Congratulations to the entire Class of 2023 and in particular, our student and alumni award winners! We are proud of you for the meaningful contributions you made to your community and the University. All of these award winners have provided distinguished service and shown their strong commitment to helping other people.
President’s Award Winners: Enmanuel Rodriguez and Chelsa Hazelwood
The President’s Award recognizes two graduating students, one undergraduate and one graduate. For this award, the winners must distinguish themselves academically and make significant contributions to their nation and/or their community. The President’s Award recognizes these graduates’ commitment to service, scholastic achievement, outstanding character and leadership.
The winners of this year’s President’s Award are:
- Enmanuel Rodriguez (graduate)
- Chelsea Hazelwood (undergraduate)
Enmanuel Rodriguez is a police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia and has more than seven years of service. He has worked in various areas of law enforcement, including investigations, intelligence, community outreach, crisis intervention, crime suppression, civil disturbance and patrol operations.
Enmanuel worked at the 2017 and 2021 presidential inaugurations. He is currently seeking to become a detective.
On January 6, 2021, Rodriguez was one of the DC officers who responded to the crisis at the United States Capitol Building. He received a Ribbon of Valor and the Congressional Gold Medal for his role in response to the United States Capitol Building crisis.
Enmanuel has also received numerous awards for his police work, such as:
- An Achievement Medal for the apprehension of a homicide suspect (2019)
- A second Achievement Medal for the apprehension of a carjacking suspect (2020)
- Recognition for his involvement in the 2021 Presidential Inauguration
- A Lifesaving Medal for rendering aid to a shooting victim (2022)
- 2022 Officer of the Year for the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, DC (2023)
Enmanuel’s community contributions include serving as a voluntary police instructor in various international police academies, including the Dominican Republic National Police. He also helped to donate a police drone and establish the first police drone unit in the Dominican Republic.
His contributions were recognized by the President of Dominican Republic Luis Abinader. In addition to donating equipment to the Dominican Republic, he has also contributed to the Dominican Republic National Police’s intellectual, tactical and professional development.
Enmanuel is one of the active fellows for the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship project with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in DC and Georgetown Law faculty. In 2016, he graduated from the Metropolitan Police Academy in Washington, DC.
Enmanuel graduated magna cum laude from American Military University (AMU) in August 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. In February 2023, he earned a master’s degree in criminal justice in February 2023 while maintaining a grade point average (GPA) of 4.00. Recently, Enmanuel was accepted into a doctoral program in criminal justice at Liberty University.
Chelsa Hazelwood grew up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and enlisted in the Marine Corps in September 2014. She has held multiple Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) throughout her time in the Marines.
At the beginning of her career, Chelsa participated in the study of gender integrated combat arms occupational specialties, which was a part of the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force research at the School of Infantry East in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. At Camp Lejeune, she became a 0341 Mortarman.
Later, Chelsa became an Engineer Equipment Operator, operating heavy equipment and earning higher echelon licenses, including the MAC-50 All-Terrain Crane. She was a heavy equipment operator while serving in the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), deployed to Ahmad Al-Jaber, Kuwait.
At the beginning of her second enlistment, Chelsa became a Marine Corps Embassy Security Guard in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. She also served as a guard for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia.
Chelsa is currently as a recruiter for future Marine Corps Embassy Security Guards. In this role, she oversees the coordination of recruiting trips to numerous Marine Corps base stations to identify highly qualified Marines to serve as security guards in U.S. consulates and embassies worldwide.
Throughout her life, Chelsa has continuously volunteered at non-profit organizations and additional events. In 2020, she was awarded the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.
Chelsa graduated with a bachelor’s in criminal justice from AMU in April 2023 and maintained a GPA of 4.0.
Academic Scholar Award Winners
For their superior academic achievements in earning a degree, 10 graduates from the Class of 2023 traditionally receive the Academic Scholar Award. These award winners:
- Showed high levels of engagement and rapport with their instructors and peers
- Consistently participated in discussion forums
- Demonstrated leadership in their online classrooms
- Maintained a high GPA throughout their programs
Michael Stroud, Undergraduate, School of Arts, Humanities, and Education
Michael Stroud’s interest in military history began at a very early age. He was inspired to learn about history after discovering his father’s Army dress uniform from his service in the Vietnam War.
