DANBURY, Connecticut — On paper, Western Connecticut State University’s two 2023 Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award winners could not appear to be more different. Yet, both have risen to the top of their respective fields of study due to their determination, intellectual curiosity and co-curricular pursuits, by incorporating the life experiences they have acquired in their approach to learning, and due to their unparalleled ability to serve as role models and advocates for their fellow students.
WCSU’s Barnard recipients are Denisse Rodas, of Danbury, who will graduate this May with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, and Brandon Pancoast, of New Milford, who will receive a Bachelor of Science in Justice and Law Administration, also in May. Both have excelled in the classroom, on campus and in the community, in part, because of their unwavering commitment to sharing their past experiences with their classmates in an effort to build them up and motivate them to strive for excellence.
Rodas, 21, was born and raised in Ecuador and arrived in the United States at the age of 13 as an undocumented immigrant in search of the American Dream. “Financial aid, many scholarships and jobs were not available to me due to my immigration status,” she stated in her Barnard application. “However, after eight years of commitment to learning a new language and adapting to a new country, those barriers have not stopped me from pursuing my dream of becoming a successful nurse. Instead, they have motivated me to advance with my career goals and serve as an inspiration for other immigrant students.”
Pancoast, 34, left active duty in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps after reaching the rank of Staff Sergeant. He is a decorated veteran who served numerous overseas deployments, including a combat deployment to Iraq. He was already married and the father of two young sons when he enrolled at WCSU to begin a path toward law school. “I did not come to college seeking a piece of paper,” he wrote in his Barnard application. “A degree is the secondary benefit of an education and the pursuit of knowledge. At WCSU, I fell in love with the challenge of being a successful student and it reignited my passion for the law.”
In the course of his military service, Pancoast undoubtedly experienced situations that his fellow JLA classmates can barely comprehend. “The character I developed and the perspective I gained in the military and as a parent and coach have translated to success as a student,” he said. “I had achieved success before under incredible pressure with dire consequences. The challenges of stress, organization, priority management and adherence to instructions or schedules were not new to me. I knew the way broadly, and I only needed to apply the blueprint for success in an academic setting.”
Rodas, likewise, found herself immersed in the battle against Covid-19. “During the global pandemic, I became more aware of the value of nurses, and working as a CNA with Covid patients opened a new perspective, where I am constantly encouraged to continue providing the best care for patients and families during difficult times,” she said. “I have committed myself to the fullest, and I look forward to completing my degree and exploring opportunities to help me achieve my goals.”
In addition to her studies and work as a CNA, Rodas is secretary of the WCSU Student Nurses Association, a Red Cross Blood Drive Ambassador, and serves as a nursing tutor for her peers. She has maintained a 3.72 GPA, is a Kathwari Honors Program Scholar and has been inducted into the Sigma Theta Tau International Honors Society of Nursing, Kappa Alpha Chapter. But what’s closest to her heart is her work advocating for the undocumented community. “Being an undocumented student brought me closer to Connecticut Students for a Dream,” she said. “As an active member for more than five years, I have had the opportunity to empower undocumented students and their families by advocating for their rights.”
As a College Access Fellow, Rodas focuses on helping undocumented students have a successful transition from high school to college. “In the same way I was helped, I wanted to pass along the help I received, and as part of my work, I help undocumented students understand the basics of college and how to apply for college scholarships and financial aid. One of my proudest moments with the organization was being part of the ‘Afford to Dream Campaign’ that enabled me to be at the Capitol in Hartford talking with legislators, sharing my story and emphasizing the importance for undocumented students to receive financial aid. As a result, undocumented students in Connecticut can now apply for financial aid.”
Pancoast is president of WCSU’s Appellate Advocacy Society, vice president of the Alpha Phi Sigma Iota Chapter of the National Criminal Justice Honor Society, and captain of the WCSU Moot Court Team that was a national finalist in 2022-23. He’s also an Ancell Commons peer tutor, a Justice and Law Society member, a Student Veterans Organization member, a National Society of Leadership and Success participant, and a Judiciary Board justice for the Student Government Association. Pancoast also has served as a note-taker for the Office of AccessAbility and has maintained a 3.98 GPA. In the community, in addition to his continued service as an Army Reservist, Pancoast coaches multiple youth sports teams in New Milford.
“My mentor, JLA Professor Thomas Miller, recognized that I had the intellectual reasoning and dedication to succeed in Moot Court,” Pancoast said. “I became obsessed with the idea that I could challenge my intellect and communication skills in a setting that embraced my competitive nature. After my first season of the American Moot Court Association competition, I decided that I could be more successful and help make the entire program more successful. I took the Moot Court class and subsequently won the Schramm Cup university championship. In my second season of AMCA competition, I embraced the age-old axiom that rising tides lift all ships. In 10 years, no WCSU Moot Court team had ever advanced beyond the first round of elimination at regionals. I became the first official team captain and endeavored to make all of us better.”
As a result of his research into competing Moot Court programs, 75 percent of WCSU’s participants advanced to the playoff rounds at regionals held at Yale University. Pancoast and his partner went to the finals of a national competition at Louisiana State University, and Pancoast became the 15th-ranked individual oralist in an association that spans two countries and includes the most prestigious universities in the western hemisphere. “While I am proud of the success my partner and I had, I am even more proud that we could put WCSU under the spotlight on a national stage,” he said.
Despite this accomplishment, Pancoast cites his work as an Ancell Commons Peer Tutor as his most rewarding leadership experience on campus. He is the only JLA tutor at WCSU and has obtained a College Reading and Learning Association accredited certification as a tutor, and serves as an ambassador for the tutoring program by conducting outreach presentations. “I have inspired dozens of students to seek help to be more successful by visiting classes and educating the student body on the benefits of the tutoring program,” he said. “And I proudly aid students in nearly 20 different classes in addition to general studying and technology skills.”
Rodas, similarly, cites being a tutor as one of her most fulfilling experiences as a student. “Being a tutor has allowed me to teach the nursing content in a way that is easier for new students to understand,” she said. “Conducting my first exam review with more than 15 students motivated me to support nursing students and find ways to lead them to success.”
Regardless of their disparate paths to their bachelor’s degrees, Pancoast and Rodas both have demonstrated that dedication, leadership and stopping to hold open the door for those who follow are the keys to well-deserved success.
For more information, contact WCSU Public Relations at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Twelve outstanding students from the four Connecticut State Universities are awarded the prestigious Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award by the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) Foundation. The students — enrolled in Central, Eastern, Southern and Western Connecticut State Universities — receive the award for their outstanding academic achievement, on-campus involvement and dedication to community service. Each student is selected by his or her respective university and has maintained a 3.7 grade point average with a record of substantial voluntary service to their universities and communities. The award is named for Henry Barnard, the first U.S. Commissioner of Education, Connecticut’s first superintendent of schools and principal of what later became Central Connecticut State University. The CSCU Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports education and research within the four state universities.