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Four Empire State University Students Receive Prestigious SUNY Chancellor's Awards

Four Empire State University students have been awarded the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. Joseph Juntunen, Anton Ruesing, Em Wasserman, and Elizabeth O’Brien all received this prestigious honor and will be recognized at a ceremony in April. 


The SUNY Chancellor’s Award recognizes students with outstanding achievements that have demonstrated excellence within different aspects of their lives including academics, leadership, campus involvement, community service, or the arts. It is the highest honor bestowed by the university to students.  

“The Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence is the highest honor SUNY can bestow upon students,” President Lisa Vollendorf said. “It is an incredible distinction and recognizes our students’ dedication to their educational journey, our university, and their community. They are a true reflection of how our students change the world.”  

About the winners: 

Elizabeth O’Brien:  

Elizabeth O’Brien

Elizabeth O’Brien, from Rochester, NY, is working towards a bachelor’s degree in business with a concentration in finance. She is a member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society and intends to pursue her master’s degree in finance after graduating in May. O’Brien is a proven leader in education, organizing informal tutoring sessions in business analytics and French courses. 


“My jaw dropped when I received the email,” O’Brien said. “When you’re getting a second degree or continuing your education, it doesn’t come with a lot of accolades. It really was the pinnacle of my whole educational experience.” 

In addition to pursuing academics, O’Brien has two decades of legal experience under her belt working as a paralegal and offers pro-bono services, work she believes is crucial to promoting equity and justice and providing essential legal services to those who may not be able to afford it.   

O’Brien is also involved in the arts as a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, even contributing to the film score of “Sharktopus”. Additionally, she participates in music fundraisers every year including the Lynn Bartolotta Scholarship Fund. O’Brien said exploring community engagements was important to her while utilizing the flexibility Empire State University offers.  

“We’re doing a lot of independent study, so I like to be out there and make myself do things that are helping my community beyond and interacting with people beyond just a discussion board,” O’Brien said. 

After graduating, O’Brien said she intends on pursuing her master’s degree in finance and continuing her journey with SUNY Empire.  

Em Wasserman:  

Em Wasserman

Em Wasserman, from Albany, NY, is completing a bachelor’s degree in social science with a concentration in human rights advocacy. Wasserman currently serves as president of the Student Government Association, represents Empire State University on the University Council, University Senate, Alumni Federation Board, Student Assembly, CAARES Committee, LGBTQIA+ Community Task Group and Student Activity Fee Committee. They use their own negative experiences to fuel positive peer support and advocacy for other students, while valuing wellness and healing.  

“When I was eighteen, I was accepted into a private university and struggled with some difficult life circumstances, which led me to disenroll from my studies,” Wasserman said. “I fully intended to keep my head down and complete my degree, but Empire presented so many wonderful opportunities to learn, advocate, and bring my passions into a new environment,” Wasserman said.   

Wasserman said they feel inspired to work with other students and empower them to access their leadership skills and goals. They have also worked as a PRODiG scholar and are heavily involved in advocacy for LGBTQIA+ students. Wasserman has assisted with several research initiatives, utilizing their own adverse experiences to explore different issues in psychiatric care and mental health support. They devote a significant amount of time to lobbying for “anti-oppressive means of wellness and healing,” and working with local advocacy groups to develop new pathways forward in fields like psychiatry, law, and education. They created the Creative Connections Campaign, which allows people to speak about their institutional experiences and re-humanizes those who were subject to psychiatric incarceration due to trauma, a lack of connection to basic needs, substance use, or other circumstances.  

“This recognition is an affirmation,” Wasserman said. “Boosting my energy to keep advocating, keep learning, and keep growing, despite feeling hopeless – then overcoming hopelessness toward a place of healing.”  

After graduation, Wasserman said they plan to focus on a graduate degree in public health and continue their focus on advocating for peer and community-based support groups.  

Joseph Juntunen: 

Joseph Juntunen

Joseph Juntunen, from Forest Hills, NY, is a labor studies major in SUNY Empire’s Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies. He has a background in the music business, working as a freelance sound engineer, production manager, stagehand, and tour manager. These experiences gave him a unique perspective when the COVID-19 pandemic began, changing how the world views live events. Juntunen then began an academic journey, searching for solutions to the problems facing New York City.  

“I did not have the opportunity to attend school when I was younger and entered the working environment at a very young age – but school was something that I always wanted to do,” Juntunen said. “I figured, well, what better place to earn a degree focused on labor then at a school created in partnership between a labor organization and the state of New York?”  

During his time at Empire State University, Juntunen was awarded the Louis Levine Scholarship, intended for students at the School of Labor Studies with financial need who are active members of a labor union. His commitment to labor rights has reigned supreme in his career and academic life. He assisted with research and fieldwork initiatives for the National Labor Relations Board and National Education Association’s Education Policy and Implementation Center.  

Juntunen also served as a board member for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 4 Stagehands, assisted IATSE Local One with organizing and contract negotiations at Webster Hall, and helped organize an informational picket for members of the Music Workers Alliance, raising awareness of unjust working conditions for performers at SXSW in 2023.  

On top of his academic work, Juntunen is a father and radio repair mechanic for the New York City Police Department and member of District Council 37, a public employee union in New York City.  

“I'm on this journey because I have a hunger to understand the world around me and the conditions that we live in and why my community is suffering the way that it suffers here in New York City and to a greater extent, why the world is suffering the way it's suffering,” Juntunen said. “This award reinforces a lot of what I've been learning and what I've been attempting to express through my academic work.”  

After graduating, Juntunen said he intends to pursue a master’s degree with CUNY.  

Anton Ruesing:  

Anton Ruesing

Anton Ruesing, from Frederick, MD, is pursuing a master’s degree in work and labor policy. He previously graduated with a bachelor’s degree in labor studies from Empire State University in 2021. Currently, he serves as the executive director of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) Finishing Trades Institute and Labor Management Fund, overseeing workforce training and development programs across the world. Additionally, he holds a myriad of certifications within the industrial coatings industry and then assisted in developing other training and certification curricula within the field.  

“I'm in a pretty influential spot,” Reusing said. “I did the work on a regular basis, but I didn't use my position to its full potential. SUNY has given me the opportunity to do that by becoming more educated and understanding our history a little bit better – the history of the labor movement and where we came from.”  

Ruesing has extensive leadership experience in his field, working as a foreman, education coordinator, and training director over the course of nearly three decades. Under his direction, he’s helped the IUPAT obtain several significant accolades and secured funding for the International Finishing Trades Institute through the Department of Labor and a $50 million job corps contract. Through his roles, he also works to enhance diversity efforts and dismantle barriers for apprentices. His efforts have led to a notable increase in diversity among apprentices within IUPAT.  

“I don't need to see my name written in the stars or anything like that,” Reusing said. “To be awarded something like this is amazing to me because I do a lot of work without really thinking about where it's going to lead, other than trying to make things better.” 

In addition to his leadership experience, Ruesing is a father, a United States Marine Corp. veteran, and an avid volunteer for organizations like Sleep in Heavenly Peace and Wreaths Across America.  

Awards Ceremony: 

The awards ceremony for Chancellor’s Award recipients will be held April 11 at the Albany Capital Center in Albany, N.Y. More information about the award, upcoming ceremony, and other winners can be found on SUNY’s website


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