Over time, history and military history became a passionate hobby for Michael. This passion for the endless stories of military history and servant leadership eventually led him to serve as a paid reserve police officer with his local police department.
Enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Michael held numerous offices and positions from the local flotilla level up to the national level. He has received numerous awards and commendations.
After many years of successful leadership, Michael decided to actively pursue his passion of military history and worked to earn academic degrees. Since then, he has successfully published many articles on military history in varied formats. His work has appeared in print magazines in the UK and the U.S., online military history websites, academic journals, blogs, and historical newsletters.
Michael has been an invited guest on numerous military history podcasts from the UK and U.S and he has conducted several history presentations in various states. When Michael is not studying for his current master’s class or writing his military history book, he enjoys traveling with his wife Kellie, as well as going to the movies.
Michael G. Stroud graduated summa cum laude from AMU with a bachelor’s in military history in August 2022. He maintained a GPA of 3.98.
Scott Cornish, Undergraduate, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business
During Scott Cornish’s time at the University, he served as a volunteer campus leader. As a member of Delta Mu Delta and Golden Key International Honour Society, Scott worked closely with faculty advisors and student leaders as the chapter president of Delta Mu Delta.
This service opportunity deepened Scott’s interest in business through the mentorship he provided and cross-chapter organization on a national scale. Delta Mu Delta also awarded Scott a scholarship.
Scott recently retired from the Army and lives in South Carolina on a small homestead with his wife Victoria. He and Victoria founded a business, The Middle Ground Coffee Company, which they hope to scale into a café in a few years.
Scott Cornish graduated summa cum laude in December 2022 with a bachelor’s in business administration from AMU, focusing on entrepreneurship and small business management and earning a 3.95 GPA. Scott is currently pursuing his MBA while entertaining the idea of doctorate-level studies.
Matthew Caruso, Undergraduate, School of Health Sciences
After enlisting in the Marines in 2004, Matthew Caruso began his college studies in 2006. He balanced taking classes with his Marine Corps responsibilities, which included four deployments and six duty station transfers.
With serving in the military full-time, raising two children with his wife and being a foster parent to four additional children, prioritizing college work was particularly challenging for him. However, Matthew was inspired by the accomplishments of his wife, who earned both her master’s degree and personal training and nutrition coaching certificates.
Matthew and his family enjoy traveling the world and exploring various environments and cultures. Matthew also loves playing golf with his oldest son, Dominic, as well as other family members and friends.
Matthew will retire from the Marine Corps in 2024 after 20 years of service. He plans to work in the golf industry.
Matthew graduated from AMU with a bachelor’s in sports management in June 2023. He maintained a GPA of 4.0.
Jamie Swanston, Undergraduate, School of Security and Global Studies
Jamie Swanston’s interest in terrorism and the protection of the homeland began during his first tour to Iraq in 2009. Since then, he has studied critical infrastructure protection, cybersecurity, homeland security intelligence, border and coastal security, maritime security, how to balance security and civil liberties, and ethics in homeland.
Jamie aspires to continue serving the nation and to work for the Department of Homeland Security. During his free time, Jamie enjoys camping with his beautiful wife and two kids.
Jamie Swanston earned a bachelor’s in homeland security from AMU. He maintained a GPA of 4.0.
Vashti Torres, Undergraduate, School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math
Vashti Torres recently retired from the U.S. Army after 20 years. Her passion for the environment and sustainability stems from the international travel the military afforded her and a growing appreciation of each new place she has visited or lived.
Vashti now aspires to work with companies or organizations that focus on conserving and preserving natural resources. She is also interested in developing more eco-friendly methods for everyday activities and production.
Vashti holds an associate degree in intelligence operations studies through Cochise College and an associate degree in general studies through Iowa’s Southeastern Community College. She graduated from AMU with a bachelor’s in environmental science in April 2023 while maintaining a GPA of 3.81.
Gary Verdusco, Graduate, School of Arts, Humanities, and Education
Gary Verdusco’s interest in education began during the summer of 2012. He had the opportunity to teach at the Air Force’s Center of Excellence for Career Enlisted Aviators at Joint Base San Antonio/Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
At the Air Force’s Center of Excellence for Career Enlisted Aviators, Gary was introduced to basic instruction, syllabi, curriculum development and the integration of technology into education. Since then, Gary has accumulated over 3,000 hours of instruction and completed several additional assignments tied to education while on active duty. He also completed the Enlisted Professional Military Instructor Course in 2018 at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base.
