April 25, 2012

USA Today names three to all-academic team

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Three Southern Illinois University Carbondale students are among just 60 nationwide named to the annual USA Today All-USA College Academic Team.

 Lee Stewart (Dowell), a political science major, and Jessica Stout (Taylorville), a physiology major, each have a place on the “First Team” as defined by USA Today, and Jordan Kabat (Waltonville), a 2011 mechanical engineering graduate, is on the third team.  All three are University Honors students and Presidential Scholars. 

“This is one of the most prestigious academic honors in the country, and we are extremely proud of Lee, Jessica and Jordan,” Chancellor Rita Cheng said.  “They are in the company of students from other distinguished universities, including Rice, Cornell, the Naval Academy, Northwestern and the University of California at Berkeley.  But it is important to point out that ours is the only university with two students on the First Team.”

She also emphasized that SIU Carbondale is the only Illinois institution represented on the First Team.

“This honor reflects the initiative, passion and commitment of our students,” Cheng said.  “It also is a credit to the staff of the University Honors program, and the faculty who share their time, experience and expertise mentoring our students.”

This is not the first time SIU Carbondale students have earned spots on the academic list, but this is the first year the University is represented on the First Team, which includes only the top 20 students in the nation.  SIU Carbondale has, in fact, placed eight students on the USA Today academic teams since 2006.

The competition is open to full-time undergraduates at four-year institutions in the United States and U. S. territories.  The student’s institutions must nominate them for the award.  Judges consider several factors, including grade point average, demonstration of leadership skills, and school and community activities.

“The recognition that Lee, Jessica and Jordan have earned is a wonderful example of why we tell all of our students that big things are always within reach,” Cheng said.

Lori Merrill-Fink, director of the University Honors Program, said this year’s representation of students proves that some of the nation’s top students choose SIU Carbondale.

“These honors are a testament not only to the character, drive and initiative of these remarkable students, but also to the opportunities and mentoring they receive,” she said.

Merrill-Fink noted that part of the mission of the University Honors Program is building a sense of community among the University’s top students.  And that community is growing.

The University Honors Program has doubled in recent years, going from 220 students in 2010 to 437 in spring 2012, with 57 set to graduate in May.  This increase in students isn’t because the program has become easier.  In fact, the opposite is true.

The University Honors Program was restructured in 2008 to make the program stronger and more academically challenging.  Students choose now to enter the Honors Certificate track, which requires them to take five honors courses, or to choose the even more rigorous Honors Degree program, which requires a total of seven honors courses plus a three-credit-hour honors thesis.  In addition, the minimum grade point average required for eligible students is now 3.4, an increase from the previously acceptable 3.25.

“When students find out that we are not like most high school honors programs, but rather a value-added learning experience with many benefits, they are eager to join,” Merrill-Fink said.

Pam Gwaltney, director of the Office of Major Scholarship Advisement, an office within the University Honors Program, agreed, saying, “It is important to identify these students early and challenge them so they have the time and opportunity to build the kind of resume that makes them nationally competitive.  They are our rock stars!”

For Stewart, the honor is a score for his hometown of Dowell, population approximately 420, and for his University, as well. 

“I view this not so much as a personal achievement but rather one for the University,” he said.  “I’m a small town guy.  I want kids from this area to know that just because they may not have all the advantages (of bigger and more affluent school districts) they can do what they want to do.  SIU Carbondale gave me the chance to prove myself.”

Stewart has been involved with research projects since his sophomore year, utilizing his internships with the Illinois State Police and the Attorney General’s office to hone his study of sentencing trends and specific criminal recidivism rates.  He plans to attend graduate school and to focus on a future in policy analysis.

This isn’t Stewart’s first go-round with national attention.  In 2009, he was a member of the USA Archery’s College Archery Program Collegiate All-American Team, and was also on the All-Academic Team associated with that. 

Stout will attend the SIU School of Medicine beginning this fall.  Ultimately, she intends to specialize in pediatric oncology.  As a student, she has worked toward this goal through undergraduate research projects, including acting as a research assistant with the SIU School of Medicine and the St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  Among her many campus and community activities, Stout served as the executive director for the Up ‘til Dawn student organization, raising funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

She said she was “astonished” to learn she’d been included in the First Team.

“It is overwhelming,” she said.  “I am very humbled to be ranked within such a prestigious group.  My focus throughout college has never been reward based, but rather about trying to learn as much as possible to help kids and their families fight cancer, now and in my future.”

Kabat is a fourth-generation Saluki.  He noted that the excellence of the engineering program, and the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research, were also determining factors in his selection of SIU Carbondale for his education.

He said the national recognition was a “great way to wrap up my career here at SIU… and it feels great to know that SIU Carbondale will be recognized with other great universities across the country, and that I was part of making that happen.”

Kabat said he owes thanks to support from his family, girlfriend and his professors.  Upon graduation in December 2011, Kabat accepted a job with Peabody Energy in Evansville, Ind.  He will complete a two-year rotational program through various departments within the company.  He plans eventually to return to higher education to pursue a graduate degree.

Kabat (along with Stout and Stewart) was an ambassador for SIU Carbondale to the University’s sister institutions in China.  He was a founding member of SUMMIT (Scholars United Making Monumental Impacts a Tradition) and earned a REACH undergraduate research grant.

In addition to the USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, the University Honors Program has nurtured students along the way to other major, national awards.  For example, honors students have also been Morris K. Udall Scholars and Barry M. Goldwater Scholars, and nominees for Rhodes Scholars, National Science Foundation Research Fellowships, and Marshall Scholars.

Lee Stewart

Lee Stewart
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Jessica Stout

Jessica Stout
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Jordan Kabat

Jordan Kabat
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