2023 Graduate Award Recipients

Congratulations to all of the 2023 awardees!

This award is presented to a person (or persons) whose assistance played a significant role in helping a graduate earn an Excelsior University degree.

William D. Reed, nominated by Jessica A. Hish

William D. Reed, of Sylvania, Georgia, was nominated by his wife Jessica A. Hish for supporting her while she was pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Business cum laude, which she earned in July 2022 with a 3.66 GPA. Reed is a system operator in training with Southern Company, and while Hish was busy with her studies, he took on the daily stresses and responsibilities. Hish completed her degree amid separating from the military, moving across the world, and giving birth to their son.

This award recognizes the leadership and vision of founding trustee Lt. General Arthur J. Gregg [U.S. Army (Ret.)]. General Gregg chaired Excelsior’s Board of Overseers and guided the transition to independence as a private institution, becoming the first chair of the Board of Trustees. With a distinguished career in the U.S. Army, General Gregg has contributed greatly to Excelsior’s service to the U.S. military. The award is presented to a graduate who is on active duty in the U.S. military and who demonstrates outstanding academic and career or professional achievement.
Skyler Sharp

Skyler Sharp completed a Master of Science in Management in February 2023, with a 4.0. He is a junior executive officer with the U.S. Air Force.

In the Air Force, Sharp oversees his squadron’s administrative tasks and requirements. He is also a combat aviator and instructor pilot. Throughout his Excelsior career, he achieved high academic achievements, dedicating himself to submitting well-researched homework he submitted on time, every time. He worked well with his fellow students and professors and participated in an international business competition.

Sharp is fluent in Afghan Pashto and is president of the Nevada Language Enabled Airmen Program Chapter where he helps airmen connect to language resources, opportunities, professional development, and recognition. He was recognized as the junior company grade officer of the fourth quarter of 2022 and has been commended for his work by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Rep. Steven Horsford.

At home, Sharp is a loving husband and father of four.

This award is given in memory of Catherine Craig-Erhardt, a member of Excelsior’s staff beginning in 1980. From 1984 until her untimely death in 1986, she served as Excelsior’s liaison to the military. The award recognizes and commemorates her commitment to helping military servicemembers attain their educational goals and is presented for service to others, commitment to education, and for academic, professional, and personal achievement.
Craig S. Polley

Craig S. Polley, of Stafford, Virginia, completed a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership with an Emphasis in Technology and Data Analytics in June 2023, with a 4.0 GPA. He is an engineer equipment occupational field sponsor with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Throughout his Excelsior career, Polley worked hard to maintain a high grade point average while working full-time. Though his studies were difficult, he reminded himself that he was setting an example for his three children. His family and coworkers never stopped supporting him through his educational journey.

While taking courses, Polley was able to apply what he was learning directly to his job. His supervisors and coworkers often remarked how much his studies at Excelsior were paying off. Polley was given more challenging projects and was promoted to chief warrant officer 5, which is the highest possible rank on his career path. He moved into his current position in 2023.

In addition to his master’s degree, Polley earned a Bachelor of Professional Studies in Business and Management from Excelsior in 2021.

This award is in recognition of Charles W. Laffin whose vision and leadership gave momentum to a fledgling community college movement and left a legacy of opportunity to millions of adult learners. In gratitude for his invaluable service to Excelsior College (now Excelsior University), the faculty presents this award for academic excellence and outstanding achievement. To be eligible for the Charles W. Laffin Jr. Memorial Award, the graduate must have earned credit from a community college before attending Excelsior University. The graduate must have received a master’s degree (non-nursing) from Excelsior University
Jason Michael DeLonais

Jason Michael DeLonais, of Lawton, Oklahoma, completed a Master of Science in Criminal Justice in July 2022, with a 3.8 GPA. He is a Navy veteran, the former chief of police of Fletcher, Oklahoma, and is now a law enforcement specialist with Oklahoma Municipal Assurance Group.

It took DeLonais 26 years to complete an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, and now his master’s degree. His lengthy academic journey spanned four countries, frontline combat operations, seven different schools, PTSD, poverty, remedial training, starts and stops, and a mélange of traditional in-class sessions, online coursework, correspondence courses, and challenging college-level tests.

DeLonais has been awarded the John Edgar Hoover Award Memorial Gold Medal for Distinguished Public Service Award from the American Police Hall of Fame, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Valor Device, and the Medal of Valor by the Oklahoma Sheriff and Peace Officers Association.

