arts college founded in 1866 by the Freedmen’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Rust College was founded to offer quality programs in business, education, humanities, science and math, and social science to prepare students for leadership and service in the global society.

Eric Johnson Develops Rust Innovation Lab to Promote Student Leadership and Entrepreneurship at Rust College

By Meagan Harkins, Sullivan Foundation Intern

Students across the nation could not escape the news in mid-2020, as they were sent back to their hometowns to quarantine during the pandemic. Television sets, Twitter feeds and family conversations were consumed by the movement for racial equality unfolding across the U.S.

Rust College senior Eric Johnson did not give into despair. Instead, he spent his summer brainstorming ideas that he could contribute to lessen inequality and provide opportunities to his peers. He conceptualized the Rust Innovation Lab on his campus at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss.

Related: Zachary Wilson receives Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation Scholarship at Rust College

The Rust Innovation Lab, launching in Spring 2021, will offer programming to aid students’ leadership skills and equip them to get their ideas off the ground, whether it’s a business, movement, organization or product. Pre-recorded interviews with relevant individuals, discussion sessions and practical resources will be offered through the historically black college’s program.

Johnson emphasizes to students that the Rust Innovation Lab’s leadership programming is meant “not to change you, but to elevate skills you have.” The project’s concept came from the question, “How can I meet people where they are?”

He is determined to show peers their value, capacity to make a difference and the gift of their culture. Presently focused on amplifying African-American voices, Johnson’s ultimate mission is to serve other unheard voices, such as women and the LGBTQ+ community.

These ongoing discussions and projects are Johnson’s attempt at keeping the light shining on a serious problem rather than letting awareness fade with time. He has been taught to “leave [his school] better than he found it.” Johnson hopes the Rust Innovation Lab’s programming will facilitate forum conversations that have decreased in popularity in recent years due to quick information-gathering from social media or websites.

Gathering inspiration from Amplify, a speaker series developed in a partnership between Harvard University and Yale University, Johnson asked the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation to collaborate with him on the Rust Innovation Lab. By supporting his classmates’ ideas and projects, he hopes to market Rust Innovation Lab to a larger audience in addition to benefiting Rust College.

The seed for service was planted in Johnson early on, as he began going on annual church mission trips at the age of eight, traveling the U.S. to paint houses, tear down old buildings and do yard work. He tagged along with his older cousins, creating a network of friends nationwide during his travels.

An only child, Johnson was raised by his aunt and constantly surrounded by cousins. He says his grandmother’s strong leadership has inspired him. It takes a village, though, as countless coaches, teachers and mentors have also invested time in Johnson over the years, and he does not want to let them down.

Johnson has now become a mentor to others, serving as Student Government President at Rust College and as a Sullivan Foundation Ambassador. His involvement with the Sullivan Foundation began as a freshman through study-abroad and conference experiences. Attracted to the idea of actively trying to improve a community, Johnson says his service work largely shapes his daily time commitments and thought processes.

Most exciting to him is the core value underlying social entrepreneurship. Johnson defines this as an opportunity to inspire social change, identifying a local community’s problem and working to improve the lives of the people affected by the problem. “You have to be able to use what you have to build up and make an infrastructure wherever you can,” Johnson said.

As for the future, Johnson hopes to prove that any individual can compete and excel even while living in a small town. He plans to return to school for his master’s degree and work for a corporation through which he can make a positive community impact. “I want to be on the news every other day for trying to help people,” he said.

Johnson, a Mass Communications major, said that, no matter what, he always wants to be taking classes. “School isn’t the only way to learn something, but, for some people, it is the gateway to get information and change circumstances,” he said.

Johnson’s favorite quote and mantra comes from educator Willie Anthony Jones, the late father of Van Jones, a CNN commentator, nonprofit leader and former adviser to President Barack Obama. “There are two kinds of smart people: those who take simple things and make them sound complicated, and those who take complicated things and make them sound simple. Be the second kind.”

