Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269
May 1, 2008
Top MSU Billings seniors honored for academics, activism, inspiration
By Dan Carter
MSU Billings News Service
(click on photos to view larger version)
A passing glance would seemingly put them in the category of “ordinary college student” or even simply “the class of 2008.”
But catching up to them (if you can) and digging a little deeper, elevates seniors Annie Snedigar, Athena Ayers and Susan Weikel into the zone of “remarkable” and “outstanding” at Montana State University Billings this spring.
The three graduating seniors will be recognized as recipients of the Outstanding Senior Award and Golden Merit Award at this week’s Convocation and Commencement ceremonies at the university.
In general terms, they represent three areas of study: communications, education and business. Personally, they represent engaged and active students, small town Montana and adult learners. Collectively, they are excellence personified.
From small town to big things
Nestled in the northeastern corner of Montana, the town of Culbertson (population: 714) is one of those places where a sense of community is vital. The local school, the main street business, the families all pitch in and help each other. It’s who they are.
When Annie Snedigar left Culbertson to attend MSU Billings in the fall of 2004, she packed that sense of community with her other belongings. It’s who she is.
And as she looks behind when she crosses the stage at commencement, what she will see not a sea of people, but a community of learners, friends and mentors.
Snedigar is the winner of the MSU Billings Golden Merit Award, given to a graduating senior in recognition of outstanding scholarship, leadership and community service. Her supporters say that Snedigar exemplifies what is best about MSU Billings students.
“While her academic accomplishments are exemplary, what motivates this nomination is Annie’s exceptional devotion to MSU Billings and the surrounding community,” wrote Dr. David Weiss, assistant professor of communication. “Quite simply, I have never come across a student who has so selflessly committed herself to her fellow students, her fellow citizens and her fellow man and woman.”
A review of Snedigar’s activities makes the term “involved” a bit of an understatement. The list includes two years of Habitat for Humanity awareness and advocacy; collegiate 4-H; Upward Bound/TRIO leader; service work on weekends on behalf of the university; orientation leader; volunteer activities throughout the community; a Jacket Student Ambassador for most of her college career; and a resident assistant for three years. All of this on top of academic work to maintain a 3.64 GPA.
“I think the key — what helped me most — was to find people to build a community,” said Snedigar. “That’s so important in a small town and I wanted to do that here.”
As a resident assistant, she bonded well with others in Petro Hall and had camaraderie with the women’s basketball players who lived on her floor.
“It kind of felt like family because we were so close,” she said.
Resident assistants are the first point of contact for many students and if they have a bad day (or a bad game) the RAs can help smooth things out.
“Some days I didn’t want to get up, especially after staying up until 3 a.m. with a student,” she said, flashing a smile as brilliant as daybreak. “But when you see them do well, you think you must have done something right along the way.”
An enthusiastic and dedicated student, Snedigar credits the teaching of Dr. St. John Robinson, chairman of the Department of Modern Languages, Weiss and fellow communications professor Dr. Stephen Coffman for her academic success.
“I had some really good professors,” she said. “Dr. Coffman has a teaching style that may seem dry, but he is so intelligent. And Dr. Weiss is just so flippin’ smart.”
Snedigar went on a trip to China with Robinson and other MSU Billings representatives in 2006. She made presentations to representatives of Jilin University and demonstrated her leadership multiple times, Robinson said. For a small-town girl, the trip represented big things and a world of possibilities, she said.
Whether she moves on to graduate school or a job after graduation remains to be seen, but Snedigar will keep her sense of focus and community.
After all, it’s who she is.
A passion for education
Insights into what makes Athena Ayers an exceptional student — and will likely make her an exceptional teacher — can be found in a day-in-the-life example off her student teaching session this spring:
Ayers was assigned to a fourth-grade classroom at Lockwood Elementary School. One day at lunch — one of those invite-your-parents-to-eat-hot-lunch events — she noticed a student visually upset, sitting by herself. It seems her parents weren’t able to attend and it bothered her that she was seemingly let adrift in a sea of family festivities. She consoled the student as anyone would, but she made a mental note that the experience could affect the student’s learning.
“Sometimes the things that happen outside the classroom impact what happens in class,” she said. “You notice when they’re a little off… you can tell.”