DeLonais is the third member of his family to earn a higher degree and is among a small percentage of indigenous people to hold a graduate degree. In addition to his master’s degree, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts from Excelsior in 2009.

This award is presented in recognition of Excelsior University alumnus Dwayn Hanford. As past president of the Excelsior University Alumni Association and Alumni Leadership Council, a C. Wayne Williams Award recipient, and adjunct instructor, Hanford is a strong advocate and ally of Excelsior and the mission to educate 21st-century public sector leaders and citizens. The recipient of the Dwayn Hanford Award has completed a public service degree with academic excellence and significant community involvement.
William Simmons

William Simmons, of Boise, Idaho, completed a Bachelor of Science in Homeland Security and Emergency Management in June 2022, with a 3.53 GPA. He is a leadership development/emergency management specialist with Jacob Green and Associates based out of Irvine, California.

Simmons is responsible for conducting emergency operations center training and exercises for elected officials, department heads, and the emergency operations center response team. His work includes administering organizational assessments for cities, counties, and special districts. He developed 18 emergency management training events for city staff to be prepared for and ready to respond to man-made and natural hazards. He has helped develop five city leadership academies focused on time management, cognitive diversity, crisis communication, DEI, and other topics. He is the author of 16 emergency planning documents.

In addition, Simmons’s experience extends to the U.S. Air Force where he was the lead instructor/operations manager at his squadron. There he coordinated, instructed, and controlled simulated and live training events, ensuring personnel and aircraft were prepared for worldwide deployment.

This award was created in recognition of Dr. Long’s service and contribution to Excelsior University. He was regarded as an expert in nuclear education and a proponent of the link between training and education and the safe operation of nuclear facilities. Students selected for this award must work in the nuclear power industry and be a member of the American Nuclear Society.
John C. Howard

John C. “Chuck” Howard, of Elloree, South Carolina, earned a Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering Technology in February 2023, with a 4.0 GPA. He is a lead operations instructor with Southern Nuclear, where he is primarily responsible for designing and writing the regulatory licensing exams for operators.

Howard has more than 40 years of experience in the nuclear industry, during which time he has had experience in the supervision, operation, and maintenance associated with a naval nuclear propulsion plant, including two refueling overhauls and two depot modernization periods. He is a member of the American Nuclear Society and helped develop the first-ever Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s AP1000 regulatory examinations for the industry.

The recipient of the Graduate Excellence Award has demonstrated academic excellence inside the classroom and has applied their discipline-specific learning and leadership skills to make a positive impact in their profession or community. Eligible candidates must have received a master’s degree from Excelsior University, with a minimum GPA of 3.8 (non-transfer credit).

Denise Irene Harville

Denise Irene Harville, of Knoxville, Tennessee, completed a Master of Science in Health Care Administration in February 2023, with a 4.0 GPA. She is a clinical research associate II with PPD/Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Harville is a registered nurse with extensive experience in acute, home, and managed care as well as in clinical marketing, sales, and staff education and training. In addition to her position as a clinical research associate II, she works as a quality home care nurse for the Department of Energy, and for the Commonwealth Care Alliance’s long-term support services. Harville obtained her position in clinical research while completing her final Excelsior course. With the knowledge she gained through Excelsior, she ensures the safety of those participating in clinical research studies and has become a resource and a leader among her peers.

In addition to her master’s degree, Harville earned a Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences from Excelsior in 2014. She is a member of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing and in 2015 was recognized as a United Healthcare Service Hero.

This award recognizes the leadership and vision of founding trustee Jean Smith. Smith’s career in banking has been characterized by a deep commitment to institutions that are devoted to improving society. Her passion for social justice informed her work with Excelsior, first as an overseer and later as a trustee, as she worked to support its students. The award is presented to a graduate who has demonstrated outstanding academic and professional achievement in the world of business.
Sasha Davis

Sasha Davis, of Fort Benning, Georgia, earned a Bachelor of Science in Business summa cum laude in January 2023, with a 3.98 GPA. She is a property management consultant for Bickerstaff Parham Real Estate in Columbus, Georgia.

Davis has been a military spouse for 14 years, during which time she has been involved in several volunteer groups, including a CARE team, which assists a military family when there has been a casualty or a life-threatening or serious injury of a servicemember. Throughout the pursuit of her degree, she was able to advance in her profession while carrying a high GPA. In addition, she volunteered many hours to the soldier and family readiness group (SFRG) for her husband’s military unit while juggling Excelsior courses, her daughter’s virtual schooling due to COVID, and a deployment. While volunteering with the SFRG, Davis was twice awarded volunteer of the quarter.

