Each spring, 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 Spring 2023 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.
A friend introduced Beige Cowell to the alto saxophone when she was in seventh grade.
From that moment on, Beige couldn’t imagine her life without music’s powerful impact. Music helped her bond with friends, find a career and get through a tough time in foster care.
While at UNT, Beige has strengthened her composition skills and discovered a unique form of Scandinavian folk music – making it her research subject and earning a Fulbright scholarship.
“No dream is too big because I still can’t believe where I am today,” she says.
Her path began in Austin, where she was raised and taught herself the basics of the saxophone, and took up the baritone saxophone, her favorite instrument.
After Beige’s father passed away while she was in high school, her mother began abusing substances and neglected her family, leading to Beige being separated from her sister and moving from home to home in the foster care system. Her long-term foster care placement was in the same school district she grew up with, so she was able to stay in the band, playing and writing music with her friends.
The first song she wrote was a waltz in memory of her father.
“The one thing I could rely on was music,” she says. “Music is so important to me because it’s gotten me through such a difficult time.”
Beige chose UNT because it boasts one of the best music schools in the nation – and she received a scholarship through the McNair Scholars Program. She found her compositional voice at UNT, writing neo-classical, folk and classical music that focuses on feminine and queer experiences.
Her works are mostly instrumental, although she created a song cycle based on the poetry of E.F. Hayward. In her sophomore year at UNT, she wrote a piece chronicling her foster years.
Beige received her greatest encouragement from Kirsten Soriano, associate professor of composition.
“She has this amazing approach to music I don’t even think about: ‘You should try this and this.’ It has been honestly so great to work with her and develop my own style and voice,” Beige says.
One time as she was reading, Beige came across the practice of Galdr and Seior – types of magic in Viking Scandinavia. Her family is Scandinavian, and she became fascinated by this music that was gendered – an unusual element in music. The songs of Galdr and Sior are used by women to see into the future and communicate with spirits and ancestors.
“Music and magic and women – well, now you got my attention,” she says.
Beige began researching how the music would have sounded and learned how it was performed and how it was intertwined with magical practices – many of which are deeply entrenched in modern-day Scandinavian music. She’s presented her research at conferences at UNT and the University of Maryland.
In addition to being a McNair Scholar, she won a Fulbright award, but plans to wait a couple of years before she can fulfill it. She will continue study for her master’s degree at UNT with the hopes of later earning her doctorate in music composition, with a concentration in folk music, from an institution in Sweden.
Beige likes creating new music with old melodies.
“Taking something old and making something new is a real interesting concept to me,” says Beige, who would eventually like to teach music composition on a college level.
After going through so much, Beige is now able to pursue her goals. And she’s back with her sister, Samantha, who is now a sophomore ecology major at UNT.
“I never once thought I would be an undergrad student conducting research or speaking at conferences or winning a Fulbright while still having a great relationship with my friends and being with my sister and having a balanced life,” she says. “I think everyone will get to the point where they’ll be satisfied with their life. It’s not as far away as people think it is.”
Tori Stewart always had a passion for writing ever since she could remember. From songwriting to poetry, her voice on paper has been a steadfast companion along her journey to the person she is today. As she prepares for her future after commencement, she reflects on the importance of identity and connection in her life, especially during her time in college.
“My love for writing evolved into journalism when I was on the yearbook staff in high school. I found that I had a love for stories, for what set people apart, where they came from and what made them who they are,” she says.
Originally from Rockwall, Tori visited only one other college aside from UNT. When she arrived on campus, the culture and diverse community population made it a no-brainer for her.
“I wanted to go somewhere I could grow and experience all sorts of viewpoints and ideas, and where I could continue to lean in on my own uniqueness.”
Her passion for journalism morphed into an interest in social media. Tori held an internship as student chief executive officer and senior client manager at Agenz PR, a student-managed public relations firm where she planned and filmed short video format content for UNT at Frisco.
Rebecca Poynter, a professor in the Mayborn School of Journalism, is a faculty advisor with the firm and was pivotal in her professional and academic success.
“I took some of my hardest courses from Professor Poynter, but she made us better writers. I’m forever thankful for the professional experiences I've received from her,” she says.
Tori is driven and passionate about what she does, and she’s stayed true to her identity along the way. Longing to find an organization where she could connect with other Black women on campus, she, along with student Jordan Gus, co-founded the Living Learning Community, BEAUTIFUL Eagles (Black women Encouraging each other And Utilizing Their Individuality For University Leadership). Living Learning Communities group people together with common cultures or interests so they can live and learn as a cohort. The BEAUTIFUL Eagles cohort, founded in Maple Hall, looks to build a solid foundation for academic and social success for Black women. They hope to empower everyone toward their own personal aspirations, at UNT and beyond.
Tori also is director of outreach for the National Association of Black Journalists and has been active in Delight Ministries, a Christian community of women at UNT.
But she isn’t just involved as a student. Tori is currently a student assistant in the Office of the President, where she focuses on optimizing and growing social media presence for President Neal Smatresk. She’s worked other places on campus, too: the Office of Orientation and Transition Programs as an Orientation Leader, a First Flight Leader and an ACCESS peer mentor.
“It was like my second family there (the Office of Orientation and Transition Programs). The culture was amazing and I was able to network and connect with so many people who encouraged me and helped me to start BEAUTIFUL Eagles. I’m proud of that – we created something that was needed and that we didn’t have when I first came to UNT,” she says.
It was in the Office of Orientation and Transition Programs where she was encouraged to pursue academic advising and connected with Eric Green, a journalism career coach in the Career Center.
“Eric’s energy is contagious,” Tori says. “He’s amazing. He wants you to succeed.”
When she reflects on what has made her successful in her college career at UNT, she smiles and quickly answers, “1000% connecting with people. Networking has allowed for me to develop professionally and personally at UNT. When you realize you need people to encourage you, point you in the right direction and help when you experience challenges, that’s when real growth happens.”
Tori has a 3-year-old niece and often thinks about what advice she might give her as she grows up. “Always keep an open mind. Allow yourself to do what you never thought you could. Be willing to do things you’re afraid of.”
We all desire a place to call home. UNT became that place for student Henry Madubuike. Instilled with strong family values and guided by faith, Henry sought a learning community that aligned with his principles, allowed him to stay connected to his Nigerian roots, be engaged in active learning, and connected to people on campus.
Emigrating from Nigeria to Houston meant big changes. In addition to becoming acquainted with a new home and a new country, he had to sit for a series of entrance and language proficiency exams. Henry also had to learn how to dream Texas-sized dreams. He had a few friends he knew attending UNT so that helped ease his mind. He immediately was welcomed into the engineering students community as he began his journey in the College of Engineering as a Computer Science major. “It clicked for me and I‘m happy I came here,” he says. “The people I met have become family.”
Although some of his friends were fellow Eagles, they were in different majors or lived in different residence halls. Henry worried about becoming homesick. Even during First Flight Week, the week before he began studying at UNT, he often thought of home. Thankfully, he met people around him who helped him feel at home. His resident assistant became one of his mentors and encouraged him to become involved on campus. Henry explored student organizations that interested him, and he found three: the Black Student Union, the National Society for Black Engineers and the Nigerian Student Organization. “I also connected with church ministers. Most of my new friends I met through church events.”
Once classes began, he began to recognize coding might not be the right path for him. He considered shifting his focus to exploring hobbies such as visual arts and considered a transfer to the College of Visual Art and Design. But he wanted to make the most of the coursework he’d already taken so his search for the right program continued.
A friend told him about the Information Science program which piqued his interest. Henry decided to take a leap of faith and make the switch, soon realizing he enjoyed data science classes. He found his home in the College of Information with a minor in Business Analytics. “My favorite thing is the diversity. I met students from all over and I started thinking globally about solving problems, and that there is more than one way to do things,” he says. “My professor, Obiageli Ogbanufe, taught Introduction to Data Warehousing. She provides resources to all her students and helped me with workforce knowledge.” Through this transitional phase, he continued to excel academically and made the President’s and Dean’s lists.
Finding a place to call home off campus proved more challenging as Henry struggled to find an internship. He was qualified and determined, but most companies would not sponsor an employment visa. He networked with a co-worker of his – when he used to work as an IT Technician for UNT library – who referred him to an internship position at PepsiCo/Frito-Lay in Plano – Henry eventually got in and worked there the summer of 2022. “I’ve had classes that help me with what I will be doing in the real world. I took a technical visualization course that armed me with the knowledge of telling a story with data using Tableau software. These classes made me realize that this was going to be my future and they really helped me get into my industry!”
As commencement approaches, Henry reflects on the importance of having a community, seizing opportunities, and having faith. “My advice for new students is this Nigerian saying my dad tells me all the time: ‘follow who know road, make you de see road.’ Henry explains that it means, if you follow an experienced and knowledgeable person, you will be able to gain knowledge and experience from them, which will help you to navigate your way successfully. If someone is great at something you see yourself doing, stick to them and learn from them.
