Each fall, thousands of University of North Texas students earn their degrees, walk the stage and become UNT alumni. Every one of them should be tremendously proud of everything they've accomplished in their time in Denton.
In celebration of our Fall 2018 graduates, below are the stories of a few of those freshly-minted alumni who overcame adversity and achieved great things on their way to becoming this semester's Great Grads.
UNT freshman. Dropout. Single mother. Survivor. Transfer student. First-generation college graduate. The road to commencement is never easy, but for Linda Farrell, the detours, pit stops and potholes along the way will make the final destination that much sweeter.
Farrell's journey started on the other side of the Pacific. Her father served in the U.S. Army, stationed on the 38th parallel - the border between North and South Korea - when he met Farrell's mother.
The couple had a son before Farrell's mother immigrated to the U.S. from Korea while they were expecting their second child. Two months after Farrell was born, her father passed away from a heart attack due to an enlarged heart, leaving Farrell and her brother to be raised by a single immigrant mother in a new country.
While raising her children in Keller, Farrell's mom provided cleaning services for a living and Farrell and her brother would often help clean buildings so their mother could take on more business.
After graduating from high school in 2005, Farrell decided to enroll as a freshman at UNT, but she worried that her academic commitment would make it difficult for her to continue helping her mother maintain her workload. Farrell's concerns were compounded exponentially when her brother went to prison that year.
It all became too much for Farrell to handle on her own, so she dropped out. Over the next seven years Farrell met someone, fell in love and had two daughters, but before long the relationship turned toxic and abusive. With the support of friends and family, Farrell was able to end the relationship and decided it was time to finish her degree so she could set a positive example for her girls.
“I know it sounds so cliché, but I wanted to show my daughters that they could do it without any man supporting them,” says Farrell. “I just wanted to show them that they could make it in life.”
Farrell earned her associate's degree from Tarrant County College while she was living in a women's shelter before transferring back to UNT in 2015, but she says she still wasn't in the right mindset to complete her degree until the support of one of her professors helped get her on the right track.
“Dr. Nicole Smith actually helped me a lot with coping with coming back to UNT,” says Farrell. “When I transferred I was also coping with trying to transition from being a victim to being a survivor, then my mom was diagnosed with stage three cancer and I was like, ‘Maybe this just is not in the cards for me.'
“But she believed in me when I didn't believe in myself and that helped me get through college. There were times when I couldn't afford a babysitter and she let me bring my kids to class. She just left an indelible mark on my life.”
With the support of Dr. Smith and other UNT resources like the Writing Center, Counseling Services and Survivor Advocates, Farrell will graduate in December with a major in English and a minor in psychology and as a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society for finishing in the top 10% of her class.
Farrell's mother is now cancer-free and will be sitting with her two granddaughters in the UNT Coliseum when Farrell walks across the stage in her cap and gown this December. But that won't be the last stop in Farrell's academic career - she's in the process of applying to a doctoral psychology program at Rutgers University. Farrell says she chose Rutgers because it's Dr. Smith's alma mater and she hopes to follow in her footsteps to become a professor who makes a difference in the lives of struggling students. But until then, she has advice for students who may be trying to work through some of the same struggles she faced.
“Don't be afraid to ask for help. I think a lot of us are so prideful and embarrassed, but there's nothing to be embarrassed about trauma, let's end the stigma,” says Farrell. “A lot of people don't realize when they go to a large university like UNT that there is help for survivors. I didn't do it by myself, there's no way I could have.”
Michelle Sánchez originally came to UNT to study Communication Design, but ended up switching majors due to the competitiveness of that program. Sánchez says life pushed her in another direction, and she'll graduate this December after just three years at UNT with a major in international studies with a concentration in diplomacy and security and a minor in Spanish.
After interning with Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar in the fall of 2017 through UNT's North Texas in D.C. Internship Program, Sánchez fell in love with the capital city's food, museums and the friends she made there. She says she hopes to land a job in D.C. working in public policy, politics or research.
“It's important that young people stay involved in the political conversation,” Sánchez says. “Lots of movements and waves of progression were started by, and flourished with, the participation of young people. There is change happening, and we should be a part of it.”
Sánchez, who also is an Honors College student, says her favorite classes at UNT covered topics like 20th century revolutions in Latin America, the Vietnam and Korean Wars, and the political weaponization of anti-Semitism.
“Classes like these are incredibly relevant in our current global climate and contribute to understanding the world around us,” Sánchez says. “As an international studies major, I knew it was vital that I take classes that would broaden my understandings of other cultures, traditions, histories and conflicts to stay informed and educated.”
Sánchez says her favorite thing about UNT is the feeling of community and how friendly and kind everybody on campus is, from holding open doors for each other to offering to help with assignments. She says the best advice she could offer to new students (besides going to class) is to immerse themselves in the UNT experience.
