February 14, 2010
DeKalb, Ill. — The compassion, devotion to service and thirst for knowledge displayed by the five students lost at Northern Illinois University two years ago will live on through the recipients of this year’s Forward Together Forward scholarships.
The recipients – Deidre Cwian, Michele Johnson, Yesenia Juarez, Caley Lanahan and Brittany Sheldon – will each receive a one-time scholarship of $4,000 for the 2010-11 academic year.
“The Forward Together Forward scholarship is one of the most prestigious honors NIU can bestow upon a student,” says Provost Raymond Alden. “To be selected for this award, a student must not only display academic excellence, but also embody the best qualities of those fallen students.”
This year’s winners were selected from an initial field of 74 applicants. All 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. After a review process, the field of applicants was narrowed to 14 individuals who were presented for interviews to a committee of faculty drawn from across the university.
“It was an honor to sit in on that process and hear from these outstanding students,” says Anne Hardy, director of the NIU Scholarship Office. “The candidates displayed an incredible diversity of talents, and each applicant contributed to the university in some way.”
In the end, however, each of the five finalists was a unanimous selection.
“All of these women display great character, drive and ambition. They are the embodiment of all that this scholarship is meant to celebrate,” says Alden.
Funding for the scholarships was provided by an unsolicited outpouring of generosity by friends of the university who wanted to memorialize the deceased students. To date, about 1,800 donors have helped build the scholarship fund to nearly $700,000, says Mallory M. Simpson, president of the NIU Foundation.
The total of all Feb. 14-related gifts to the university is more than $983,000. That includes nearly $130,000 to individually named scholarship funds established in the colleges and more than $161,000 for the Forward Together Forward Memorial Garden project. Nearly 2,500 individual donors have supported the various funds and projects.
Here is a closer look at the five Forward Together Forward scholarship recipients:
Deidre Cwian knows the unconditional love of animals.
“My mom is a horse trainer, and we own a horse farm with 20 horses. I’ve lived on the farm my whole life. We have dogs and chickens and a potbelly pig – just for fun,” Cwian says. “If you’re nice to animals, they’re nice back. They respond well. It’s cool and fun to work with them.”
The sophomore pre-physical therapy major holds people in the same regard.
It’s why she chose her field of study – “I like making a difference and seeing results. I like helping people and letting them live life to the fullest,” she says – and why she performs community service.
On campus, she competes on the NIU Equestrian Team and serves as an usher for the School of Theatre and Dance through the Lambda Sigma honor society.
Back home, she’s active in 4H, performs with her church’s bell choir and gives riding lessons as an assistant manager on the farm. During the summer, she’s a wrangler at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, taking Boy Scouts on mounted horse treks and trail rides in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Although Cwian was a high school senior Feb. 14, 2008, the events of that day still shook her. Her older brother Joseph was an NIU student and she had chosen the university for her own college career. Her family experienced “that moment of uncertainty” of not knowing Joseph’s location after hearing the news. (Fortunately, he was off-campus.)
Yet Cwian feels bolstered by NIU’s “rising above” the shootings, and will use her scholarship to “honor those who passed by being a positive influence.”
“I’m an optimist by nature. I try to look on the bright side of everything,” she says. “What most people say about me is that I’m always smiling.”
Michele Johnson felt ill Feb. 14, 2008, and left campus early for her home near Kishwaukee Community Hospital.
Soon she heard sirens.
“All of my family called me to see if I was OK, and actually encouraged me to leave school,” says Johnson, a first-generation college student who arrived in DeKalb only the month before. “I said, ‘Absolutely not! I have to pursue my dreams.’ The greatest legacy I can offer is to carry on my dreams.”
Those revolve around healing: The 31-year-old wife and mother is majoring in public health with a minor in gerontology, and eventually will pursue a master’s degree to become a physician’s assistant capable of running and interpreting medical tests and making diagnoses.
She volunteered with Legacy Corps, which assists caregivers by providing invaluable respite time, and from 1997 to 2001 served the Hope for Kids Immunization Project by knocking on doors on Chicago’s West Side.
Much of her mission is rooted in her own struggles. “I’ve been the patient and the caregiver. I understand both worlds, and I see a need for more people to give compassionate care.”
Blind in one eye, her quest to understand why led to work as an ophthalmic technician. That spawned her interest in gerontology. “The elderly population has taken me under their wing,” she says. “I get a lot of wisdom listening to my patients.”
Johnson also suffers from fibromyalgia and, last year, was diagnosed with lymphadenopathy. Feb. 14 inspires her to “live every day to the fullest.”