This award recognizes the leadership and vision of founding trustee Joshua L. Smith. During his three years as chair of the Excelsior University Board of Trustees, he encouraged Excelsior to expand graduate degree programs. Smith, a retired professor and director of the Program in Higher Education and Center for Urban Community College Leadership, New York University, School of Education, dedicated his career to education. This award recognizes the sacrifices graduate students have made to serve others while balancing their own academic studies. The recipient of this award has persevered in their education while also volunteering in an organization such as the military, a medical agency, non-profit group, or place of worship.
Jonathan A. Pichardo

Jonathan A. Pichardo, of the Bronx, New York, earned a Master of Science in Cybersecurity in February 2023, with a 4.0 GPA. He is a civil operations specialist and criminal analyst with the New York Army National Guard Counterdrug Task Force, where he utilizes his technological expertise to assist communities in making informed decisions and addressing cyber-related challenges.

While taking courses for his master’s degree, Pichardo was deployed to the Horn of Africa where he served as a section leader and combat engineer under the East Africa Response Force. His knowledge of military education benefits and systems enabled him to instruct numerous soldiers on various educational opportunities, including tuition assistance and transition assistance programs, facilitating their reintegration upon returning home.

In addition to his master’s, Pichardo earned a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from Excelsior in 2020. He was recently accepted into the Doctorate of Strategic Intelligence program at American Military University. He was awarded an Army Commendation Medal and was selected by the military board to attend Officer Candidate School starting in January 2024.

This award is given in memory and recognition of the vision and contribution of Marvin Curling to the development of collaboration between industry and education through the integration of corporate-sponsored training and college-level learning. A New York Power Authority (NYPA) training superintendent, Curling motivated employees at NYPA to persist in educational advancement and helped establish degrees in technology at then Regents College (now Excelsior University). In honor of the superior model of collaboration that he helped establish, the New York Power Authority contributed the endowment to maintain this annual award, which is presented to a graduate who achieved outstanding academic achievement while pursuing a degree in a technology program.
Richard Saxby Jr.

Richard Saxby Jr., of Baldwinsville, New York, earned a Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering Technology cum laude in July 2022, with a 3.7 GPA. He is a lead non-destructive evaluation (NDE) specialist with National Grid.

A U.S. Navy veteran, Saxby completed his bachelor’s degree in seven years, taking one class per semester while working full-time. He has more than 15 years of experience in the areas of engineering, pipeline design, quality inspection, and general welding operations management. One of Saxby’s achievements is obtaining American Society for Nondestructive Testing (ASNT) NDT Level III certifications in three different disciplines, on his first attempt.

Saxby is the recipient of several honors, including the Southwest Asia Medal, Navy Achievement medals, and Good Conduct medals. He is a volunteer for the American Diabetes Association and Habitat for Humanity. He is a member of the American Welding Society and American Society for Nondestructive Testing, as well as a member of a ASNT review board.

This award is presented to a health sciences graduate in memory and recognition of the contributions of Michael J. Cooley, a beloved and dedicated adjunct health sciences faculty member. The recipient of the award earned a health sciences degree and embodies exemplary academic achievement and exceptional perseverance. This graduate accepts the challenges that befall an adult learner and embraces the opportunity to grow academically, professionally, and personally within the health sciences discipline.
Tiana Mohammed

Tiana Mohammed, of Evans Mills, New York, earned an Associate in Science in Health Sciences in February 2023, with a 3.85 GPA with high honors. She is the nanny of a family in Evans Mills and is pursuing a career in the behavioral health field.

Mohammed has had years of experience caring for other people in her roles as a nanny, personal aid, and preschool teacher. However, she decided it was time to take care of herself and pursue a different future.

While working toward her degree, Mohammed faced many obstacles, one being the COVID-19 pandemic. Though she and her family struggled financially through the pandemic, it motivated Mohammed to work toward a more stable and successful future. She had to take on more hours at the daycare center she worked at while also balancing taking care of her family and keeping up with her online courses. After moving several times and changing her place of work, she was finally able to complete her degree.

In recognition of Dr. Robert P. Mahoney’s outstanding contributions to liberal arts education at this University and his devotion to serving his community, this award is presented to a liberal arts graduate who completed his/her degree in the face of significant challenges and demonstrated a dedication to community and volunteer service.
Alisa M. Coon

Alisa M. Coon, of Waterford, New York, earned an Associate in Science in Liberal Arts in November 2022, with a 3.6 GPA with honors. She is part of the Mod Team at Walmart.