The Sullivan Foundation will provide funding and access to speakers for the Rust Innovation Lab. Prominent speakers and large companies do not often reach out to smaller schools, so Johnson believes that in facilitating this network, the nation will hear a lot about Rust College graduates in the coming years, as their untapped potential begins to shine through.

Johnson described his Rust College classmates as “a lot of kids who have big dreams, and they’re not afraid to make mistakes and get their boots dirty and to learn.” He said they are immensely excited to make a difference in their families and respective communities.

Through the Rust Innovation Lab, Johnson hopes to “see more people turn their thoughts into ideas [to be] put into practice and not be afraid to fail. It’s the beginning of a beautiful journey.”

Sullivan Award Winner Keeps Puppy Tails Wagging for Pet Rescue Organization

Mississippi has too many stray dogs. Pet lovers in northern states are eager to adopt, but there aren’t enough dogs there to meet the demand. That’s where Neely Griggs comes in.

Griggs, a public policy major and 2020 recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at the University of Mississippi, has made it her mission to fill the gap, rescuing local strays and transporting them to loving homes up north—that is, when she’s not reaching out to help her fellow humans in need.

Related: Learn more about the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award here.

As the Transport and Intake Coordinator for Mississippi Mutts in Oxford, Griggs keeps doggie tails wagging happily as they ship off to meet their new families. She coordinates the transfer of animals to partner organizations, such as Wright-Way Rescue in Chicago, that place the pups in forever homes.

“Growing up in rural Mississippi, my family had a lot of pets, so I grew up with a love for animals,” Griggs said. “I was definitely the child who wanted to rescue every animal I found.”

Mississippi’s stray dog problem is well-documented. Some have been abandoned by their owners, while others simply wandered off from home and never found their way back. Thousands of dogs are raised in the notorious “puppy mills”—breeding operations in which allegedly “purebred” animals often endure cruel treatment and unsanitary living conditions—that dot the state.

Related: Hotel for dogs in Biloxi, Mississippi lets guests foster or adopt stray pups

this photo shows Neely Griggs with a rescued dog getting ready for transport up north

Growing up in Mississippi, Griggs was “definitely the child who wanted to rescue every animal I found.”

Many of the dogs haven’t been spayed or neutered, which makes them likely to bring even more homeless pups into the world.

“Pet ownership is very common in Mississippi,” Griggs said. “However, people often don’t realize the responsibility of owning a pet, such as the financial burden and time commitment. This has led to an overabundance of unwanted animals in our state.”

And even when they’re rescued from a hard life in the streets or the puppy mills, too many of man’s best friends still end up dead. Although some shelters have a no-kill policy, most can’t afford to care for the dogs over the long term and eventually have to euthanize them.

“Stray dogs can cause problems even in rural communities, and in many towns, shelters are not equipped to handle the number of stray animals,” Griggs explained. “This leads to the killing of many unwanted animals and the use of extremely limited shelter resources. That’s why it’s necessary to transport animals out of the state. Specifically, shelters in cities like Chicago often have prospective pet owners on waitlists to adopt. They are just waiting for one to become available.”

this photo shows Neely Griggs with a Mississippi Mutts group getting ready to transport dogs to Chicago to get adopted.

Mississippi Mutts’ mission to transport shelter dogs up north fulfills a demand for pets in other parts of the U.S. while helping Mississippi shelters conserve their resources.

“Transporting animals elsewhere is beneficial for the home state because there are less stray animals and more resources for shelters, but the animals transported elsewhere find healthy and happy outcomes,” Griggs added. “Most importantly, they can live long lives and bring joy to a family.”

When Griggs isn’t saving our four-legged pals, she’s working hard for underserved populations in the Oxford area. She spent the past summer interning for the Rust College Community Development Corporation in nearby Holly Springs, Miss. The organization helps people facing issues such as housing instability and food insecurity while supporting local businesses and securing funding for community development projects.