Faith and Service: Those are Khatib Lyles’s two most important guiding principles.
It was a combination of faith and football that brought Khatib to UNT four years ago, and it’ll be a dedication to service that will shape his path after he leaves Denton.
As a 2019 graduate of El Paso’s Parkland High School, the young wide receiver was on the receiving end of 19 scholarship offers from universities like Columbia, Dartmouth and Yale, to name a few. But with so many options in front of him, Khatib struggled to pick a lane, and before long the wide receiver slots on those 19 teams started to fill. He quickly went from having too many schools to choose from, to none.
“I was confused and didn’t know what to do,” Khatib says. “All I could do was pray to God and allow him to direct my path.”
That direction came when he received a call from the UNT coaching staff notifying him another player had decommitted and they had one last scholarship to offer. This time Khatib didn’t hesitate.
“It was like God was directing me to UNT,” he says. “From that point on it’s just been a blessing to be here.”
Throughout his time at UNT, Khatib’s faith has grown stronger. He participated in weekly Bible studies with a handful of his football teammates, participated in activities through the Campus Outreach student organization and multiple local churches, and was even baptized in Denton.
As Khatib’s faith increased, so did his desire to serve others. Initially enrolling as a kinesiology major, Khatib’s path was once again influenced by the Mean Green Football program as he made the switch to psychology.
“After meeting with the sports psychologist, I understood the opportunity I would have to serve other people,” he says. “That encouraged me to learn more about psychology and increased my desire to help others.”
With the goal of becoming a sports psychologist and two more years of NCAA eligibility, Khatib plans to play football at Austin Peay University in Tennessee while earning his master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology. After completing his degree, he hopes to build a career dedicated to helping young athletes.
“Having played football, I can really relate to athletes who may be going through the same struggles I endured,” Khatib says. “Helping young athletes overcome barriers would allow me to give back and serve others.”
John Alptekin discovered his interest in material chemistry while pursuing his other lifelong passion: music.
It was early in his undergraduate studies at UNT, and John — an avid trumpet-player who spent two years in the Green Brigade Marching Band — was working as a cleaning technician in an instrument repair shop.
“I would disassemble brass instruments and put them through this very chemically involved cleaning process,” he says. “Seeing how you can apply chemistry to something totally unrelated got me interested in materials science. Everything we make has some component of chemistry to it.”
He completed his bachelor’s degree in Chemistry with a double minor in Biology and Music in 2019.
Earning a Ph.D. wasn’t originally part of the plan, but that changed in his junior year when Chemistry professor Oliver Chyan sent a department-wide email inviting undergraduates to apply for positions in his Interfacial Electrochemistry and Materials Research lab.
“I looked into his work, and it was really cool,” John says. “It was more like applied chemistry, and all the work was related to the semiconductor industry and materials science.”
John worked in Chyan’s lab for the next year, when he was awarded the J.L. Carrico Award, UNT’s oldest and most prestigious award for outstanding performance by a senior Chemistry major.
Chyan then extended another invitation that would change the trajectory of John’s life.
“He said, ‘I really like the work you’re doing. I think you would be an excellent Ph.D. student.’ He addressed a lot of my concerns about grad school. My preconceived notion was that it was going to be very expensive, but he told me about the funded teaching and research positions that let you study while earning the money you need for school and life outside of school.”
With Chyan as his faculty advisor, John excelled in the Chemistry doctoral program. His research focused on the semiconductor industry, specifically processes in the later part of manufacturing known as packaging, when developers put the final touches on a device before it’s shipped out to the consumer.
“We looked at ways to implement steps in the packaging process to increase the reliability of these devices — make them last longer and prevent degradation due to corrosion.”
In 2022, John received the College of Science’s Dean’s Doctoral Summer Research Stipend, which enabled him to continue his research through the summer.
His research was integral to UNT’s projects with Intel and NXP Semiconductors, corporate leaders in the semiconductor industry. He was a member of the technology transfer team for UNT’s patented MIR-IR wafer characterization metrology, which was licensed to Intel in the largest technology transfer award in UNT history, and he was a key technology driver for the UNT/NXP pilot production and technology transfer based on patent-pending anti-corrosion technology.
He has led or collaborated on discoveries and inventions that have the potential for practical application in the microelectronics industry, including next-generation copper-to-copper direct bonding packaging. He also co-wrote two high impact proposals for research relating to microelectronics that received a total of almost $400,000 in funding from the Semiconductor Research Corporation and NXP.
After graduation, John will begin a new role as a process development engineer at Texas Instruments, where he’ll work with a specific component used for digital light processing in digital projectors.
Reflecting on his time at UNT, John says he’s learned that goals give you something to work toward, but the journey is worth savoring.
“There’s always going to be work to do. There’s always going to be some deadline,” he says. “If you live from accomplishment to accomplishment, you have these huge gaps where you’re missing out on life. It’s important to take the time to appreciate where you are right now.”
Limitations didn’t exist in the mind of South Dallas native and Marine veteran Wade Turner until he reached a peak in his corporate career and decided to complete his bachelor’s degree.
Since his youth, Wade always has been confident in his abilities to succeed. As a multi-gifted aspiring athlete, Wade graduated high school at the age of 17 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
“My parents were upset with me that I didn’t accept the scholarship offers, but I wasn’t ready for college,” Wade says.
While in high school, Wade joined the wrestling team coached by a former Marine. The coach designed the team to be robust and follow similar strict disciplines to the Marines. During the team’s off-seasons, the Marines would even train the players. Having this type of structure in his life impressed Wade and encouraged him to enlist in the Marines.
“On my 17th birthday I skipped school to go to the recruitment office,” Wade says. “It took some convincing, but my parents did sign the papers that allowed me to go into the Delayed Entry Program.”
As an active-duty Marine, Wade served in combat operations in the Eastern and Western parts of Africa and the Middle East during the early years of the Iraq War. Wade was captivated by the diverse cultures and people he came across while involved in humanitarian operations in Africa.
After being honorably discharged following an injury, he attended the police academy at Pitt Community College in North Carolina where he was in law enforcement for a short period. Once returning to Texas, he earned an associate’s degree from Tarrant County College and later enrolled at UNT to start his bachelor’s degree in psychology. Having difficulty adjusting to civilian life, he paused completing his bachelor’s and pursued a career as a firefighter.
Wade became the president of the No Brother Fights Alone Foundation, a nonprofit that financially supports firefighters who become severely sick or injured inside and outside the line of duty. He also served as Post Commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars and earned the All-American Post Commander distinction.
Despite only having an associate’s degree, Wade continued to advance in his career. Eventually, he left public service and entered the private sector of the security industry. Climbing the corporate ladder, he went from director of operations to vice president and then senior vice president. Wanting to pursue higher ventures, Wade decided to return to UNT 16 years later to finish his bachelor’s degree.
Wade wanted to accomplish the one thing he never finished. As a first-generation student, this degree means a lot to him and his family since they did not get to see him walk the stage during his high school graduation because he was at bootcamp.
“I know graduation is a big thing for my dad,” says Wade, who is earning his Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences. “My family did come to my Marine Corps graduation, but seeing me graduate from UNT will be a big deal for them.”
Growing up in a rural Bangladesh village, Md. Khorrom Khan didn’t have access to a computer — or even electricity.
He first used a computer during his undergraduate study in the early 2000s at the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh. The internet wasn’t very fast, but gaining access to the technology opened his eyes to new perspectives and a career he had never before imagined.
“It was a magic box full of possibilities,” Khorrom says. “I was able to connect with the world and became really interested in coding.”
Khorrom went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Applied Physics, Electronics and Communication Engineering. For five years, he worked as a software quality assurance engineer, testing mobile and smart home applications as well as websites for major brands such as Dell, J.Crew and others.
Looking to expand his expertise, he began exploring doctoral programs in the U.S. That’s when Khorrom came across UNT’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering and specifically the work of Professor Renee Bryce, whose research focuses on developing new software testing techniques.
“I was very interested in working with her since our research interests align,” Khorrom says. “She has been a helpful advisor. It’s been such a rewarding experience working with her.”
Alongside Bryce, Khorrom has made several scholarly contributions to Android graphical user interface (GUI) testing research, with one of his co-authored papers receiving 57 citations and another earning a best paper award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 11th Annual Computing and Communication Workshop and Conference.
He’s found a diverse, welcoming community and has surprised even himself at his level of campus involvement. Khorrom served in leadership roles in the Bangladesh Student Association, World Echoes and the UNT chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, as well as represented UNT’s College of Engineering as a Graduate Student Council senator. He even organized several events to highlight the Bangladeshi culture and people.
