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N4A Announces 2018 Wilma Rudolph Award Honorees

May 10, 2018

CLEVELAND - The National Association of Academic and Student-Athlete Development Professionals (N4A) announced the recipients of its Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Awards.

The honorees will be recognized during the N4A Convention Awards Luncheon on Tuesday, June 26 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

“If you’ve read anything about Wilma Rudolph, it is obvious that life circumstances were stacked against her," stated current N4A President and Vice President of the NCAA Eligibility Center, Felicia Martin. "She was born prematurely and struggled with childhood sickness. Rudolph battled scarlet fever and polio, was left with a paralyzed leg and told she would never walk again. Not only did she walk, she ran and became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at the 1960 Summer Olympics. The student-athletes we are honoring possess that same courage, determination, and the ability to overcome obstacles! On behalf of the N4A Board of Directors and our membership, I would like to congratulate the recipients of the 2018 N4A Wilma Rudolph Award. We are proud of their accomplishments and excited to honor them,” she concluded.

The N4A Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award honors student-athletes who have overcome great personal, academic, and/or emotional odds to achieve academic success while participating in intercollegiate athletics. These young men and women may not be the star athletes or best students, and therefore may not have been recognized by other organizations or awards. Nonetheless, they have persevered and made significant personal strides toward success.

The 2018 Wilma Rudolph recipients are Azeez Al-Shaair, Florida Atlantic University; Meredith Bissette, University of South Florida; Austin Hatch, University of Michigan; Guy Iradukunda, Florida State University; and Crystal Lee, Georgia State University.

Azeez Al-Shaair, Florida Atlantic University
At four years old Azeez Al-Shaair’s father moved their family to Saudi Arabia to take a job as an English instructor. While in Saudi Arabia, the family encountered difficulties as foreigners in a foreign country and after two years, they moved back to the states, only to be in a new environment again with language barriers and more learning difficulties. In the second grade, Al-Shaair’s parents divorced and up until his freshman year of high school, he continued to encounter multiple barriers and turmoil in his daily life. He moved multiple times, his dad moved back to Saudi Arabia, he lived in Section 8 housing with his mom, and was in an altercation that forever changed the way his spoke (tone and frequency) due to an esophageal injury. The summer prior to his 10th grade year, Al-Shaair’s family encountered yet another obstacle. In the whirlwind of rushing off to work, Al-Shaair’s older sister accidently left the stove on. As a result, Al-Shaair woke up to the smoke alarm and a fire that was out of control. He woke his siblings and niece and got everyone out of the smoldering house. By the time the fire department arrived the only thing remaining was the foundation, leaving them homeless. Thankfully, the family had insurance so they could move into a motel. Unfortunately, the motel was two hours from his school, meaning Al-Shaair had a long commute on public transportation each morning. His brother’s football coach, James McQuay, learned of their family’s situation and was gracious enough to give them clothes, money for food, bus fare, and a place to stay. During this tumultuous time, football became a positive outlet for his anger and a way for Al-Shaair to build the future he wanted. After long hours of training and numerous setbacks, he was offered a scholarship to play at Florida Atlantic University. Because of past experiences, Al-Shaair made the decision to major in public safety administration, aspiring to become a fire fighter, and made it a goal to repay James McQuay for what he had given his family in their time of dire need. During his junior year, after using his financial aid to buy clothes and food for his brothers and mother, he decided to have his brothers move in with him and become their legal guardian. Al-Shaair will continue the final season of his collegiate football career with the Owls this Fall and is set to graduate in Spring 2019.

Meredith Bissette, University of South Florida
Miracle Mere, that’s the nickname given to Meredith Bissette by her doctors. In 2016, Bissette began her battle with cancer. A softball player at USF, Bissette had a baseball-sized tumor on her lower spine. It was a tumor that affected one in one million people each year. After discovering the tumor, things moved quickly for Bissette, yet all too slow at the same time. She moved to Boston and became part of another team that would work together to defeat her cancer. She went through radiation treatments, steroids and biopsies in an effort to prepare her body for an extensive, high-risk surgery. To the surprise of her team of doctors, the final biopsy before surgery revealed that the cancerous cells around her tumor were dead. In that instance, Bissette became a medical miracle—no doctor had ever seen such thing before. This was a small victory for Bissette. While undergoing chemotherapy, she worked out with a trainer three days a week, rebuilding her strength - both physically and mentally - before she underwent additional surgeries. In August, she underwent three surgeries, totaling over 20 hours in four days. The fourteen days following were the hardest. She had to relearn how to walk, to sit up, to position herself; simple tasks became challenges. Despite the hardships, Bissette’s determination had her out of rehab in just a miraculous two months. She returned to USF, came back to practice with her teammates and was progressing well until she encountered an obstruction in her stomach resulting in the need for a nasogastric tube. Unfortunately, the tube ended up failing and she faced yet another surgery. This time, the procedure failed and doctors had to open her stomach to remove the obstruction. A surgery such as this required another seven months to recover. As if this wasn’t enough for Bissette, she developed femoral head necrosis, meaning her body struggled to supply blood flow to her hips leading to a double hip surgery in her future. Through all these challenges and personal trials, Bissette’s teammates, the USF community and the city of Tampa showed unwavering support for her. Bissette graduated this Spring and will take a year off to gain some work experience before applying for PA school.