“I want to be a shining example of what NIU can produce despite the tragedy,” she says. “Before Feb. 14, I was one of those people who let life happen to me a little bit. Now feeling tired is no longer an excuse to me. It makes me push through.”
Yesenia Juarez never met a community service project that she didn’t like.
She joined fellow NIU students building homes for Habitat for Humanity in Florida, mentored young students in the Boys and Girls Club in Chicago, serves as an NIU Open House volunteer and has lent her assistance to the Campus Activities Board and NIU Cares Day.
Following the 2008 tragedy on campus, Juarez returned to her high school on Chicago’s southwest side, where she spoke to students, easing their concerns about going off to college and assuring them that NIU was a safe and friendly campus.
“I’ve always felt that community service was something I needed to do,” says the 20-year-old junior sociology major. “Helping others helps keep me positive, and I enjoy meeting new people. It’s a life-learning experience.”
Juarez’s can-do spirit has led to numerous recognitions at NIU. She has three times received the Presidential Scholarship Award for academic standing and community service. She also was awarded the Freshman Leadership Award and Sophomore Leadership Award.
“Yesenia is a great role model,” says Karla Neal, assistant director for NIU Student Involvement and Leadership Development. “She has the dedication and drive, and she asks the right questions,” Neal adds. “She challenges herself constantly to step out of her comfort zone. I have seen Yesenia grow, and I look forward to continue seeing her develop into an engaging leader.”
Juarez joined the ROTC on campus during her sophomore year and was awarded the Cadet Achievement Ribbon. She now mentors younger cadets in academics and is taking advanced ROTC courses.
After graduation, Juarez will be commissioned as an officer to serve with the Army Reserves or National Guard, where she hopes to work in military medical services, providing social work or other health-related services.
Caley Lanahan is all about her fellow students.
As an orientation leader who guides campus tours, Lanahan has helped hundreds of her NIU peers get to know their university and become excited about all it has to offer.
And, in the wake of the Feb. 14, 2008 tragedy on campus, she played a key role in helping ease the concerns of prospective students and their parents. During tours, she made a point to call attention to Cole Hall, the site of the tragedy, and calmly invited questions.
“It was like the elephant in the room, so we addressed the tragedy to get it out in the open,” the 21-year old psychology major says.
Her supervisors say Lanahan served as an inspiration to others.
“As a professional staff, we knew our message of a healing community that was moving forward together rested largely on the shoulders of the student orientation leaders,” says Abbey Wolfman, associate director of orientation. “Caley delivered the message with compassion and the utmost grace. She helped new students and their family members to feel comfortable asking questions and to understand that they also played a large role in the healing process.”
Lanahan was named Orientation Leader of the Year for 2009. She went on to train orientation leaders and now works as a Career Services intern, assisting peers with career development.
The NIU junior also mentors new students, will again lead campus tours and hopes to someday work as a professional counselor for young people. She says she was honored to even be considered for the Forward Together Forward Scholarship.
“I want to make an impact on people’s lives for the better,” she says. “I will counsel students to take advantage of the opportunities they have and to never take a single breath for granted.”
Forward Together Forward Scholarship recipients are expected to carry on the memories and good works of the NIU students slain Feb. 14, 2008. Some might consider that a heavy load to bear, but not Brittany Sheldon.
“It’s not a burden; it’s my pleasure,” says Sheldon, 21, a senior from Sycamore who is double- majoring in elementary education and Spanish.
The scholarship carries special meaning for Sheldon because she was a close friend of one of the five fallen students, Ryanne Mace, a 19-year-old psychology major from Carpentersville who had hoped to pursue a career in counseling. The two were not only classmates, but also worked together at a DeKalb department store.
“Ryanne could light up a room,” Sheldon recalls. “She would say ‘hi’ and instantly your day was better.”
As a scholarship winner, Sheldon says she will strive to keep alive the feeling of unity and service that was prevalent on campus in the aftermath of the shootings. She plans to extend that commitment beyond graduation.
“I think the best way to honor Ryanne, and the others, is through my teaching, helping others pursue their dreams,” she says.
That goal is in keeping with Sheldon’s extensive history of serving others. She is currently active with Rotaract, a collegiate branch of Rotary, and with Lutheran Campus Ministries. Her involvement with LCM has included a mission trip to Guatemala where she helped build a school. She hopes one day to teach there.
“That trip took place about a month after the shootings and I did a lot of healing there. It turned my life’s plan on its head,” says Sheldon. “It opened my eyes to some of the important things that need to be done in the world, and it made me realize that it’s up to me to make the change.”
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Joe King, Media Relations & Internal Communications