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Sitting Down With This Year's Ever to Excel Award Winners

The Gavel sat down with several recipients of Boston College’s 2017 Ever to Excel Awards to talk about how they are involved on campus. Their responses have been edited for clarity.


Joseph Nano, MCAS ‘20, is the recipient of the Nicholas H. Woods Award that goes “to the freshman who demonstrated initiative, motivation, and potential for continued student leadership within the university.” He is an immigrant from Syria. He self-published a book of poetry entitled Flowers Are People, Too, which is available in O’Neill Library.

How did you come to the United States?

“I arrived in the United States in 2012. We weren’t planning to stay here. My uncle and cousins live in Maine and our plan was just to visit them, but the crisis in Syria got worse after about a month. I started high school as a freshman, and it was very hard because I couldn’t speak English. I had to take an ESL [English as a Second Language] class. I had to work really hard to end up at BC. I feel like my biggest motivation back then was to see how people there are dying and I was here in a safe, great place. That was motivation for me to keep going.

How did you choose your major?

“One of the reasons why I’m a bio-major and pre-med, is because in Syria, they really need doctors. In Aleppo, Syria, I’ve heard there are only like six doctors in the whole city. Some were deported and others left. Doctors work either for the government or for the rebels, so if you’re part of a certain party, you may not get medical treatment. I’m really hoping to become a doctor so I can first help this community, since it helped me after immigrating. I see myself in the future as a doctor who travels around the world, helping people who need help and don’t have the resources.”

Why did you choose Boston College and what are you involved in here?

“Boston College is very challenging. When I look around, people are motivated and work hard towards their goals, which is great because it does motivate me to work harder. I joined BC EMS... This community teaches me how to help my bigger community, and lot of them want to become doctors too...For me, the seniors, juniors, and sophomores [on EMS] are all role models. They’re just great!”

“The really cool thing about Boston College is that it’s a Jesuit school. Going to a Jesuit school reminds me of the things it values, like love and forgiveness. All doctors should be loving and should be passionate about what they do. BC reminds all their students about love and these kinds of values that are really important for each one of us. I never thought I would get accepted to BC, so getting in made me feel like the school does believe in me… I feel like BC is a big home. They opened the front door for me.”

“My family taught me that if I want to be a successful person, I should understand psychology, I should be a writer, and I should be a musician. When I interact with a patient, I want to understand their feelings. Being in BC EMS teaches me how to work with patients, and the other students have made me passionate about my job and have taught me how to treat people, and that’s very important.”

What does it mean for you to win this award?

“To see how I have some friends who took the time to write an essay and to tell the program about me feels really special. It makes me feel really happy to see how people around me appreciate my work, even though being very focused on studying… makes me feel like I am sort of isolated when I’m focused on my books and homework. This award makes me feel very motivated to keep up my hard work. It makes me feel like I’m actually accepted in this community, and I’m really thankful for that.”

How have you handled some of the political rhetoric surrounding Syria in the past few years?

“One of the decisions I made was just to stop watching the news. I don’t want to let myself down. Not watching the news is a way to just keep myself focused on my work so that one day I can actually help the world. When I hear all of this about the Trump administration, the way I see it is I’m really thankful to be where I am... It’s heartbreaking to see what’s going on right now, but I always try to keep myself positive and think about how lucky I am to be here.”


Stephanie Makowski, CSON ‘17, is the recipient of the Jeffrey S. Keith Award that goes to the student who faced a physical or other significant challenge in his or her life while continuing to excel in academic and co-curricular activities. She has led Kairos, participated in the Appalachia Volunteers program, and is involved with many programs through the nursing school.

What was the major challenge you overcame?

“When I was a sophomore, my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. Going through college while all the treatments and surgeries were going on was really difficult, and then he passed away last year. It’s supposed to be the best four years of your life.”

What does it mean to be receiving this award?

“It means a lot. My adviser nominated me for it. She didn’t know what I had been going through until he passed away, and since then I’ve talked to her a lot about it. She said, ‘I can’t believe I didn't know. You put on such a brave face, and kept going and doing school and extracurricular activities.’ So many other people go through this, and I don’t know why I’m special. It definitely means a lot.”

How long have you wanted to be a nurse for?

“When I came here, I knew I wanted to do something in healthcare; I wanted to help people. My mom is a physical therapist, so I sort of grew up around it. I found a school I would be most comfortable at, and then I applied to the nursing school. I started in the program and really fell in love with it. I had my senior practicum in the NICU [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] at Beth-Israel last semester, and I think that’s how I knew it was for me.”