His involvement and academic achievements have earned him several recognitions, such as the UNT Eagle Awards Graduate Student Officer of the Year, Outstanding Doctoral Student Award from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and, most recently, the UNT Golden Eagle Award, the university’s most prestigious award for student leaders.
“I can be who I am at UNT and proudly represent my country and my culture,” Khorrom says. “My advice for incoming students is to be yourself, be comfortable, respect others and don’t underestimate the importance of getting involved on campus. If you don’t meet new people, learn about the world and new cultures, you’re missing out on so many things.”
Khorrom is a first-generation graduate who will be the first in his family to earn a Ph.D. as well as the first from his Bangladesh village to earn a degree from outside the country.
“Most of the people in my village don’t pursue higher degrees, but my mom always encouraged me. She is the person who made me who I am today,” Khorrom says. “She’s very proud of all that I’ve accomplished here at UNT.”
Divya Lal’s approaching graduation comes down to one thing: a promise she made as an incoming freshman.
A Dallas native, Divya was on the verge of dropping out of high school when she was 16. While she’d always been a good student, she felt out of place and struggled to see a future for herself. That hopelessness is a stark contrast to the woman Divya has become: a Terry Foundation Scholar with plans for graduate school.
Divya will graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and a minor in Economics and Business Analytics. In her time at UNT, she has completed two marketing internships and is participating in an undergraduate research fellowship. She is also a study abroad ambassador and will have more than 100 hours of volunteer work under her belt when she graduates. She currently serves as the president of the Terry Scholars of North Texas and has been an officer in the organization all four years.
“I’ve been involved in the Terry Scholars of North Texas since I was a freshman,” she says. “Unlike other scholarships that just give a financial award, the Terry Foundation provides UNT Terry Scholars with a sense of community. Most of my closest friends I’ve made at UNT are through Terry.”
Divya is a strong student leader with a passion for giving back and inspiring others. As her parents focused on keeping a then-sophomore in high school, they enrolled Divya at a local community college as a full-time dual credit student as a high school junior. This reacquainted her with a love of learning.
She devoted herself to doing her best and improving all aspects of her life. However, as she entered her senior year, self-doubt returned. She was interested in pharmacology but found she lacked the passion for it.
“With college applications rolling around, I began to fear that everything I was doing wasn’t enough,” she says. “With no clue as to what I was going to do in college, I felt more lost than ever.”
Divya had made at least one smart move — surrounding herself with mentors. One encouraged her to take personality-based career quizzes online, and each showed the same result: Marketing.
Around the same time, her mother — a community college professor — encouraged her to apply for the Terry Foundation Scholarship, which fully funds four years of school at a public university in Texas. With encouragement from her mother and that same mentor, Divya submitted her application.
“I remember my absolute shock of being granted an interview and how that alone gave me so much of my confidence back,” she said. “After the interview, the Terry Foundation named me a recipient of the scholarship and I promised I would make the most out of my four years at UNT.”
It’s a promise she’s more than made good on.
Divya also participated in a faculty-led study abroad internship in Dublin, Ireland. Upon returning to UNT, she became a study abroad ambassador. However, this wasn’t the first opportunity for growth and leadership she gained through UNT. Her first job in college was as a Supplemental Accounting Instructor.
“That job is what made me realize I’m passionate about teaching,” she said. “Since then, I’ve been working toward becoming a professor of marketing.”
To this end, Divya undertook a research project with Francisco Guzman, a professor in the Department of Marketing and Logistics in UNT’s G. Brint Ryan College of Business. She is researching how cognitive style and political ideology impact someone’s view of brand activism and engagement. After graduation, Divya plans to attend Vanderbilt University to obtain a master’s degree in marketing.
Throughout her time at UNT, Divya has found that if she follows her passion, things will slowly come together. And when she crosses the stage to receive her degree, she knows the degree won’t just be hers.
“It’s for my 16-year-old self who didn’t think she could do it,” she says. “It’s for the Terry Foundation who gave me the gift of education, a home away from home and a family. It’s for the professors and mentors who have passed on their lessons and taken time to further my understanding of the world. It’s for the university that made me who I am today.
“Wherever life leads me, I promise I’ll continue to make them proud.”
For Ayah Al Qaryoute, medicine is the family business.
Ayah's father is a plastic surgeon and former professor of surgery at a top medical school in Jordan. Her sister is completing a vascular and interventional neurology fellowship at the University of Minnesota, and her twin brother is a family medicine doctor in Jordan. In 2015, Ayah began practicing medicine in Jordan as a licensed general practitioner.
Throughout her training and practice, Ayah encountered many patients with blood disorders and became interested in the mechanisms of these disorders. Always curious about possible treatments, she knew research was key.
“Hematology was one of my favorite subjects in medical school,” she said. “I always found myself curious about molecular pathways, mechanisms of action and just loved the scientific aspect of diseases, so I knew I had to pursue a Ph.D. after medical school.”
In 2017, Ayah was accepted to UNT’s College of Science program to begin her doctoral degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. She focused her research on thrombocyte production in zebrafish. Thrombocytes are blood cells that play a crucial role in maintaining hemostasis — the stopping of blood flow — by sealing the blood vessels after an injury. Changes in thrombocyte production can lead to a variety of conditions, including bleeding disorders. Zebrafish have a similar genetic structure to humans, sharing 70% of the same genes and research on zebrafish have contributed significantly to scientists’ understanding of many human conditions.
Trying to mimic immune disorders in humans and further understand spleen function, Ayah performed a minor surgical procedure on zebrafish under the microscope with general anesthesia that involved making a tiny incision, removing the spleen, and closing the wound afterward.
Despite her love for her studies and hardwork, Ayah experienced a tremendous shock halfway through her doctorate program, when her mother suddenly passed away in 2019.
“I stayed strong and held on to my goal, in spite of many hardships and challenges,” she said. “I pushed myself through the difficulties and obstacles that came with the six long years of my doctoral journey.”
As she persisted at UNT, Ayah co-authored six publications, won the 2022-23 Outstanding Teaching Fellows/Teaching Assistants Award from the Faculty Senate and maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout her Ph.D. program. She successfully defended her dissertation in Spring 2023 and is eager to move onto the next phase of her life.
“I am extremely grateful to UNT for giving graduate students an invaluable opportunity to gain teaching experience,” said Ayah, who also plans to obtain a teaching position at a university and medical school — just like her father. “In the current job market, this experience is highly taken into consideration.”
Ayah appreciates the wide variety of support services available to students. She encourages incoming freshmen to make the most of every resource and extracurricular activity UNT has to offer.
“Dedicate yourself to your work, studies, and wellbeing,” she said. “It’s important to stay focused on your end goal. You will make it if you stay patient and persist.”
It took Angela Alvarado six years to complete her bachelor’s degree. She was working full time, raising her daughters and battling imposter syndrome that had her questioning her unconventional path to graduation.
Two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. later, Angela has never felt more confident about where life has taken her.
“My family often jokes that I’m a lifelong student, and my comeback is, ‘We all should be,’” she says. “That’s how you grow and move into different parts of your life.”
Angela earns her Ph.D. in Information Science with a concentration in Health Informatics in Spring 2023. She’s also celebrating a milestone in her career as an award-winning social worker: a new leadership role as administrator for Gentiva Health Services in Dallas, where she’s worked since 2013.
“Some of the best advice I was given is to own your worth,” she says. “It took me a long time to understand I belong at the table, I belong in these conversations and I belong in the room with these other folks. I truly believe the only way I got there mentally was by surrounding myself with people who supported and believed in me more than I did myself.”
Growing up in the unincorporated town of Norton, Texas, Angela rode the school bus 15 miles to attend high school in Ballinger, where she graduated in a class of only 52.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Angelo State University in 1999, then returned for her master’s degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology in 2004. Shortly after graduating, she moved to Dallas with her husband and three daughters in search of new job opportunities.
She was working as director of social services for a nursing and rehabilitation center when she realized that health care technology was advancing rapidly, and if she wanted to keep up, she had to further her education.
She chose UNT for its top-ranked Master of Science in Information Science with a concentration in Health Informatics, and in 2014, she graduated with her second master’s degree.
It wasn’t easy pursuing her education while working full-time and raising a family, especially as a nontraditional student in the years before hybrid and online learning went mainstream.
“For me to drive to Denton from Dallas, take a three-hour class and drive an hour back was a five-hour round trip. I did that for a couple semesters. It was a lot. It made me realize I am very resilient, because it really is a marathon. But my employer supported me and my family did, too. I had an amazing village.”
She also found support in her UNT professors, especially her dissertation committee, which she describes as eclectic. “I chose them on purpose because information science is interdisciplinary, and I wanted to bring in my medical background.”
Her committee included Daniella Smith, Hazel Harvey Peace Endowed Professor of Information Science and director of the Information Science Ph.D. program. “She’s been absolutely amazing,” Angela says. “Very responsive, very supportive.”
