2023 Graduate Award Recipients
Congratulations to all of the 2023 awardees!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.