Griggs said she was introduced to the Rust College CDC through her role as an intern with the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement. “My main roles included assisting with the grant application process, directly volunteering with the Holly Springs school district’s food distribution program and creating marketing materials for the Holly Springs High School Career and Technical Center. I also helped create a grant application guide for the Rust College CDC, specifically drafting a grant-application decision matrix and timeline for future interns and employees to use in the grant application process.”

“Although I had a theoretical understanding of capacity building through my studies, my summer experience allowed me to gain a functional knowledge of the practice,” she said. “I’m so grateful that I was able to learn more about how capacity building looks in an organization and also assist in activities that would help create lasting value in Holly Springs.”

Related: This 12-year-old social entrepreneur makes bowties to help shelter animals get adopted

Additionally, Griggs has served an internship with the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) office in Oxford, helping people in need apply for public assistance. She said the internship taught her customer service and conflict management skills that will come in handy for her career goals. “But more importantly, through my internship at MDHS and with encouragement from my supervisor, Kendra Campbell, I was able to become heavily involved with the Oxford community,” Griggs said.

As the hometown of Ole Miss, Oxford is a largely affluent community, but not everyone has it so easy. “As a student, I had known Oxford as a picturesque, small college town, but at MDHS I witnessed the struggles that families and individuals face daily,” Griggs said. “As a student, it’s easy to forget that there are people on campus and in the community who struggle to obtain their basic needs like food and housing—things we often take for granted. I’m grateful for this experience, for not only showing me that every community has opportunities for growth but also introducing me to other leaders in our community who continue to inspire me in my academic and career goals through their passion for creating programs to fill these gaps and reach typically underserved populations.”

Griggs’ commitment to service made her a natural choice for the Sullivan Award, according to UM faculty and staff members who nominated her. One of the nominators noted that Griggs’ internship with MDHS “is perhaps the most prominent example of her selfless service to her community. She would talk to me often about the aid applicants that she would interview and assist day-to-day, expressing genuine empathy [and a] desire to help these people in whatever way she could. This experience helped her gain a better understanding of the underserved in the Oxford community and only increased her desire to do whatever she could to improve these people’s lives.”

“She is my role model,” another nominator wrote in a letter recommending Griggs for the award. “I am just one of the many people in the community whose life she has touched in a positive way. I am absolutely sure that she will only broaden her outreach in the pursuit of her goals, which all center around community development. She is determined to improve the state of affairs in her home state of Mississippi.”

But where exactly will the future take her? “I’m not really sure yet,” she said. “I’m working on my thesis now and know that will take up a lot of my time over the next few months. Right now, I’m planning on taking a gap year to do a year of service and would love to continue doing capacity building for nonprofits.”

In other words, wherever she goes next and wherever she stays, Griggs plans to help make it a better place for everyone.

Special Education Major Morgan Crowe Receives Sullivan Scholarship at Lees-McRae College

By Lauren Foster

Morgan Crowe, a freshman from Concord, North Carolina, was named the newest beneficiary of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation Scholarship at Sullivan partner school Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C.

The Sullivan Scholarship totals $10,000 in funding each year for four years. The scholarship is based on personal character and service to others.

Related: Learn more about the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Scholarship for college students here.

A recent graduate of Jay M. Robinson High School, Crowe chose Lees-McRae because it is a smaller school and feels like a family. She said she’s grateful the campus is open for in-person classes, even though the year won’t look exactly as she expected. “I am approaching the year with a positive attitude and with an understanding that all of the modifications are to keep everyone safe,” she said. “That brings a sense of comfort, knowing the school is doing everything they can to keep us on campus and healthy.”

Crowe is already active on campus as a member of the softball team. While at Lees-McRae, she plans to major in special education. “I have always had a passion for working with kids in the special-needs environment and can easily connect with them and form bonds,” she said.

