University Relations and Communications

Top MSU Billings graduates honored for academics, activism, inspiration

April 27, 2015


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MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — They represent Montana State University Billings’ highest ideals in academics, leadership, community service and campus engagement. Five MSUB graduates have the distinction of holding the university’s most prestigious honor for students.


Recipients of the 2015 Outstanding Graduate Award are undergraduates Brianne DePuydt, Elizabeth Mullins, Jamie Slaugh, Ben Smith and graduate student Emily Peters.


Golden Merit Award recipients are Charmayne Burton and Brianne DePuydt.


Recipients will receive special recognition at this week’s Convocation and Commencement ceremonies.


Awards are given to students who have exemplified both personal and academic achievement at MSU Billings including their citizenship in support of the university’s goals and values and their potential for future success and achievement.


A selection committee represented by faculty from each college reviewed the finalists for the Outstanding Graduate Award while students on the Associated Students of MSU Billings (student government) select the Golden Merit winners.



2015 Outstanding Graduates and Golden Merit Award Recipients


BrianneBrianne DePuydt, Outstanding Graduate and Golden Merit Award Recipient


While competing as a college basketball athlete and double majoring in business marketing and management, nothing stopped Brianne DePuydt from a perfect 4.0 grade point average, completing the business honors curriculum, and earning Summa Cum Laude status upon graduating from MSU Billings this spring.


“I don’t think that you have to be the most intelligent or the most talented but you have to have a lot of drive,” Brianne said. “If you are dedicated and put forth that hard work you will be successful.”


The Saco native set her sight on the MSU Billings Women’s Basketball team when she was a senior in high school. Four years later, Brianne proved to be instrumental to her team’s success and lead them to about 80 wins despite an ACL injury her junior year. Only by her incredible drive, she fought back at one of the most difficult injuries to overcome by athletes.


“I can honestly say that was the hardest obstacle I have faced physically,” Brianne said. “For one thing, saying ‘yes I’m going to come back strong as ever’ is easy to say, but once you decide to do it, that’s the hard part. But I wasn’t going to fail.”


Rather, she went over and beyond. Brianne received the GNAC Academic All-Conference three years, the prestigious GNAC FAR Academic Award, the Chancellor’s Scholarship, a Chi Apha Sigma recognition and is the SAAC representative for the women’s basketball program. In her senior year she lead her basketball team as co-captain.


“She has impeccable character and great leadership skills,” MSUB women’s basketball coach, Kevin Woodin, said. “She is simply the type of person you want to surround yourself with.”


Brianne has learned the importance of giving back to the community through numerous volunteer activities including reading at local schools, assisting in youth basketball camps, sponsoring Salvation Army’s Christmas gift program, serving on Salvation Army’s Night on the Van and helping fight breast cancer with the Eva Project and MSUB’s THINK PINK basketball game.


Next year Brianne looks to return to MSU Billings if accepted into graduate school for health administration, in hopes to gain the knowledge and experience required to one day manage a hospital.



Elizabeth MullinsElizabeth Mullins, Outstanding Graduate Award


There were those who believed she didn’t have it in her. She spent her early school years in special education classes and speech therapy. While others in her class were reading, she was trying to decipher the difference between a ‘g’ and a ‘j’.


But, when life knocked her down, Elizabeth Mullins reached for the stars. She dreamt of learning 16 languages, becoming a scientist and FBI agent, a paratrooper fighter pilot who would jump out of planes to provide medical care to people in third world countries.


“I think if any of us were to sit back and listen to our childhood check-list of all the amazing things we were determined to do, we would be humbled,” Mullins said. “I accept that I may never be the best at any single one thing. However, if I can do well in a lot of different areas, then I will have the benefit of helping more people in a wider array of areas—whether through research, medical care or flying a helicopter into a remote location.”   


