Each fall, thousands of University of North Texas students earn their degrees 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 2022 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.
Growing up in Stephenville, Dillon Shumaker was fascinated by his grandfather's native language.
“My grandparents both grew up in the southern part of Louisiana speaking Cajun French,” he says. “My grandpa didn't speak English until he was in elementary school. The idea of having a second language was always really interesting to me."
As soon as he could, Dillon began learning a second language. “I started out wanting to learn French, but when I got to high school there was only Spanish,” he says. “I was like, ‘well, that's close enough!'”
Dillon quickly developed a love not just for Spanish but for language; a love that led him to the field of Linguistics and eventually to UNT.
He added a minor in Japanese and joined the Honors College, where he found guidance and support from his faculty mentor Katie Crowder, a principal lecturer in Linguistics and ESL (English as a second language).
The first class he took with her was “The Language of Now,” which explores how language is changing because of technology and social media. “Working with her has been a great experience,” Dillon says. “She's understanding but also really encouraging at the same time.”
Crowder's mentorship was pivotal to his Honors College senior thesis, which explored English as a lingua franca — or bridge language — with a specific emphasis on pronunciation models.
“English as a lingua franca is the idea of teaching English specifically for its use as a bridge language between people who don't speak the same language,” he says. “It doesn't matter if you sound like a native speaker or if you make some mistakes along the way — what's really important is that you can understand each other.”
The most famous pronunciation model for teaching English as a lingua franca involves identifying sounds that are critical to understanding and sounds that aren't. “Basically, it means that as a teacher, there are certain things you should correct, and things that it's OK to not correct. While it's not exactly a controversial method, there are a lot of people who don't like it.”
Dillon surveyed faculty in Intensive English Programs across the country — including UNT's own Intensive English Language Institute — to investigate their attitudes surrounding this approach to teaching pronunciation.
“The biggest thing I'm looking at is the difference in perspectives between native English speakers and non-native speakers, and whether that difference has something to do with how they would want to implement these methods in their own classrooms.” Getting into the classroom and building his own teaching philosophy is at the top of Dillon's post-graduation to-do list.
Last year, he earned a Cambridge Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA), and he recently submitted his application to the highly competitive Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Although he won't know whether he's been accepted until Spring 2023, Dillon does know that he'll spend the next few years traveling and teaching English as a second language, followed by graduate studies in applied linguistics. He also plans to pursue a career in curriculum design or program administration with an emphasis on second-language acquisition.
“Learning a second language has so many benefits,” Dillon says. “Obviously, there are the practical benefits of being able to talk to a whole new population of people, but it also exposes you to more cultures. There have even been some studies that suggest being bilingual increases your cognitive ability.”
Reflecting on his experience at UNT, Dillon urges new students to get involved in the university's vibrant campus life. “UNT has a really unique atmosphere,” he says. “Just get out there and enjoy it. Everyone kind of has their own thing that they do, their own story, but we still come together as a community. I met one of my good friends waiting in line for Waffle Wednesdays as a freshman living in Rawlins Hall. Don't be afraid to go to events and try new things.”
Information Science with a concentration in Data Science
When resilience meets a Blessing.
Staying ahead of the curve has always been one of Blessing's greatest traits — she was in the top 7% of her senior class at Mesquite High School, scored 1320 on her SAT and received 25 scholarship awards from schools she applied to.
“I worked really hard in high school,” Blessing says. “Maintaining good grades was a priority.”
After graduating from high school, Blessing was determined to discover her identity and develop who she would become. She was ready to set sail for Howard University to pursue a degree in Psychology to understand the behavioral side of people's decisions.
Blessing was unable to attend Howard University — she didn't receive enough financial aid for the annual tuition. After realizing the other schools she'd been accepted to weren't a great fit, she submitted her application to UNT just before the application deadline.
At UNT, Blessing began her academic career as a Computer Science major. She quickly realized coding was not her niche, so she switched to Information Technology with a concentration in Data Science. When she ran into the same problem while coding, she made a final switch to Information Science with a concentration in Data Science.
“Information Science was the program I actually wanted to join at UNT since the technology industry was on the rise,” says Blessings.
Blessing has always had a passion for children and ensuring success for all learning types in the classroom.
“My dream is to help children with their mental health and those who are neurodivergent,” she says. “I want them to understand being different doesn't mean something is wrong.”
Blessing plans to combine her knowledge of Data Science and her love for Psychology to develop a program structure for classrooms that ensures all students are taught in the best way according to their learning style.
“Most people don't realize that Data Science has a lot to do with Behavioral Science,” Blessing says. “You have to understand the way people think and how numbers are reflective of people and their habits.”
Between balancing 18-hour course loads, meeting her academic goals and maintaining an active social life, Blessing's health began to take the back seat. As post-pandemic life began to return some normalcy, she, like many others, was mentally exhausted. In February 2022, Blessing was rushed to the emergency room and was diagnosed with esophagitis.
“I've always felt a random aching on the side of my abdomen,” she says. “I don't have a car so I ignored the pain for a long time.”
Facing uncertainty with her health and believing she wasn't going to recover, Blessing says that it was her faith, support and accommodations from her professors and the College of Information's assistant director of Marketing and Outreach, Lisa Hollinger, all of which helped her get through a challenging, dark time in her life.
“If it wasn't for God, I don't think I would have had the courage to come back to school with joy and move on with my life,” Blessing says. “My professors were so understanding and supportive. They understood that I was more than a student — I was a person.”
As Blessing prepares for commencement, she encourages students to make their mental and physical health a priority.
“Your environment and what you say to yourself are so important,” she says. “You will thank yourself in the future if you remain consistent with who you are and who you are becoming.”
Jenna Conan Simpson
Doctorate in Learning Technologies
As a lifelong learner, Jenna enjoys school and loves learning new things and is no stranger to scholarly excellence or managing multiple responsibilities. She is earning a Doctorate in Learning Technologies and will finish with a 4.0 GPA. She received two merit scholarships from UNT's College of Information while in the program, facilitated over 20 presentations at conferences — including the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) — and published six articles and chapters in journals and eBooks in the past two and a half years.
The Portland, Oregon, native first decided she wanted to get a Ph.D. during her master's degree commencement. And since she already worked in education, she felt a Ph.D. would enable her to take her career to the next level. As she listened to the doctoral candidates discussing their research prior to the ceremony, she knew it was a high honor she wanted. Before the start of her final semester, Jenna welcomed her daughter Sophie into the world and learned the value of time management, balance and the importance of having a support system as she began commuting to campus with the baby. Sophie started refusing a bottle, so Jenna brought the baby along to nurse her, it was certainly a challenge, but Jenna made it work.
She was a new mom and working reduced hours while continuing the rest of her courses, so Jenna had to shift her childcare plans to be able to attend classes to ensure Sophie was able to eat. Jenna's husband and sometimes her mom made the hour-plus drive to Denton from Fort Worth to entertain the baby during Jenna's three-hour class. As the rigors of Jenna's course began to pick up, Jenna leaned on her support system even more.
“I wouldn't say I considered giving up, but I did think about postponing my courses to a later time. I persevered partly for my career and partly for my daughter” Jenna says. Even though her baby will not remember this experience, Jenna hopes to share about persevering in pursuit of a dream.
She is currently the Director of Instructional Technology at All Saints Episcopal School, the largest private school in Fort Worth. She is also excited to work with ISTE and the United States Department of Education on research for their Digital Equity and Transformation pledge. Her goal is to help prepare pre-service teachers to use classroom technology, which was the topic of her dissertation. In the future, her dream is to consult Colleges of Education about improving their pre-service teacher preparation to teach with technology and to pursue ongoing learning.
“My Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from UNT, dissertation research and the opportunities that have developed through my program and research have set me up well to realistically achieve this goal in the future!"
Receiving a college education and a full-time job offer before she graduates was not something Rocio Ramirez thought was in the cards for her growing up. Despite facing several challenges — including raising a family — her education and involvement at UNT led her to a better path.
Rocio lived in a very poor neighborhood in Dallas, where the sound of gunshots during a family soccer game was normal.
“It was just how we lived,” she says. “We didn't know we were living in such a bad situation until we got out of it.”
After her father moved the family into a safer environment, she realized that she wanted to pave her own path in this world, but knew it was not going to be as easy as it sounded.
