MONMOUTH – Each spring, in conjunction with commencement, three students are honored with prestigious Western Oregon University awards. An outstanding male and female graduating senior are honored, as well as an outstanding graduate student. Rebecca Chadd, Christopher Hamilton, and Melissa Lalack have been named the outstanding senior female, senior male and graduate student, respectively. Each student will speak at the commencement ceremony on June 13.
The Delmer Dewey Award is given to an outstanding graduating male each year. The award is named after former Dean of Men, Delmer Dewey, who had died in 1953. The year following his death, at the Annual Folks’ Festival, the Dad’s Club suggested an award be named in his honor. In the beginning, the recipient was given a $15 award, but that has since been discontinued.
The Julia McCulloch Smith Award began in 1931 through a $500 gift from John E. Smith. The donation was to be used as a loan fund for female students of Oregon Normal School, now known as WOU. It was given in honor of Smith’s wife, Julia McCulloch Smith, who had died in 1930 and been a graduate of the school. McCulloch Smith received a degree in scientific didactics in 1895 and taught in the elementary school of Yaquina, Jefferson and Salem.
Rebecca Chadd, Julia McCulloch Smith Award
Rebecca Chadd trusted her gut when she visited Western Oregon University four years ago. “I came here and didn’t visit any other schools after that. It just felt right, I felt connected.” A native of Philomath, Ore., she knew she wanted to find a small college on the West coast. It just happened the school that had everything she was looking for was close to home.
She knew she wanted to be involved in dance, and she became involved with Western’s program immediately when she began her freshman year. That first year she was involved with the university’s production of “West Side Story,” which she considers a hallmark experience of her undergraduate years. “That was the first time I really felt like I had a solid group of friends on campus,” she said.
Chadd is one of few college students who never changed majors. She graduates from Western with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish with an international studies minor and a Bachelor of Science in dance. Her interests went beyond dance to that of all the arts. “It’s the things I do in the arts that feed my soul,” she said. A dancer and pianist, she choreographed a dance and composed the accompanied music for “Walking into Wholeness,” a piece performed at the 2008 Spring Dance Concert. Her thesis documents the simultaneous creative process of producing these works, incorporating her handwritten notes from conception to completion.
Dr. Gavin Keulks, professor of English, never had Chadd in a class, but got to know her well as the director of the Honors Program for the past two years. “In my 20 years as a university teacher, I’ve rarely encountered someone with this extreme level of university participation and commitment. She is intellectually sophisticated, not easily duped by trend or whimsy, and freely volunteers her time and enthusiasm to numerous campus projects. Quite honestly, I often struggle to see how she finds time to do all the things that she does, as simply scanning her list of achievements exhausts me,” he said.
It is difficult to imagine how she managed to be heavily involved with so many activities throughout her entire undergraduate career. She completed two bachelor’s degrees, a minor, the Honors Program, and three international trips in only four years.
The dance faculty at Western appreciate Chadd’s giving nature and contributions to Western. Dance faculty Deborah Jones, Susan McFadden, Sharon Oberst and Darryl Thomas jointly nominated Chadd for this award. In their nomination letter they wrote, “Rebecca has the ability to organize and inspire others to positive action. Her positive and inclusive attitude, organizational skills, ability to multitask and desire to be of service and fully participate in all that she does is her hallmark. She leads by example – the strongest kind of leadership. Her success is mirrored in the respect and support that she garners from her fellow students.”
That closeness with students has shaped Chadd’s time at Western. “What I like about Western is the closeness of the community. It’s a good balance: I always see familiar faces, and I continue to meet new people.”
After processing the recent disappointment of not attaining a teaching assistantship in Spain for the upcoming year, Chadd remains optimistic about what her journey will bring, “There’s a time for every season under heaven, and I trust that God has a great plan my future.” What she knows for sure is that she wants to keep dancing and making music, have an Oregon-based dance company within the next few years, continue in service, and eventually pursue a Master’s degree, teach Spanish and dance, and have a family. “My biggest problem is wanting to do it all!”
Honorable mention: Ashley Erb, Huntley Montana; Chelsey Miller, Des Moines, Wash.; Jessica Montas, Portland.
Christopher Hamilton, Delmer Dewey Award
Many students who walk across the platform at graduation haven’t quite decided what they want to do for a career or further education. Christopher Hamilton stands apart from that group. He knows exactly the impact he wants to make in the world and how to get there.
Hamilton, of Tualitin, Ore., will begin a law program at Willamette University this fall. After completing his law degree he plans to go into practice as a legal advocate for students with disabilities.
“I watched my little brother grow up in the school system and through him got to know a fair number of other students growing up with disabilities. I watched all of their experiences with the school system and realized that those experiences sucked and something needs to happen to fix that,” Hamilton said.
He started college planning to be a special education major with the intent to go into teaching or law. He said, “As I learned more about how things work, I realized the biggest disconnect is between what the law says is supposed to happen and what’s actually going on in the schools. I can do a lot more good for a lot more students as a lawyer keeping districts accountable, and helping teachers and districts understand what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to provide adequate services for students, than I could as a single teacher.”