That small attention to detail, the passion for the learning process, is what sets Ayers apart and led to her being named one of two students to receive an MSU Billings Outstanding Senior Award for 2008. The award recognizes seniors for their academic work and contributions to the university.
“Whether she is participating in a class, leading a class, doing homework, organizing a project or organizing people, Athena always gives everything she’s got to the task or person in front of her,” said Jessica Smothers, the university’s Student Success Coordinator. “In doing so, she is the kind of student who makes the institution look really good.”
A self-proclaimed “military brat” who moved around the country with her family, Ayers finished high school in San Diego and moved to Montana with her family when her father was reassigned to the Naval Reserve Center in Billings. She is graduating May 3 with a degree in elementary education and plans to teach.
She’s been active in Jacket Student Ambassadors (the student-led advocacy group for the university) and served as president this past year; she served as English as a Second Language coordinator for a summer in the Office of International Studies; worked on Project Homeless Connect with other students; helped with Halloween parties at Friendship House; and helped with orientation.
Being a part of university activities while maintaining a 3.85 GPA was not always easy, but Ayers liked the challenges. And while she said involvement with Jacket Student Ambassadors was a valuable experience that taught her a lot about teamwork and leadership, but her main focus has always been education and teaching.
Given her small stature (not quite diminutive) and straight brown hair, she could easily be confused for a student. But inside lies the passion of a lion that comes through loud and clear in her actions and her discussions about experiences in the classroom.
“I love dealing with kids and learning from kids,” she said. “Anything that can make that spark show up in them makes my day.”
Through her career at MSU Billings and her experience as a student teacher, she found “an excitement for learning” that was modeled by her faculty. She specifically pointed out Lynette Schwalbe, a university lecturer in the College of Education, and Dr. Ken Miller, a professor of educational theory and practice.
“With Lynette, there was a lot of work in class, but you were able to apply it all,” Ayers said. “And Dr. Miller showed that learning science isn’t just out of the textbook and can be fun. Years from now, I hope I can still be that passionate.”
As a newly minted teacher, Ayers said she looks forward to a career in the classroom. She knows it will be a challenge, but that’s how she likes it.
“I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to do things if it wasn’t a challenge.”
From tending kids to tending numbers
After she graduates from MSU Billings on May 3, with a bachelor of science in business administration and accounting, she’ll be ready for a career that requires attention to detail, managing budgets and setting high standards.
It’s no coincidence that the character traits that describe Weikel as a mother are also those that make her an exemplary student and led to her being named one of two students to receive an MSU Billings Outstanding Senior Award for 2008.
“Susan is very bright, hardworking and reliable,” said Mike Campbell, department chair and professor of accounting in the MSU Billings College of Business. “She is conscientious and very motivated to do quality work and get the task completed in an excellent manner. Susan is the type of person that a business owner or manager, planning for a long vacation, could be comfortable leaving in charge and be confident that she would properly handle important issues and make sound decisions.”
A native of Havre, a series of life events brought Weikel from Jordan in central Montana to Laurel, where she now lives. Determined to make a new life for her two children at that time, she turned to higher education. She is now remarried and has three children at home and three grandchildren.
She had taken some college classes at MSU Northern in Havre in the 1970s, and started up again in at MSU Billings in 2003. She knew she had an affinity for numbers and put her focus on the College of Business.
“I really liked accounting and found it was something I liked to do,” she said. “I liked the straightforward numbers. Finance and economics seemed to be too abstract for me.”
During her career at MSU Billings, Weikel was involved in the Accounting Club, the Honors Club, served on the College of Business Student Advisory Board and served on the advisory board of the Student Opportunity Services. She also worked as a volunteer tax preparer through the university and always enjoyed working on team projects.
“The best experience is the student networking,” she said during a recent interview. “We are all classmates, even though we don’t all graduate at the same time. And making myself available to others who might need help, I was able to be recognized as a vital part of the university.”
Accounting faculty Dr. Barbara Wheeling and Dr. Debra Johnson are viewed by Weikel as instrumental in her academic career because of their commitment to excellence.
“They don’t let you off easy,” she said. “They don’t want to see anything less than excellence in your work and I appreciate that in instructors.”
Weikel said she eventually plans to take the exam to become a certified public accountant and taking the next step in her life.
And, as a mom, she offers some advice for those students who follow her: “Don’t give yourself up for anybody. You are who you are, so hold on to that.”