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Grads from Nashville, Sparta take top student honors

During APSU's Commencement ceremonies, two graduates from Middle Tennessee walked away with the top student awards.

Benessa Defend, Nashville, received the Drane Award, which goes to the most outstanding bachelor's degree graduate, as selected by the faculty. The award recognizes outstanding character, scholarship, leadership and service to the University.

Justin Roper, Sparta, was presented the Harvill-Civitan Award. The recipient of this award is selected on the basis of his or her contributions to outstanding citizenship. It honors the graduate who, by vote of the faculty, has worked unselfishly for the betterment of fellow students and the University community.

After earning 39 college credits through taking Advanced Placement courses while a student at Martin Luther King High School, Nashville, Defend entered APSU as a sophomore and, today, is graduating in three years with an overall 3.9 GPA and a 4.0 GPA in her major of computer science and mathematics. She also completed APSU's Honors Program.

Her senior year, Defend received the Dr. Jennifer Meningall Governors Cup Award, the Distinguished Student Leader of the Year in Peer Education Award and the Outstanding Computer Science Graduating Senior Award. She received first place in the Undergraduate Student Paper contest at the 2004 Mid-Southeast Association for Computing Machinery Conference.

Recently named to “Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges” and a consistent Dean's List scholar, Defend attended APSU on the following scholarships: Academic Tutoring, Residence Hall Association, Donald Wallar Computer Science, Honors Program, Academic Honors, Academic, Presidential and the Xerox Technical Minority Scholarship.

Tapped to Phi Kappa Phi and Gamma Beta Phi honoraries, Defend served as president and vice president of the Association of Computing Machinery, president and secretary of Lambda Lambda Lambda Computer Science Fraternity and secretary of Galois Math Club and the Residence Hall Association. She was the student representative on the College of Science and Mathematics Curriculum Committee and the APSU Housing Contract Appeals Committee.

Ranked among the top 10 students ever to graduate from APSU in computer science, Defend has been accepted to the doctoral program in computer science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for Fall 2005 and granted a full assistantship.

Dr. Jim Vandergriff, associate professor of computer science, said, “Benessa's academic and leadership qualities are without reproach. Her 4.0 in computer science and mathematics does not completely evaluate Benessa's academic abilities ... (and) her involvement in many organizations and her leadership as president of ACM and Tri-Lambda are only an implication of her abilities.
Indications of her abilities are shown by being accepted to three excellent, highly ranked graduate schools and being awarded a Ford Foundation Fellowship.”

Justin Roper, winner of the Harvill-Civitan Award, has made his mark on APSU. During his senior year, he was featured in TBR's “Celebrating Student Successes” video. He was tapped to the Order of Omega Greek Honor Society and “Who's Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities,” and received Sigma Phi Epsilon's Virtue and Diligence awards.

Roper was chosen as a four-year scholarship recipient in APSU's prestigious President's Emerging Leaders Program and was selected for membership in Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Honor Society. Within APSU's Student Government Association, he served one year as a senator and two years as an associate justice on the Student Tribunal. He was elected to several leadership posts in Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity, including president, and was named APSU Greek Man of the Year for 2005.

He was a Governors Ambassador, coordinator of the Inter-Fraternity Council's Heart Walk for the American Heart Association, group leader for AP Day and a student representative on the Strategic Planning Committee and the Campus Safety and Roads Committee. He also served two years as a math teacher for Upward Bound. He was a volunteer on many projects and initiatives, including the Appalachian Service Project and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

With his personal record of success in securing summer internships, Roper assisted several other APSU students in applying for summer research/enrichment programs this summer. For four years, he was a work-study scholarship student, and he received the Robert F. Sears Physics and Astronomy Award.

After his freshman year, Roper was chosen for a summer research internship with NASA. In Summer 2004, he was named an Undergraduate Fellow in the ACA Nuclear Chemistry Summer School at Brookhaven National Lab in Upton, N.Y. He returns there this summer as a teaching assistant.

A consistent Dean's List scholar and a member of several honoraries, Roper graduates today with a 3.98 GPA. He has been accepted to Duke University, where he will pursue graduate studies in medical physics.

Dr. Jaime Taylor, physics professor and chair of the department of physics and astronomy, said, “Justin Roper is easily one of the top academic students I have been associated with in my 10 years at APSU. However, it is all the other ‘stuff' he has done that makes him truly exceptional.

“Justin will be pursing graduate studies at Duke University … Once there, I am sure Justin will continue to excel academically, while establishing himself as a leader.”
—Dennie Burke