What helped you get through the challenge?

“Kairos was a really big experience for me. Another girl in my group’s dad also passed away, and we bonded over that. It was nice to have someone else who knew what you were going through, and you could talk about things that roommates and friends couldn’t relate to as much. I felt a lot of comfort in that. At Kairos you have to give a talk, and they all have a theme. A lot of the talks are about struggles you’ve had. My talk centered around going through college with my dad being sick and after he passed away. I also talked about how I was supposed to go abroad, but last minute I decided not to because he was really sick.”

“After [the talk] a couple of people came up to me. One student said to me, ‘thank you so much, I lost my aunt last week to cancer and hearing you really put into words some of what I’d been feeling this week.’ I almost started crying. I couldn’t have imagined that so many people have been through similar things, and it’s just nice to know that in an environment such as BC when sometimes it can feel like you’re the only one going through something, other people are going through hard times too. Knowing you're not alone was one of the biggest things for me.”

How did the challenge you overcame impact you?

“In general, the whole experience changed my perspective on life a lot. I never really knew anyone close to me that died or was sick, and I never really dealt with loss before that. I look at life more in the present. I don’t like focusing on the past or looking too much into the future because you never know. Life’s really fragile. It’s helped me with knowing how to communicate with families if they're going through a hard time. Now I feel like I can empathize better.”


Carson Truesdell, CSOM ‘17, received the St. Ignatius Award for Personal Development, which goes to the student whose values and ideals have most clearly undergone a transformation and/or deepening through his or her participation in co-curricular activities.

Why do you think you were nominated for this award?

“I’m a yes man, so whenever opportunities come, I like to seize them. Whenever I hear something that’s really compelling, I get super attracted to it. When I went on Arrupe, I went to the U.S Mexico border and saw the journeys of migrants and learned a lot about undocumented immigrants. That was something I really didn’t know anything about, but now that is something I think about on a daily basis, something that really guides my political views and the way I view humanity. One part is being involved with things and the other part is opening your mind up so you can make the most of what you’re involved in. I think that is what has really changed me.”

“We all come from our different backgrounds in high school, but at BC everything is expanded so much. Your world becomes so much larger. Then think of the curriculum. I’m not just taking business classes; I’m taking a sustainable agriculture class that I love, a globalization culture and ethics class, a bunch of history classes. It’s a perfect mix. And then you bring in the people. My friends here are the most incredible people from a wide diversity of backgrounds. That’s been really cool because I’ve learned a lot from having conversations with them. Hearing my friends’ perspectives on whatever we’re talking about, and coupling that with an open and receptive mind has changed who I am for the better.”

After going on a service trip through Arrupe, Carson wrote a daily blog about his experiences for the first 30 days of Trump’s Presidency.

“I was very vocal about my Arrupe experience. When we were in Arizona, we were walking on this desert path that migrants take once they actually get into the United States. They have to continue walking on this path to get safety. The journey is through a desert, and it’s not until you get to an urban center that you’re safer. We were carrying these water jugs to drop along the path so they had something to drink because it’s a long journey in the desert in difficult conditions, so a lot of people pass away from dehydration… A day before, another college group had come and dropped off water jugs, and written on one of the water jugs in Spanish was ‘The big fella died right over here.’ That happened within the past 24 hours. I carried that empty water jug back….This poor person came here for a better life, and his family has no idea what happened to him. They’re all just trying to better themselves. We have to be more welcoming to these people that are willing to work hard and are trying to transform society.

“We went to a detention center, and I talked to this guy from Honduras that worked for a radio station. He’s 22 years old. He was approached one day by a gang, saying they would kill him if he didn’t join. He fled to the United States, and he is serving a 180-day sentence in a detention center. After he’ll be dropped off at the U.S-Mexico border with all of his possessions confiscated. He’s from Honduras, not Mexico. A lot of people think all of these migrants are from Mexico, but they’re not….The rhetoric we here in the media is so contradictory to the personal narratives of these people. You’ll always hear ‘Go Trump, build this wall!’ First of all, the wall already exists. One third of the border has a wall, and it’s strategically built to push migrants into the desert where they’re more likely to die, instead of the U.S taking the burden of putting people in detention centers. In the Obama administration there were 15 million people that were detained and deported, countless others that made it to America safely, and an unknown number that died. It’s a huge problem that people need to learn more about.”

