Student Honor

Sarah Neely Named 2021 Truist Distinguished Leader of Merit

Neely spearheaded the founding of the Student Ambassador Program at Crummer, among other leadership roles.

Just like millions of other Americans, Sarah Neely found herself stress baking banana bread during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Somewhere in that mixture of overly ripe bananas, brown sugar, and eggs, Neely, a budding leadership student at Crummer, started to relate her leadership journey to baking banana bread.

Similar to how there are numerous ways and ingredients to bake a delicious loaf of banana bread, Neely realized the same goes for the attributes of a leader.

Not the loudest or most boisterous voice in the room, Neely prefers to listen and observe. There were times during the Truist Distinguished Leader of Merit process that she questioned if she should even be in the mix to receive Crummer’s highest student leadership award.

“I was surrounded by so many other talented students, I started thinking that maybe I wasn’t cut out for it,” she said.

For her, baking the banana bread was not only a great snack for her and her roommates during the lockdowns, but also helped her self-actualize about her prowess as a leader.

“Seeing all of the different recipes for banana bread made me realize everyone has a different recipe for leadership. You have your own ingredients to become a strong leader,” she said.

Creating a Legacy

Upon arrival at Crummer, Neely immediately got involved with the Center for Leadership Development, joining the Student Leader Advisory Board.

From there, she got involved with leadership coaching and eventually leadership mentoring.

Assistant Director for the Center for Leadership Development, Sabrina Deshner, says Neely’s attitude towards leadership was refreshing and uplifting to everyone around her.

“Sarah’s enthusiasm and positive attitude are contagious,” said Deshner. “She is very welcoming and was always excited about taking on new challenges.”

Maralyn Graham, Assistant Operations & Database Reporting Manager on the Crummer Enrollment Management team, says she remembers Sarah’s admissions interview and recalls seeing her grow as a leader during her Crummer journey.

“I still remember the day Sarah came in for her admissions interview. She displayed a level of self-confidence and authenticity that made people gravitate towards her, and that has never stopped,” said Graham. “Sarah’s servant leadership has been apparent since day one. It has been a pleasure seeing her grow, and I know her contributions will continue to be seen and felt by Crummer for many years to come.”

Her big turning point at Crummer came when she was talking to students in another cohort about what would make the Crummer experience better for students.

Soliciting ideas from fellow students, Neely discovered many of them wished they had a better way to connect with current students while they were incoming students.

“That’s where my leadership really started to develop,” said Neely.

She took initiative, taking the idea of connecting current and incoming students to Crummer administration, working with Student Success, Enrollment Management, and the Center for Leadership Development to devise what has become the Peer Ambassador Program.

Neely worked for months, getting an approved plan together and recruiting the first cohort of student ambassadors. In retrospect, she realizes along the way she started to blossom into a respected student leader.

Today, the Peer Ambassador Program is a thriving program at Crummer where second-year students serve as liaisons to first-year students to share their perspectives on life at Crummer.

Neely used the Peer Ambassador Program as her required student leadership project for Distinguished Leader of Merit competition, leaving a legacy at Crummer that will remain long after she graduates.

“The peer ambassador program was my baby, and it’s in great hands moving forward,” she said.

Deshner says she is most-deserving of winning Crummer’s highest student leadership honor.

“One of the qualities I most admire about Sarah is her willingness to seek and receive feedback about her leadership development,” said Deshner. “During the Truist Distinguished Leader of Merit process, the panel was impressed with Sarah’s thoughtfulness, her ability to articulate the challenges she has overcome as a leader, and her creativity.”

Upon graduation, Neely is planning to go into consulting, with an emphasis on finance.

Her Crummer experience helped her realize that not all leadership journeys follow the same path, that there will be doubt along the way, and discovering what works for you is the most important thing.

“I learned that the best characteristics of a leader is to listen, and then adapt. It’s all about the team more than anything,” she said.

Her recipe for leadership, just like someone’s banana bread recipe, is unique and genuinely hers.

“I have one cup of transparency, two cups of integrity, one cup of relatability and a cup and a half of adaptability. That is really what I try to bring to the table and my core ingredients of leadership,” said Neely.

For more on the Center for Leadership Development click here.