A conversation with Nixon Academic Leadership Award recipients

Alex Pipchuk, Azalea Walc, and Laura Yantha discuss recognition for their work in the classroom, on the field, and in the Kingston community

Pipchuk, Walc, and Yantha each demonstrated a holistic brand of excellence last year.

On Jan. 27, this year’s Nixon Academic Leadership Award recipients were announced by Queen’s Athletics and Recreation.

The award, given to varsity athletes who demonstrate exceptionalism in academics, community service, and fair play in sport, was received by Men’s Rugby’s Alex Pipchuk, Cross Country’s Laura Yantha, Fencing’s Rory McEwen, and the Queen’s Triathlon team’s Azalea Walc for their achievements during the 2020-21 academic year.

The Journal corresponded with Pipchuk, Walc, and Yantha about their thoughts on receiving the honour.

“I’m grateful for the recognition,” Pipchuk wrote in an email to The Journal. “My teammates and friends seemed to be genuinely happy for me, which was very uplifting.”

Pipchuk, a second-year MSc student, has been one of the coordinators for Men’s Rugby’s participation in Run for the Cure since 2018, during which the team has raised more than $80,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society.

He has also served as the team’s community outreach lead, a volunteer for the Queen’s Genetically Engineered Machine team, and participated in the Motionball Marathon of Sport, an event which supports Special Olympics Canada.

Despite his singular recognition however, Pipchuk said many of those around him are equally deserving of distinction for their efforts.

“A lot of my teammates have played a large role in some of the contributions that I was recognized for. Namely, John Varriano, Ruaridh Macphail, Stephan Zuliani, Matt Spanton, Josh Engelbrecht, and many more athletes on the rugby team,” he said.

“Everyone on the team contributes to our cultural environment in their own way, so it felt odd to be recognized for some contributions that are better attributed to the organization that I’m a part of.”

For Yantha, a fourth-year Biology major and member of Queen’s Cross Country and Track & Field teams, receiving the Nixon Academic Leadership award served as a welcome validation for her longstanding commitment to her extracurriculars.

“For me, this award serves as positive reinforcement for the hard work, dedication and passion I have invested in my academics and athletics throughout my time here at Queen’s,” she told The Journal in an email.

“Upon hearing that I won the Nixon Academic Leadership Award, I was (and still am) in shock [...] I don’t think of myself as a leader in the traditional sense—I am certainly not the loudest person in the room, nor do I often take charge—but after receiving this award, I recognized the value in quiet modes of leadership.”

In her time at Queen’s, Yantha has been an instructor for Swimming With A Mission, an organisation dedicated to providing affordable swimming lessons for children with disabilities, as well as an orientation leader during Frosh Week. She has also volunteered for Martha’s Table, the Earth Centre at Queen’s, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, Hope for Wildlife, and Jecara farms.

Yantha also wrote that her family, teammates, and coaches have been the biggest drivers behind her exceptionalism.

“My parents have continually fueled my fierce passion for learning and competing. My teammates have inspired me with their ability to handle high mileage, heavy school schedules, and even squeeze a social life into the mix [...] Meanwhile, my coaches have infused me with the self-confidence, motivation and passion required to succeed athletically.”

“Being surrounded by such exceptional people who have been rewarded for their hard work time and again has driven me to put 110% into everything I do,”she said.

Walc, a third-year MSc student, saw her recognition for the Nixon Academic Leadership Award as confirmation of adherence to her own personal values.

“Good sportsmanship, academic rigour, athletic discipline, and community involvement are incredibly important to me, and I am thrilled to have been recognized for my accomplishments in all these areas,” she wrote in an email to The Journal.

“It was very touching to read that I have been considered a role model for fellow athletes, as being a good teammate, bringing a positive attitude, and working hard towards my goals are all qualities I strive for.”

Throughout her time at the university, Walc has worked in numerous settings which support the physically and cognitively disabled. She has worked as a personal trainer with Revved Up, a physical activity coach for Get in Motion, event facilitator for the Winter Adapted Games, and a participant in Motionball Marathon of Sport.

On Campus, Walc has also been heavily involved with Step Above Stigma for Mental Health, the Project Red Charity Fashion Show, and the Queen’s Dancearama for Cystic Fibrosis Canada, as well as serving as the Triathlon team’s representative on the Varsity Leadership Council.

“Throughout my Queen’s experience I have kept busy with research, work, volunteering, and internships, and have had to make numerous personal sacrifices to keep up with this schedule,” she said.

“Being rewarded for these commitments really proves to me that these initiatives have made a meaningful impact and motivates me to continue pursuing these endeavors.”

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