On Dec. 18, 2018, just before she was about to walk across the stage during fall commencement, Lander University senior Michaela Smith heard her name being called from the graduation podium far ahead of when she expected.
In the blur of the moment, Smith realized she had just won something called the Thayer Award - the university's highest academic honor, reserved for the graduating senior with the highest cumulative GPA of the class.
"I'm still not sure it really happened," Smith said, one day after graduation.
Dr. Judith Neufeld, dean of Lander's Department of Teacher Education, had told Smith ahead of time that she would likely be one of five finalists for the Thayer.
"And at the time, I didn't even know what that was," Smith said.
But even with the advance notice, she said the honor still felt like it "came from nowhere."
"I was absolutely surprised to hear my name announced for this," said Smith, a native of Ware Shoals, "but I am just as honored to receive this award. I am especially grateful for all of the people who pushed me to do my best when I felt like giving up."
Smith, who majored in elementary education, maintained a 4.0 GPA during the Fall 2018 semester - something she admitted was "no easy feat."
But Dr. Susan Fernandez, one of Smith's instructors, said that if she had her way, she would simply clone her star pupil and keep her in the classroom every year from now on.
"Michaela's work is superior, awesome and every other adjective I can think of," said Fernandez, the elementary education coordinator for Lander's Department of Teacher Education. "She was always the student-leader in classes and clinical experiences, and her future shines bright."
After savoring the honor over the Christmas holidays, Smith plans to use part of the Thayer award money to start a classroom library - and to get ready for her next step in South Carolina's Lowcountry.
"Currently, I am seeking employment as an elementary teacher in the Charleston area," she said. "Eventually, my goal is to go back to school to earn a master's degree in speech language pathology."