Several years of hardships led to her becoming a statistic at the age of sixteen. Rocio was pregnant with her first child.
Being a young mom led to a young marriage that included years of domestic abuse and eventually a divorce. Her mental health was at an all-time low because she was so young and didn't know what to do and it was affecting her new role as a mother.
“It felt like I was at rock bottom.”
Eventually, Rocio realized that to keep going she had to take responsibility for her actions and the decisions she made in her life - so she decided to make a change. It wasn't an easy one, but it was one she had to make.
In Fall 2020, Rocio enrolled in UNT. She didn't really know what she was getting herself into because none of her family members have ever attended college. Out of all seven of her siblings, she will be the first one in her family to graduate with a college degree.
Growing up, her family did not prioritize education. She was told that it's not something you should aspire to have and for years she believed it and almost quit attending classes because of it. But Rocio knew that her pursuit of an education wasn't to prove anything to anyone, it was something she was doing for herself and for her family.
UNT was the perfect place for Rocio to shine as her own person. She was ecstatic when she found out UNT is a Hispanic Serving Institution because she is passionate about passing on generational wealth and knowledge to Latino communities.
Her desire stems from not growing up with it herself, and now she is able to put her ideas into action through the student organization, ALPFA, the Association of Latino Professionals for America, which has been one of the turning points in Rocio's college career. The organization focuses on self-development, professional development, mentorship, finding your place in the world and helping other people make the world a better place so generations after can thrive in it.
Her main goal at ALPFA is to influence those in the organization to be kind to others and embrace cultural diversity - she believes doing this will create a ripple effect to impact individuals outside of the organization as well.
Rocio even brings her kids to her ALPFA meetings because she knows this is the type of community she wants for them. She wants her children to be surrounded by generations of career-driven and goal-oriented Latinos who can help them move up in the world and be better for themselves and their future families.
Rocio recently attended an ALPFA convention in Orlando, Florida, where she notes, “I had never been somewhere on the planet where I felt more at home.” Not only did this convention allow her to network and meet new people in the accounting industry, but she accepted a full-time job offer at an accounting firm while attending the event.
The firm she will be working for represents groups like ALPFA, and she is excited to have the opportunity to keep building that type of generational wealth post-graduation.
With December approaching, she hopes her children will see what an education has meant to her and that all the time spent studying and working fulltime was well worth it.
“Do it all,” she says. “You're not going to get the chance later … jump into every opportunity you get because it's always a better opportunity now than it will be 10 years from now.”
Geography and Ecology
Double majoring in Geography and Ecology was never something Cody Kimpton had in mind for himself until UNT hosted a climate march on campus.
In 2019, the Student Government Association hosted a climate march, which Cody attended, with the intention of bringing awareness to the impacts of climate change and showing people how to stop its effects. The march and his love for the environment solidified his motivations of wanting to make a real change in the world.
He became a member and the committee chair for the We Mean Green Fund - a student-funded resource created to support environmental sustainability projects developed and led by students, staff and faculty. Since Fall 2020, he has helped the committee fund $200,000 toward environmental projects across UNT's campus and its surrounding community. Some of these projects include the maintenance of the UNT community garden, restoration of UNT's Pecan Creek Pollinative Prairie at Discovery Park and even an environmental justice musical.
Cody began his college career as a Biology major, but switched to Geography and Ecology when his interests shifted more toward researching the well-being of plants and trees, as well as the impact of climate change on future generations.
For the past year, his research focused on how COVID-19 affected visitation at national parks, as well as studying how much pollution is on campus by examining leaves from campus trees.
Recently, Cody and other members of the We Mean Green Fund were asked by the Texas Trees Foundation to visit a Dallas elementary school to conduct research on environmental tree pollution, its proximity to children and any related effects.
“I enjoy being able to know I am doing something to help the community and the Earth in general,” Cody says.
As the committee chair of the We Mean Green Fund, Cody has had the opportunity to grow as a leader, person, researcher and scientist. Being a part of this committee has allowed him to realize what he wants to continue doing with his life.
“I want to be a person who can educate people and still continue to learn throughout my life,” Cody says.
After graduation, he plans to establish himself in a career that concentrates mostly in education but in a non-traditional way. Instead of teaching in a classroom, he wants to become an interpretive forest ranger or a museum technician - jobs that allow him to teach people about the Earth while having the opportunity to work with educational programs.
“Put yourself out there and try new and different things,” Cody says. “Get involved and don't worry about what other people think of you.”
Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling
Victoria Middleton uses one word to describe her journey at UNT—perseverance.
Victoria has always had a heart for accessibility and equity, especially providing access to information and resources to others. She first recognized her passion when she joined the newspaper club in middle school and high school in Poteau, Oklahoma. Victoria's love for helping others persisted as she overcame her own hearing loss — she found a new career working with people with disabilities. After graduating from high school, Victoria worked at her hometown daily newspaper to report on municipal updates.
Victoria attended her local community college, Carl Albert State College, in Poteau, Oklahoma, and then on to Southern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Oklahoma to earn her associate's and bachelor's degrees in Journalism. She then got married and worked as a news reporter and became managing editor for almost 20 years, but due to life circumstances, Victoria decided to try something different — Marketing. While learning the ins and outs of the fast-paced industry, Victoria was not a good fit for the position.
“That was really devastating,” she says. “I am thankful for that experience because I have clients who have been let go and unemployed so I can easily relate to them.”
Believing there is always a silver lining, Victoria went to the unemployment office where she met her caseworker, Elvis, who encouraged her to apply to the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services (OKDRS) as a client. She shared with him that she had hearing loss. He told her the agency welcomed and strongly encouraged all persons with disabilities to apply.
She worked with an OKDRS job coach to find work and ended up taking a temporary position with the state agency. She then received a call that there was an opening to return to the news industry making more money where she would work for the next three years.
Then tragedy struck. Just one day before Victoria and her husband were to celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary, her mother passed away after a long illness.
“While preparing for the funeral, I got a voicemail but didn't have time to listen to it,” Victoria says. “It was the OKDRS office where I worked that there was a position opening up. I truly believed it was my mom's spirit because it was literally the next day.”
Accepting the position as a Rehabilitation Technician (counselor's assistant), Victoria felt that she was really making a difference and having an impact on her clients. She wanted a deeper relationship and involvement with her clients, so she applied for the Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling program at UNT in the Spring of 2020.
“Many people in my agency attended UNT so I knew it was a quality program and they had the RSA Scholarship,” she says. “As a mom of two, working fulltime and living in Oklahoma, I needed something online.”
Victoria started courses in the summer of 2020. After starting in the middle of the pandemic, she recalls the challenges she faced during that time and the past 2.5 years.
“While my oldest was doing virtual learning, I was responsible for keeping her on top of her assignments,” she says. “While balancing teleworking, my assignments and later health issues between my oldest and my father, it been very challenging.”
Victoria says that if she had to go through the process all over again, she would. She thanks her professors, Linda Holloway, Bradley McDaniels and Denise Catalano for being supportive and understanding of her personal circumstances while managing coursework.
“I'm really sad it's coming to an end because I am so thankful for all the people I've met,” Victoria says. “I mean, I haven't actually met them in person, but I am so excited to meet them next month when I cross the stage at commencement.”
Doctorate in Art Education
On June 28, 2005, the Dallas Fire Department responded to a six-alarm fire at the Museum of Biblical Art, a non-profit, non-denominational organization home to works of art inspired by the Bible. Despite best efforts, the fire destroyed thousands of art objects and left lasting scars on the surviving art along with those who cared for it, including Museum Curator Scott Peck.
“When you go through an event like that in a museum, there's trauma — in the art objects as well as the building and the people. But on the positive side is the healing,” Scott says.
For Scott, who still serves as Curator and Art Conservator for the museum, that healing began in earnest when he started his Ph.D. in Art Education at UNT in 2012.
Originally from Park Ridge, Illinois, Scott fell into the museum world through his work creating films for various organizations. A colleague introduced him to the family who founded the museum and he began his work there, reigniting a passion sparked by childhood visits to museums with his parents.
Throughout his 25-year career, Scott has cared for thousands of museum objects, curated more than 200 art exhibitions and worked with educational programs in museums dedicated to subjects ranging from trains and planes to science, the military and historic homes. “You know how some people just have a certain calling?” he says. “My calling is to work with museums.”