She also chose Associate Professor of Anthropology Doug Henry, whose research focuses on applied medical anthropology and the interaction of culture, health, society and illness. “I’d taken some of his courses over the years that worked in my degree plan, and I just loved them — to the point that I actually utilized methodology from my experiences in his classes for my dissertation,” she says. “He was very supportive, even though I wasn't in his program, providing resources, answering questions, providing me with really great feedback.”
Twenty-four years after earning her bachelor’s degree, Angela continues to discover new passions and opportunities, many of which were made possible through her experiences at UNT. Being a teaching fellow was one of the highlights of her doctoral experience and she hopes to continue in an adjunct capacity as she settles into her new role at Gentiva.
“I wish somebody had told me in the beginning, do not compare your journey to anybody else's journey. No one's life is exactly like yours. Things will come up and things will change. Life happens. But it can be done. I’m proof of that.”
Saxon Martinez, who grew up in Oak Cliff in the 1990s, remembers the days he would hurry to his grandmother’s house, head on a swivel in the rough neighborhood but full of love for the community. Next January, he’ll be showing his art just a few blocks away in the Oak Cliff Cultural Center.
He calls it a full circle moment.
“I never thought I would be back,” he says, “especially doing what I’m doing now.”
He’s graduating with his M.F.A. in Studio Art with a concentration in Sculpture, but it hasn’t been the easiest journey. As the first in his family to attend college, he learned about the academic process the hard way. When he applied for community college, he discovered his high school wasn’t accredited. He had to earn his GED to get in.
Saxon liked to draw as a child, and his parents encouraged his art, so he focused on ceramics at Dallas’ Mountain View College. Then as he was finishing his associate’s degree a few years after 9/11, he entered the U.S. Marine Corps. During the next nine-plus years, he would get married, have three children, live in four states and deploy twice.
The deployments were with Marine Expeditionary Units, patrolling different parts of the world on Navy ships. He served as a crew chief for an assault amphibious vehicle and worked in crash/fire/rescue, fighting fires in buildings and aircraft.
“The military taught me a lot of things but, like everything else, it carries with it baggage,” he says. “There are skills I learned that I still use, as well as events that happened that I’m still dealing with.”
When he left the military, he planned to study biomedical science at Colorado State University, but with a friend’s encouragement he returned to art, switching his major and never looking back.
His work focuses on piñatas, though he wasn’t originally interested in that motif. An undergraduate instructor advised him to “make the thing you know about” and said if he didn’t like it, he could move to something else.
“I very much liked it,” Saxon says, “and it’s a topic I’m still exploring.”
The piñatas allow him to have conversations about identity, ethnicity and more. With Greater Denton Arts Council funding, he created 12 piñatas based on childhood experiences. Soccer was one of them.
“Growing up in a Latino household, the big thing was always soccer. That was seen as a way to get out of your neighborhood. You play soccer, you get really good, maybe you go to college because you play so well,” he says.
“So I made these piñatas and when people asked about them, we would have that conversation. ‘I grew up in this neighborhood in this way, and these experiences led me to be at this point in time making the work and talking to you about it.’ People would think about that and the idea of what art could be rather than what it should be.”
His work isn’t meant to last long. His earlier piñatas were designed to be broken open to spill out their candy.
“That’s one of the main points of the work, the idea of value,” Saxon says. “When people think of the artwork, they think of the sculpture, but the artwork is that moment when the interactions happen. The piñata is just the vessel.”
Lately, he’s been creating a new series of self-portraiture (he’s pictured with Pela). One of his pieces was accepted for Design Week in Sydney, Australia, and he’s also in the running for several awards.
Saxon says his M.F.A. committee chair, Alicia Eggert, has shared valuable insight based on her own work being “constantly in rotation in the larger art world.” And he could not have done any of this without his wife, Olivia. She works in UNT’s academic integrity office, and they’re taking turns getting degrees.
Balancing school and family — the children are 12, 11 and 9 — is one of Saxon’s biggest challenges.
“In the military, I was gone for most of my kids’ younger infant years, which was difficult, and it’s kind of the same thing as a graduate student,” he says. “You can make it to certain things but you can’t be there for everything.”
As a teaching fellow, Saxon has learned he wants to continue teaching. And he wants to continue making art, especially in places where the sculptures he makes aren’t traditionally seen.
Earning this degree has been important to him in another way.
“Education is not the end all, be all of the human experience. People learn and grow in different ways,” he says. “But being able to take my kids into classrooms, being able to show them what I do, helping them understand there’s a bigger world than I knew growing up — that’s what I’ll take away from this experience.”
If there is one word that Elandra Collins would use to describe her life, it’s “blessed.” And paying those blessings forward brings her the greatest joy.
“My parents didn’t have the opportunity to attend a four-year university, but being a first-generation college student allowed me to learn much from this experience that I will pass down,” says Elandra, who grew up in Houston as the youngest of five siblings. “The most important lesson I learned from my family is hard work pays off and to stay motivated through every season. My family was very supportive of my interests and raised me in a structured household with a focus on excelling in school.”
She was expected to go to college, and she says she chose UNT as a way to experience a new city outside of Houston.
“I took a leap of independence away from family. I knew UNT had many opportunities, because a close family friend had gone to UNT and encouraged me to attend,” Elandra explains.
UNT turned out to be a great experience for Elandra, and on May 12, she’ll graduate with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Business Integrated Studies with concentrations in Accounting and Finance. She hopes to use what she’s learned at UNT to help underprivileged areas by teaching people financial literacy to ultimately help them build generational wealth.
“I’ve been very involved in campus organizations — it was my mission to leave my mark at UNT,” she says. She is the Black Student Union’s chief financial officer, a business ambassador for the G. Brint Ryan College of Business, and an active member of Christian Students at UNT. She also served as secretary for the UNT chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants and mentored Honors College students.
“No matter who you are, there’s at least one thing on campus that will interest you,” she says.
For two years, she’s worked in the Student Money Management Center (SMMC), most recently as a senior money mentor. This experience is one that has blessed her the most, and it is one that she feels passionate about.
“It’s important to help students learn to make good money choices because so many of the choices we make right now will have a big impact on our future. We must be wise and intentional in the decisions we make,” she says. “When I help a student who is struggling financially, it warms my heart to find the resources available to assist them.”
It’s not just helping students at the center that brings her blessings — it’s also the people she works with.
“My colleagues make it fun to cultivate a community — we are truly like a family. All of the directors at the SMMC have helped me succeed personally and professionally.”
Her time at UNT has helped her to grow in ways she hadn’t considered before arriving.
“I’ve really come out of my shell, and I’ve shocked myself with what I’ve been capable of doing,” she says. “Being a leader in multiple organizations, working an internship, all while working at the SMMC and being a full-time student can be difficult, but I’ve learned that hard work equips me for my next goal.”
College also has taught her how to get out of her own way.
“I struggle with being my biggest critic, by feeling like I am not doing enough even when my plate is full,” she says. “I’m ambitious, so I tend to overextend myself.
“I’m making progress and learning to love who God created me to be. Being more organized helps me stay intentionally focused on my goals.”
The most important lesson she’s learned is to be thankful for all her blessings.
“I’m thankful for all the people around me — my family, friends, pastor and colleagues,” she says. “Every day is a blessing, and when you wake up in the morning, it’s a new chance to get things right! Without God, my family and loved ones, I wouldn’t be here, enjoying this amazing opportunity that UNT has given me. There is so much more ahead, I’m excelling and I’m ready for the next chapter!”
Tingkai Guan has long been looking for a way to influence what and how people think. First, being a movie director seemed like a good choice. Then, as a student at Tyler Junior College, he pursued educational gaming and got an associate degree’s in Game and Simulation Development: Programming.
Neither option felt quite right, though. He finally found his calling after transferring to UNT and discovering the Department of Learning Technologies in the College of Information.
“Learning is where everyone begins their exploration of the world,” he says. “That’s where I can make a difference — from the root of the human learning and educational process.”
Born in Zhengzhou in the Henan Province of China, Tingkai came to the U.S. as a 15-year-old high school sophomore and lived with two different host families. After earning his associate degree, he worked for a year to explore the technology industry. However, he knew he needed a bachelor’s degree to be competitive.
Tingkai says he has enjoyed learning how a company’s story emerges through data. The data analyst certificate will equip him with the techniques needed to find and resolve challenges facing organizations. He’s putting these skills to use through a research project that has required significant data collection and analysis.
Tingkai partnered with Rose Baker, associate professor and director of the Bachelor of Applied Sciences in Learning Technologies program, to research cyberbullying prevention. The project is focused on developing a one-click function on social media that tags a message or post as cyberbullying. The recipient can then block the person who made the post with a single click.