“Get out of your comfort zone and participate in activities around campus, get involved,” she says. “Study abroad, take interesting classes and get the most experience you can.”
Pedro Galvan's love for UNT started before he even enrolled in his first class. He took a tour of the campus with his high school when he was 16 years old and says he immediately fell in love and felt right at home. That love has only grown since Galvan transferred to UNT, and it's on full display every time he puts on his uniform of eagle talons, green feathers and a massive beak.
Galvan says he never intended to become Scrappy, but one day a friend texted him that Student Activities was desperate for a fill-in so he agreed to help out. He had so much fun that he's been part of the Spirit Team ever since. He's also gotten involved on campus through Greek Life, serving as recruitment chair for Lambda Chi Alpha.
Galvan points to Dr. Ted Farris as one of his most influential professors after taking his Logistics and Supply Chain Management course. He says Farris' humor, humility and advice - “Don't follow the money, follow your passion and the money will come” - have left a big impact on him.
While the marketing major says he has too many happy memories in the Scrappy suit to pinpoint any one as his favorite, he's honored he got to be one of the few to get to serve as UNT's mascot.
After Galvan graduates in December, he'll be trading in his feathers for a different kind of uniform. In November, he was sworn in to the Marine Corps and he'll leave for recruit training in February. He says he plans to pursue a career in counterintelligence and serve a minimum of 20 years.
“UNT has taught me the base that the Corps will build off of; respect, honor and dedication are all things I learned here,” says Galvan.
But before he leaves to serve our country, he'll get one more opportunity to wear the Scrappy uniform - or at least part of it. The identity of who wears the suit is generally kept under wraps while the students are in school, but they're given the option to wear Scrappy's feet or hands to their commencement ceremony to finally unveil who's behind the mask.
Galvan says the choice was easy: “As cheesy as it sounds, those feet paved a way for me at UNT.”
Losing a loved one is never easy. Losing two in a span of five months while you're 500 miles away from home at grad school would seem unbearable. But Jessica Winne says the love, empathy and support of her UNT family helped her get through those trying times and make it to graduation this December.
After earning her bachelor's degree in behavior analysis at the University of Kansas, Winne decided to earn her master's. Two of her professors had former students who went on to become professors in UNT's behavior analysis program, and a couple of Winne's undergrad classmates were also enrolling in the program, so she moved away from her home state for the first time and enrolled at UNT.
Winne says that first year being away from her family was a little rough, but it wasn't long before she developed a second family in Denton. She worked in the Behavior Analysis Resource Center, got involved with the Behavior Analysis Student and Alumni Association and even served as president of the Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals for two years.
Winne, who hopes to work as a performance improvement consultant after graduation, credits her major professor, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, for supporting her throughout grad school with his mentorship, but says every professor she's had left a unique impression on her.
“Honestly, everyone in the department is so amazing,” says Winne. “I feel like every class has had a lasting impact on me. We have a really great community in the Behavior Analysis department. People show up for you and you show up for them.”
Winne's UNT community showed up for her when she needed it most last year. Her mother has COPD and had to be put into a medically-induced coma in March 2017, during which her grandmother passed away after a prolonged battle with dementia. After her mother came out of the coma, they held her grandmother's funeral, but tragedy struck again that August when Winne's father passed away from throat cancer.
Winne says she had to go back and forth from Denton to Kansas multiple times during that stretch, but her UNT family helped her get through it. Her boss and professors allowed her the flexibility she needed for traveling, and two of her friends from the program watched her pets while she was out of town and had meals prepared for her when she came back to Denton.
Winne says feeling that positivity from her UNT support system in times of grief was a reminder of something her grandmother taught her.
“My grandma always said it's better to laugh than cry,” says Winne. “I've kept that with me my whole life. Even though these sad things happen, I always try to dig deep and find the good and find a reason to laugh.”
After a year of research, Noel Jett had one last hurdle to tackle to get her Ph.D. — her dissertation defense.
She made her presentation and fielded questions from the committee. An hour later, her advisors said she had successfully defended her work.
"They greeted me with, 'You're Dr. Jett now,'" she says. "I expected to successfully pass through the dissertation as they don't let you go through all that work and invite your friends and family if they aren't sure you'll make it, but it was still really exciting and a giant relief. Earning my Ph.D. has been a goal of mine since I was 6, so it was just amazing to finally be there."
But this accomplishment is especially unique — Jett is 19 years old.
When the teen walks across the commencement stage Dec. 14 for her hooding ceremony, she will be the youngest-known student to earn a doctoral degree from the University of North Texas. And her studies in educational psychology have touched on a subject she knows well — gifted children.