The fire changed everything. Experiencing loss at such a devastating and personal level got him thinking about art's intrinsic value — its life — and humanity's responsibility to preserve it.
“We're in a dire situation,” he says. “Statistics show that 50% of all artwork in the public trust is in need of some kind of conservation. Seventy percent of staff at museums need more conservation training, and there are no art conservation programs in the state of Texas. We are in desperate need of new approaches and ideas to better care for our artwork that is literally dying.”
Driven by what he saw as a potentially disastrous blind spot, Scott enrolled in the College of Visual Arts and Design's Ph.D. in Art Education, the only program of its kind in Texas.
Through his research, Scott explored how the principles and theories of Art Conservation can be extended to global issues like worldwide pandemics, species extinction, climate change and collapsing ecosystems. “We are literally entangled — human and nonhuman — at the atomic and subatomic levels,” he says. “When we care for ourselves, we care for the other. My research rethinks art conservation and art education curriculum toward a more caring, ethical and sustainable future for both human and nonhuman coexistence on this planet.”
Encouraged by his Faculty Mentor Nadine Kalin, professor of Art Education, Scott made his research part of his own healing process. “Dr. Kalin has been fantastic,” he says. “She helped to provoke and inspire me to go deeper. Things I couldn't put into words she would push me to go research, find journal articles to try to capture what was going on in my head and my body. I could not have reached the depth of my research without her.”
He also found a support system in Denise Amy Baxter, professor of Art History, and Kelly Donahue-Wallace, who served as chair of the Art History department in 2017. As a Doctoral Fellow from 2017 to 2019, Scott taught UNT's first classes in the field of Art Conservation and the History of Jewish Art. He continues to serve on the Jewish Studies Advisory Board in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.
With his Ph.D. in hand, Scott is eager to enact real change in the fields of Art Education and Art Conservation. “The ultimate dream is to establish some certificate programs throughout universities and colleges and then hopefully, eventually, an undergraduate and graduate degree.”
In the 17 years since the fire, Scott has learned that healing, much like restoring a delicate work of art, can be painstaking — but there is beauty in the process.
“Conservation is like a clinic or a hospital for art objects,” he says. “We're bringing them back to full life. The cleaning itself is ritualistic, almost like a mantra or rosary beads — like a meditation or a prayer for healing. That's kind of the core of all this: turning pain into something positive.”
Those are words Jake Harris lives by. After putting his education on hold to serve three years in the Army - including a 12-month deployment in Iraq - followed by a yearslong battle with PTSD, Jake returned to UNT in 2020 and will graduate this fall with a bachelor's in Data Science. It's been a 16-year journey that's taught him the value of perseverance and overcoming adversity, because even in his darkest moments, Jake never quit.
A Denton native, Jake considered enlisting straight out of high school, but ultimately enrolled at UNT in 2006 as a Business Studies major. Over the next two years he changed his major to Political Science, but something wasn't clicking.
“I didn't have any direction,” Jake says. “I started working overnights, then my grades started slipping. Then I started neglecting work and classes. A good friend of mine from high school was joining the military at the time, so I decided it was the right change for me.”
Jake left for basic training in July of 2008, and one year later he was deployed to Iraq as a Field Artillery Tactical Data Systems Specialist and lead driver of his Lieutenant Colonel's security convoy. His unit spent a month in Kuwait before serving the remaining 11 months at various bases throughout the Diyala Province of eastern Iraq.
While serving in Iraq, Jake's unit took a lot of indirect fire, including rocket and mortar attacks. One of his “battle buddies” in his artillery battalion was in a convoy that was hit by an EFP (explosively formed penetrator).
“Both he and an Iraqi interpreter working with the U.S. Army were killed in the attack,” Jake says. “That was especially difficult for everybody in our unit because we were essentially there to wind down operations, so the sudden loss of life when we were so close to going home was felt throughout their entire brigade.”
Jake returned to the states in July of 2010 with his term of service set to end in November of 2011. The brigade began preparing for another deployment at the beginning of 2011. Unsure when that might occur, Jake kept training with the new soldiers who had arrived at their unit. Jake reached the end of his enlistment obligation before the deployment and left the Army.
Jake spent the next several years struggling to re-integrate into civilian life because he thought he had to work through his issues by himself and make his own way in the world, even refusing to file a disability claim or take advantage of the G.I. Bill benefits he had earned.
“I didn't want anyone's help. I didn't want anything from anyone,” he says. “I spent years after getting out of the service refusing discounts and free meals. I'd laugh at other vets - my friend included - for getting ‘freebies' and ‘handouts.'”
As he strained to find his way, Jake's penchant for service led him to federal civilian government jobs with the TSA and Citizenship and Immigration Services. Even after finding a job that gave him a renewed sense of purpose and rebuilding his social life, something still didn't quite feel right.
“I'm a strong extrovert by nature,” Jake says. “So I'd go out with coworkers, drink, socialize and have a good time, but it all felt hollow somehow. Like I was just existing, not living. I was still angry. It was almost like I knew I should be doing something different, so I'd get angry all the time at my own laziness and general apathy.”
But Jake was finally shaken out of that apathy when the entire world changed in the spring of 2020.
“The pandemic was actually the final catalyst in getting me to return to UNT,” he says. “When the lockdowns began, I took it as a sign and began initiating my resignation paperwork, while simultaneously beginning my re-enrollment at UNT. We were fully remote for the rest of 2020, so that allowed me to start during the summer and take classes online.”
Jake took another big step that summer with encouragement from his girlfriend and family, filing a VA claim nearly nine years after he had first become eligible.
“I still almost didn't put PTSD as one of the things I wanted to be evaluated for,” Jake recalls. “I guess I was in denial, but my girlfriend - having been around for my less-than-stellar moments - was the voice of reason.”
The VA evaluation verified Jake was eligible for benefits regarding a few leg issues, ears and hearing loss and PTSD. Although he initially had trouble accepting the diagnosis, he now knows it's just the beginning of his road to recovery.
“I never felt like I ‘went through enough' to be considered disabled,” he says. “I watched battle buddies break bones, break backs, get TBIs (traumatic brain injury), I know guys who have seen some absolutely horrendous things. Their problems felt like real disabilities.
“I felt like asking for help was taking resources away from them or cheapening what they had gone through. Even knowing it now, it isn't easy. Knowing hasn't made it any harder, but actually finding ways to try to heal is difficult.”
Since then, Jake has worked to finish his degree in Data Science, including an internship with Ericsson working in Project Management, U.S. Government account acquisition and data organization. That internship will be extended through the spring of 2023 as Jake works toward his Master's in Data Engineering at UNT.
True to his heart for service, Jake and his girlfriend have also spent that time fostering more than 20 shelter dogs and helping them find forever homes, half of which would have otherwise been euthanized.
He says he'd like to make an even bigger impact after graduation, with thoughts of designing a system that would allow animal shelters to work together more efficiently to transfer animals from overcrowded shelters to ones with more room to spare in order to prevent further unnecessary euthanasia. A system he thinks could similarly be used by government and law enforcement agencies to help locate missing and exploited children.
It's that same service mentality that convinced Jake to participate in this very Great Grads series, despite his initial hesitancy, in hopes of helping people who might be going through situations similar to his.
“It's not easy stuff to talk about,” Jake says. “But if it helps one person get through one day, it's worth it.
“The hardest times with PTSD are when you're left with your own thoughts and you have to prevent yourself from spiraling. The best coping mechanism is to never go silent. Don't face your demons alone. Surround yourself with people you know, trust and can be yourself with. Every day is a battle, but you just have to keep fighting.”
In other words: Never quit.
Psychology and Management
Not everyone has a second chance at life following a cancer diagnosis. Jill Hackett's fierce determination to succeed was the drive needed to balance her studies, care for her four beautiful daughters and beat cancer twice.
Before the Gueydan, Louisiana-native arrived at UNT, Jill knew she would pursue a college degree; it has always been her lifelong dream. She knew well the values of hard work growing up in a rural farming community in America's duck capital! She initially enrolled at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana following her high school graduation in 1995. “I wasn't too mature the first time around, so I kind of blew it off and decided to start a family and go to work.”
