ACE, Sophia Name Carissa Bennett and Josh Vandergriff 2023 Students of the Year
April 30, 2024

​Carissa Bennett, a Marine Corps veteran and an aspiring pediatric neurologist, and Josh Vandergriff, a nutrition educator at a local state health department and a doctoral candidate, are the 2023 ACE Students of t​he Year. The award is supported by Sophia.

Both recipients, who have thrived in their programs while supporting a family and navigating other responsibilities, are working toward completing degrees that would enable them to pursue careers to help people in need. Bennett expects to graduate this year from Wayne State University (WSU), and she aims to become a pediatric neurologist to improve the lives of children and their families. Vandergriff, who earned a bachelor of science and a master of public health from Purdue Global and is currently a doctoral candidate, aspires to be a leader in the health sciences field. Both recipients will receive a $1,000 scholarship to help fund their education. You can view interviews with the winners below:

The ACE Student of the Year Award is presented annually by ACE to two individuals who have benefited academically or professionally from the use of ACE credit recommendations for workforce or military training. Recipients must demonstrate outstanding achievements in their community or workplace while successfully balancing the demands of family, career, and education.

“Carissa and Josh have shown a clear dedication to their academic and professional pursuits, coupled with a passion for utilizing their skills to help others,” said Derrick Anderson, senior vice president of ACE’s Education Futures. “They serve as an example for fellow students who may diverge from traditional postsecondary paths, and I’m eager to see their future accomplishments.”

​Carissa Bennett

​Carissa Bennett

Bennett’s postsecondary academic journey began during her active-duty service in the Marine Corps, in which she earned an associate degree in the Chinese-Mandarin program at the Defense Language Institute. Bennett was honorably discharged in 2013, and in the following years took courses toward a bachelor’s degree while juggling many other responsibilities, such as raising two children and building a business.

In 2022, Bennett fully devoted herself to pursuing her dream of becoming a physician, enrolled at WSU, and has thrived, earning dean’s list recognition every semester; leading and serving in multiple student veterans’ communities; serving as a learning assistant; and joining the Women in Neuroscience student organization, among other accomplishments. Off campus, Bennett supports her children’s activities and clubs at school, coaches their athletics teams, and volunteers with Team GUTS, an organization that supports people with neurological disabilities and special needs.

With the help of ACE credit recommendations, Bennett is less than a year away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience with a minor in nutrition and food science. Bennett is particularly fascinated with neuroscience, cognitive functioning, and the brain, and plans on using her degree to become a pediatric neurologist.

“Carissa is an outstanding example of Wayne State University’s motto: Warrior Strong,” said William Keilman, director of Veteran Student Support Services at Wayne State. “She never complains about having too much on her plate despite the many ‘hats’ she wears and the difficulty of her program. She just finds a way to make the best of her situations, and she shines brightly.”

​Josh Vandergriff

​Josh Vandergriff

Vandergriff’s academic and professional experiences are defined by his commitment to academic excellence, self-improvement, and public service. With the help of ACE credit recommendations, Vandergriff, a Sophia student, was able to complete his bachelor’s degree a year early, allowing him to begin and complete a master of public health degree. He thrived in both programs, earning a 4.0 GPA and receiving summa cum laude honors for both degrees.

Vandergriff’s commitment and passion extend outside the classroom. Currently, Vandergriff is a nutrition educator with a local state health department, where he works tirelessly to aid the local community by addressing nutritional deficiencies and health inequalities. Additionally, he spends considerable time leading community service efforts and has received the Achievement of Community Engagement and Service award at Purdue Global.

Vandergriff is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in health sciences, and he is motivated to become a leader in the field so he can support services and interventions to improve health outcomes on the state, national, and even global levels. He has spoken with peers about his postsecondary experiences, inspiring friends and family to pursue postsecondary education.

“Throughout the completion of his bachelor’s, master’s, and currently his doctoral program, I have had the pleasure of witnessing Josh’s hard work, diligence, and discipline put forth in the achievement of his educational goals,” said Tanielle Pedro, health sciences student success manager at Purdue Global. “His drive to excel in his academics and in his career has fueled his efforts to take advantage of every possible opportunity.”

This year’s sponsor for the ACE Student of the Year Award is Sophia, an online learning platform that allows students to get a head start on their education, or finish up a degree, by taking affordable and flexible general education-level courses that are ACE-recommended for college credit. Sophia students have saved more than $500 million in tuition dollars,* completed more than 500,000 courses, and have been awarded more than 1.5 million transfer credits at receiving institutions.

“We are so honored to once again sponsor the ACE Student of the Year Award,” said Shawna Thayer, CEO of Sophia. “Each of these exceptional learners shows an incredible commitment to furthering their education goals to make a difference in their local communities, a mission we share here at Sophia. Congratulations to Josh and Carissa on this momentous award.”

*Savings based on average annual tuition at in-state, 4-year institutions, as reported by IPEDS, 2020.

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