Thanks to his work, Tingkai received the UNT Undergraduate Research Fellowship and has presented his findings through the Council on Undergraduate Research and at the College of Information’s Day of Data Science conference.
“It’s all about how to prevent and reduce the impact and the influence of people who are engaging in cyberbullying to better help the victims,” he says.
From his first semester at UNT, Tingkai got involved in the campus community. As president of the Chinese Student Scholars Association, he led efforts to restart the organization following the COVID-19 pandemic. He gained funding and led the organization in hosting two campus-wide galas and participating in events such as the World Fair and the International Flag Parade. Additionally, Tingkai met with the Dean of International Student Scholar Services and the UNT Provost to discuss opportunities to better serve international students, such as setting up a shuttle service at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport to transport international students to the Denton campus.
Tingkai also served as a senator for the College of Information, writing legislation addressing the high cost of textbooks and enabling the cafeteria at Discovery Park to accept student meal plans. As chair of the Undergraduate Student Innovation Advisory Board, he worked with Adam Fein, UNT’s Chief Digital Officer, on several proposals to improve campus policies.
Because of Tingkai’s extensive campus involvement, he earned the Golden Eagle Award, the most prestigious award UNT gives a student leader.
“I’m proud of the impact I’ve made on campus and the opportunities I’ve had,” he says. “At UNT, you can dream big and do big things.”
Noah Ray is passionate about the environment. After completing his bachelor’s degree in environmental science at Washington State University, he wasn’t sure what to do or how to help.
He found his way to UNT and discovered his passion for geography.
“I wanted to do something bigger,” Noah says. “I realized geography was a way to connect environmental data to people. There are things we can’t see, but we can display them on a map and show people the different processes and ecological things that aren’t apparent as a human.”
While earning his master’s degree in geographic information science at UNT, the program allowed him to develop his research in a way that is directly applicable to the community. He used a clever method – his bike – to do it.
“There are these tiny particulates in the air that are released from automobiles and high traffic areas, and we don’t even know when it’s there because we can’t even see it,” Noah says.
While it’s a big problem for cities, there’s only one sensor to measure for it in the entire city — and that’s where the geographical component comes in.
“So, the particulates change within tens of meters and within an hour from a passing truck or construction, so it’s important to track it because it’s constantly changing,” Noah says.
Noah found low-cost sensors that run a fan and it estimates the amount of pollution.
“I put it on a bike, and then I ride around to get the spatial and temporal concentrations, so where you’re [physically] at and where in time you’re at,” he says.
Noah’s research helped him place second at the Texas State Geography & Environment Student Research Symposium and win third place at the Southwest Division of the American Association of Geographers conference.
He was also given the opportunity to present his research at the National American Association of Geographers conference and at UNT’s Geographic Information Science Day.
Noah then teamed up with the City of Lewisville to process the mobile-monitored air quality reports.
“As a graduate, I’ve really enjoyed the active learning environment at UNT,” Noah says. “People are passionate and come up to me all the time to show me new methods that might help my research.”
Could a passion for the arts and university life be something ingrained in someone’s DNA? That seems the case for professor and Ph.D. student Aza Pace.
Raised by two visual artists and college professors, Aza was introduced to creativity and academia at a young age. Watching her parents maintain their creative side while spending time in their classrooms helped her pursue a similar path. While visual arts may be a passion for her parents, Aza found her artistic fit in wordsmithing and storytelling, focusing her interest on poetry.
After learning of her acceptance to the Creative Writing Ph.D. program at UNT, Aza immediately became drawn to the creative community developing on campus and in Denton. With the university’s long history of supporting the arts, she knew UNT’s Creative Writing program would lead her down the right path to round out her educational journey.
Not only has UNT helped her complete her terminal degree, but it also has become a place of belonging for Aza. As a student, she served as the Editor-in-Chief of UNT’s national literary journal American Literary Review, which became fully student-run during her editing stint in Spring 2022. In this position, Aza managed graduate students, solicited work, and oversaw publishing among other responsibilities.
During the height of the pandemic, Aza was in her comprehensive exam year at UNT. With feelings of isolation and worry about the electricity going out (we all remember the winter storm of 2021), Aza began to prepare for her oral defense via Zoom. With the help of her mentor and dissertation chair, Jehanne Dubrow, Aza navigated this process.
After completing Dubrow’s workshop on writing in a series, Aza found her dissertation topic — creating a series of feminist poems reimagining the Greek goddess Circe as a modern-day East Texas transplant. Drawing parallels from her life to those of Circe, Aza created a haven for storytelling to kickstart her dissertation. Keeping attention to line and image she explored at Dubrow’s workshop, Aza honed and sharpened her writing skills, earning her poems a place in published, respected journals; The Southern Review, Copper Nickel, Tupelo Quarterly, Crazyhorse, New Ohio Review, Passages North, The Adroit Journal (and elsewhere).
Aza is now in the process of applying for tenure-track and visiting professor positions around the country.
For those wishing to follow in her footsteps, Aza says to stay determined in the pursuit of your goal and be intentional about making time for what you’re passionate about.
“Keep working toward it even if you have to take small steps or go down a more winding path than you expected,” Aza says. “When you’re busy with teaching, coursework and other responsibilities, it can be easy to push your creative work onto the back burner, but that’s probably the work you’re really here to do.”
There was a time when Andrea Strempke didn’t think she would complete even one college degree, but these days when Andrea sets a goal, she’s determined to achieve it.
In the last few years, the mother of two started a nonprofit, worked a full-time internship at a Fort Worth mental health center and will soon earn a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from UNT with plans to return in the fall to pursue her Ph.D.
But her path wasn’t so smooth when she initially started her college career at UNT more than two decades ago.
“I did very well during my first year at UNT, but then I got into the party scene, and I just stopped going to class,” Andrea says.
Andrea’s grades declined, eventually resulting in her academic suspension from UNT. She began working full-time throughout her 20s and 30s. Here and there, she would enroll in a few classes, but never enough to finish her degree.
“These were very dark times for me because I was suffering from substance use disorder, and I was very depressed,” Andrea says.
Beginning in 2010, Andrea’s life began to change for the better. She went into recovery, married her husband Jason and they welcomed their first son, River.
River’s birth changed Andrea’s life forever. Having someone to love endlessly, keep safe and provide a future for allowed her to believe she deserved success, which prompted her return to school.
In Spring 2018, she earned her bachelor’s degree in General Studies with concentrations in sociology and business from Texas Women’s University. During this time, she also welcomed her second child, Daisy.
“That was a crazy time,” she says. “College. A newborn. I couldn’t believe I did that.”
Andrea realized that no matter what life threw at her, she wanted to be able to do it all. So naturally, she decided to return to school full time to pursue her master’s degree.
She returned to UNT entering into the Rehabilitation Counselor Program with a future goal of helping people who have substance use disorders, particularly those involved in the criminal justice system.
“I recall how influential my kids were in my recovery,” Andrea says. “I want to help mothers with substance use disorders, give them what they need to be the moms they want to be, and allow them to use that as a reason above any other to stay in recovery.”
While taking classes at UNT, she soon realized she wanted to do even more with her degree. Andrea founded the Daisy River Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting women and mothers in Wise County who need help with obtaining baby items or other financial needs. She wanted to have a way to always help her community because she didn’t want to lose that connection to them.
In addition to the nonprofit work and studying for classes, Andrea also works full-time in an internship program in Fort Worth, conducting neurophysiological evaluations and assessments to prepare her for the National Counselors Examination to become a Board Certified Counselor.
Once she passes her exams, her intention is to get her state license and open her own private practice to do individual therapy and neurophysiological assessments and evaluations in Wise County.
Andrea was just accepted into the Ph.D. program at UNT and will be embarking on this journey in the fall where she will be focusing in Applied Aging and Rehabilitation Science.
“The reason I keep pursuing more degrees is because I have developed a keen understanding of the complex health and social issues facing older adults and that has motivated me to seek advanced training to further my ability to make a difference in this field.”
Being a nontraditional student, with two kids and a husband, everyone thought she was silly for going back to school, but her accomplishments have proven otherwise.
“You’ll surprise yourself of what you’re capable of doing, but you won’t know unless you try,” she says. “UNT gave me a second chance to prove to myself showing that I could accomplish something bigger than me.”
For Skyla Love Acrey, upheaval and chaos were continuously part of her childhood. With her mother battling drug and alcohol addiction and her father’s presence lacking, Skyla’s formative years were spent in constant fight-or-flight mode. She was always moving, dragged from cities all over Ohio and Texas, and never considered attending college until finally settling in with her grandmother and step-grandfather, Linda and Ed, when she was 11.
“As much as I didn’t think about college, I didn’t really think about the future,” Skyla says. “I wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed of what they wanted to be when they grew up, because I didn’t grow up believing that anything was possible. A lot of days, I was just trying to figure out how to get through that day.”