Devoting years to being a caring mother, Jill remembered her personal promise to return to school and earn her bachelor's degree. During her hiatus, she made a game plan to first take classes at a community college to determine if she could handle the rigors before attending a university. She started at SOWELA Technical Community College in Lake Charles, Louisiana in the spring of 2019. Jill then found her new home in Texas and transferred to Tarrant County College and attended from the summer of 2019 to the summer of 2020 and she finally landed at UNT in the fall of 2020 eager to earn her bachelors.
Jill was nervous at first, but she fought through the imposter phenomenon. “You just keep taking classes and putting one foot in front of the other and eventually you will see how far you've come!” She found her place in the Department of Psychology and believes it's never too late for a second chance to pursue your dreams. “I wanted to set an example and be a good role model for my daughters,” she says. Jill made it to her final two semesters of classes and was met with a life-changing obstacle in the spring of 2021 when she went to the doctor for a routine procedure and was diagnosed with stage 3 rectal cancer.
“That was a tough semester for me,” she says. “I don't know how I got through it, but I did.” The initial diagnosis was devastating, but Jill still managed to balance classes along with her multiple surgeries and medical appointments. She tried to keep up with her coursework but had to move to Houston for five months to complete daily chemotherapy. The physical side effects of chemo and radiation continuously placed her in the hospital, but finally, she was cancer-free!
On the third day of the Fall 2022 semester, Jill's final semester, she went into recurrence and immediately went into surgery three weeks later, marking the beginning of her second battle with cancer. Although she's sometimes physically exhausted and still struggles with residual mental health side effects, she developed an unwavering resilience. "Now that surgeries and doctor visits have somewhat settled, the depression is starting to come back, but it's commencement that gives me hope and I will NOT give up.”
Jill credits her success at UNT to several affinity groups such as the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) and the Psychology Student Association bringing her education full circle and making it “feel more real.” Additionally, Department of Management Lecturer Mariya Aguilar and Department of Psychology Lecturers Calvin Sims and Terry Davis, were instrumental to helping her realize her full potential and being accommodating.
Fueled by her faith, fiancé and family, Jill plans to pursue a master's and an eventual Ph.D. “I worked for this degree!” she says. She does not doubt in her mind that she will continue to be successful if she continues to work hard.
International Studies with a concentration in Human Security and Development
You might think childhood in war-torn El Salvador was the greatest challenge of Yesenia Watters' life. But she says, that while experiencing war as a little girl was harrowing and she's grateful she escaped with her life, the thing that almost crushed her was losing the ability to hear as a teen, because it threatened something equally precious - her dreams of getting an education.
Born in San Miguel, El Salvador, Watters was only 6 when the Salvadoran Civil War began in 1979, leading to a war that raged for 12 years.
“I saw things a young girl shouldn't see,” Yesenia says. “It is traumatic to see dead people on the streets, to be in constant danger of getting killed, and to hide, not knowing if you would live or die. One moment I would be playing, and the next I would be running from bullets. I often think of the children living in war-torn countries. All wars are similar -- the consequences and traumatic experiences it creates are unforgettable to all.”
When she was 8 years old, Yesenia's mother made the gut-wrenching decision to leave her three children in El Salvador with her family and emigrate to the U.S. in search of stable work.
“She did not finish high school, so it was very difficult for her to find employment,” she explains. “Her experience is what propelled me to chase my dream of obtaining higher education. “I remember telling her I didn't care why she had to go, I wanted her to stay,” Yesenia says. “But she needed to provide for us. I remember, the day she left I was playing with the kitchen set I'd been given for Three Kings' Day. My mother thought if I was playing, I wouldn't notice her leaving, but I remember everything.”
It was while living through the war that Yesenia began losing her hearing.
“I lost hearing in my left ear due to the bombardment and the battles,” she explains. “But I could still hear with my right ear.”
When she was 15 the guerillas in El Salvador were capturing young girls and forcing them to fight, so her mother brought Yesenia to the U.S.
“It was heaven to be close to my mother again,” she says. “Maturity gives us the ability to understand why adults do what they have to do, and I understood that she left to provide for us.”
For two years, Yesenia learned how to be a teen-ager in the U.S. She was mastering English and doing well in school. But life threw her another devastating blow when she contracted a severe ear infection, progressively robbing her of her remaining hearing. By the summer before her senior year, she was profoundly deaf.
“I was devastated and I thought that my dreams of getting an education were over,” Yesenia says.
Just as she was working to master one new language, she had to learn a whole new way to communicate. She was the only deaf student in her school, which struggled to help her. After graduating from high school, she was accepted to the Texas School for the Deaf (TSD) Transitional Program in Austin.
“I had no idea that a deaf world existed!” she says. “At TSD, I became alive, bloomed and began to dream again,” Yesenia recalls.
Today Yesenia lives in Fort Worth with her two children and her husband. Though she has overcome much, deafness is still a struggle for her.
“Being in social groups continues to be a challenge,” she says. “I got a cochlear implant in 1998, and while it helps a lot, I'm still deaf.”
But she is elated, seeing the dreams she thought were once doomed, coming true.
“My most immediate dream is to successfully complete my political science degree,” she says.
She will earn a degree in International Studies this fall, then she intends to return to earn a master's degree in Applied Political Science. Her ultimate goal is to be an ambassador and advocate for children, girls, and women's rights on a national and international level. She's also written a children's book she hopes to publish soon, about a mother with a cochlear implant and deafness.
She chose to study at UNT because its International Studies program offered courses that piqued her interest and was within driving distance of her home. She's grateful for her UNT experience and the caring assistance she found here.
“All the professors I had are passionate about teaching, are brilliant in the subjects they teach, and most importantly, they care about their students' success,” she says. “They are focused on making sure we are learning, that we are understanding the material, and that we apply critical thinking to the issues we are studying.”
She says without UNT's Office of Disability Access (ODA) providing sign language interpreters, she would not have been able to pursue her degree.
“In El Salvador deaf students do not have this kind of support,” she says. “They have to pay out of pocket for interpreters, so many deaf students don't enroll in higher education.”
Though her educational journey had many obstacles that knocked her down, every time Yesenia got up and continued going.
“Living through a civil war taught me to appreciate life, and to fight for what I wanted to accomplish,” she says. “I survived the war, now it is my opportunity to keep living, and to live well. I am grateful for the opportunity to acquire an education, and for all the sacrifices that my mother made so I could have a better life. And I am thankful for the opportunity to give back on a local and international level.”
Johnathan De La Cruz
Johnathan De La Cruz is a force to be reckoned with.
The Fall 2023 graduate is a Fashion Design major with three minors: Photography, Merchandising and Sculpture. The senior also manages two jobs along with all his schoolwork.
“I've always been a passionate person,” he says. “So, when I started college, I wanted to explore everything and that's how I ended up adding a minor each year for my first few years in college.”
As a fashion designer, Johnathan's work focuses on sustainable designs inspired by the alarming rise in pollution caused by the fashion industry and a lack of biodegradable material being used.
“I've always used nature as my muse. But when I started college, I began questioning what I was giving back to the environment,” Johnathan says. “I was taking a lot, but what was I doing for the environment in return?”
Johnathan started incorporating more nature-friendly components to his designs like using decomposable fabric and natural dyes that eventually go back to earth. One of his designs shows the beauty of evolution with simple, white petals held up by a belt that slowly fall open to reveal the colorful, floral garment underneath.
One of his favorite designs is a lemon-colored suit with a surprising twist. Made from natural linen and dyed with liquid chlorophyll, the suit has chia seeds planted in the fabric which grew into small plants, making the suit a ‘living' garment and a breathtaking display of the beauty of nature.
“I knew I wanted to make a statement with my designs while also spreading awareness about sustainability and how we need to preserve the beauty of nature.”
Johnathan's enthusiasm to share his vision helped him organize numerous interactive workshops on sustainability and how to make natural dyes to use in clothing through the Fashion design Department.
As a son of Mexican immigrants, Johnathan's culture plays a huge role in his designs. Growing up, he struggled with finding his own identity between the two worlds of Mexican and American culture.
“In our society we're often defined by our culture, religion,sexuality and gender,” he says. “Although it can be an empowering thing for you, growing up for me it was also a constraining thing.”
It was only when he started college that he felt he was free to grow into his own person. He credits the diverse student population at UNT for helping him embrace his heritage, which had long felt like an obstacle. To pay homage to his Mexican background, his most recent design features a corset dress made from corn husk which was woven using traditional Mexican weaving methods and dyed with natural dyes native to Mexico.
