UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
April 27, 2021 – The University of Wisconsin-River Falls recently bestowed its highest non-academic honor on eight students. The Chancellor’s Award for Students recognizes students who have demonstrated outstanding leadership, excellence and service, both on campus and in the community. Recipients must also have shown a commitment to UWRF’s core values, as well as positive and inspiring personal traits and contributions in areas such as undergraduate research, inclusivity and global education.
“Selection for this prestigious award is an acknowledgment of your exceptional contributions to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and beyond,” wrote Chancellor Connie Foster in notifying students of the award. “You are among a very select group of students.”
Recipients must be juniors, seniors or graduate students and can receive nominations and letters of support from UWRF faculty or advisers, UWRF staff, external organization leaders, fellow students or be self-nominated. A selection committee comprised of appointees from the chancellor’s staff, academic colleges, student support staff and the Student Government Association (SGA) considers every nominee and selects finalists for interviews. After the interviews, the committee submits its recommendations to the chancellor, who makes the final decisions.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year all selection committee meetings and interviews of finalists with their nominators were performed online. The university was also not able to celebrate the students with a formal ceremony on campus at which the recipients receive a medallion to wear with their commencement garb in recognition of the prestigious award. The medallions were instead mailed to students along with a certificate of achievement and personal note from the chancellor.
The 2021 student recipients are Sophie Ackerman, Morgan Leigh Anderson, Magdala Diersen, Dannie Esterline, Marie-Ange Kivi, Adam Leseman, Ezekiel Olakunle and Violet Penman.
Sophie Ackerman is a senior neuroscience/biology-biomedical science major from Marshfield.
When Ackerman enrolled in UW-River Falls she knew she wanted to pursue a degree in science. What she couldn’t have known then was that she would become one of the university’s most highly respected and talented undergraduate researchers.
“When I have spoken to Sophie about her research interests, I am always impressed with the interdisciplinary nature of her work as well as her interest in pursuing research opportunities that will lead to very positive changes in people's lives,” wrote a nominator. “She clearly connects science with humanity, and she does this authentically and with sincerity.”
Ackerman’s leadership outside the lab and classroom is demonstrated by the roles she holds on campus. She is president of the UWRF Society for Undergraduate Research, Scholarly, and Creative Activity [SURSCA] where she coordinates student research on campus, provides training to students on research skills.
Described as an exceptional service-oriented leader and role model, Ackerman is also an honors student and Chancellor’s Scholar as well as an active member of the UWRF Psi Chi chapter and Psychology Club and is serving on the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Student Advisory Council.
As a teaching assistant in the Introduction to neuroscience course, Ackerman demonstrated a commitment to inclusivity, ensuring every student was comfortable with lab activity and had all the assistance they needed.
She has presented her research at the annual WiSys Symposium, Research in the Rotunda, the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research and the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting – a prestigious international conference. Ackerman serves as an ambassador to WiSys and was recently awarded a WiSys grant to study the effects of isolation during quarantine.
Ackerman is a member of the Science and Technology Innovation Center Partners and Advocates Council, a group created to advocate for a new science building on campus. As part of her advocacy, Sophie has made numerous public presentations, including to the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance.
Ackerman’s nominators acknowledge her character and advocacy skills.
“Whether Sophie is leading students, working closely with faculty, or assisting our campus and System administration with projects, she always demonstrates positivity and inspires others to embrace science and enjoy life,” a nominator wrote.
Graduating May 1, Ackerman has already accepted a job with BrainXell, a biomedical research company in Madison that cultures neurons from induced pluripotent stem cells for research.
Morgan Leigh Anderson is a senior social work major from Madison. Described by UWRF faculty as a transformational leader, Anderson has gone beyond expectations in pursuit of her social work degree. Having demonstrated resilience, courage and integrity to overcome personal obstacles, Anderson has now brought her unique perspective and skillsets to benefit campus in tangible ways.
An active participant in the College of Education and Professional Studies (CEPS) Social Justice Committee, Anderson was invited to serve as a student researcher on an interdisciplinary project regarding inclusivity on campus. Not only did she participate in the research process, but she also actively engaged in the presentations of findings to the larger UW-River Falls community, through Undergraduate Research, Scholarly and Creative Activity initiatives and speaking to groups such as the Chancellor’s Cabinet, the Chancellor’s Task Force on Inclusivity and Anti-Racism and other leadership teams.