Gary has served as an Airborne Instructor in an Operational Unit and Formal Training Unit on the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Additionally, he served as the Airman Leadership Commandant for two educational facilities at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.
Gary now serves as the Senior Enlisted Leader for the 552nd Training Support Squadron where he oversees the academic training and manages the flow of more than 500 permanent and temporary duty students. He also teaches 17 Air Combat Command training courses annually.
In April 2023, he began teaching at the University of Arizona Global Campus as a part-time adjunct professor. Gary has a passion for education and aspires to continue finding ways to impact the development and learning of students both active-duty military and civilian.
Gary has earned several degrees. He holds associate degrees in air and space operations technology, technology and military science instruction, information management, and information technology from the Community College of the Air Force. Gary also has a bachelor’s degree in sports and health sciences and earned a master’s in educational leadership from AMU.
Thelma Nash, Graduate, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business
Thelma Nash joined the U.S. Navy to become an electronics technician. During her military service, she always pushed herself and her fellow sailors to achieve excellence. She was avid about training, professional and personal levels, as knowledge, exercise, and community service make well-rounded sailors.
The Navy afforded her many opportunities. She served 18 years on sea duty on 11 ships; Thelma also had nine deployments and visited 30 countries and 43 states.
Over the years, Thelma climbed the enlisted ranks to become Senior Chief Petty Officer and received a commission under the Limited Duty Officer program. She became the Electronics Material Officer (EMO) for her next command.
By returning to higher education, Thelma wanted to set the example for her children and grandchildren that anything is possible when you set your mind to it. She obtained a bachelor’s degree from Saint Leo’s University during her time in the Navy.
After 24 years of service, Thelma retired as a Lieutenant in November 2014 and moved to Oklahoma. However, she wanted to continue helping fellow servicemembers and began working for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in supply chain management.
She hopes to help the VA with continuous program improvement and new initiatives that will help to standardize supply processes across the nation. She wants to help veterans have better healthcare and further improve the VA experience. In her spare time, she helps her husband with chores on the ranch and enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren.
In 2022, Thelma completed a master’s degree in applied business analytics from AMU while maintaining a 3.91 GPA. She also earned an MBA in 2023 while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.
Kristjana Cook, Graduate, School of Health Sciences
Kristjana Cook is an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer and Road Runners Club of America distance running coach. She has coached both middle and high school cross- country teams, and she currently works as a health and fitness coach for over 200 residents at an independent living community in Annapolis, Maryland.
Kristjana is an avid runner and endurance fanatic and completed her third Boston Marathon last April. In January 2020, she was diagnosed with an aggressive melanoma tumor on her face in January 2020 and had to undergo multiple surgeries to remove the cancer. After that experience, Kristjana decided to take her “hobby” of researching and reading medical journals to improve endurance performance to the next level.
She initially registered for an undergraduate exercise science course at American Public University (APU) to fulfill a pre-requisite for a graduate program at another university. However, the diversity of students and the excellent instruction from her professors quickly persuaded her to enroll at APU instead.
Kristjana appreciated the high-caliber, distinctive faculty who regularly challenged her and was inspired by her fellow students, who made each course unique and invigorating. She is indebted to her husband for his love and support. Kristjana is especially grateful to her three teenaged sons for their frequent contributions to her in-home human performance lab, gamely submitting to physiological assessments and hypothetical athlete analyses.
Kristjana is thrilled to be selected as the Academic Scholar Award recipient for the School of Health Sciences and proud to be a part of the graduate class of 2023!
She completed her master’s degree in exercise science and human performance with a 4.0 GPA earlier this year. Kristjana was also honored to have her capstone, “Reframing the Female Athlete Triad and Reconsidering Mindsets and Training Methods for Female Distance Runners Across the Lifespan,” selected for publication in the University Repository.
Sarah Hayes, Graduate, School of Security and Global Studies
Sarah Hayes’ interest in emergency management began when she first moved to the central U.S. and started experiencing different disasters. She began researching the causes and effects of disasters and also spent time as a storm chaser.
Inspired by her experiences, Sarah went to the University of Missouri Healthcare System to become a disaster planning intern. She assisted in putting together disaster packets for hospitals and set up a mock disaster event to train staff on how to utilize those packets.