Johnathan's journey wasn't completely smooth. Like many other students, the COVID-19 pandemic made him question his future and took a toll on his mental health.
“It was scary being isolated, especially since I've always been a social butterfly,” Johnathan says. “I wasn't used to being away from my family, but that time also allowed me to explore myself and think about who I truly wanted to be.”
This coming year, Johnathan is set to start an internship with the Texas Fashion Collection where he will be doing research on how culture and gender influence fashion. In the future, he hopes to achieve his long-time goal of becoming a fashion design professor, just like Professor Hae Jin Gam in the Fashion Design department at UNT, who helped him bring his ideas to life.
“Being in college can be very easy to focus on your future and try to make your dreams into reality,” Johnathan says. “But I think it's just as important to reflect within yourself and figure out the kind of person you want to be.”
Even though she's graduating, Esther Castillo is still working hard. She's aiming high so she can help others overcome the kind of situations many other first-generation immigrants and their children face.
Esther is the oldest of three kids and took on a lot of responsibility from a young age, especially when her parents were at risk of deportation. Her parents had emigrated from El Salvador and Guatemala, and they met in the U.S. when they were going through deportation. They made a commitment to returning to the U.S. and starting their family in Dallas.
“I remember my parents showing me a binder and telling me that it had all the important documents and if anything happened to them that I would need to get the documents and take care of my siblings,” Esther says.
Despite the pressure, those experiences led Esther to study immigration law so she could help other families in similar situations. When her high school partnered with the Dallas Bar Association to offer internships to students, she signed up to intern with the Fragomen law firm, which specializes in immigration law.
Graduating high school in 2020 meant that Esther's college experience started online, which was a big shift for her. She had a harder time connecting, managing time and learning how to be successful at the university level.
As a first-generation college student, Esther didn't have the generational knowledge of the college experience others had, but she found the support and community she needed at UNT.
“The First-Generation Success Center provided a lot of help,” she says. “They talk about FASFA, how to build credit, provide free headshots and so many more resources that I wouldn't have access to or would even have known about otherwise.”
With the help of the First-Generation Success Center, along with guidance from her department faculty and advisors, Esther's on track to graduate after just two-and-a-half years at UNT. But all that support wouldn't amount to anything if it weren't for the countless hours of studying and hard work Esther dedicated to fast-tracking her graduation.
"I had to take winter and summer session classes, but you can't be afraid to put in the hard work, even if you feel like you're doing too much, because it eventually comes back around to you," she says.
After starting UNT and finishing her high school internship, Esther's hard work was starting to pay off. She recently received a part-time position offer from The Fragomen Law firm , which will become full-time after graduation. Going forward, she plans to take a gap year to get more experience working in law, as well as study for the LSAT and start building her resume to apply to law school.
Mona and Maya Isola
Mona - Master's in Criminal Justice
Maya - Bachelor's in Political Science
Mona Isola is no stranger to the grit and determination needed to earn a master's degree in Criminal Justice while working full-time and supporting her family, including daughter Maya who is also graduating with her bachelor's degree in Political Science.
Mona and Maya agree that they want to use their educations to make the world a better place, choosing majors where they can directly effect change.
Born in Kuwait to parents who fled the West Bank as refugees, Mona graduated high school in 1988 but was unable to attend college there because of her family's political status.
“I feel proud as a Palestinian refugee born in exile to refugee parents, who were not educated and grew up in a village in Jenin, to get my master's degree,” Mona says. “I wish they were still alive so they can see their child's accomplishments and their granddaughter's, as well. I'm the only sibling among nine to receive a master's degree.”
She arrived in the United States in 1999 and eventually got a job as a substitute teacher, then working with students with disabilities. After a lot of encouragement from a friend, she enrolled in North Central Texas College and earned her associate degree.
“I was like, ‘OK, that's a great. Mission accomplished,'” Mona says. “But education turned out to be addicting. I got my bachelor's degree in International Studies and Human Development.”
She struggled to find a job while working on her bachelor's degree at UNT but eventually found a position as a non-emergency call taker with Denton Police Department, where she saw a different side of the criminal justice system.
“I wanted to make a change,” Mona says. “During my studies, I've learned so many stories about how our criminal justice system is unfair to people with ethnic backgrounds or low economic status. I can make things better because there are good police officers out there. People just don't trust the police, and it's a big, big issue in our society. I'm hoping I can make a change. I can make a difference.”
Mona wants to work as a community liaison with police, improving the relationships between citizens and their local officers.
Maya hopes to attend law school on the west coast — UCLA is her dream school — where she can focus on civil rights and law. She decided to focus on political science for her undergraduate work to better understand the current political culture.
“I am very interested in the political environment we are currently in,” Maya says. “I come from a Palestinian background, and my mother immigrated to this country to gain better opportunities. I have known since high school that being a lawyer is the career I want to pursue, because it allows me to help those who seek justice. I want to be a voice for the voiceless and create change in our society. I am one step closer to achieving that, as the next step is law school.”
Mona hopes her accomplishments inspire her children, Maya, and her brother Frank, to follow their dreams.
“I am so proud of my daughter and her accomplishments. I have to probably be proud of myself because it was a slow, hard journey,” Mona says. “Maya has a way to go, but I know she is driven. She's smart, and she'll do great things.”
Maya says she's proudest of when she and four other students co-founded an organization on campus called Students for Equity. Before the group became a formal organization, she and friend Tara Olson worked to show allyship and support to the LGBTQ community on campus. Students for Equity holds events like a recent conflict negotiation course, often supported by faculty from the political science department.
“I think those would be my proudest moments,” Maya says. “I want to build the community in UNT and make everybody — no matter where you come from or your background — feel safe on campus and be able to coexist.”
Mona is most proud of her academic accomplishments — maintaining a 4.0 GPA and earning a spot on the President's and Dean's Lists — and her “crazy” relationships with the campus squirrels.
“I'm looking at the crazy squirrel lady stage,” Mona says. “I leave water for them all the time. I buy organic nuts for them.”
Maya says political science instructors Kimi King and Wendy Watson were inspirations for her, as well as Vice President for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access Joanne Woodard.
“Vice President Woodard is amazing and has given me a lot of insight,” Maya says. “She's always open to have a conversation and is just as passionate about making the community on campus better.”
Mona credits Criminal Justice professors Jody Sundt and Haley Zettler for inspiring her, offering incredible experiences and insights into what has worked elsewhere and what hasn't, and History professor Nancy Stockdale for reinforcing in her mind how education can change people's views on the world.
“I was surprised that Dr. Stockdale actually taught the history of Palestine, which is where I am from,” Mona says. “I took two classes with her, and the students didn't know anything about my homeland. They didn't know anything about the conflict, and she taught it in a very unbiased way.”
Mother and daughter agree that for new students, the best advice they can give is to get involved and find community.
“You'll find your place,” Maya said. “You'll find an organization that fits. Take advantage of the events that happen on campus. Know that your professors are there for you.”
Mona added, “It's a huge campus. It's going to be overwhelming at first. The instructors are amazing. They're accommodating and they will help you. It's going to be tough. As you get used to it, things will be better. And of course, get a lot of sleep. Take care of your mental health because not only is physical health important, but mental health is also extremely important.”
Bachelor's and Master's, Accounting
Julia Mathew is a go-getter.
At just 22 years old, Julia will be graduating with both a bachelor's and master's degree in Accounting with a specialization in Taxation.
Not many can say this, but for Julia, accounting was love at first sight—or at first class.
“I always knew I wanted to do something in Business and when I took my first Accounting course, it all made sense,” she says. “And by the second course, I knew Accounting was for me.”
Originally, Julia was going to get a bachelor's in Business Administration, but with the suggestions from her advisors and encouragement from her professors, she decided to opt for the Grad Track Pathway program for accounting.
A daughter of immigrant parents from India, family means everything to Julia. One of the reasons she decided to go to UNT was because she didn't want to leave her parents and younger siblings.
“My family has been my biggest support system. I just love hanging out with them whenever I get the chance.”
Another reason she decided to attend UNT was because she heard a lot of positive things about the G. Brint Ryan College of Business.
Commuting every day for all four years of her college education didn't come without its obstacles. There were times when she felt like an outsider at her own school because she couldn't be there for all the campus-wide events that everyone else was able to attend because they lived on campus.