Hamilton transferred to WOU after two years at Western Washington University and a semester at Pacific Lutheran University. He’s graduating with a bachelor’s in public policy and administration. He believes that getting to know his professors was the key to his success. Two professors in particular have made a strong impression in Hamilton’s life and will be a major part of what he will remember from college – political science professor Dr. Edwin Dover and communications studies professor Dr. Molly Mayhead.
Dover said of Hamilton, “During the time he has been at WOU, he has consistently been among the better students in the range of classes he has taken from me and has earned a grade of A on every test, written assignment, or class presentation that I have asked of him.”
Hamilton encourages anyone beginning their college career to get to know their professors like Hamilton got to know his. “Once you know what you’re interested in, get to know your professors. I think that’s what has helped me the most is that I’m on really good terms with my entire department. That has helped in getting my major sorted out, getting course substitutions figured out and more,” he said.
He also encourages students to get involved with clubs on campus. Clubs helped mold Hamilton into the man he is today, and Campus Crusade for Christ in particular was a critical component to Hamilton’s time at WOU. “Campus Crusade helped me to really grow as a person with God and get on a footing where I can go forward in life and know what’s going on. When I came to Western I was really confused about just about everything, so it’s been good to get back into a good, strong Christian community,” said Hamilton.
He is active in WOU’s chapter of the Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity, an instructor in the WOU Social Dance Club, a trombone player in the Western Oregon Brass Quintet and a member of the WOU chapter of the American Sign Language Club.
“When you get here, find a club. Our campus is full of them. It’s the best way to form good social and networking interaction. Clubs are important to getting to know people who like the same things you do, care about the same things you do, get excited about the same things you do.”
Honorable mention: Byron Bethards, Albany
Melissa Lalack, Outstanding Graduate Student Award
If Melissa Lalack, of Colton, Ore., had been told she would complete her master’s, let alone with a 4.0, she would have laughed it off. In high school Lalack was all about sports; she only made sure to do well enough in classes so she could keep participating in school athletics. All of that changed for her at Western Oregon University.
She credits the change in her grades to psychology professor Dr. Robert Winningham’s seminar on how to get good grades in college. “I did everything he said to do on what to take notes on, how to read for classes, and where to sit in class. It’s funny to look back at my transcript now because the terms prior to that I had steady Cs and Bs, but the term immediately after that, and from then on, I had all As and Bs.” She is also gives credit to Dr. Dean Braa, Dr. Maureen Dolan, and Dr. Stephen Gibbons who helped her find her passion, helping the less fortunate.
While pursuing her bachelor’s in sociology from Western, Lalack developed a sense of purpose. Through those classes she learned community needs, worked with people exiting correctional facilities, and learned what services are needed, and the ones available in Marion and Polk counties.
As an undergrad, Lalack made unbelievable contributions to the community. One of the most notable is the Step Up program that she coordinates. This program began as Project Backpack, an effort to gather donations to fill backpacks that would be given to youth exiting correctional facilities. Lalack learned that many of these youth have nowhere to go, no transportation to get around, and no money to buy basic necessities. These backpacks include hygiene items, water, food, supplies, a first aid kit, basic clothing items, blankets, bus passes, and a resource list showing shelters, medical services and help for finding a job throughout the state.
As program director, Lalack managed to distribute 200 backpacks to Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility and Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility. The organization’s long-term goal is to provide a backpack to every homeless youth in Marion and Polk counties, which would be about 1,600 backpacks.
“The reason these youth are in the correctional system a lot of the time is because they don’t have the family to support them. They end up doing these crimes to help them get food and survive,” said Lalack. “I think it’s our duty for when they’re released to at least give them a starter kit to transition to the community. It’s a struggle to not go back to the situation that got them into trouble in the first place.”
Lalack has plans to help homeless youth in other ways. Her ultimate career goal is to open a non-profit that serves homeless youth in high school. It would be a home they can stay in for as long as it takes to finish their schooling and get a job so they can go on their own. She said she would only be able to help five or so youth at a time, but she feels this would fill an important need in the community.
This definitive career goal was molded during her time as a master’s student in WOU’s criminal justice program. “The kids I really want to work with are the kids exiting correctional facilities, or especially before the kids get there – to help them on a different path. The criminal justice master’s helped me realized that.” For her master’s program, Lalack wrote a thesis based on research she conducted at Oak Creek Correctional Facility. She talked with both the youth and the staff about what they thought of the facility’s programs, suggestions for improvement, the food services, treatment programs, and the need of a transitional program.
“Melissa is an outstanding student, young professional, and community citizen. It should be clear that Melissa Lalack is a special person and is exactly the type of graduate who deserves this award – she is an excellent student and a tireless community volunteer. She is hard-working, dedicated, intelligent, compassionate, organized, creative, resourceful, and caring,” said criminal justice professor Dr. Stephen Gibbons, Lalack’s master’s program adviser.
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