Phyllis G. Betts Award for Academic Excellence

2018 Phyllis G Betts Award for Academic Excellence recipient Abi Stephens, with Phyllis Betts

The Phyllis Betts Award is given annually to the graduating Honors student who most embodies the liberal arts ideal of polymathematics and well-roundedness, having excelled in distinct and often distant fields of study. The graduating class of 2018 includes several such students, but one in particular who for his academic excellence, his commitment to discovery, and his all-around creative energy, is highly deserving of this special honor.

2018 Recipient: Abigail Stephens

Each year, around the middle of April, I get to perform what is perhaps my most fulfilling act as the Director of the Honors Program at UNCA: I get to write a few glowing paragraphs about that year's recipient of the Phyllis G. Betts Award for Academic Excellence. As many of you know, this honor is bestowed each year to the graduating Honors student deemed most outstanding in academic achievement both in and outside of the classroom. Awardees often demonstrate stellar scholarship through undergraduate research, community engagement projects, challenging internships, and interdisciplinary expertise. This year’s awardee, history major Abigail Stephens, is no exception.

The Chair of the History Department, Prof. Tracey Rizzo, describes Abi as "remarkable," noting that Abi was the recipient of the History Department’s award for outstanding rising senior this past year. Clearly this assessment is shared by many. For instance, Abi's adviser, Dr. Alvis Dunn, notes "I have been working with her as her senior thesis has developed and expect it to be one of the best, if not THE best, that the department has received in recent memory." Regarding an innovative transinstitutional course in which Abi took part, Dr. Dunn asks us to "[i]magine an upper-most level [disciplinary] course that demands original research in archives, writing up and presenting that research in a way that is accessible to both the public and scholarly communities, AND expertise with digital tools such as WordPress, timelines, and sophisticated mapping and you get an idea of what Abi can do."

Prof. Dan Pierce, outgoing NEH Professor of History, agrees with his colleagues: "Abi’s work on the beginning of the AIDS crisis in Western North Carolina is outstanding and contains sophisticated, in-depth research and is presented in a compelling manner. Indeed, her work is at a level that we have rarely seen among our undergraduates and makes a significant contribution to the field." Many of you might have seen this work presented at our campus’s Queer Studies Conference just a few weeks ago.

I myself have had the privilege of working with Abi in three different courses in the Honors Program. As a first-semester sophomore in my seminar titled "What’s the Big Idea?!," she directed the class in a detailed analysis of the discourse surrounding the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ‘90s. The following fall, she took the lead in my course on voting theory, distinguishing herself, among other ways, by winning the "North Carolina Senate" category in the class’s electoral prediction contest.

Most recently, I'm delighted by the opportunity to have one more chance to work with Abi. She brings to my current section of Honors LA 478 a modest demeanor and compassion for others coupled with insightful social awareness and immeasurable intellectual gifts. I am always open to learning from my students, but few are the students from whom I've learned more than this year's Betts winner. I will be sad to see Abi go.

For her countless contributions to the Honors Program, to the History Department, as well as to the university and the community beyond through work with the Center for Diversity Education and Pisgah Legal Services, it is our pleasure to give this year’s Phyllis G. Betts Award for Academic Excellence to history major Abi Stephens.

Past Awardees

  • 2017: Savannah June Purdy, Sociology
  • 2016: William Massey Bartolini, Atmospheric Science
  • 2015: Giovanni Figaro, Accounting
  • 2014: Caroline Ketcham, Environmental Studies; Kyle Cavagnini, Chemistry and Philosophy; Corey McClintock, Chemistry and Creative Writing
  • 2013: Charlotte Pate, Anthropology
  • 2012: Kristina Bender, Literature & Language and Mathematics
  • 2011: Tiffany Yates, Literature & Language
  • 2010: Jordan Wolfe, Political Science