“Most times I felt like I was detached from everyone on campus. But that is why I always strived to get as involved as I could with campus clubs and organizations.”
Julia is part of several organizations within the College of Business. She was the vice president of the Professional Leadership Program, candidate director of Beta Alpha Psi and a mentor for the Accounting Scholars Program among others. She has also participated in several accounting internships throughout her college career including two tax internships with KPMG, an audit internship with Moss Adams, and a forensic, litigation, valuation and services internship with Whitley Penn.
She credits her academic success to her professors at the College of Business, namely Pradeep Sapkota, Christine Ellis, Hillary Wang and Sean Ryan. Through their guidance and support, she was able to successfully complete her master's thesis.
Julia's thesis covers tip income and how it is underrepresented in the service industry, especially among college students due to it being a cash-based income.
“I wanted to do an accounting-based thesis and also something that the student community can relate to. It took some time, but I finally came up with the perfect topic. Professor Ryan really helped me a lot with it.”
After graduation, Julia will be starting a full-time position with KPMG as a tax associate, through which she hopes to be able give back to UNT.
“I have a soft spot for UNT, so I definitely plan on coming back to help other students through recruitment and any other events where I can help.”
For now, her best advice to incoming students in college is to expand their horizons and not be afraid to get out of their comfort zone.
“I struggled with finding a community in the beginning and I just want people to know that it's okay. You won't find your best friends right away, sometimes you have to seek them out through joining clubs and speaking to people in class. I highly encourage everyone explore all their interests and make their own little community in college.”
Zhou Lu came to UNT in the fall of 2018 to pursue a Doctorate in Chemistry. Of course, there’s more to the story than just that. His sole goal was to work in Professor Mohammad Omary’s research group because they have similar research projects.
Zhou grew up in Wuxi, China, approximately 85 miles northwest of Shanghai. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Shantou University in China, where he first read about Dr. Omary’s work, before beginning his doctoral work at UNT. While at UNT, Zhou has produced 12 peer-reviewed manuscripts from his dissertation and other research activities, most of which have been published in top chemistry and science journals.
Dr. Omary is a well-known prestigious chemist in the Inorganic Chemistry and Material Science fields. His research lab is devoted to designing and synthesizing materials and fabricating electronic devices that provide light while producing clean energy and his group focuses on three major areas: fundamental spectroscopic and structural studies of luminescent transition metal complexes; molecular electronic devices; and metal-organic framework for adsorption of hydrogen and other gases.
“Before I applied for (the) UNT Chemistry Ph.D. program, I contacted him to express my hope to join his group,” Zhou says. “He encouraged me to apply and provided me some suggestions.”
Zhou’s dissertation focuses on the study of the metallophilicity (metal-to-metal attraction), aromaticity, and photoluminescent properties of cyclic trinuclear metal complexes. Through experiments and theoretical approaches, Zhou studies metal-metal interactions and the resulting properties in multi-nuclear metal complexes.
In addition to his own research, Zhou has helped Dr. Omary and his collaborators complete their manuscripts, including one that was accepted into the prestigious journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
“He possesses excellent and unique skills in both experimental and computational techniques that most other group and department graduate students do not have,” Dr. Omary says. “More importantly, (he) is also extremely collegial and generous to teach those skills to researchers that could utilize them, whether he gets credit for that or not.”
For his part, Zhou attributes his research skills to Dr. Omary, who he says has had the greatest impact on his experience at UNT. They don’t just work together; Dr. Omary encourages Zhou to keep exploring science and guides his development as an independent researcher. He also advises Zhou on how to be a good team member.
This motivation and support don’t end with Dr. Omary; Zhou says all faculty and staff members in the Chemistry Department have helped him during his time at UNT.
“They work very hard to maintain high-efficient operations on both administration stuffs and scientific instruments support,” he says. “When I need help from them at any time, they are all willing to help me with great patience and provide professional suggestions.”
Zhou plans to continue his work after graduation in a university postdoctoral research position.
As he wraps up his time at UNT, Zhou says he will always remember the kindness of the people he has worked with as they helped him reach his goals. For those who are just starting their journeys with the Mean Green, he offers simple advice: know yourself, have a specific goal and plan accordingly.
“Know your advantages and disadvantages,” he says. “Understand what you can and cannot do. Know what you really need and want, and plan accordingly based on yourself.”
Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences
Alxa Tucker’s (pronounced “Alexa”) graduation from the University of North Texas is the culmination of a journey she started 10 years ago. She has hit many roadblocks along the way, including rare medical diagnoses for her and her husband and the recent loss of an unborn child. But her day has finally come.
“I have continued to try my entire adult life to stay educated no matter the obstacles I’ve been through,” she said. “I have tried and tried to reach the commencement stage at UNT no matter what.”
As a high school senior in 2012, Alxa dually enrolled at then-Grayson County Community College. She graduated in 2014 with an Associate of Applied Sciences. Throughout the next decade, she would attend other community colleges in the Dallas area as she remained focused on her goal of getting a bachelor’s degree.
She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew she wanted a college education.
Alxa grew up in Tom Bean, Texas, a small town near Denison with a population just under 1,000 people. A first-generation college student, she pieced her education together one class at a time as she also worked and saved money.
In 2016, her plans were briefly derailed when she was diagnosed with pseudotumor cerebri, or false brain tumor. Symptoms mimic a brain tumor and trick the body into responding accordingly. She underwent multiple medical procedures, lost weight and started exercising, and she’s now in remission.
A few years later, she met her husband, Arnold when he was home in nearby Denison on leave from the Navy. She packed up and moved with him to Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he was stationed. They were married, and she became pregnant with their son, Nelson. She returned to Texas so she could “have a Texas baby,” she said with a laugh. Arnold joined her soon after, upon his medical retirement from the military.
Her husband’s military benefits allowed her to enroll at UNT-Dallas in fall 2019 as a non-traditional transfer student.
“The only reason I was able to go to UNT was because of my husband and the eight years he spent serving the Navy, so I’m very thankful for him and his service and the military transition programs and programs for military spouses,” she said. “Without that, I would have hit a dead end taking a class at a time at community colleges and never would have reached my bachelor’s degree.”
Alxa’s son was born in early 2020. When Nelson was 9 months old, Alxa enrolled him in her local Early Head Start program so she could focus on school. It was a difficult time for her family — neither she nor Arnold were working. However, this program proved to be a godsend.
Alxa was assigned a family resource specialist who helped her with everything from parenting to career planning. The woman became a friend and mentor, and soon Alxa knew where all her years of college were heading. In spring 2021, she enrolled at UNT’s main campus and began working toward her Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) with concentrations in Office Technology, Human Resources Development and Administration.
Her next step is a Master’s in Child Development and Family Studies from Tarleton State University. She hopes to work with her mentor as a family resource specialist or as a child and family advocate for families in her community that are in low-income school settings.
“I feel led now,” she said. “I feel accomplished that I finally marked this off my bucket list, that I’m going to graduate. I’ve finally figured out what I want to do. I have a mentor, and I have a good place where I want to work.”
Alxa volunteers at her local child advocacy center to get hands-on experience in her field. She has also served on the policy council of her son’s school for two years.
At UNT, Alxa recently completed a capstone project with classmates that proposes a Military Transitional Program to help veterans navigate life as civilians in the workforce. Her professor Pamela Bracey was so impressed, she’s helping Alxa pitch the idea to UNT administrators.
Ten years after she started college, Alxa has completed her bachelor’s degree. There have been many ups and downs in that time, but her goal remained constant — even if she could only take one class at a time. Her advice for other students?
“Keep going, no matter what, through all life’s obstacles,” she said. “Even if you keep changing your degree or don’t know what you want to do, just keep going. Because when you do know what you want to do, you’ll already be one step ahead.”
It’s been nearly two long years since Henry Olofin last saw his parents. The 25-year-old came to the University of North Texas from Lagos, Nigeria, in January 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in Business Analytics. His graduation day is a joyous reunion.
“I moved thousands of miles away from my family and friends, coming to a new place I had no knowledge about,” he said. “But I built myself up. I consider it a little win in my book — coming here, doing well, making a good change for myself.”
Henry started college at the age of 15, enrolling at Redeemers University in Nigeria to study Economics. He completed his bachelor’s degree in 2016 and worked in both customer service and data analytics roles at a local bank for several years. After gaining some work experience, he was ready to continue his education and diversify his skills.