“As a student on campus committed to issues of social justice, interested in research, and who exemplifies the very issue we were seeking to investigate, Morgan was the perfect candidate with whom to partner,” wrote her nominator.
Anderson is even listed as a co-author on the soon-to-be published article, “Student perspectives on campus climate and inclusivity,” in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.
Anderson is currently doing her field placement work at NorthWest Passage, a treatment program for adolescents with significant emotional and behavioral challenges. She also serves as a Shelter Advocate at TurningPoint for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence, providing crisis counseling and conducting victim advocacy, as well as a Volunteer Community Advocate at St. Croix Valley Restorative Services, as a community advocate in discussions of crime focused on preventing recidivism.
“Morgan has appropriately used her personal experiences to motivate herself to be an excellent student, peer, and leader. She has also used what she learned from her own experiences to provide informal support to other students who may be facing their own challenges,” a nominator wrote. “Morgan has been an inspiration to the students and staff at UWRF and has accomplished more than most in her time at UWRF.”
After graduation Anderson plans to begin the master of social work advanced standing program at the University of Minnesota with a focus in clinical mental health.
Magdala Diersen is a junior communication sciences and disorders and communication studies major from New Ulm, Minn.
Diersen is an engaged and involved UW-River Falls student who is making the most of her academic pursuits while never losing sight of her desire to create an inclusive environment on campus.
“Magdala effortlessly makes connections and gives everyone she encounters a reason to smile,” wrote a nominator. “Across generations, cultures, and social groups, Magdala’s kindness knows no bounds and perfectly matches the Chancellor’s Award criterion of inclusivity.”
As president of the UWRF chapter of the National Student Speech Language and Hearing Association (NSSLHA), Diersen is committed to serving the needs of individuals with disabilities and educating her fellow UWRF students in areas related to inclusion of individuals of all ability levels.
She has facilitated numerous online presentations, panel discussions, social gatherings and volunteer opportunities. Presentations have featured topics to help foster inclusivity and increase understanding and awareness of individuals with significant communication difficulties.
“Magdala holds herself to high expectations and has a very strong sense of integrity. I have seen her advocate for others time and time again, to make them feel welcome and safe within the community here at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls,” a nominator wrote. “She is the type of student that makes UWRF a great university.”
As an orientation and transition leader and peer mentor, Diersen worked to create an inclusive environment for students during the university’s annual Week of Welcome. She also advocated for more inclusive practices on campus such as initiatives to have more gender-neutral bathrooms.
As a nominator summarized, “I nominate Magdala for this honor not because she is able to accomplish so much, but because what she has taken from these accomplishments has made her a true member and example of the best of our students at UWRF.”
Diersen holds a minor in Spanish and has participated in Spanish Club. She attended many programs held through the Latinx student organization and student involvement. While in her role as a
Chancellor's Student Ambassador, she also was able to attend the International Thanksgiving Dinner and
took part in the Summit on International Education and Engagement.
Still only a junior, Diersen plans to pursue a career as a speech-language pathologist.
Dannie Esterline is a senior art major from Wausau. Not even a pandemic could stop Esterline from advocating for inclusivity, diversity and belonging on campus.
Through undergraduate research and campus leadership roles, Esterline has served in numerous capacities to influence equality rights issues in the LGTBQ community as well as in support of the community’s diverse populations.
“I am consistently inspired by Dannie’s embodiment of creativity, care, and community—Dannie is compassion personified,” wrote a nominator.
Esterline is employed on campus as one of two Resident Assistants supporting the university’s gender
inclusive housing community through educational interventions, mental health advocacy and community engagement.
Esterline serves UWRF in a governance role as Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Senator for the Student Governance Association to provide a voice for underrepresented and historically marginalized populations. As well, Esterline is a member of the Chancellor’s Taskforce on Inclusivity and Anti-Racism.