"It's been an extremely rewarding and complex journey," Jett says.
She began her journey with a curious mind as a child.
Jett, who was reading chapter books while her kindergarten classmates were learning their letters, was home-schooled by her mother, Nancy Shastid. This allowed Jett to learn at her own pace and explore things she was passionate about. For example, at about age 8, Jett became especially curious about guinea pigs, so her parents made it part of her education, like they did for other topics she was interested in. Her mother assigned her a research paper about the animals, and her math tutor used guinea pigs in word problems.
"We took and continue to take learning seriously," Jett says. "That's not to say I was being forced to work excessively. We had high but reasonable standards, and I was met with lots of support and encouragement."
By age 8, Jett had surpassed her mother in high school-level algebra problems. At age 12, she attended a semester at the Texas Academy of Biomedical Sciences in the Fort Worth ISD, a program that prepares students with high school and college courses. She then attended Tarrant County College and eventually Texas A&M University, where she graduated at age 16 in 2015.
The next summer, Jett enrolled in UNT's graduate educational psychology program. She says she chose UNT not only for the caliber of the program, but because many of the faculty members have prominent roles in national and international research organizations and journals.
Mari Aguilar always knew she wanted to attend UNT. First as an undergrad, then as a graduate student, Mari participated in study abroad classes on crisis management in Nicaragua and Panama with Communication Studies. As Mari said, “ Those experiences changed my life.”
She learned the importance of effective communication during critical events and how it saves lives. That's when Mari knew she wanted to work in crisis management. “Had I not been able to pursue my dreams of an education and of earning an advanced degree, I may never have known my passion for crisis management,” she said.
Education has long been of the utmost importance to Mari's parents, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala and became American citizens to give their children a better life. “I want to thank them for that sacrifice. I can't imagine how hard it was to leave the country where they were born to pursue a dream, the American dream, for their family. If it wasn't for all of their sacrifices, if it wasn't for them overcoming the discrimination they had to face, and taking the jobs that no one wanted, my sister and I wouldn't be who we are today.”
Mari is grateful for the Guatemalan culture, grateful for being an American exposed to a melting pot of cultures and grateful for her time at UNT where she was enriched by a culture of inclusivity. “Everything I do academically and in life is for the love of my parents, my family and my son. My family is the heart and soul of my life and I am forever grateful for them,” Mari said.
Mari knows she will graduate with the tools needed to provide for her son, Nathan. “I will instill in him that he can also do anything he puts his mind to. Who knows? We may have a future Eagle in our midst.”
In many ways, Jordan James just wants to make his great-grandmother proud. 82-year-old Elios James passed away two years ago, but she and Jordan bonded over a love of the news.
“We would talk about everything from sports to trending topics in the news,” says Jordan, a Converged Broadcast major who hopes to go into sports reporting. “She actually died in the hospital watching the news and I thought it was symbolic of our relationship.”
When it came time for Jordan to pick a college, UNT was first on his list.
“I saw it as a path to success. UNT has a history of producing some of the top people in the industry,” says Jordan. “Plus, it was the right distance from home, at only 45 minutes up the road.”
Despite his love and respect for UNT, Jordan waited a year to apply.
“I felt like UNT was for the smart kids, and I was just average,” says Jordan, who is the first in his family to go to school. “It wasn't common for people in my family to go to college, so I went to a community college instead.”
It was at Eastfield College in Dallas that Jordan gained the experience and motivation needed to take the leap.
“You have to change your mentality when you transition out of high school,” says Jordan, explaining how his experience at Eastfield taught him dedication and hard work. “It lit a fire under me.”
Together, Jordan and his family, including the great-grandmother who helped raise him, figured out things like financial aid and how to pick a meal plan. Jordan used Elois as a source of inspiration.
“If she could overcome cancer, among other illnesses, I knew that I could conquer anything thrown my way,” Jordan says.
Once on the UNT campus, Jordan was determined. He began working with Athletics on the Mean Green Production, and he started volunteering at NTTV, the student-run television station, where he worked his way up to anchor. Jordan also started working for the NT Daily so he could sharpen his writing skills.
The day after his great-grandmother passed away unexpectedly of pneumonia, Jordan went into the TV station and decided to anchor that day's news.
“I know she would want me to continue to do this,” Jordan says. “Thinking about what my great-grandmother would say to me brings tears to my eyes. If she were here right now, I know she'd tell me how proud of me she was. Like all my family members, she's been in my corner since day one supporting me. Whether I need a hot meal, clothes, money or just a person to talk to, I knew I could always count on her. Lastly, she'd tell me that that she loved me. Mama Lois always said, ‘Life is too short for your family members not to know you love them.' While physically she may not be there on December 15th, I know she's looking down on me and smiling knowing that her grand baby graduated from college. I plan to honor her legacy by having my graduation gathering at her house.”