As of 2021, the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metro area had the fifth largest African and Nigerian migrant populations in the United States. Approximately 18,000 Nigerians live in the Dallas area, a fact that drew Henry to Texas. He began looking at colleges and talked with friends who attended UNT. Their referrals plus the college’s then-new Business Analytics program sealed the deal.
“It was a little bit of a struggle coming in, but I have had good experiences here,” he said. “Everywhere you go, it’s all about UNT, which makes it good. Graduation has been bittersweet. I’m happy I’m graduating, but I’m also sad to be leaving a place where I’ve had good experiences and met some good people.”
Henry is a member of the Nigerian Student Organization and the National Society of Black Engineers. He and three others recently participated in the Humana Data Competition hosted by Texas A&M, which he said was an excellent learning experience. He has also served as a teaching assistant, grader and lab assistant for several semesters for Chang Koh, an Information Systems professor in the Information Technology and Decision Sciences Department.
Henry cites Koh as a great mentor and friend who helped build his confidence. Another professor, Kashif Saeed, has also been an invaluable advisor and mentor to him, as has Professor Scott Hamilton. Rounding out his UNT support network were the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) Office, the Learning Center and the Career Center.
“As an international student, the ISSS office is your best friend,” Henry said. “It’s scary coming to a new country, but meet people and create your community. It’s that community that will help you get through the years you spend in that country.”
Henry is focused on finding a job in his field. He hopes to end up at a Fortune 500 company that aligns with his goals of continuing to improve himself, build leadership skills and work within a strong team. The data analytics classes behind his master’s degree have opened his eyes to new things, and he now looks at the world in a different way. He’d like to be able to use data to help people.
However, his time as a teaching assistant has been one of his favorite parts about UNT. After working for a few years, Henry may return to school for his Ph.D. as he has loved being part of students’ journeys to learn more and improve themselves.
During his two years in Texas, Henry has worked consistently to improve himself. He’s proud to have been part of the larger UNT community — from attending football games to working in dining services — and he encourages future students to get involved as well. In his experience, it’s pretty simple: meet the right people, and you’ll do fine.
“It’s been a good ride,” he said. “Being considered a UNT graduate is an honor and a pleasure. I will always fly a Mean Green flag wherever I go.”
Growing up in the Chicago area, Mia Rogers found it challenging to speak out about the troubles she was experiencing.
“My mom passed away from breast cancer when I was , and my dad was left to take care of me and my sisters. Then, my grandparents got sick and I took on caregiving responsibilities for them. At 14, I got a job to help out with household expenses.”
Luckily, she had the support of her family to navigate these hardships and responsibilities far beyond her years, but thinking back, she realizes that’s not the case for many people.
“It made me want to help others, especially if they don’t have the same support system I did or access to needed resources.”
At UNT, she found a community where she could grow personally, make quality friendships and learn from a network of professors who cared about her success in class and in life.
With its social and cultural emphasis, the Applied Anthropology program at UNT has given her the academic expertise she can use to make a difference in the world.
“If you’re going to learn something, then you should be able to apply it to better the community around you. Anthropology is so versatile. It gives you the tools to work in whatever area you want, learning from people and using that to make improvements.”
And she has already brought positive change.
As a student ambassador for the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, she helped market Anthropology by assembling a department newsletter and discussing career planning with prospective students. She also took the initiative to lead diversity, equity and inclusion projects, including one to build better connections between anthropology students and alumni who identify as Black, indigenous and/or people of color. Her efforts were recognized last spring with UNT’s Golden Eagle Award, the most prestigious honor that UNT bestows upon a student leader.
After taking the Citizenship, Borders and Belonging course with senior lecturer of Anthropology Jara Carrington, Mia was inspired to research how racialization impacts the asylum-seeking process for Latin Americans.
“I ended up taking a special projects class because I wanted to delve into this topic even more. It’s a true issue that we are experiencing in the world and I felt like I had the ability to contribute something to the conversation about it.”
In the future, Mia hopes to expand her research, possibly with a Fulbright Award to Spain, possibly a stint in law school on her way to becoming a human rights legal advisor for non-governmental organizations and eventually to academia as a professor.
Separately, Mia is working with her sisters on the nonprofit “Lisa’s Girls,” which will offer a mentorship program for African American girls and women.
“We wanted to create this in honor of my mom. She was always bringing people up. She really loved caring for others and trying to help the ones who needed help the most.”
Performing Arts Health
Musicians often spend thousands of hours practicing their craft, but that practice can result in health issues, ranging from physical injuries to depression.
Nabeel Zuhdi wants to help those musicians.
Nabeel has experienced pain in his left-thumb muscles from practicing the classical guitar — an instrument he took up when he was 8 years old in his hometown of Damascus, Syria — and has altered the original arrangement of some pieces to relieve strain on the thumb. As a major in Performing Arts Health, Nabeel is helping to address those issues to improve musicians’ health, such as providing musicians the resources they need and encouraging schools to facilitate music research in health issues.
“Musicians are understudied, underrepresented and underserved compared to other occupational groups,” he says. “During my years at UNT and outside of UNT, I've met many injured musicians, including students, who silently suffered from various health problems related to practicing music.”
Since there was no information on the size of this problem among classical guitarists, Nabeel wanted to know the prevalence and the characteristics of health problems associated with classical guitarists. He conducted aa study that included a novel site-specific body and hands digital pain maps he developed to allow participants to pick and rate sites with pain. This study was later published in 2020 and became the first known study to characterize musculoskeletal and mental health problems associated with classical guitarists.
“Among the variables assessed in this study was the musician’s identity; we found that musician identity negatively correlated with age and positively with depression,” he said. “After examining these results, I became very interested in musician identity. So, for my dissertation, I reviewed the literature on occupational identity and its relation to health from various disciplinary backgrounds, including sociology, social psychology, occupational science and sports psychology, and found there was no robust tool to measure the strength of musician identity. I validated the musician identity measurement scale to enable future scholars to use it when they want to investigate in musician identity.”
While occupational identity in relation to health is often found in other fields, such as sports, it’s rarely mentioned in music. Nabeel found some musicians lack other roles in life and their self-worth is dependent on their role as a musician.
“I learned that identity is a powerful concept that influences behavioral choice and consequently health and well-being,” he says.
Nabeel became interested in the field after taking the introduction to performing arts health course. Nabeel worked with professors and doctors at the Texas Center for Performing Arts Health, to investigate occupational health problems associated with classical guitarists and published the first known paper that characterized health problems associated with this occupational group.
His next goal is to find a professor position at a university so he can continue his research and encourage other students to expand the music discipline and culture to include the topic of music health.
As for his own personal health, he made sure he took breaks from working on his music.
“It was not easy, especially since I had to practice for hours every day to improve and maintain my guitar skills and to work to pay rent and live,” he says. “Nevertheless, I always found some time to spend with family and friends, mostly over the weekends. Social life is as essential as practicing, performing or researching.”
Master's in Rehabilitation Counseling
To look at Lauren Helton now, you see a typical, happy woman. There’s no hint of the nearly 10 years she spent mired in addiction. But that dark period of her life is what brought her to where she is today: a UNT graduate with a master of science in Rehabilitation Counseling.
When the Dallas native was about 11 years old, her parents divorced, and she began questioning her role in their failed marriage. This motivated some of her rebellious behaviors as she entered adolescence.
Lauren and her mother moved into an apartment. They had very few possessions at first, until her mother got on her feet. Her mother worked three jobs to make ends meet, and the pair eventually moved to Frisco.
“She’s an extremely strong person, looking back on everything,” Lauren said of her mother. “Even today, she’s one of the strongest people I know.”
Changing schools was difficult for Lauren, as was spending weekends at her dad’s and being away from her mother. She learned how to jimmy open her window and sneak out — and she also learned where he kept his alcohol. She took her first drink when she was 13.
This first drink led to Lauren hanging out with older kids and finding herself inebriated on some weekends. While she was keeping up in school and playing the flute in her school band, she was also moving on to various other psychoactive substances like marijuana, hallucinogens and ecstasy by her senior year. Lauren even received a partial music scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, but this didn’t slow down any of her substance use.