Austin Hatch, University of Michigan
Austin Hatch is one in 11 quadrillion and 560 trillion. Hatch is the survivor of not one, but two plane crashes - two plane crashes in an eight-year time span that killed five of his loved ones—mother, father, brother, sister, and step mother. In the second crash, Hatch suffered brain trauma, fractured ribs, and a broken collarbone. He was in a coma for two months and after waking up, had to relearn how to walk and talk. The initial outlook was that Hatch would be confined to a bed for the rest of his life. The idea of running, or playing basketball was a far-distant dream. Before the injury, Hatch was a hard worker both in the classroom and on the court, earning him a scholarship to the University of Michigan. After the accident, he continued to be a hard worker, but this time, the hard work was to regain the ability to live his life. It took time and a great deal of patience, but Hatch arrived on Michigan’s campus in the fall of 2015 to play basketball for Coach Beilein and the storied Wolverine program. His first year was a whirlwind. The brain injury changed how Hatch learned and to keep up at the University of Michigan, he was forced to make a decision about basketball and academics. He played in five games his rookie season, but the classroom experience challenged Hatch to think differently. He changed his pre-med mindset to business, knowing that his brain thrived in problem solving. Hatch graduated in April with a degree in organizational studies and moved into a full-time role with the Dominos Corporation. While his story is filled with tragedy, his relentless positive attitude has changed the lives of everyone around him.

Guy Iradukunda, Florida State University
As the youngest of five children, Guy Iradukunda spent his early childhood in Burundi, a small country in East Africa. Tennis was introduced to him at a young age, mostly through his father, while his mother instilled in him a focus on academics. At the age of 13, Iradukunda left his family in Burundi to attend a tennis-focused school in South Africa, and later traveled to Morocco when the school relocated. This was his first experience of being away from his family and learning how to adjust to a different language and culture. He came to the U.S. to attend Seminole State College in Oklahoma in 2014, and this was the last time he has seen his family. Living in Oklahoma was a major adjustment from life in Africa, but Iradukunda thrived on the tennis court, winning the Junior College Individual Championship his freshman year. During his sophomore year, his home country of Burundi experienced a devastating economic crash ultimately leading to civil war. Iradukunda felt tremendous guilt during this time as he lived in constant fear for his family’s safety while feeling selfish for being “safe in America.” Transferring to Florida State to finish his collegiate tennis career, Iradukunda found a new family in his teammates, many of which were also international student-athletes. Because of the escalation of the conflict in Burundi, his family has since fled and found refuge in nearby Rwanda. While Iradukunda's future plans are not yet clear, he will be graduating this Spring and will continue to pursue a professional tennis career in hopes to be able to reunite with his family.

Crystal Lee, Georgia State University
Growing up in Chicago, Crystal Lee seemed to have the perfect life. She was an exemplary athlete, maintained good grades, and had supportive parents. After deciding to commit to Georgia State University to play volleyball and making the move to Atlanta, Lee’s life began to crumble. With her parents divorcing and her mother struggling with mental illness, Lee struggled to adjust to life as a student-athlete in a new city. Her first two years as a student-athlete continued to be difficult, dealing with injuries, academic struggles, and continuing to watch her mother struggle with both depression and bipolar disorder. Prior to her junior year, the unthinkable happened when Lee’s mom took her own life. Following this tragic incident, she has shown incredible perseverance. With the support of family, friends and teammates, Lee has begun to share her story and be an activist for mental health. In an effort to continue her goal of assisting and supporting others in this way, Lee has elected to major in public health and will graduate with her degree in Spring 2019.

About N4A: N4A, which has been in existence since 1975, is a diverse educational service and professional non-profit organization. Membership of N4A includes academic support and student services personnel who are committed to enhancing opportunities for academic, athletics and personal success for student-athletes. For more information on N4A, visit www.nfoura.org. N4A is administered by NACDA, now in its 53rd year, administers 17 professional associations, including seven for the separate business units that report directly to the athletics directors. For more information on NACDA, visit www.nacda.com.