Today, the 30-year-old from Talala, Okla., will graduate with honors and a degree in biology from Montana State University Billings, where she is the school’s first and only Goldwater Scholar. Soon after commencement, she will head to the Mid-west where she will begin medical school at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Missouri.


Recognized for achieving those high marks, she is one of this year’s recipient of the MSU Billings Outstanding Senior Awards.


“If life had been easy, I’m not sure if I would have invested so much of myself into trying to make the world into a more livable place,” Mullins said. “I may not have seen the hunger and need in the communities in which I’ve lived. Adversity is a unifying theme in our lives that teaches us to look beyond our individual experiences, and to appreciate our common struggle.” 


Mullins has been setting the bar at high levels in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences since she was a freshman. She serves as the Biological Society student club president, while also active in the Chemistry and Pre-medical clubs. Off-campus, she volunteers with Billings Clinic, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and with Sandstone Elementary School.


She began as a research assistant for Dr. Kurt Toenjes her sophomore year and subsequently was awarded with the Third Biennial Western Regional IDeA Conference Best-in-Presentation Award.


Before enrolling into MSUB in 2011, Mullins served with the United States Navy as a medical corpsman at a forward operating base in Afghanistan. Following two deployments and nine years of service, she left active duty to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.


“My own experiences with adversity as a child and then later as an adult have helped define my purpose to effect positive change in my community and around the globe,” she said. “I’ve learned in life that it’s most important to be grateful for what you have and to always see the good even in the most difficult of situations.”



Ben SmithBenjamin Smith, Outstanding Graduate Award


Ben Smith always goes the extra mile.


An outdoor adventure leadership major from Pepin, Wisc., Smith said he has always been passionate about going the distance to help others.


But, the 34-year-old from Pepin, Wisc., said he didn’t always have a clear path.


“The biggest challenge for me was finding my direction in life,” Smith said. “But once I did, I was full-speed ahead.”


He’s not only pushed himself academically, but also through leadership and community involvement. With a near perfect 4.0 grade-point-average, Smith volunteers his time with the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation, the Yellowstone River and Parks Association and with area schools’ field trips.


Dedication and hard work is what sets Smith apart and led to him being named a 2015 MSU Billings Outstanding Senior. 


Friendly, approachable and sporting a resumé of involvement as impressive as his academic record, Smith has gained the respect of his faculty and community members.


“Public service has always been important to me,” Smith said. “Combining that with the outdoors is a perfect fit. I can help others see and enjoy the outdoors the way I do while helping them form their own experience. I think forming respect for our environment and a connection to nature is especially important in today’s plugged-in world.”


Lynne Fitzgerald, an OAL professor, noted that beyond his knowledge, skills and abilities of outdoor activities, Smith has a “strong understanding of the soft skills of leadership such as professionalism, decision-making and risk management.”


Smith completed a portion of his internship requirement as a ski instructor at Red Lodge Mountain. He began as a ‘rookie instructor’ but mid-way through the season he received more requests for private lessons than any other instructor on staff and was promoted to a training team coach.


Craig Beam, Red Lodge Mountain director, said that Smith is the “real deal, personable and reliable.”


“You can’t find a better person, instructor and coach than that of Ben Smith,” Beam said.



Emily PetersEmily Peters, Nels ChristiansenOutstanding Graduate Student Award


Emily Peters’ journey through college has been guided by her passion to help others.

“I want the big picture that drives me to go to work everyday to be about making a difference and helping others,” Peters said. “I can’t imagine the big picture being about money.”


Her passion has also earned her the distinction of being named the 2015 Nels Christiansen Outstanding Graduate Student.


The 24-year-old graduate student from Bozeman received a double major in psychology and sociology from the University of Montana before enrolling into Montana State University Billings’ master’s program in public administration.


“I really enjoyed the subject matter of my undergraduate degrees, but I wanted to apply my focus to working more hands-on with people,” she said. “This program has definitely been an applied focus, providing me with real-world scenarios and case studies.”


