2024 Press Releases All Stories

WCSU announces 2024 Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award recipients

2024 Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award recipients Ezaan Khan and Desiree Velez

DANBURY, Connecticut — A future music teacher from East Hartford and an aspiring cardiac surgeon from Brookfield have been named recipients of the 2024 Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award by Western Connecticut State University.

Desiree Velez
Desiree Velez

Desiree Velez, of East Hartford, is a high-achieving first-generation student who not only had to contend with the difficulties caused by Covid-19 as an incoming freshman, but also the financial realities of paying her own way through college. Velez will receive a WCSU Bachelor of Science in Music Education at WCSU’s Commencement on May 12. She not only rose above these challenges, but became a role model to the countless prospective high school students whom she encountered as a Music Department crew member who interacted with students and their families on audition days, as an Admissions tour guide and as a REP4 student ambassador.

With her countless achievements, including a 3.95 GPA, four years as a Kathwari Honors Scholar, Dean’s List every semester and her recent selection as a Barnard Award winner, Velez would have every right to seek the spotlight, but instead prefers to highlight those she believes guided, helped or supported her during her journey toward becoming a music teacher and future school administrator.

“My intention of going into education is not only to provide quality education to all students, but also to change the inequities of our current education system,” Velez said. “I wish to create active change that provides opportunities to all students regardless of race, financial status, gender expression, or any other factor that may make a student feel excluded. With all of that being said, providing for my community is something that will always be important to me. It is my belief that all educators provide a deep and enriching service to their community. One that everyone who is part of that community can benefit from. I would not be able to provide for my community without the people who have helped me along the way.”

Velez has worked for four years as a crew member for the Music Department, for two years as the operations manager at the Westside Campus Center for the university’s Event and Conference Management Office, and as a tour guide for the Admissions Office during 2021-22. She has been recognized at the CHESLA Honors Scholarship Ceremony, with a Minority Teacher Incentive Program Grant, an Aspiring Educator Diversity Scholarship, the Kannengeiser Endowed Scholarship, the V.G. Cunningham Music Education Scholarship and the JUMY Scholarship.

At the same time, Velez has been vice president of the Music Education Club for the past two years, and was a student leader for the WCSU Honors Music Festival in 2022-23. Since her freshman year, she’s been active in the WCSU Spirit Band as a saxophone player, as a Brass Club member, an Audio Club member and an Ives Concert Flutist. She has volunteered at WCSU’s Professional Development Day for Arts Educators for three years, at the East Hartford High School Preseason for the past three summers, and at the SVPA Summer Arts Technology Workshops in 2024.

Velez recalled her trip to Idaho to be part of REP4’s Alliance-Wide Gathering that took place at Boise State University. “At this event I had the opportunity to share my story and be part of the conversation around furthering education for high school students who feel that college is not an opportunity meant for them. This experience greatened my passion for education and inspiring students who come from backgrounds like I did that they have the ability to do more than what their parents did.”


Ezaan Khan
Ezaan Khan

Ezaan Khan has made the most of every opportunity available to him at WCSU and beyond. A Kathwari Honors Student from Brookfield, Khan will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology with minors in Chemistry and Mathematics, a GPA of 3.94, and the distinction of being named a Barnard Award winner.

“My experience at WCSU has been irreplaceable and life changing,” Khan said. “WCSU provided me countless opportunities to grow myself into being a more professional, knowledgeable, and honorable man. By taking as many opportunities as I could and then some, I was able to go from being a student to a leader to a mentor for future leaders. Some of the most notable and transformative opportunities at WCSU have been my executive role in the Student Government Association (SGA), my presidency for the Muslim Student Association (MSA), and my summer internship at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Department of Neurosurgery through WCSU’s Minorities in Medicine.”

Khan continued, “These experiences forever changed my life, from my leadership and public speaking skills to how I conduct myself on a daily basis. WCSU gave me a unique experience from the accredited education it provides to the diverse campus life it hosts. From the classes to the campus events, WCSU continued to teach me about anything and everything I wanted to learn, from biochemistry to piano to African-Caribbean culture!”

Khan was on the SGA Executive Board since his freshman year, rising to Chief Justice/Parliamentarian — a position he leveraged to advocate on behalf of the Biology Department specifically and the university in general to seek additional funding from the Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee of the Connecticut General Assembly. He’s also been involved in the Committee for Undergraduate Curriculum and Academic Standards, and the Board of Regents Student Advisory Committee.

Khan served as president of the MSA in 2022-23, as treasurer of Honors Students of Compassion in 2022-23, as an orientation leader for the Center for Student Involvement in 2022-23, and as a Math Clinic tutor in 2022. He founded and created a Room of Reflection for WCSU students in search of a dedicated space for worship or meditation with the help of the Office of Intercultural Affairs. His intense involvement on campus does not preclude his presence in the community. He volunteers as an Emergency Medical Technician at the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Company, and works as an EMT for Nuvance Health at Danbury Hospital. He also volunteers at his local mosque, Baitul Mukarram, as a religious teacher, assistant youth director and mentor to children aged 6-16.

Khan received the Connecticut Seal of Biliteracy (Spanish/English) in 2021, and accepted the Diversity Student Organization of the Year as president of the MSA in 2022. He received the Nuvance Health Bravo Award for Dedication to Emergency Medical Services in 2023 and earned Advanced Senior Research Distinction in Biology in 2024. He participated in research in the laboratories of several WCSU Biology faculty members, which prepared him for his summer 2023 research assistant duties at UNC.

Both students expressed gratitude for the opportunities they had while at WCSU and for recognition of their achievements by being selected as this year’s Barnard Award winners.

“I feel privileged yet humbled for being recognized with the Barnard award,” Khan said. “I want to thank first and foremost Allah (SWT) for without His help, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this. I also want to thank my parents and siblings for their continuous support through my arduous college journey. Finally, I want to thank my close friends in the SGA and MSA for seeing my potential and helping me attain it to the fullest.”

Khan continued, “I am appreciative of my struggle for academic excellence and servitude to the WCSU student body being recognized. This award will make an immense difference in my applications to medical schools, allowing me to shoot as high as an ivy league! However, my accomplishments pale in comparison to the hard work of those who strive to obtain their education with the struggles of immigration, full-time jobs, and/or children, as a few of my close friends did. I hope that through my recognition with this award we can also recognize their dedication to doing the very thing this college was built for, stepping up in the world.”

Velez said she’s extremely honored to receive the Barnard Award. “I find myself straying away from sharing my story too much because it can be very stereotypical: ‘A girl from a low-income district who faced her challenges and got a degree against all odds.’ Sometimes I feel it’s too cliché to talk about,” she said. “It’s through situations like this, winning such a meaningful award, that reminds me that my story may be cliché, but it’s the truth. I’m hoping that I can use recognitions like these to further demonstrate how limitless the possibilities are for all students regardless of where they come from.”


Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high-quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals and leaders in a global society. Our vision: To be widely recognized as a premier public university with outstanding teachers and scholars who prepare students to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.