Five Northern Illinois University students who excel in and out of the classroom have been selected as recipients of the 2011 Forward, Together Forward Scholarships.
The recipients – Kelsey Borg, Mayra Diaz, Jasmine Land, Justin Larsen and Reneka Turner – will each receive a one-time scholarship of $4,000 for the 2011-12 academic year.
“Honoring the memory of the students we lost on Feb. 14, 2008, this scholarship is one of the most prestigious honors NIU can award to current students,” Provost Raymond Alden says.
“This year’s recipients are stellar members of our community, each selected on the basis of character, service, leadership, academic achievements, intellectual curiosity, work ethic and regard for others,” Alden adds. “In various ways, each demonstrates the true meaning of ‘Huskie pride.’ ”
An initial field of 74 applicants applied for the scholarships.
They were asked to write short essays on what it means to be an NIU Huskie; on how tragedy shapes character; and about their dreams for the future. They were also asked how they will honor the memories of Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Daniel Parmenter.
A record 25 applicants were interviewed in person by the selection committee, because the pool was so strong, says Anne Hardy, director of the NIU Scholarship Office.
“All five of the scholarship winners have such pride in being an NIU Huskie,” Hardy says. “I would say they’re truly representative of the heart and soul of our institution.”
Funding for the scholarships was provided by an unsolicited outpouring of generosity by friends of the university who wanted to memorialize the fallen students. About 1,800 donors helped build the scholarship fund to nearly $700,000.
Here is a closer look at the five Forward, Together Forward Scholarship recipients:
Kelsey Borg of Maple Park
Kelsey Borg understands better than many that life – and the strength of community – are precious gifts.
Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004, the now-NIU junior “put the pieces together for healing” with the support of her family, friends and the good people of hometown Maple Park, Ill. Conquering one obstacle at a time, she eventually received proton radiation treatment at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and returned to good health.
Borg sees the same resilience at NIU. Although still in high school in 2008, she attended many of the reflective and healing events on campus.
“There is always pain, there is always fear, there is always struggle, and there is always doubt when tragedy strikes,” Borg says. “In these times, the character of those around eases that pain, calms that fear, helps to face that struggle and reverse that doubt.”
A speech language pathology major, she won leadership awards as a freshman and sophomore and was named Member of the Year for the Communicative Disorders Student Association.
She is active on the curriculum committee for the College of Health and Human Sciences, serves on the college’s student advisory council, is a member of the Newman Catholic Student Center’s Northern Illinois Koinonia Retreat Team and is a peer instructor for University 101 courses.
Borg also teaches eighth-grade religious courses Sunday mornings at Newman, where she serves as the junior high youth minister.
“Kelsey has a way of keeping you interested and making you want to know more. Her laughter and joy are contagious to all who meet her,” says Cheryl Lehman, director of religious education. “She sets the standard very high for herself, and coaches the children to set expectations for themselves as well. Kelsey will be the one person that will reach her goal before most of us have them set.”
Mayra Diaz of Barrington
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Mayra Diaz is passionate about two things that are inseparably entwined—her heritage and her dreams.
“Since a very young age, I knew I wanted to help the Hispanic community in every way I possibly could,” Diaz says.
Although she did not begin to learn formal English until age 9, Diaz now serves as a translator for her parents and others. At Barrington High School, she was a standout student who mentored pre-teens, served as president of the Latino Leadership organization and founded a Latin American dance group. She also toured with a professional dance company, Ballet Folklorico Huehuecoyotl.
“Mayra is self-driven to succeed but is also following the example set by her hard-working family,” says Monica Barreiro, a Barrington High School guidance counselor. “Most importantly, Mayra has the intense personal drive to make a difference in the world. She is a natural leader and amazing role model.”
At NIU, Diaz is an honors student and a familiar face at the Neptune Hall front desk, where she works as a receptionist. She is a member of the Dream Action group, which supports the federal DREAM Act, and of Mujer a Mujer, which unites Latinas in volunteer work and friendship.
The 20-year-old sophomore is working toward a double major in political science and Spanish language and literatures. Through her hard work, she hopes to honor the memory of the students who lost their lives on Feb. 14, 2008.
“I greatly identified with Catalina Garcia because she embraced her Mexican culture,” Diaz says.
“I dream of becoming an important political figure and representing the Hispanic community on a national level, and of contributing to the movement of passing a comprehensive immigration reform. I believe that by succeeding and achieving my dreams, I am honoring the memories of the (fallen NIU) students.”
