For the second year, UNI’s celebrated the annual Student Leadership Awards with a four-part virtual ceremony. The ceremony, which runs from Monday, April 19, through Thursday, April 22, recognizes students from across campus for their contributions to key programs and campus culture.

The event first went virtual in 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this year, UNI President Mark Nook expressed hope for a return to normal in fall 2021 — and praised the leadership seen across campus over the past year in areas like mental health, food insecurity, and diversity and inclusion.

“The global pandemic has illuminated the importance of what we’re here to celebrate — namely, leadership,” President Nook said during  Monday’s virtual event. “Leadership is more than uniting people around a common cause. It’s also about persevering through hardship; about adapting to a situation that you never saw coming. It’s about lending a hand where one is needed.”

Supporting mental health on campus

As a UNI undergrad, Riley Rodemaker was drawn to a career in mental health services after joining Active Minds, a student group that promotes mental health on campus. Now a second-year graduate student studying psychology, Rodemaker works in UNI’s counseling center and has supported numerous mental health initiatives on campus. 

Rodemaker led suicide prevention trainings, helped with an annual UNI mental health conference and assisted with grantwriting to support suicide prevention services. He’s now developing mindfulness training for students and planning a student survey.  This crucial work at a time many were feeling isolated won him a Mental Health Ally award. 

“I am glad that so many people have found my work to be beneficial for the campus,” he said. “However … there are a lot of other people on this campus that are doing at least as much great mental health work as myself.”

That community at UNI is part of why Rodemaker decided to attend graduate school here. “I quickly realized I was finally exactly where I was meant to be,” he said. 

Senior communication sciences and disorders major Josie Sack was also awarded the Mental Health Ally award. She also got involved with Active Minds,serving as the chapter vice president for a year. She also launched UNIted, a mentorship initiative that pairs first-year and transfer students with peer mentors to support mental health, and served as student government’s  director of mental health. Currently, she is director of community outreach and social media for UNI’s Women in Healthcare student group.

Sack said her proudest accomplishment is promoting Validate, Appreciate, Refer (VAR) training, Active Mind’s process for supporting the mental wellness of college students, on UNI’s campus. 

“It is an incredible thing to watch grow and know I had a start in its development,” Sack said.

Sack plans to become a speech language pathologist when she graduates, and hopes to continue her mental health advocacy personally and professionally. It’s all tied to her passion for supporting others the way she was supported at UNI. She credits the counseling center, graduate assistants and other staff on campus as being integral to her success, and said her true joy is helping others.

“It is an incredible honor to be recognized, but at the end of the day, seeing the impact I may have made on students at UNI is a much greater reward,” she said. “UNI has given me opportunities I could have never imagined for myself. Because of UNI I am a better leader, advocate, and future professional.”

Addressing food insecurity

This year’s Student Leadership Awards also featured several Panther Pantry Volunteer awards, given to students and organizations who helped support UNI’s Panther Pantry, an on-campus food pantry that provides food to students in need.

Among the honorees was senior psychology and marketing double major Maddie Murphy. She’s the community relations director for Panther Pantry, a role that involves coordinating community donations to support the pantry, which saw demand increase dramatically over the past year.

“This volunteering that directly benefits my fellow peers was something that really stuck with me,” said Murphy. “It feels good to tie together campus and community efforts to provide a larger benefit for the students who are in need of Panther Pantry's services.”

Other recipients of the award include Panther Pantry Campus Relations Director Natalie Bohnsack, Public Relations Director Cora Soash, and student organization Transfer Advocacy and Involvement Group, which helped secure almost 125 pounds of food donations for the pantry.

Many other awards will be announced as a part of the virtual Student Leadership Awards ceremony, including scholarships, and the prestigious Diversity Matters, Outstanding Student Leader and Lux Service awards. The final portion of the ceremony will go live on UNI's Facebook and YouTube pages at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday. While a variety of students and initiatives will be honored throughout the ceremony, according to President Nook, each plays a vital role in shaping UNI’s campus culture.

“These student leaders have shown an extraordinary level of maturity and responsibility,” said President Nook. “I’m amazed by their ambition, their selflessness, and their willingness to put in the hard work to improve the lives of others on our campus.”