Sarah has also worked for the Recovery Division in Public Assistance of the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency for the last 2 years. She recently accepted a position working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, (FEMA), which has been her ultimate goal.
When she is not busy with work and school, Sarah enjoys spending time with her three kids, playing sports, listening to or playing music, photography, and art.
Sarah recently earned her master’s degree in emergency and disaster management from AMU. In fall 2023, she will start a Ph.D. program at Oklahoma State University.
Sarah Sharpe, Graduate, School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
Sarah Sharpe has long been interested in aeronautics and other aspects of space. In 2017, Sarah joined a team of fellow engineering students to help create the Cactus-1, a cube-based satellite (CubeSat). This satellite was part of the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) established by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and it was launched in 2021 on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne.
When Sarah is not busy contributing to the space industry, she loves to tutor students and stay knowledgeable about the latest technology. She is currently a researcher and planner for American Public University System Analog Research Group (AARG), working on the ARG-4I mission. Over the years, Sarah has participated in many team-based research projects where she used her leadership, critical thinking, engineering, scientific, analytical, research, and planning skills to develop satellites, robots, and control systems.
In 2020, Sarah received her bachelor’s in astronautical engineering from Capitol Technology University and maintained a 3.5 GPA of 3.5. She graduated with a master’s in space studies with a concentration in aerospace science from APU with a 4.0 GPA.
Mary Kim Ward Resilience and Service Award
The Mary Kim Ward Resilience and Service Award honors Mary Kim Ward, a former member of the University’s Board of Trustees. This award was established in 2020 and is presented to a university student who demonstrates resilience, patience, and determination.
To qualify, the winner must make an impact on public service, social justice, and inclusion while working to complete a degree. This year, Jakia Lindley is the winner of this year’s Mary Kim Ward Resilience and Service Award.
Jakia Lindley grew up in Canton, Ohio and enlisted in the Air Force in 2010. Currently, she is a material control supervisor assigned to the 25th Air Support Operations Squadron at Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii. The 25th Air Support Operations Squadron provides tactical command and control of airpower assets to both Air and Land Joint Forces Combatant Commander for Combat Operations.
Jakia is responsible for directing maintenance for 23 Tactical Air Control Party unit type codes, ensuring the readiness of 81 weapon systems and managing $55 million in mission-critical equipment. She also purchases and tracks two million dollars’ worth of communication system equipment for 13,000 troops to support the 25th Infantry Division.
Throughout her career, Jakia has participated in several military exercises. She has also been deployed to locations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia in direct support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Freedom’s Sentinel.
Jakia is passionate about self-defense, especially for women, and participates in a number of programs. She earned a training certification in the Master Resiliency Program and is also a Green Belt and a Certified Department of Defense Sexual Assault Volunteer Victim Advocate. She wrote a best-selling book, “War at Home,” calling for reform of the military justice system to raise awareness and provide support for survivors of hazing, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.
Additionally, Jakia founded Moving Mountains Publishing, a company devoted to giving voice to underrepresented groups. To further expand her advocacy efforts, she authors a bimonthly blog, updating her audience on the Department of Defense policy updates, changes, and military women history. Jakia has made it her personal mission to eradicate unhealthy, toxic cultures, as well as the practices and processes that can obstruct all military and government employees.
Jakia has an associate degree in logistics, materials and supply chain management from the Community College of the Air Force. She also has a bachelor’s degree in technical management cum laude with a concentration in project management and an undergraduate certificate in technical management, both from AMU.
Student Speaker Award Winners
The Student Speaker Award is annually given to one undergraduate and one graduate student from each graduating class. The winners of the Student Speaker Award are given the opportunity to address the graduating class at their respective commencement ceremonies.
This year, Kevin Pordon is the undergraduate student speaker. Matthew Warren is the graduate student speaker.
Kevin Pordon first began pursuing higher education in 2003. He had to leave college twice before deciding to join the United States Air Force in 2010.
He worked as a Hospitality Manager and also attended the Community College of the Air Force, earning an associate degree in hospitality administration and management. After separating from the Air Force, he became a steelmaker for Nucor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In 2020, Kevin decided he was ready to overcome his past and earn a degree. In December 2022, Kevin was awarded a bachelor’s degree in environment science summa cum laude from AMU, ending a 19-year academic journey.