In addition, Esterline engages and interacts with many different student groups on campus, including serving on Society for Undergraduate Research, Scholarly and Creative Activities (SURSCA), Gender and Sexuality Alliance, Student Feminist Organization, and as an art ambassador (peer mentor), vice president of the Photography Club, and as president of the Art Therapy Club. Through the Art Ambassadors and the Art Therapy Club, Esterline organized events specifically designed forge connections between students on campus in order to encourage a sense of belonging.
As an art ambassador, Esterline helped organize events hosting 200 high school guests and coordinated volunteers to install exhibitions and manage a variety of events for students. Even during the pandemic, Esterline continues to coordinate social medial activities, publicize art events and promote mental health and social justice initiatives.
As an Honors Program student and a Falcon Scholar, Esterline has earned high regards from faculty and advisers who admire and respect their intellectual and emotional drive. Supporters of Esterline’s nomination agreed they have helped UWRF become a more dynamic and inclusive institution and community.
“Dannie’s spirit is amazing. It's time to recognize a student who is a beautiful example of what can be done out of the spotlight yet providing important personal service to the university,” a nominator wrote.
Esterline has been accepted to the Art Therapy Graduate Program at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee for fall 2021.
Marie-Ange Kivi is a senior marketing communications and communication studies major from St. Paul, Minn.
Kivi is someone who greatly values human connection, learning from others, and engaging in service work so it is not a surprise that her resume reads as it does. She is a Chancellor’s Student Ambassador which finds her in high profile communications roles for the university. She has been acknowledged several times by faculty members for leading educational efforts on campus, from launching the Anti-Covid Covid Club, helping UWRF to promote safe behaviors through social media, to serving as a storytelling intern to promote the success of the College of Arts and Sciences.
A non-traditional transfer student originally from Senegal and who commutes to campus, Kivi has demonstrated unwavering commitment to UWRF core values and engaged service to the community. Through her participation in the Honors Program, Kivi has volunteered in several local and Twin Cities non-profits. On campus, she has taken part in the International Friendship program, supporting three international students from China – helping them transition to life at UWRF and promoting cross cultural understanding through a variety of multicultural exchanges and social activities.
Even in her academics, Kivi has gone above and beyond.
“I believe her advancement in digital marketing communications, during a pandemic, nonetheless, exemplifies Marie-Ange’s dedication and commitment to her academic success and career,” wrote a nominator.
Kivi has already completed one digital marketing communications internship where she earned industry-recognized digital marketing certifications that later helped her secure an internship with a Boulder, Colo., marketing company.
Kivi is described as an inclusive leader who embodies the UWRF commitment to global education. Her positive attitude, passion for service and work ethic are deemed as indicative of maturity beyond her years.
In the words of one of her nominators, “[Marie-Ange] genuinely shares her love for UWRF, appreciation for the opportunity to be a student at UWRF, and passion for her studies and this campus with anyone who will listen. She is someone who instantly connects with others and makes others feel good about the space they are in and the person they are.”
After graduation, Kivi will work as a marketing coordinator for Vomela Companies, a national network of graphic design and large format printing specialists based in St. Paul. Vomela creates graphics for retail companies such as Target, TJ Maxx, UGC and Kate Spade.
Adam Leseman is a senior finance and economics major from Champlin, Minn.
Leseman turned internship opportunities into leadership roles early in his UWRF journey. As a freshman, he joined the Finance Club and then the Student Government Association (SGA) where he was elected to the Finance Committee and the Oversight and Rules Committee.
To ensure that UWRF was acting as a good steward of student dollars, Leseman studied UW Administrative Policy and Wisconsin state statutes. Through SGA, he has been actively engaged with student segregated fee oversight and implementing a student perspective into the university strategic planning process.
“Adam welcomes any opportunity to ensure that UWRF remains a student-centered institution and maintains a commitment to protecting and enhancing the student experience,” remarked one nominator.
Leseman was elected as Student Body president during his senior year at UWRF. As president, he
spent countless hours participating in meetings and working towards achieving UWRF’s
maximum potential. Recently, he proposed a Green Fee, a small tuition contribution, in
order to make UWRF a more sustainable campus.
Leseman is known for embracing his leadership role as SGA president from a place of humility and truly strives to represent all students and perspectives. He also serves on the Chancellor’s Task Force for Inclusivity and Anti-Racism and was a student representative on the Falcons Forward Implementation Team, preparing for a fall return to campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a letter of recommendation, Leseman was recognized for demonstrating innovation and creativity through his work with supporting student organizations and creating community at the Student Involvement front desk.