Carson is currently working on a startup he created along with a few classmates that is being sponsored by the Shea Center for Entrepreneurship. It is a platform to connect fisherman with restaurants and other food vendors who would be interested in selling Lionfish. The Lionfish is an invasive species native to the Indian Ocean that was introduced into the Atlantic by humans. They have since dramatically increased in population size and are damaging the local ecosystem. They can only be caught through spear fishing, but are actually easy to catch and highly valued for consumption. Carson and his colleagues developed their venture in order to give fisherman an incentive to hunt this harmful species by connecting them with businesses that have a demand for this product. They are currently competing in one of the Shea Center’s Venture Competitions. The website for their platform is


Jamaica Magis won the “Ever to Excel” Group Award to the student group who made an outstanding contribution to Boston College in areas such as education, social justice, service, and safety. Matthew Suzor, MCAS ‘17, is a longtime participant and group leader who was interviewed on behalf of the organization.

What is Jamaica Magis?

“Jamaica Magis is a service trip that has been going for about five years now. The goal is to provide students with a service trip that will demonstrate to them unconditional love to a certain degree, but also open them up to how the world works in very simple ways. We understand as a group that we might not be impacting economic and social structures that are very ingrained in society and have been going on for centuries. But we try to reinforce that the small acts of kindness, and the little, seemingly minute, but very important human connections you can make on a daily basis with a lot of people, are the kind of the things that end up breaking down some of those barriers and actually make some real change. About half of that time is spent working in missionaries with disabled children and adults, and for the other half, we teach at a local elementary school where the man that started the group, Father Michael Davidson, went to when he was a kid.”

What was your favorite part of the trip?

“The best thing that we did was sit and have a nice conversation. The simple conversation between two very different cultural backgrounds, sharing the things that make us human and what we have in common was amazing. While I did do things like washing feet and other things like that, I heard some really fascinating stories from some people who had been through a lot. For me, the conversation was the best part.”

How does the group prepare for the trip?

“Leading up to a trip, we have two hour meetings every Monday. We would begin with an examen, where you just close your eyes and think in this quiet setting. You can think about your week, something going on in your life, or how you want to make an impact, and stuff like that. That takes us into highs and lows. You can get something off your chest, or you can bond with someone who’s going through the same thing, or you can share something that’s going really well in your life. Then two of the students will give some presentation about an aspect of Jamaica. Maybe their music, food, cultural quality, or some kind of injustice that’s going on. We may watch a video that will give us some more insight into the country. The goal is to really understand the history and the culture of the place, so we can get there and be more mindful of the service aspect of it, rather than just having the culture shock. Then we finish off with a little journaling exercise. Normally it has to do with what we’ve watched that day, and often ties back to your own life and what you want to do in Jamaica. Then we finish off always with everyone giving each other a hug. It’s a nice way to finish off a meeting.”

Why do you think Jamaica Magis won this award?

“When I was a freshman, all we had was the summer trip. This year we ran three. To see the program grow from one to three trips was spectacular. At a more foundational level, I think what Jamaica Magis does that is unique to the program is its vision of service. We understand that there are some serious economic and social injustices that go on that cannot be solved by a two week trip of a bunch of college kids. The reinforcement of service has kind of a dual nature where you get as much, if not more, from the service as the people you serve. We place so much emphasis on the simple human connections. The Jesuit mission is pretty well achieved through this trip, and I think that’s why we won the award.”


Helen Au, CSON ‘18, is the recipient of the Paul Chebator and Mer Zovko Award that goes to the junior who embraced the changes embedded in the junior year experience and has been instrumental in creating community in their present environment, be it off-campus, abroad, or here on campus.

What organizations have you been involved with on campus?

“I’m part of the Keys to Inclusive Leadership in Nursing (KILN) program. It’s a part of the nursing school. I’m also a health coach at the office of health promotion. I did Project Sunshine freshman and sophomore year.”

What do you do with KILN?

“Our main objective is to build leadership skills starting freshman year so that by the end we can have more leadership skills in our nurses. There’s a leadership team in KILN that started last year that I’m a part of now. We try to have events regularly for undergraduate and graduate students.

“I have a friend from high school who does poetry and art performances. At the time the election was going on, there were a lot of problems going on, not only over things like immigration, but also about racial tension. She’s really expressive in her language and has done performances at various colleges, so I reached out to her and asked if she would want to come to BC and speak to nursing students. As student nurses we get to go to clinicals, but we don’t always get to see that much diversity among our patients.”