Related: Meet Hailey McMahon, Berry College’s first Sullivan Scholar

The Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation presents scholarships to students at 25 private colleges and universities across the south. First established at Lees-McRae in 1936, the Sullivan Scholarship is awarded to one incoming freshman who demonstrates exemplary personal character and a commitment to service above self. Additionally, the selected student must exhibit noble character as the aggregate of features and traits related to ethical and moral values, including honesty, morality, ethics, integrity, responsibility, determination, courage and compassion as evidenced by service in the community.

“Morgan’s initiative to see things that needed to be done and charging in to fix them is impressive,” said Amy Anderson, Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation campus liaison and dean of business and management at Lees-McRae College. “She exemplifies the meaning of service beyond self.”

Anderson will work with Crowe and fellow scholarship recipients over the coming years to attend retreats and field trips to further develop their community leadership skills.

Single Mom and Education Major Dina Altwam Receives Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Clemson

Dina Altwam is one of two Clemson University students who received the 2020 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Student Award, which is presented annually to two seniors for outstanding service to the university and the extended Clemson community.

The other student winner was Carly Malcolm. This year’s non-student Sullivan Award went to faculty member Dr. Rhondda Robinson Thomas.

Altwam, a single mother of three young children, is entering her final year in the College of Education’s five-year combined bachelor’s/master’s program. She works part-time, volunteers at her children’s school, and serves as a volunteer Sunday school teacher at the local mosque, while still finding time for campus and community service.

A first-generation American born to Palestinian parents, Altwam enrolled in online classes at Tri-County Technical College until her youngest child could go to school. She entered Clemson, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, in 2017 as an education major with an emphasis on math and science.

This year she will participate in the college’s Teacher Residency Program, working with a master teacher in one of the program’s partner schools for a year.

Altwam also is heavily involved in several organizations, including the Muslim Student Association, the Senior Education Association, the College of Education Mentor Program and the Senior Education Association. She also chaired committees for the International Festival.

One of her nominators, Robyn Curtis, director of the Office of Major Fellowships, wrote that Altwam’s leadership in the Muslim Student Association is most noteworthy. Shortly after becoming the group’s president, she organized a tabling event to increase awareness. Someone posted photos of the event on social media with threatening comments. Altwam decided the threats were rooted in a lack of information and planned a week of Muslim Awareness programming that culminated with a dinner featuring keynote speaker Linda Sarsour, a nationally known political activist who co-chaired the 2017 Women’s March.

“Dina has shown incredible resilience in her path to education,” Curtis wrote. “She is deeply motivated to pursue a career not just as an educator, but as an advocate for increased tolerance in public education. She is a conversation starter and a difference maker on Clemson’s campus and in the broader Greenville community.”

College of Education Associate Dean Michelle Cook, who also nominated Altwam for the award, echoed Curtis’ comments. “Dina has worked tirelessly to educate, promote tolerance and understanding, and advocate on behalf of Muslim students on campus,” she wrote.

“I asked Dina’s professors to share their impressions of her,” Cook wrote. “One faculty member shared, ‘I found Dina to be a very mature scholar, asking questions and digging deeper into whatever topic we explored. I was so impressed that she had already developed her teacher voice, one that she shared frequently as an advocate for student equity.’”

Cook said the college faculty and administrators have supported the work of the Muslim Student Association and recognize the impact it has on the students in the college.

“Her leadership in this group and her service to the campus has been thoughtful and tireless, but it has come with hateful attacks and concerns about her safety,” Cook wrote. “However, as a leader and advocate for this association of underrepresented students on campus, she has confronted these issues with the instinct to educate and show grace.”

“I truly wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of everyone at the College of Education and at Clemson University. Winning this award is an honor and a privilege, and I thank you!” Altwam said.

“While at Clemson I have prioritized doing my part to improve religious tolerance on campus and in the community,” she added. “Now more than ever, we see the importance of intersectional approaches and improved cultural understanding. I will continue this work after I complete my master’s and begin teaching.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Clemson University website.