Paul Pope, the MPA program director, said that education is a much better place with students like Peters.


“She has a tremendous ability to accomplish anything she puts her mind to, and if her current and past success is any indication of her future success, I think that expecting great things to come may be an understatement,” Paul said.


In addition to maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade-point-average in her graduate program, Peters works as a graduate assistant in the Office of Graduate Studies. She has helped the office develop and update its website presence and graduate recruiting.

She also volunteers with the MSUB Office of American Indian Outreach, Extended Campus and the MPA program to develop a Native American tribal management graduate certificate.


After graduation, Peters’ goal is to work in higher education.


“I love the field of education for so many reasons,” Peters said. “It’s a world in which people are always striving to learn more, contribute more and collaborate more. To be a part of this is always inspiring and only makes me want to be all of those things too. It’s about giving back and making an impact on those around us.”  



Jamie SlaughJamie Slaugh, Outstanding Graduate Award


With extensive participation in student government, campus events and community involvement, Jamie Slaugh has shown her professionalism and displayed her shining outgoing nature, attributes that have set her apart in being named one of five MSU Billings Outstanding Graduates for 2014-2015.


The Billings native and Skyview High School graduate spent time at both City College and MSU Billings and will graduate this week with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and elementary education.


Slaugh has a passion for helping the community through myriad of activities including volunteering with the HUB, Crisis Intervention Training, Boys and Girls Club, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Billings Police Department, Boy Scouts of America and Eagle Mount, to name a few.


“I feel as though you should go out there and make as big of an impression as you can and help everyone out,” Slaugh said. “Leave a place better than you found it.”


Along with being involved with Associated Students of MSUB since fall of 2008 and serving key roles such as sustainability coordinator, student resolution officer and chairs the Student Services/Public Relations committee, Slaugh has been a member of MSUB 4-H club, MSUB Circle K, MSUB Cheer team and the Drama club. As part of Drama Club, Slaugh now president, has directed children’s theater since 2012.


“Her time commitment to her academics, campus and community events and the MSU Billings students is outstanding,” said Valarie Sperry, ASMSUB manager. “She is an outstanding student leader.”

Slaugh’s passion for working and teaching students has carried over into student teaching this semester at Broadwater Elementary School.


“I just love to see kids’ faces when they catch that grasp of something new and you can see that spark,” Slaugh said.


Slaugh looks forward to life after her education so that she can be a part of other’s education. She currently is looking to teach second grade, her favorite age group, in the local area.



Charmayne Burton, Golden Merit Award


Insights into what makes Charmayne Burton an exceptional student—and will likely make her an exceptional teacher—can be found in her excitement for learning.


An enthusiastic and dedicated student, Burton will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in special education and elementary education and a nearly perfect grade point average.


Being a part of university activities while maintaining a 3.94 GPA was not always easy, but Burton liked the challenges. While her involvement with campus activities and community service was a valuable experience that taught her a lot about teamwork and leadership, her main focus has always been education and teaching.


That passion for the learning process is what sets Burton apart and led to the Belt native being named one of two students to receive an MSU Billings Golden Merit Award winners for 2015. The award recognizes seniors for their academic work and contributions to the university and the community.


Burton interrupted her degree path between her sophomore and junior years for a deployment to Afghanistan with the Montana National Guard.


While overseas, Burton was a pen pal for multiple elementary classrooms, sending materials and information often to help educate children about her duties. Once she returned home, she visited each of the classrooms that had written to her.


“Service has always been at the front of Charmayne’s life,” Lynette Schwalbe, university lecturer, said. “She dedicates selflessly to the community and her country.”


As a newly minted teacher, Burton said she looks forward to a career in the classroom. She knows it will be a challenge, but that’s how she likes it.


“She will continue to exemplify outstanding academic achievement and to serve through educating the next generation of leaders,” Schwalbe said.


See also: Snapshots of MSU Billings