Following her freshman year, Lauren’s mom told her she could no longer afford her tuition. She would need to come home and either take time off from school or transfer somewhere in-state. She became extremely depressed and began working in the service industry. She turned to drugs to numb her depression. While she never considered herself an addict during this time, she was using drugs more often than not.
However, after about a year, Lauren was accepted to Texas Tech University. Before moving to Lubbock, she dabbled with something that would lead to daily ongoing use for two years: black tar heroin mixed with crushed Tylenol PM tablets, also known as cheese. In Lubbock, she met a guy who would become her fiancé and for about a year, he fed her heroin addiction before breaking off the engagement and kicking her out of their house with next to nothing.
“I tried to stay in Lubbock to finish my degree, because I only had a year left,” she said. “But I found myself going insane over the recent ending of a toxic relationship, on top of still using drugs.”
Lauren called her mom, who immediately flew to Lubbock and brought her home. Unfortunately, things only got worse. Lauren’s heroin use continued, and within a month she’d been arrested and overdosed. On her second overdose, she was hospitalized. Seeing her mother sobbing at her bedside was enough to make her quit — that was October 27, 2014.
Lauren has maintained her sobriety from heroin for eight years. Now, at 30 years old, she wouldn’t change a thing about her past because it brought her to her career in rehabilitation. She took four years off and then enrolled in UNT. She graduated in fall 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Rehabilitation Studies, then went immediately into the graduate program.
“I’m among the 2% that made it, and for that I’m so grateful,” she said. “The 2% is what helped me hold onto that hope. I was able to come back and prove my worth, prove my purpose and find my purpose.”
Lauren works as a recovery advocate at an intensive residential treatment center. Upon graduation, she will take the required exams to become a Licensed Professional Counselor. Regardless of where she practices, she hopes to work with the same patient population — people who are working to overcome the same thing that almost ended her life.
While at UNT, Lauren had the opportunity to study abroad in Portugal with professors Rachita Sharma and Haley Zettler. She teared up talking about the pair, especially Sharma, who was her educational supervisor throughout her time at UNT. Lauren said it’s taken a lot for her to reach this point, and Sharma was a significant part of her support system.
Lauren may return to UNT for a doctoral degree; but for now, she’s content to work in a field she knows well and loves. She cherishes each day, and she encourages incoming freshmen to do the same.
“Take it one day at a time,” she said. “Don’t stress about the future, about a timeline for getting it done. You’re going to get it done when you get it done. If you want it badly enough, you’ll succeed.”
Public Health and Geography
Dayani Davilla’s pride in being a first-generation student runs deep.
At the age of 16, Dayani left her home, her family and her friends behind in Mexico to further her education in the U.S.
Her transition to a new life in American wasn’t a smooth one. Throughout high school Dayani was always on the move, staying with different family members who were too financially strained to permanently take in another child. Despite not having a home to call hers, Dayani held onto hope and found comfort in school, where she was fascinated by the different methods of learning through technology and experimental science.
“I didn’t understand the language, but I began to understand the chemistry equations they were doing, and I became passionate,” she says.
With the desire to expand her knowledge, Dayani joined several of her high school’s STEM clubs and organizations, such as Girls Who Code and the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers, a mentorship program in collaboration with students at the University of Texas who share similar backgrounds, experiences and educational goals. Dayani says at first she didn’t know going to college was an option for her or if she could even afford a higher education.
“I was scared, but I also felt fortunate enough that there were programs like SHPE to guide first- generation students like me,” she says.
Dayani earned several nationally competitive scholarships and was accepted to 10 different universities, but she struggled to imagine herself fitting in and having equal opportunities on large campuses with competitive programs. Concerned about the barriers she was already trying to overcome as a first-generation student, Dayani began to question if this was the path she was meant to take. But Dayani says she saw a community at UNT of other first-generation students who were facing the same challenges she was.
“I saw that here, they believe in students from the beginning, you don't have to prove it,” she says. “That gave me the hope I needed.”
On Preview Day, James Duban, associate dean for Research and National Scholarships, reassured Dayani her voice would be heard and that the university’s inclusive student body would allow her to have the research opportunities that she needed to reach her career goals.
Fueled with ambitious drive, Dayani began at UNT as a Materials Science and Engineering major before realizing she wanted to pursue a degree in Public Health and Geography during her sophomore year.
One of Dayani’s most memorable classes was computational epidemiology where she learned how to track and prevent diseases and, as a McNair Scholar, she was given the opportunity to begin her own research on medical geography with a focus on spatial temporal patterns of water contamination - nitrate and arsenic.
“I wanted to understand public health from the bottom up, especially with my background of living in a little village in Mexico where health and disease prevention is not really talked about,” she says.
Dayani credits her main mentors, Dr. Chetan Tiwari and Dr. Joseph Oppong who have encouraged her to learn more about the Environmental Health research field. As one of the first undergraduate representatives for the Health and Medical Geography Group in the American Association of Geography, Dayani has been an advocate to other undergraduate students to participate in research. Dr. Stan Ingman, retired UNT professor of Applied Gerontology, encouraged her to make a difference by educating others through her research. As one of the first undergraduate representatives for the Health and Medical Geography Group in the American Association of Geography, Dayani informed communities about geographical information science and the importance of location in relation to public health.
Dayani has initiated projects for public health educational programs with the support of her mentor Dr. Ingman, served as president of UNT’s Rotaract club, tutored others in Math and Spanish through UNT’s Learning Center and has been an active member of the UNT community as a longstanding Resident Assistant. After graduation, Dayani plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental Health and encourages other students to not be afraid to take risks.
“While at UNT I learned it's always best to just put yourself out there and you’ll find the support you need along the way.”
Education with EC-6 Bilingual Certification
Roughly translated, this means “proudly Latina.”
Maria Ortega learned so much at UNT, but her lessons weren’t strictly academic. She also learned to be strong and have pride in who she is and what she’s accomplished.
“I feel like I’m a completely different person,” Maria says. “I have grown so much in knowing my worth, having self-respect and being proud of myself. And overall, I am a stronger, more confident person. I’ve embraced myself and am proud of my heritage.”
After graduating high school in her hometown of Haltom City, Texas, Maria started her college journey at Texas A&M with a major in Biology with the goal of becoming a pediatrician. Being the first in her family to graduate high school and attend a university, she wanted a career that allowed her to make a positive mark on the world and become a role model for children like herself – those who might not know the heights they can reach.
As time progressed, she decided to transition from helping children through medicine to helping them in education and advocacy.
Maria transferred UNT because of the reputation the College of Education has for bilingual early childhood education.
“I was in bilingual education as a child, and it made me aware of the need these programs have for teachers and advocates to support these children,” she says.
“I’m very proud of UNT for being an HSI (Hispanic Serving Institution)," she says. “The diversity and inclusion are what makes me proud to say that UNT is my school.”
While commuting to Denton from Haltom City, she had a hard time connecting to the UNT community at first, which was compounded by COVID. Staying home without the interaction and support from classmates and professors made studying difficult. However, Maria was not alone. She found her community at UNT by being involved, starting with Honors College Programming Council in the Fall of 2020.
After COVID lockdowns concluded, Maria was able to return in person and she made a point to get more involved. The McNair Scholars Program provided the support and exposure she needed to start doing research so she could look toward graduate school someday and become an advocate for her community.
“I wasn’t very involved at first because I was commuting and I didn’t spend extra time on campus,” Maria says. “Because of the McNair Scholars program, I was able to get into a group and find people who supported me, who were studying with me and who made being in college feel like something I could do.”
As she progressed deeper into her studies, Dr. Daniel Heiman mentored her on the landscape of bilingual and dual language education and even supported her in her first publication, Juntxs with the comunidad: A collaboration across two universities and one school district, which is her first contribution to critically examining bilingual education with a look toward improving the field for future students.
“Dr. Heiman’s class made me realize that I wanted to be that teacher, a role model for kids to let them know what they could achieve and make that difference for them,” Maria says.
Maria credits Dr. Heiman with invigorating her passion for reaching underrepresented students who speak English as a second language, and not only advocating for them, but also being an example of what they can achieve when they see someone who looks like them in positions of authority.
Maria hasn’t decided yet if she’ll apply to graduate school right away or spend some time working first, but she does know the significance of what she has accomplished.
“Knowing that I am graduating and knowing that no one can take the thing I have worked so hard for away from me gives me a lot of confidence,” she says. “I will always have my degree and UNT with me.”