“The Student Involvement desk serves as an ‘involvement hub’ for students and Adam worked hard
to create a welcoming, inclusive, and helpful environment,” a nominator wrote.
Leseman’s participation and involvement in different student organizations spans from being a peer mentor for the College of Business and Economics, to being a part of National Residence Hall Honorary leadership.
“Adam’s dedication to creating an inclusive environment is one that will not be forgotten, but instead will be replicated for many years to come,” wrote a nominator.
Following graduation, Leseman plans to pursue a career in auditing preferably in the government setting, working on behalf of the community and common good.
Ezekiel Olakunle is a junior biomedical sciences major from Oakdale, Minn.
Determined to bring out the best in himself and others, Olakunle took the initiative to become involved in leadership roles on campus because he saw the need for change.
During his freshman year, Olakunle joined the Black Student Union, taking on responsibilities and showing his leadership almost immediately. Olakunle was instrumental in organizing some of the biggest events held on campus, including African Night and the Soul Food dinner which saw record turnouts from both students and the River Falls community.
First as vice president, then later as president of UWRF Black Student Union, Olakunle has advocated on behalf of the Black student body to ensure voices are heard and students feel empowered to create positive change on campus and in the community.
In submitting his name for the award, a nominator wrote, “Ezekiel is living proof that doing good and doing right by those in your community is fundamental to being a true leader.”
Olakunle also serves as an Aspire mentor and resident hall assistant roles which allow him to support students, provide resources and nurture a sense of inclusivity for those new to campus.
“From Aspire Mentor, to the president of BSU, to RA, Ezekiel has helped many students adjust to college,” wrote a nominator. “It is clear to me that he is using his talents to raise up our community.”
As a biomedical science major, Olakunle was awarded and participated in the WiscAMP (Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation) Scholar program in 2019, where he spent a summer in Madison learning and interacting with others from minoritized backgrounds in his field of study. The experience provided him the opportunity to conduct research to further enhance his knowledge in the biomedical field. He and his collaborating research partner presented their work at the WiscAMP Student Leadership Symposium and Annual Meeting.
“Ezekiel showed me through this WiscAMP experience how he not only contributes to the scientific community, but also how he contributes as a member of our UWRF community and our society at large,” wrote a nominator.
Olakunle hopes to pursue medical school after graduation in pursuit of achieving his goal of becoming a pediatrician.
Violet Penman is a senior conservation and environmental planning major from Hudson.
Penman’s passion for sustainability led to a leadership role with the Office of Sustainability. In her role as a student sustainability representative, she helps to promote sustainable practices, as well as environmental consciousness, both on campus and throughout the community.
“Violet was always a source of positive energy and interaction with her fellow students – she knew how to make others feel at ease and helped foster a more positive learning environment,” wrote a nominator.
Penman’s undergraduate research included land use project involving the rezoning of River Falls development which culminated in a paper and presentation. She also researched the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and developed public education pieces on them, resulting in a presentation made through the River Falls Public Library as part of the Climate Change Series co-hosted
by multiple organizations in and around the city.
Penman has engaged and conducted extensive amounts of research during her time as a volunteer, and later in a paid position, through the Office of Sustainability. As a Falcon Scholar and member of the UWRF Honors Program, Penman has also completed over 135 hours of community service, many working towards sustainability goals on campus. She has also worked as a note-taker with Ability Services.
Penman volunteers with the UW Divestment Coalition (UWDC)—a coalition among 10 of the 13 UW schools working with the UW System to divest from the fossil fuel industry and reinvest in a sustainable future, a group that she has helped to shape and catalyze.
Even in per position with Textbook Services, Penman is recognized for bringing sustainability improvements.
“I appreciate the changes she helped initiate here with sustainability issues, in particular our recycling practices,” wrote nominators. “Violet will undoubtedly go on to accomplish amazing things in this world and will be a great ambassador for UW-River Falls.”
Penman’s post-graduation plans may include moving into the workforce as a designer of sustainable spaces or the Peace Corp.