CHICAGO (April 28, 2016) — On Monday, the North Park University community gathered in Anderson Chapel for the annual Honors Convocation, a celebration recognizing students who demonstrated excellence in the classroom and community.
Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Mary Surridge presented the 2016 Distinguished Senior Awards to Carmen Velazquez-Alvarez, Kerman, Calif., and Blake Thomas, Olathe, Kan. This honor is bestowed each year to one woman and one man from the graduating class, recognizing extraordinary leadership, dedicated service, superior academic performance, and embodiment of the University’s mission of preparing students for lives of significance and service.
Velazquez-Alvarez, a conflict transformation studies major and nonprofit management certificate recipient, fled the violence of her native Veracruz, Mexico, at age 11. She and her family were homeless for several months, managing with little food and without access to medical care. She worked in the fields of California’s Central Valley with her mother from a very young age, and dreamed of one day attending North Park, which she had heard about through her church.
“Carmen’s story is the story of the impossible becoming possible,” says Dr. Liza Ann Acosta, professor of English. “She is leading the way for other undocumented students to dream big and work towards fulfilling their goals. Carmen has made her North Park experience one to remember.”
Velazquez-Alvarez served as the president of North Park’s Latin American Student Organization and cofounder of the Latinas Unidas Mentorship Program, established to prepare her fellow Latina students for success. She was also active as a Faith and Justice Team student leader, and completed an internship this semester with the YMCA’s diversity and inclusion department.
“Carmen is a dynamo, an organizer, and at the forefront of Latino and immigrant justice issues,” says Dr. Linda Craft, professor of Spanish. In addition to her service work, Velazquez-Alvarez was honored this year as one of the top academic students in the state, receiving the Student Laureate Award and an educational grant from the Lincoln Academy of Illinois. She earned a 3.98 grade point average at North Park.
“There are kids who came from Central America or Mexico, and they don’t get to go to school,” Velazquez-Alvarez says. “So I’m not going to school just for me. This isn’t even for me. It’s, one, for God, and two, for my family and the people that I work with and are around me. I know there are serious circumstances that keep them from going to school, but how can my education help them in the future? How can I go back to the Valley and help my people?”
‘An outstanding student and a stellar human being’
During his time at North Park, Thomas majored in both youth ministry and biblical and theological studies, completed an internship that led to a job offer, and participated in multiple music ensembles, all while maintaining a 3.69 grade point average.
“Being a part of the Chamber Singers and the University Choir has been the most rewarding experience for me at North Park,” says Thomas. “From singing Handel’s Messiah with 400 people to going on choir tours around the country, I’ve loved my time being under the direction of Dr. Julia Davids and singing with my peers.”
Thomas came to North Park out of a desire to merge his gifts in ministry and music, and a commitment to serving the city of Chicago. Music Recruiter Dr. Rebecca Ryan has seen Thomas’s success firsthand. “I know Blake well—he served as my admissions assistant for three years and has been active in the School of Music,” she says. “He is an outstanding student and a stellar human being.”
Dr. Daniel White Hodge, director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies, agrees. “I’m not surprised that he won the award,” he says. “Blake has been an outstanding student with exemplary leadership skills. I’m very proud of him and his accomplishments, including serving as youth intern at North Park Covenant Church, where he was able to do some really good work.”
Following his internship, Thomas has been hired as a youth pastor at North Park Covenant Church, and will begin his position this summer. “North Park University provides a very well-rounded perspective on theology and provides the space for students to discern what is biblical and gospel-centered,” he says. “North Park shaped the way I view God and approach theology.”
In addition to the Distinguished Senior Awards, the Honors Convocation ceremony also noted the top graduating students from each department and school, and service and leadership awards were given to seniors embodying excellence in co- and extracurricular activities. View a complete list of students recognized in this year’s Honors Convocation program.
The University’s graduation ceremonies, including the presentation of the Ahnfeldt Medallion given to the senior with the highest grade point average, will officially close the year on Saturday, May 14, at 10:00 am, 3:00 pm, and 7:00 pm.