UNO Honors Student Lives On In Award that Bears His Name

By Edie Talley
Originally published April 18, 2013 in Driftwood, the UNO student newspaper

In April, Geraldine Plaisance made the long, winding trip up Highway 1 along Bayou Lafourche from Cutoff, La. to attend the University of New Orleans Honors Convocation. It's a trip she's made every year since 2002. She comes to honor her son, Jace Plaisance. She comes to keep his memory alive.

The UNO Honors Program confers its top award, The Jace Michael Plaisance Book Award, upon its best Honors combo student each year. This year's award went to Joshua Caleb Medernach, a freshman majoring in Computer Science with a concentration in information assurance.

Plaisance was pleased. "I just like being there when they present the award," she said.

Her son Jace, who earned two liberal arts degrees from UNO in 1999 and a third in Film, Theater and Communication Arts in December 2000 died in a car accident in May 2001. His vehicle was struck by an "impaired driver," according to his mother, as he was making his way back home to New Orleans from a family event in Cutoff. Jace had been an honors graduate. The award was established in his memory in 2002.

Plaisance believes the award is a fitting memorial to her son, who, she says, "always pushed himself to be the very best."

The award is presented each spring to the student who shows the potential the Honors Program once recognized in Jace. Honors faculty members choose the winner from among those who have taken the Honors combo that academic year. The Honors combo consists of two classes, Greek literature and Honors English.

"It's often described as an initiation to Honors," explains Program Counselor Noriko Ito Krenn, "and the Honors rite of passage."

For Plaisance, the effort made by award winners also honors the memory of her son.

"It makes me very happy because the young people that get this award do their very best at whatever their endeavors are."

Doing one's best takes on even greater meaning this year because of the obstacles Medernach has had to overcome: He was born deaf.

The 20-year-old takes his disability in stride.

"I have an interpreter for all of my classes," he said. "She uses cued speech to translate to me."

He finds professors tend to be more helpful, even checking on his progress from time to time. In addition, he credits the Office of Disability Services and its director, Associate Dean of Student Affairs Amy King, with providing connections that have been important to his success.

"Overall in most cases, being deaf is advantageous for college experience," Medernach said.

Medernach was not the only honoree of the night. University and Departmental honors were conferred upon 16 graduates. Departmental honors were conferred upon nine others. Academic Excellence Awards were presented to 17 students, and several others received awards for outstanding service and dedication. In addition, Erik Hansen, FTCA Artist in Residence, received the Faculty Distinguished Service Award and UNO Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Edward Johnson was named Honors Faculty of the Year.

It was an important night for the Honors Program which boasts an enrollment of approximately 350 students. Geophysics Professor and Honors Program Director Abu Kabir Mostafa Sarwar sees great things ahead, possibly even the establishment of an Honors College at UNO. Already, he has secured a new donor and plans are underway to create scholarship opportunities based on this donation. Sarwar also credits the University of Louisiana system and the new administration under President Peter Fos with being much more receptive and assistive in growing the program. And participating in the program, according to Sarwar, can be very valuable to students.

"Qualified students have a cost-free opportunity to advance their careers by participating in an honors program," said Sarwar. "You have a definite advantage in getting a job or getting into graduate school. If you want to get into law or medical school or any professional school, this is going to prepare you for that."

Sarwar urged every student to explore the honors program.

"You are not going to lose anything and you will see what you can gain," he said. "It's challenging. It's fun. And it is enlightening."

Through the honors program, Sarwar explained, students gain more than mere knowledge. By integrating awareness gained from studies in liberal arts and sciences, they develop their souls.

Medernach echoed Sarwar's thoughts.

"The rewards and perks for joining the Honors program are worth it. Let the prospect of possible scholarships and deeper relationships with the Honors staff inspire you to work hard. The result is that you will develop a network of connections at UNO who will ultimately be more willing to help you to be successful."

Jace Plaisance never got a chance to fully realize success. His death ended his dreams for the future. But his commitment to excellence lives on in the award that bears his name and the students who receive it.

"Jace was here. He existed. To me he still exists and I'm always going to speak his name," said his mother. "I'm so happy because, in that way, the university keeps his memory alive."

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UNO Honors Program
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