Coon is a self-proclaimed hard worker, quick learner, team player, and problem solver, with experience in a variety of fields, including customer service, warehouse stocking, and inventory management. She maintained her high GPA with Excelsior while working full-time and taking care of her family. This included caring for her only child Deegan who was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer and passed away while Coon was pursuing her degree.

Coon credits earning her degree to her son, saying the main reason she went back to school was to show him that working hard can result in good opportunities. She says, “My son Deegan would have wanted me to continue until I graduated so we could achieve our goals and still live a life worth living even though he is not with us…I couldn’t have done it without him.”

This award is given in memory and recognition of the distinguished contributions of Ruth V. Matheney to nursing and nursing education, her nationally acclaimed leadership toward progressive, patient-centered practices in the classroom and at the bedside, and of her wise and willing counsel to the Excelsior University nursing programs. The recipient of this award has completed an undergraduate degree in nursing at Excelsior University and has demonstrated outstanding academic achievement.
Elisabeth Santiago

Elisabeth Santiago, of Delmar, New York, earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing magna com laude in July 2022 with a 3.78 GPA. She is a registered nurse at Albany Medical Center.

Santiago’s journey to obtaining her degree was fraught with challenges, such as balancing academic goals with the demands of working as a critical care nurse in an Intensive Care Unit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Excelsior’s nursing program helped Santiago discover an array of professional activities such as nursing committees, trauma outreach programs, and volunteer activities within the community, including the local farm-to-table food bank. After earning her degree, Santiago was promoted to a level IV nurse clinician and will soon be representing her work unit in an Interdepartmental Nursing Practice Committee.

Santiago says earning her degree is not merely about nursing education, it is also about the college experience to be a better parent and proving she has what it takes to balance family, work, and life. She dedicates her success to her husband and their two children.

This award recognizes the leadership and vision of founding Trustee Dr. Robert E. Kinsinger. As the first chair of Excelsior’s Board of Overseers, Dr. Kinsinger built upon his earlier relationship to Excelsior as a vice president of the W.K. Kellog Foundation. While at the foundation, Dr. Kinsinger encouraged and supported the development of the Regents College nursing degree programs, an interest that he carried forward into his work as an overseer and later as a Trustee. Eligible graduates must have completed a master’s degree through Excelsior in either the School of Graduate Studies or the School of Nursing. The graduate must have volunteer and/or career experience in a non-profit organization.
Molly M. Gruss

Molly M. Gruss, of Albany, New York, earned a Master of Public Administration in February 2023, with a 3.8 GPA. Gruss is the supervisor of recreation and engagement at St. Catherine’s Center for Children in Albany.

Gruss’ mission is lending a helping hand to those in need. She has extensive experience working in nonprofit outreach organizations, including Unity House, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and National Job Corp Association. In her current position, she hopes to foster the growth of children with traumatic backgrounds through expression, interaction, and normalizing community engagement. Her favorite responsibilities are helping a young person overcome recreational challenges and coaching staff on enhancing their relationships with children.

Gruss has been able to seamlessly incorporate her education with Excelsior into her professional career. With her educational achievements, she can execute her mission to its full potential. She can help provide a safe environment for children in the community to express themselves and just be kids.

In addition to her master’s degree, Gruss earned a Bachelor of Science in Social Science from Excelsior in 2021.

This annual award recognizes significant achievements of an Excelsior University student who has consistently modeled a core Excelsior University value: respecting the uniqueness of each individual; celebrating and learning from differences; ensuring that all voices are heard, particularly those who have been historically underrepresented; and leading efforts that enhance inclusion, equity, and justice in their classroom, their organization, or their community.
Brian K. Pettaway

Brian K. Pettaway, originally of Florida, earned a Master of Science in Management in November 2022 with a 3.6 GPA. He is the director of organizational development with the U.S. Air Force.

Pettaway has been in the Air Force for more than two decades, leaving his mark on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts along the way. He was a founding member of the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, and then transitioned into successfully leading a science, technology, engineering, and math expo designed to help educate and recruit underrepresented youths in the military. He received unconscious bias training directly from social justice advocate Howard Ross, whose work he has referenced in several Excelsior course papers, and he gained certification as a Franklin-Covey Unconscious Bias Facilitator.

He was trained to facilitate the Leading Inclusivity Virtual Experience program, which allows airmen to experience and discuss challenging topics related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Pettaway has incorporated the beneficial program into his work as keynote speaker and class mentor for Edwards Air Force Base Airman Leadership School.