COE Science Major Courtney Bessemer Wins Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award

August 29, 2014

“Nobility of character and service to others sets them apart as examples to all.”
Courtney Bessemer
Courtney Bessemer

Courtney Bessemer, a Secondary Science Education major in Auburn University’s College of Education, was recently awarded the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award. She was nominated by Dr. Christine G. Schnittka, who served as Bessemer’s professor and advisor in the 2014 academic year. The award recognizes individuals whose “nobility of character and service to others sets them apart as examples to all.”

“When Dr. Schnittka told me I had won the award, I was thinking to myself that she had the wrong person,” Bessemer said. “I had done a lot of work with others through alternative student breaks, and I certainly never expected any recognition for just doing what I enjoy doing. But it was a great honor and I am very humbled by it.”

While many of her fellow students were heading to Bourbon Street for Spring Break, Bessemer was heading toward a Head Start-type program in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward called Katrina Kids.

“I was with a group of children age six months to three years old,” she said. “Their parents were people who had been displaced by Katrina but who wanted to come back and help rebuild the city they loved. I talked to a lot of day care workers and the parents of the children. They were in a difficult neighborhood but still seemed happy to be back.  I thought that was very cool and I was inspired by parents wanting to take pride in where they were from.”

Bessemer also worked taking meals to homebound people in Atlanta, pitched in on a Habitat house in Marion County, and spent time at a special needs camp in Argyle, Texas.

“I had never worked with anyone with special needs before this experience,” she said. “It was hard at first because I did not realize it would be 24-7. I was nervous at first but by the end of the week you got to know the campers for who they really were. They were crying and saying they didn’t want to leave and that was heartbreaking. But they were sweet people with positive energy and what you saw was their ability, not their disability. That’s the way they saw themselves.  So that was a great thing to see and learn and know. It was also a great respite for their parents. Being a caretaker is a difficult and demanding job.”

Bessemer comes to her service for others naturally.

“I guess it has just been instilled in me to pay back and share what you have with others,” she said. “This is something I have always done.  No one told me to do it. I came to Auburn looking for ways to become involved. It was hard to find time during the week so alternative spring breaks were just a natural fit.”

Bessemer’s Catholic school friends in her native Ft. Lauderdale were all going to college in the Sunshine State, and she wanted to try something different. Someone told her she might like Auburn. She toured the campus and loved what she saw.

“When I was awarded a Presidential Scholarship, that did it,” Bessemer recalled. “I knew I loved the place and the people.  I knew I liked working with adolescents and I thought it would be cool to combine science with a natural inclination to become a teacher. I have loved my teachers in the College of Education, as well as the advisors, the classes, just everything. Dr. Schnittka especially is super awesome. She has developed a great curriculum emphasizing her engineering background that integrates many aspects of science under themes like ‘Save the Penguins.’ She also developed a curriculum called ‘Save the Snails,’ where among other things we build a gravity-powered light with gears and spools. The work is difficult, it’s challenging, but it’s a great way to learn science and learn to be a great teacher.”

Bessemer would like to stay in Auburn after her graduation in May, but will go where she feels called.

“I know I want to be a teacher,” she said. “I want to share what I have learned here. I also want to share how to make my students feel special. A lot of places I visited I felt like a number. At Auburn, I have always felt like people really cared.”

Story and Photo by George Littleton