Now Skyla will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Integrative Studies with a concentration in Theatre, Hospitality Management and Business. She hopes the accomplishment leads to a long career at UNT and the security she didn’t have as a child.
“I grew up creating meals out of nothing and my friends’ families would help feed me,” she says. “I don’t need to be rich. I just want to be able to support myself and have enough money to have fun and live my life.”
Skyla and her brother are the first in their family to attend college. Her grandparents started asking about college when she moved in with them.
“I was just like, ‘What do you mean?’ My older brother, who is the only blood relative I’m close to at all anymore, had mentioned, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about UNT?’” she says. “He actually gave me my first tour. I really liked it.”
When she first arrived at UNT, she majored in theatre. But an advisor suggested integrative studies since it would help her career interests. Skyla enjoys clerical work and would like to be a manager, so she chose hospitality management and business to round out her experiences.
While Skyla still somewhat lives in a day-to-day mentality, she says she plans to stay in Denton for a while and is hopeful to be hired into a management position to begin working fulltime for UNT.
“I just want to have a comfortable lifestyle. I have a cat, so I want to get my cat a little buddy,” Skyla says. “I have a partner who I’ve been with since high school, who I deeply love, so marriage is a personal goal.”
In her free time, Skyla enjoys gaming on PC with her brother and boyfriend, snuggling with her cat, going thrifting and embroidering, which is how she feels close to her grandmother, who passed away during Skyla’s senior year in high school.
“When I moved in with my grandparents, they just had so much pride and support for me, which made it important for me to make them proud.”
Diane always had a passion for literature and access to information. As a child, Diane would finish her class assignments quickly so she could emerge herself in the latest book on her list, even if it meant getting sent to the principal’s office for reading unrelated course material during class.
“I come from a big, southern family, and we didn’t travel abroad much, so I rarely explored other cultures and countries,” Diane says. “But reading was my form of global traveling and inquiry.”
Her love for information continued to expand as she earned her first master’s degree in Education in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Texas at Arlington. While Diane was a middle school reading teacher, she worked closely with the school librarian to develop initiatives to advance student literacy and learning outcomes. After several collaborations, the school librarian suggested that Diane would be a great fit UNT’s College of Information Library Science master’s program and asked if she had considered becoming a school librarian. Having never seen an African American librarian before, Diane was reluctant and needed reassurance that this would be right for her. After attending a state librarian conference sponsored by the Texas Library Association, she was hooked.
“Once I realized the importance of not only being in that space but finding ways to recruit and support the retention of people that looked like me in the profession, it became my passion,” Diane says.
While completing her second master’s program, she was invited to work part time at Paul Quinn College as an adjunct professor teaching children’s literature. While on campus, she met her first academic librarian of color, Clarice Weeks. Through conversation, Mrs. Weeks was informed that Diane was completing her Library Science master’s degree, so she invited her to work part time on the weekends in the university’s library as a preservice academic librarian. This opportunity encouraged Diane to further her studies toward completing her doctoral degree at UNT.
Describing her journey to information science as serendipitous and unexpected, Diane credits her village for getting her through. Earning her doctoral degree always has been a shared dream that she and her husband had — he was her biggest supporter before he tragically passed from congestive heart failure one year before she graduated. As one of his caregivers, Diane didn’t initially want to complete her doctoral program and wanted to focus on her husband. However, he encouraged her to keep going despite his failing health.
Looking back at her journey, Diane says that finding your passions and being open to shifts in life can lead you to a door filled with opportunities.
“Follow the path and be open for new opportunities,” Diane says.
Mario Silva learned very early in life what hard work and sacrifice can yield.
“Growing up, I had people around me who always wanted me to push myself as hard as I could,” he says. “The older I got, the more I realized what my parents sacrificed, and the more I feel I need to keep moving forward to make everything they did for me worth it.”
Mario’s parents immigrated from El Salvador and settled in a south Dallas trailer park to raise their family. His mom stayed home with Mario and his three siblings while his father worked 60-plus hours a week. Through hard work and dedication, the family was able to move into a home in Irving.
This made a huge impression on Mario, who remembers how hard it was living paycheck-to-paycheck. As a senior in high school, he started working every afternoon at an animal clinic. Upon graduation, he upped his hours to 35 a week while also attending college full-time. Mario has paid for his entire college education on his own, minus a few scholarships. He hasn’t taken out any student loans.
“Some days were very stressful, but I wanted to do that so I wouldn’t have to put more pressure on mom and dad,” he says.
Mario is the second in his family to attend college, after his older brother Kevin, who also attended UNT and majored in physics. Mario knew UNT had a solid science program, and he also was drawn by the Teach North Texas program. He’d never thought about being a teacher; but after visiting with TNT recruiters, he felt the opportunity to graduate with a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate was too good to pass up.
He may have stumbled into the program, but he certainly hasn’t regretted it.
“Seeing a smile on my students’ faces alone makes all the hardship and obstacles worth it,” Mario says. “I’ve learned through being in the classroom as a teacher that if they’re succeeding, I’m succeeding, and that’s a big motivator for me to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Mario is considering a master’s degree in either chemistry or education to further advance his career. But for now, he’s eager to enter the classroom as a high school chemistry teacher and continue supporting himself and his parents.
He credits UNT for being an accessible and affordable option for people like him to achieve what they want to achieve. He also challenges incoming freshmen to dig deep and reflect on what they’re willing to sacrifice to meet their goals.
“Drive is everything in college,” Mario says. “If I can do it, there’s no reason why they can’t as well. It comes down to how bad you want it and what you’re willing to do to get it.”
Ezra Poch has been resilient their entire life.
Born without the ability to hear, they also faced housing and food insecurity from a young age. They knew college would bring challenges but also knew earning a college degree in human resources – while serving in countless organizations to promote the causes they believe in – was a goal worth achieving.
“I believe that higher education is my ‘armor.’ I am a first-generation student holding multiple underrepresented identities,” Ezra says. “Some of my identities, such as transgender and gay, force me to continue fighting for rights and equality. Attaining my degree makes me feel stronger because one may be able to take my rights away and make me fight for them, but they cannot take away my education. It is mine.”
Ezra was initially drawn to UNT because they wanted a university that had a designated office for LGBTQ+ students, resources and events for deaf students and a good business school with a human resources track.
Since joining the Mean Green Family, Ezra has joined several campus organizations including UNT Society for Human Resource Management (UNT SHRM), North Texas 40, Social Sapphics, GLAD: Queer Alliance, Deaf Connect and the Center for Leadership and Service.
Ezra serves as president for both the Society for Human Resource Management, a campus resource for networking events, development workshops and leadership opportunities, as well as for Social Sapphics, which provides an inclusive and safe space for women, women-aligned people and non-men in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Ezra has brought several initiatives to campus during their time in these leadership roles, some of the most prominent initiatives include implementing a DEI program, panel and committee for UNT SHRM, and creating accessible room requests for UNT campus buildings.
As president of Social Sapphics, they have updated the mission statement to use more inclusive language, updated the logo to more inclusive colors that represent BIPOC students and changed the name to “UNT Spectrum” to acknowledge the spectrum of identities in the LGBTQ+ community and adding more roles for pronouns, gender and sexuality identities.
Their commitment does not stop there. During the summer, when Ezra has a break from UNT leadership roles, they have committed their service to off-campus organizations in Denton, including Pridenton and Outreach Denton. Ezra also spends their free time volunteering for local food drives, Planned Parenthood and local homeless or housing-insecurity nonprofits.
“I bring my commitment to DEI everywhere with me,” Ezra says.
Ezra plans to continue their higher education at UNT to pursue a master’s degree and conduct research that combines their love for human resources with their own identities. Ezra will use their degree to continue serving for local nonprofit organizations as well as continued service in higher education.
Ezra is not sure where they will go after graduate school.
“Regardless of where I work or where I serve the community, it will involve higher education, local nonprofits and diversity, equity and inclusion,” they said.
Growing up, Azure Bradger remembers her parents separating and losing their house due to a series of poor financial decisions that they didn’t plan for after splitting up. Now, Azure is becoming a financial planner to help others.
“I'm certain if my mom had someone like me in her life, someone who could have educated her on the risks and consequences of bad money decisions, things would have turned out differently,” Azure says. “My motivation is helping people like my parents and helping people in general.”
Azure first tried her hand at college in 2014, when she majored in biochemistry at UNT. She became pregnant and decided to move closer to family. As Azure juggled raising a new baby with work and school, she struggled with a low GPA. After trying community college classes and taking a pause from school all together, Azure returned to UNT years later. This spring, she’s earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration in financial planning. She has earned a 4.0 grade-point average in two semesters and is a leader among her peers — embodying perseverance, grit and determination.
“My heart really found a joy for financial services, more specifically in helping people learn about how to save, plan, invest and reach financial goals. Everyone deserves to enjoy their life, not just work paycheck to paycheck.”