Jade Jackson's father always made her promise that she'd go to college, even before he fell ill.
This December, she'll be fulfilling that vow as she earns a bachelor's degree in Public Relations from the UNT Mayborn School of Journalism.
Jade's father, Willie Stevenson, passed away her sophomore year of college, but she knows he'd be proud of her accomplishments. Jade, a first-generation college student from Indianapolis, has made the most of her college career. She completed seven internships, including stints at WFAA and CBS11, and already has several job offers on the table. Along the way, she's joined numerous student groups, including NT Daily, Her Campus UNT, NABJ, Faith Filled Women of Christ and NTTV, where she found her passion for broadcast news. Most recently, she was awarded the UNT student award for “best journalist” from the Black Student Union, during its first Fall Ball.
Despite her achievements, things could have turned out differently.
A small twist of fate led Jade into her parents' home. Jade's birth mom was a young woman not ready to raise another child. Shirley Stevenson heard about the story from an older friend.
“Bring the baby over,” she said jokingly. “You know I love babies.”
A few weeks later, the young woman did just that. It was Thanksgiving day and the Jacksons were entertaining guests from church when the young woman dropped off her child. She never came back and later relinquished rights to her daughter.
Eventually, the couple adopted little Jade. Neither had graduated from college, but instilled the importance of a degree throughout Jade's life. Jade graduated early from high school and took a year off. She then attended Jarvis College, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) founded by a great-grandfather on her adoptive parents' side. Though Jade loved Jarvis, the school does not have a journalism program. Jade searched for a strong journalism school and chose to transfer to UNT. After graduation, Jade will start her career as a television reporter. She hopes to one day go back to Jarvis College to begin a journalism program.
For the past 12 years, David Strickland been on the move, traveling to areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Jerusalem to provide conflict-area support as a government contractor for U.S. organizations and agencies.
“I'm very, very good at packing and unpacking,” he says.
One of David ‘s longest journeys will come to an end Dec. 15, when he receives his Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree, with concentrations in Economics, Leadership Development and Information Technology. Seventeen years ago, as a senior at Baylor, David was only one semester shy of earning his business degree but left school after accepting a job in law enforcement. Though he found impressive success as a police officer — even making detective — and then as a contractor, the absence of a bachelor's degree tugged at him.
“It was unfinished business, and I don't like to stop until I finish — that's my mindset,” David says. “I just had to get it done.”
In 2009, David enrolled at UNT and began taking online courses toward his BAAS degree. Two years later, David was forced to take another break from his studies, as his overseas work made it impossible for him to take the on-campus classes he needed to complete his degree. But this May, on a whim, he jumped in his truck, drove to UNT, and walked into the office of Peggy Shadduck, the faculty director of New College.
“I said, ‘I need to finish — what do I need to do,'” David says.
The two worked out a plan, and David completed his final hours this semester. It hasn't been easy — he's had to keep up with papers and projects while traveling for his job, even during finals week. But the hard work has paid off, not only with a bachelor's degree, but also with acceptance to UNT's 11-month MBA cohort. David hopes the program will afford him the opportunity to transition into the corporate world and plant some roots.
“You know, if I could give advice to students, it would be to start and don't stop — just keep going, even if you only have time to take one class,” David says. “All I know is, this degree has been a long time coming.”
Corbin Deaton chose her major, Kinesiology and Allied Health, because of her love of tae kwon-do and teaching. Corbin plans to use her degree to help others improve themselves both physically and mentally through the practice of tae kwon-do.
Corbin is an honors student and a world-class athlete. This past summer, she won gold and two silver medals for Team U.S.A. in the Tae Kwon-Do International World Championships in Birmingham, England. Corbin's path to the medal stand was not an easy one. She has had bilateral ACL and meniscus reconstruction surgeries in the past 5 years. Her second ACL tear was only three months before her first international competition where she was still able to earn bronze and silver medals. Last year, Corbin won gold, silver and bronze medals at the International Goodwill Championships in Tampa, Florida.
Finding time to work to pay for college has been challenging, but Corbin found a way to incorporate her passion for sports and helping others into a way to pay for school. When she's not training, Corbin teaches tae kwon-do classes and shares her experience and inspiration with young athletes. In recognition of her academic and sports performance, Corbin was awarded the first Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation Elite Athlete Performance Award at UNT. This award helps support elite international level athletes as they compete for the U.S.A. and complete UNT degrees.
Now, the 23-year-old is ready for the challenge of starting her own business. Corbin looks forward to mentoring athletes, using her own experiences of overcoming obstacles to achieve success.