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American Today


Priest, Ricketts Named President’s Award Winners

By Adrienne Frank and Mike Unger

President's Award winners Alex Priest and Cassandra Ricketts pose with AU president Neil Kerwin. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

President's Award winners Alex Priest and Cassandra Ricketts pose with AU president Neil Kerwin. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

A social media whiz and a scholar-athlete are the winners of this year’s prestigious President’s Award.

Lauded for their intellectual curiosity, academic achievement, leadership, and community mindedness, seniors Alex Priest and Cassandra Ricketts will receive American University’s highest honor during the 125th commencement ceremonies, May 7–8.

This is the second year AU president Neil Kerwin has presented the award to two students. Priest and Ricketts will each receive $1,000 and an engraved medal.


Alex Priest 

Two bachelor’s degrees. Two study abroad trips. Five internships. Four scholarships. Seven extracurricular activities.

President’s Award winner Alex Priest has packed a lot into his four years at AU — all while maintaining a near-perfect 3.96 GPA.

But for Priest, who graduates this week with degrees in communication and business administration, his proudest achievement is the formation of the AU Social Media Club, the first student-led organization of its kind in the country.

The social media wonk founded the club in September 2010, based on the premise that “students today learn differently than many of our educators teach.”

“We have a plethora of tools for engaging and interacting and only a select few are being leveraged as effectively as they could be in higher education,” said Priest, 22. “We believe that it’s time to look at Facebook as less of a distraction and more of an educational resource. It’s important to see Twitter as more than just ‘what people had for breakfast,’ and instead as a tool for learning and networking as a young professional.”

In order to promote digital literacy, Priest and the club’s 30 members organized the Social Learning Summit in April. The conference, held at the School of Communication (SOC), drew 300 students, academics, and media professionals for 14 workshops on everything from blogging and Tweeting to social activism and job hunting via social media.

Priest hopes the summit will become an annual event, and that the club will continue to expand its membership and influence.

“Founding the club is the coolest and most exciting thing I accomplished in my college career,” said the Leitchfield, Kentucky, native. “I’m proud to have led the club to this point, and I’m ecstatic about the potential for the future.”

A member of the University Honors Program, Priest was also active in Kogod’s 1955 Club, the Public Relations Student Society of America, and several honors societies. A Presidential Scholar and Robert C. Byrd Scholar, he studied abroad in Tokyo and Copenhagen.

“His list of campus and external activities makes me wonder if the young man ever takes the time to sleep,” said SOC dean Larry Kirkman.

Priest — who admits he’s pulled a few all-nighters — has been hired as director of marketing for GeniusRocket, a Bethesda-based start-up that helps companies navigate YouTube, social networks, and blogs. The social media wonk begins work in mid-May and will no doubt chronicle his professional adventures on Twitter (@alexpriest), where he has nearly 5,000 followers.


Cassandra Ricketts 

A torn ACL can end an athlete’s career. In Cassandra Ricketts’s case it sparked the beginning of two new ones.

Ricketts rebounded from a serious knee injury in high school to star on AU’s volleyball team for four years. Inspired by the surgeon who fixed her up, she majored in biochemistry, notching a 3.95 GPA. She plans to begin medical school in fall 2012, and one day hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon who works with athletes.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to live without athletics, so I’d like to incorporate my sports background into my [medical] career,” she said. “My four years at AU were definitely everything I expected and more than I could have imagined. It was an overall great experience filled with lots of good people surrounding me.”

During her senior season Ricketts ranked third in the Patriot League with a .312 hitting percentage and 10th in aces per set. She was named to the All-Patriot League first team and won the conference’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year, capping a career in which she was a four-time member of the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll.

Ricketts plans to spend the summer doing clinical research and applying to medical schools. Four years after coming to Washington from her hometown in Utah, she’s graduating from AU knowing she left her mark on the school in more ways than one.

“The reason I came here was I saw people doing things I wanted to do,” she said. “I had amazing teachers and awesome advisors and coaches and teammates. I’m lucky to have the success I’ve had.”