How did you obtain the opportunity to go abroad?

“Transitioning to BC was a little bit more difficult than I had expected. I was originally pre-med, but the summer before sophomore year, I switched into nursing. I realized that it wasn’t something I was interested in anymore, and that I wanted to be more at the patient's level, rather than just going in and out of the room…. I thought that I couldn’t study abroad. I hadn’t even considered summer options.”

“I would have everything covered if I did the semester one, but for summer I would have to pay out of pocket. I didn’t think it was possible until I realized that the AHANA Center has some scholarships and that there were some options from the Office of International Programs. I knew that the AHANA scholarships were competitive, and I wouldn’t be able to go abroad without them... There were some complications along the way, but it worked out. I took a Food Writing course in Paris. It was amazing; it was all that I could ask for. It was my first time out of the country, too. The professor was Lynn Anderson. She was just wonderful. She taught me everything, and gave me a lot of new perspectives.”

“I think I found the values I have in life. I know that this sounds really cliche. There were some things about myself I just didn’t realize until I went abroad. It was just so different from the U.S. It was a period where I could think clearly and not have to worry about anything.”

Photo courtesy of Chris Soldt / Media Technology Services

Anthony Docanto, LSOE ‘19, is the recipient of the Alfred Feliciano & Valerie Lewis Award that goes to the student who made extraordinary contributions to further the ideals of the AHANA (African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American) acronym, and who provided leadership to help the Boston College community actualize the AHANA concept.  It is Awarded by the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center.

“I’m an applied Psych major in the Lynch School of Education and l’m studying to become a school counselor. Eventually I want to go to grad school, hopefully here at BC. I always knew I wanted to get into education, but I never knew how or what exactly I wanted to do. Growing up, education opened so many doors for me; it gave me the opportunity to come to BC. I’ve had so many great teachers and great mentors that helped me become the person I am today. I always felt passionate about education, doing tutoring and stuff like that, and I realized I wanted to pursue it in college.”

What have you been doing at BC to result in your nomination for this award?

“I think the biggest thing I do here is I’m President of CVSA, which is the Cape Verdean Students Association. Our club tries to promote our Cape Verdean culture through dance, music, food, and cultural events. We have a small e-board, but we host at least six events a year, which are very popular. We try to make our presence known on campus because not a lot of people know where Cape Verde is, led alone what a Cape Verdean is. Educating people and trying to bring our home life to the school is something we value, and we believe it adds a lot of value to BC’s campus.”

“I’m also a member of the Lynch Senate, which tries to promote Lynch ideals within the community. We host community service events and fundraise for Montserrat through selling water bottles and T-shirts. And we feel like that’s very important because Montserrat is such a support system for so many groups on campus, and if we’re able to help them raise money and support students, that’s all for the better.”

“Last year, I was a part of the SAP (Student Admissions Program) telephone group, where we called accepted AHANA students to try and convince them to come to BC, answered their questions, and helped them understand what BC life is like. I also host for AHANA Weekend each year, which is a weekend where AHANA students come for three days to experience BC first hand. As a host, they sleep in your room, you show them around, you have talks with them, and it's a good experience.”

“I work in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development. I worked last summer and during the school year first hand with professors if they have any project or task they need help with. It’s a great experience for me personally because it has allowed me to have a stronger connection with my faculty. It also gave me the opportunity to meet new people and do different things.”

What would you say you’ve learned from all of your involvement?

“Having a community on campus is one of the most important things you can do. I recommend all freshman coming in to find a community where they can have a support system. The school is very big, and it’s really easy to get lost. It’s sometimes very hard to ask for help, but if you're in a culture club or on a dance team or a club sports team, it allows you so much extra support, whether it’s socially or academically. I try to do that myself with the freshmen I have in my groups. I try and give them advice, be a support system for them, and get lunch with them as often as I can, so I can be there for them like the people who were there for me when I was a freshman. All the seniors in CVSA were role models to me. We’d have lunch dates, and if I had problems with housing, roommate situations, or course decisions, or if I was just feeling sad, they always found a way to make me feel happy. They taught me a lot, and now I’m trying to do the same for the next class coming in.”

“I would say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without my educators, role models, and parents. And I feel like a lot of people, especially in the inner city where I’m from, Dorchester, do not have the support systems I was fortunate enough to have. If I could go back into my community, support youth, teach them the values of education and give them the opportunities that were given to me, then that would mean the world to me.”