Jasmine Land of O’Fallon
Jasmine Land is the first person at NIU many people meet.
She serves as a coordinator at fall and spring open houses, assisting prospective students during what is often their first visit to campus. She leads newly enrolled students and their parents on orientation tours in the summer. She’s there to greet those students again on Opening Day, helping to unload their cars and get them settled in residence halls. Some encounter her yet again as a peer instructor in University 101 courses.
The junior, who is majoring in marketing, also works to increase racial harmony at NIU as a Dialogue on Diversity facilitator. She has served as volunteer coordinator for the Lambda Sigma honors society, and serves her fellow students as a volunteer tutor. She is also an active and valued member of the Housing and Dining staff, where she assists with marketing efforts. Somehow, she also finds time to work 30-hours-a-week waitressing at a local restaurant.
The university couldn’t ask for a better ambassador, says Abbey Wolfman, associate director of Orientation, who wrote in support of Land’s application for the Forward, Together, Forward Scholarship.
“Jasmine has interacted with literally thousands of potential NIU students, new students and family members. She has taken on these positions because she has the desire to not only represent NIU, but to also help others have the same positive experience she has had here,” Wolfman says.
That commitment to helping others is central to how Land plans to honor the memory of the students in whose name the scholarship was created.
“I think too often we take the time we are given for granted,” Land says. “I want to make the most of my time and encourage others to do the same.”
Justin Larsen of Sycamore
Justin Larsen is a doer.
Intent on getting the most out of his NIU experience, the 20-year-old junior has immersed himself in academic, extracurricular and student leadership activities.
Hired his freshman year as a student orientation leader—a coveted job that requires a warm personality, encyclopedic knowledge of NIU and the ability to lead campus tours — Larsen won the Outstanding Orientation Leader Award and was promoted to train others. He now interns with NIU Career Services, where he has helped countless students with job searches.
Last year, Larsen served as an Honors Program house leader and president of Lambda Sigma, the sophomore honor society. He logged more than 100 volunteer hours for the service organization, Alpha Phi Omega. This past fall, he won a spot on the Homecoming Court and was elected vice president of the new Delta Chi fraternity, which he helped found. He serves as a University 101 peer instructor. He also was selected as a student representative to a working group for President John Peters’ Vision 2020 Initiative.
Oh, and did we mention Larsen was elected senator to the NIU Student Association, the students’ governing body?
“I’m a strong advocate for the college experience and the atmosphere that NIU provides for students,” says Larsen, who carries a high grade point average while majoring in communication, with a political science minor. He’s putting himself through school. “To be an NIU Huskie means a great deal to me,” he says.
In his many roles, Larsen touches the lives of hundreds of peers and co-workers, always showing a willingness to listen and help. He plans on earning a master’s degree in student affairs and continuing to work with college students.
“Other students find him to be inspiring,” says Abbey Wolfman, associate director of NIU Orientation. “Justin undoubtedly will leave a lasting impression on those who have had the honor to know and work with him. I know he has left an impression on me.”
Reneka Turner of Sycamore
Reneka Turner was in NIU’s Campus Life Building when she heard of the shooting nearby in Cole Hall.
In her mind, Turner could hear the voice of her mother – the inspiration for her decision to become a nurse – reassuring her that she and her university would emerge stronger.
“An NIU Huskie exemplifies endurance and perseverance. No matter what life throws a Huskie, a Huskie continues to rise above the situation and become victorious,” Turner says. “Huskies are a community working together to achieve a common goal. That goal is to graduate and become the future leaders of our great nation.”
The senior nursing major is the current recipient of the School of Nursing and Health Studies’ Finney Scholarship Award and serves as “Breakthrough to Nursing” director for the National Student Nurses Association.
She harbored dreams of becoming an attorney, earning degrees in history and sociology in 1999, but changed her plans when her mother became severely ill and nearly died. “It made me realize that someday my mother will grow old and need me to take care of her on a regular basis,” Turner says.
After graduation, she hopes to open clinics nationwide for socioeconomically disadvantaged patients and create a program that mentors disadvantaged teens into health care careers.
“We are all better for knowing her,” says Jeannette Rossetti, one of her nursing professors. “As president of the Student Nurses Organization, she inspires all those around her to be the best they can be.”
Turner volunteers at Cornerstone Christian Academy, where she is vice president of Parents for Cornerstone.
She also is a board member for Safe in My Brother’s Arms/Safe in My Sister’s Arms and a volunteer with Project PRIME, which helps minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students from the Chicago area who are interested in pursuing degrees in education.