Azure has completed her UNT degree while working full-time at Fidelity Investments. She also has a 7-year-old daughter and helps take care of her disabled mother. Azure would wake up early each day, work a partial shift, go to classes and then go back to work. Once she tucked her daughter into bed at night, Azure spent her late evenings studying.
“I know I’m being an example to my daughter,” Azure said. “I have spent so much time driving, working early, working late, sometimes bringing my daughter to class and doing anything I can to balance work and school. She wrote me a note saying how she was proud her mama is graduating, and it brought tears to my eyes.”
Following graduation, Azure plans to enjoy a short break and then go for her certified financial planner designation this fall. The certification exam is a rigorous test that Azure feels her time at UNT and experience with Fidelity has prepared her for. Her ultimate dream is to help those who need financial planning the most.
“Everyone, no matter their economic background, race or gender, needs resources to build and plan for long-term goals like retirement or buying a house,” said Azure. “We all use money. Whether your salary is $30,000 or $130,000, everyone deserves to plan for their legacy.”
Bright-eyed and full of life, Helen Li plans to change the world.
Helen is a graduate on the computer science track of the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS), an early college entrance residential program for gifted high school aged students. Students admitted to TAMS leave high school to continue their education at UNT, just like other college students. She plans to attend University of Texas at Austin and major in computer science and business.
Through TAMS, Helen has had the chance to be involved in different faculty-led research groups. Her most recent project was Detecting Exclusive Language in Pair Programming Settings with Rodney Nielsen, associate professor of computer science.
“When I first learned to code, I realized that programming allows me to bring my ideas to life, and I began seeing all the ways I could create change.”
Thanks to TAMS, Helen has had the opportunity to be a part of variety of organizations that have allowed her to further her interests. She is on the executive board of Mu Alpha Theta (math club) and the Artificial Intelligence Society. She also started the DFW chapter of InteGirls, a global nonprofit bridging the gender gap in competitive problem solving. InteGirls recently had its first math competition online. She also has been involved in a few personal projects such as creating an app to promote sustainability and building a productivity web platform.
“Computer science has revolutionized the way we live and seeing the world through the lens of a computer scientist enables me to innovate and impact people.”
Recently, she’s been more drawn towards the field of artificial intelligence, and she hopes to research the ethics of AI and how it impacts humans.
Growing up in the suburbs of Wichita Falls, Texas, Helen and her family were one of the few Chinese American families there. Since a young age, she struggled to fully relate to the community around her.
“It was really hard to find representation and be comfortable with who I was. I constantly questioned the person I was and what others wanted me to be,” she says.
Starting college at a young age wasn’t easy, but the TAMS community helped her find her groove.
“I definitely fit in at TAMS more but living away from home was pretty hard and mentally taxing. I think the hardest part for me figuring out how to balance everything.”
She credits her academic success to her professors who guided her and made her feel comfortable with college-level coursework, specifically Allen Mann, principal lecturer of mathematics, who taught her calculus.
“He liked to call on people during class and walk them through problems,” she recalls. “It was a very engaging class and Dr. Mann just made calculus a lot more fun.”
As if getting a master's degree wasn't challenging enough, try completing that while being in a different country, adapting to a new culture, away from family as the first member of your family to pursue an education in the United States.
Hospitality Management master's student Le Bich Ngoc (Jennifer) Vo came to America at 19 to pursue her dreams of earning a college degree and being able to financially support herself. Along the way, she worked as a server and eventually had an unpaid internship at the Omni Dallas Hotel within the HR department, which solidified that her true passion was working in the hospitality industry.
Being raised by a single mother, she's learned to face hardships head on and conquer difficulties — just like she has watched her mother do. So taking the leap to leave Vietnam wasn't something she took lightly. She promised her mother she would excel and use her tenacious mindset to check every box along the way. Get an associate’s degree in business from Dallas College...check. Enroll in a master's program at UNT under their nationally acclaimed Hospitality Management program...check. Secure scholarships to pay for college...check. Dive into the campus culture... check. Secure a job in the industry...check. Earn a Ph.D. in Hospitality Management...next up and the ultimate goal on her list.
Jennifer's journey at UNT began in Fall 2020, during COVID-19, when the campus had shifted to online learning. While some students would have used this as a potential setback to their education journey, Jennifer used it to find her "home" within the Hospitality Management program.
"Each instructor brought their own expertise and teaching style to the classroom, allowing me to gain a comprehensive understanding of the field," Jennifer says.
The patience, approachability, and willingness to help Jennifer overcome any challenges along the way are something she credits to the faculty at UNT.
The faculty helped her feel supported, welcomed and even provided her with opportunities to participate in several research competitions, in which she recently won first place for her paper titled “Reving Up Revenue: Unlocking the Power of Cancellation Policies on Booking Intentions” at THEREPS Conference. This boost of confidence in herself and her studies helped her become more involved in school activities and to pursue her passions within the hospitality industry head-on.
This confidence was noticed. In 2022, she received the "Outstanding Performance Award" from the CMHT faculty. Jennifer also has earned the 2021-2022 CMHT Scholarship, the 2021-2022 Chefs of Tomorrow Scholarship, the Hotel Association of North Texas 2021 Undergraduate Scholarship, the 2022 NEWH Dallas Chapter Scholarship and the 2023 NSMH Scholarship sponsored by Disney College Program.
Additionally, she served as president of the Hotel Association of Tarrant County (HATC), president of Eta Sigma Delta (ESD), vice president of the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality (NSMH), the secretary of the Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals (HFTP) and fundraising director of the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI).
For those inspired by Jennifer's success, she's got three essential tips.
"It took me two years to successfully win different scholarships, and it took me years to change from being shy to becoming confident," says Jennifer, who leveraged these three tips to fulfill her promise to her mom. “You must be confident enough to get scholarships to fulfill your dreams.”
As a second-generation student, Lauren Magdalena Byard deeply understands the value in her opportunity to attend college.
“My mom was a first-gen student, and she’s now pursuing her doctorate while working full time, which is really amazing. She is a huge influence on me in making sure that I educate myself and set myself up for what I want to accomplish in life,” Lauren says.
Along with her parents and siblings Jay, Yesenia and Brandon, Lauren’s grandparents also have been part of her support system as she works toward her bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing with a concentration in Professional Selling.
“I’ve been very blessed with people who believe in me and motivate me to continue pursuing my dreams,” she says.
Lauren’s friendly and welcoming personality, paired with a nearly perfect GPA, set her apart and has helped her land a number of coveted roles. From being the first freshman elected as vice president of recruitment for UNT’s Alpha Phi sorority to working for major companies like Intuit and the Dallas Cowboys and landing a prestigious place in the Disney Leadership Institute and Disney College Program, Lauren’s time at UNT has been spent to its fullest extent.
She spent three years with Alpha Phi, one of the UNT’s sororities, serving as VP of Recruitment and later VP of Marketing. These positions helped Lauren develop her leadership and organizational skills as she helped coordinate events for the organization.
“I will never forget that experience,” says Lauren about her six months at the Disney College Program. “I had the time of my life. I met the best people from all over the world. I highly encourage people to apply because it’s just an incredible program. It’s hard work, that’s for sure. But I just learned so much.”
Lauren’s assigned job at Disney was working as a custodian. At first, she felt discouraged about her new position. However, the experience was humbling for her and taught her the importance of paying attention to everyone and acknowledging the people behind the scenes, which she will forever carry with her in life and career.
After graduating, Lauren plans to pursue her Master’s in Sports Entertainment Management at UNT. She is excited to continue her journey in higher education with UNT, because “the professors just truly care,” she says. “I’ve been very impressed with the professors I’ve had, that’s something special that UNT has. They challenged me, and I came out so much stronger.”
Lauren specifically recognizes Joy Houser, Terrence Suber and Majed Yaghi as professors who greatly impacted her college career. During their classes, they would perform buyer-seller scenarios. These role plays helped prepare Lauren for what a job in professional selling would look like outside of the classroom.
Lauren hopes to one day work full time for the Dallas Cowboys. Her established experience of working home games as an event promotions team member gave her insight into the sports entertainment industry. In her role, she facilitates the intermission games that pull fans from the crowd, letting them participate for various prizes. She also helps with pregame activities like working the family zone and recently worked more on the recruitment side of things, helping grow the team and fans’ experience even more.
Lauren’s advice for incoming freshmen is to “Start early. Connect with people, connect with your professors. Create a LinkedIn account and start growing your network. Keep those grades up, even early freshman year, you think those classes don’t matter, but they really do. Put yourself out there, join clubs, join organizations, go to games.”