Today, Kevin is pursuing an MBA with a concentration in non-profit management from Concordia University-Wisconsin. In addition, he is diligently working to establish a charitable organization in the field of biology. His long-term goal is to leave a lasting impact on Earth’s community of life.
Matthew Warren is currently the Director of Operations at the 82nd Security Forces Squadron, Sheppard Air Force Base (AFB), Texas. He is responsible for the security and law enforcement functions of 140 civilian and military defenders who support the training of more than 65,000 officers and enlisted Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and international students annually, as well as two wings, a Noncommissioned Officer Academy, and the world’s only Euro- North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) joint jet pilot training program.
Matthew grew up in Yukon, Oklahoma, and enlisted in the Air Force in August 2012. As an enlisted Airman, Matthew served as a Security Forces Defender from 2012 to 2020, attaining the rank of Technical Sergeant. He also earned an associate degree in criminal justice from the Community College of the Air Force in 2015.
In 2019, Matthew graduated from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and was commissioned in 2020 through Officer Training School, named as its Top Graduate. He completed Security Forces Officer Training in June 2020.
Matthew has also served as a Flight Commander and Nuclear Convoy Commander where he oversaw the transfer of national security assets, ultimately defending Department of Defense and NATO interests in multiple domains. His role included commanding the security of $5.9 billion strategic assets, $914 million aircraft, $11 million facilities, 11,400 military and civilian personnel, and 108 mission partners, including Sandia National Laboratory and NASA.
Some of his noteworthy accomplishments include the Pacific Air Forces Command’s Outstanding Noncommissioned Officer of the Year Award (2019) and the Security Forces Officer Course’s 1st Lieutenant Joseph Helton Leadership Award (2020). Matthew has also been the Airlift Tanker Association’s 12 Young Leaders Award Recipient (2022).
Matthew earned an MBA from AMU in 2022. Now, he is actively pursuing a doctoral degree.
Alumni Service and Distinguished Graduate Award Winners
The Alumni Service Award is given to an exceptional alumnus or alumna who has provided distinctive service to a community or to society. The Distinguished Graduate Award recognizes an exceptional alumnus or alumna who embodies the ideals of the University’s mission through their personal and professional efforts.
Hwal Lee is the winner of this year’s Alumni Service Award, and Travis Combest is the winner of this year’s Distinguished Graduate Award.
Hwal Lee is a behavioral health advocate, a family medicine PA, and a University Ambassador. Hwal earned his bachelor’s degree in sports and health sciences from APU in 2017, a master’s degree from Radford University’s PA program in 2020, and his doctorate in medical science from the University of Lynchburg in 2022.
Hwal is deeply passionate about helping others and has worn many different volunteer hats. He has been:
- A dual-certified Adult and Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor
- A Virginia state-certified Lay Rescuer Trainer for the REVIVE! Opioid Overdose and Naloxone Education program
- A crisis counselor for Crisis Text Line
- A youth career mentor for CareerVillage
- A presenter for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for “Talk Saves Lives: An Introduction to Suicide Prevention”
Hwal’s volunteer activities have directly impacted more than 1,400 community members across the country. He considers volunteer activities his lifelong hobby.
Hwal’s firsthand experience as a former middle school dropout and the challenges he had accessing higher education opportunities created an enduring hunger for learning and passion for service at a young age. He is fully committed to using his education to help others who may not have access to resources.
A passion for service and purpose also guides his professional life. Hwal is currently the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Health Service Corps Scholar. He also provides compassionate and person-centered primary healthcare every day in a federally designated Health Professional Shortage Area in Schenectady, New York.
Travis Combest is devoted to improving military healthcare. After completing his master of public health (MPH) degree from APU in 2015 with a 3.89 GPA, he became dedicated to medical research. Recently, he worked with faculty member Dr. Samer Koutoubi to publish a research article in public health in a peer-reviewed journal.
Travis also made a significant impact on his community by winning the William Gorgas Preventive Medicine Award (National Public Health Award). This award is given for emerging technology, research, and practice to benefit patients in the federal and military health care system.
When Travis is not busy with research, work or his studies, he enjoys spending time with his family, working out and traveling.
Travis holds multiple degrees. In addition to his MPH degree, Travis has earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and exercise science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree in kinesiology and exercise science from James Madison University.
Travis is currently seeking a Ph.D. in health and human performance at Concordia University of Chicago in Health and Human Performance. He continues to help improve the military healthcare system.