Lauren’s inspiring list of accomplishments is one to admire. When asked which one she is proudest of, she says, “I love all my experiences equally because so many of them offer different things. Like Disney allowed me to work for a company that I loved, allowed me to live at Disney World and meet my best friend, Citlali. Intuit allowed me to have my first full-time work experience and showed me great company culture. Then the Cowboys job is something that I love — I love being at those games. It’s hard to pick. I’m very thankful.”
Sahithi Kommuru always wanted to help people, and she made quite a name for herself in her village near Mahadevapuram, India, where she started a foundation to adopt and care for the street dogs near her home.
"When someone needs me, I try to fulfill their wishes," says Sahithi, who used this opportunity to raise money for food and veterinary care for those animals.
Earning her Master's in Health Informatics continues her trajectory of seeking to help others.
"I decided on Health Informatics because I've always appreciated how doctors and health care specialists dedicate their lives to serve patients and others in need," she says. "I want to be a part of that process."
Sahithi moved to the United States less than two years ago, specifically to attend the University of North Texas.
"I wanted to attend UNT because it's ranked in the top 10 colleges for Health Informatics," she says. "While getting my bachelor's in India, I studied what I needed to do to get into UNT. I love UNT – the college curriculum, the study they provide, and the scholarships they provide for students like me."
While at UNT, Sahithi has spent her spare time working for the Muskurahat Foundation to help children facing food insecurity, lack of education and clothing because it's important to her to give back to the less fortunate.
"I am lucky. I have parents who took care of me, provided for me, and I never went hungry," Sahithi says. "I want these children to have the same. They need it more than I do."
Sahithi wants to continue learning and helping others in need, even after graduation. She plans to find a full-time job developing her skills beyond her degree, while also working for the Muskurahat Foundation in her spare time once she settles into her career.
Sahithi feels like she has grown exponentially since coming to the U.S. and knows she could not have done it without UNT.
"I love UNT and the resources they offer to support students," Sahithi says. "Whether I needed access to technology, guidance with financial aid or support from my professors, everyone was always happy to help. When you have fewer struggles to deal with— it's easier to concentrate on your education. UNT allowed me to do just that."
Andrej Najdovski’s story is one big turn of fate.
The international student from the European country of Macedonia first learned about UNT from a stranger he met while playing online video games together. At that time, Andrej hadn’t even considered leaving his country to pursue higher education.
“I found a friend who casually mentioned he had enrolled at UNT, and I guess that just stuck with me somewhere in the back of my mind,” he says.
He began to do research on the best places to go to school in the United States and Texas was number one on the list. He applied to a couple of different schools and was even accepted at Yale, but he ultimately decided on UNT.
“It turned out to be the best choice that I could’ve ever made,” he says.
In summer 2019, Andrej landed in America and hasn’t looked back since. Andrej now plans to use his business degree to join the Insurance and Risk Management industry as an underwriter or get in to claims and risk analysis. He will be starting an internship at Risk Theory, LLC in the summer.
“Generally, I don’t have any huge dreams like becoming a CEO or anything — considering where I started, even the ‘mediocre’ achievements are important to me,” he says.
In Macedonia, he initially planned on doing translation and interpretation as a career, but during his first two years at UNT, he took some business classes which piqued his interest and he decided to pursue Logistics and Supply Management. However, while heading to an informational session about UNT majors, he walked into the wrong room. There he met Nat Pope, associate professor of business, who convinced him to stay and learn about the Insurance and Risk Management track.
“He told me there were more scholarships than people in this major, so I decided to go into it.”
He hopes to come back to UNT to pursue a master’s degree.
When coming to the U.S., he was determined to live a life that was completely different from what he had known back home in Macedonia.
“There’s not a big Macedonian community in Texas and so I intentionally chose to live here so I could meet from all different parts of the world. If I’d gone somewhere with a bigger Macedonian population, I know I would’ve just stuck with them.”
This decision didn’t come without its challenges. Andrej was all alone in a completely different country, which meant he had to learn everything from scratch.
He credits the advisors and professors at UNT for getting him acquainted with college life, specifically, Professor Nat Pope, and Sally Carne, the advisor for Gamma Iota Sigma, a fraternity Andrej joined.
His favorite part about being at UNT is getting the chance to introduce his country to his fellow students on campus. He is active with the Office of International Affairs and makes it a point to attend every event. At the UNT World Fair, he got the opportunity to introduce students to Macedonian culture, food and music.
“Whenever my schedule allows it, I like to contribute to the community at UNT. So far, I am the only Macedonian here, so I feel like it’s my responsibility to teach people about my small country,” he says.
He also works at Eagle Landing, which has exposed him to hundreds of different cultures through food. His favorite cuisine has been Tex-Mex.
“It's been a pleasure to learn about people from countries like the Philippines, Korea, China, Afghanistan, India, Zimbabwe, Kenya and different countries from Africa.”
Andrej’s journey as an international student wasn’t always a smooth one, but his determination and the support he got from his family back in Macedonia, kept him going.
“I am eternally grateful for my parents who have gone through great lengths to keep me in this country to pursue my education. They supported me through all the setbacks and I am excited to be able to give back to them.”
How can we be better learners? It’s a question that has always perplexed Sofia Nehal (’21).
“It’s such a strange question that most people don’t think about,” Sofia says. “But I always wondered for myself and then more broadly for us as humans. How do we increase our abilities to learn?”
When she expressed this curiosity to her advisor, Taylor Moore, while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Psychology at UNT, Moore told her about the Educational Psychology program.
“This was exactly what I was looking for,” Sofia says. “So I applied to the master’s program and once I got into the curriculum, I narrowed down my focus to learning and development.”
Her concentration is in learning and development, which sparked her interest when she took an undergraduate developmental psychology class with Calvin Sims, general psychology lecturer.
“Dr. Sims was a great mentor to me during that time and his class helped me realize my passion for learning. He still makes it a point to check up on me and ask about my classes and that made me realize how supportive the professors are at UNT,” she says.
The degree built on the foundation of her undergraduate study in psychology and has helped Sofia gain a better understanding of how people develop throughout their lifespan.
For her research, which she presented to the Texas Council on Family Relations, Sofia focused on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children because of her experience working with elementary school-aged children.
“We haven’t even grasped the full impact of COVID-19,” Sofia says. “It’s something researchers will be studying for years to come. Through my study, I found that because COVID-19 took away the early years for children to learn social skills, parents were left with kids who were anxious, under-stimulated and clingy. The conclusion was to highly encourage parents and caregivers to have brief mental health screenings regularly or an up-to-date evaluation to identify and detect psychological, behavioral and emotional symptoms.”
Beyond her research and coursework, Sofia served in several student organizations throughout her time on campus, including leadership roles in the Pre-Occupational Therapy Club, Muslim Students Association and the Graduate Student Council. In the last year, she helped found and lead Leaders in Family Education, which offers students opportunities for professional development and community service projects. In Fall 2022, she even got elected to the UNT Homecoming Court.
Next up, Sofia plans to work in social media marketing and use her degree as a tool to increase engagement on various platforms for a company.
In the future, she wants to return to UNT to pursue a Ph.D. and become a professor.
“It’s been a joy ride. UNT will always feel like home. It’s where I first truly felt myself,” Sofia says. “Yes, grad school has been difficult, but it was a very passionate journey for me. Now, I know exactly where I fit and how I want to make a difference in my career.”
During his time at UNT, Juan Garcia has been a success catalyst for himself – and other students.
As a graduate assistant at the UNT Student Money Management Center, the East Texas native supported efforts to educate students on how they can better manage their finances via planning events, social media campaigns and community projects.
“He immediately connected and worked seamlessly with all team members,” says Paul Goebel, center’s director. “He not only performs his assigned duties with distinction, he also readily accepted additional supervisory and managerial responsibilities.”
Through his work at the center the last two years, Juan has been able to apply the skills he learned from his bachelor’s degree in graphic design and build on them as he pursued an M.B.A. with a concentration in Marketing.
When the Student Money Management Center launched the Explore Before You Soar Internship Project for first-generation students, Juan was front and center, taking the program’s first cohort of students under his wing and guiding them to the right resources.
“When they presented their final project, I was so proud because I could see how much they’d grown and it was such a great experience to be a part of their journey,” he says.
Juan himself is blazing new trails as he will be the first in his family to graduate with a master’s degree.
“Not a lot of minorities are given the resources to obtain their master’s and so I did it for my community, my Hispanic community,” he says.
His biggest motivator was his older brother, who couldn’t complete his master’s due to personal issues.
“He wanted me to get my master’s since he couldn’t. When I bought my regalia, I teared up a little because it reminded me of how supportive my brother has been.”
Juan initially became interested in marketing during his undergraduate study at Stephen F. Austin State University. For a class project, he had the opportunity to work with the university’s marketing department. The experience inspired him to learn more about the discipline.
“I chose UNT for my graduate study because I wanted something new, something different,” Juan says. “My biggest fear was getting too comfortable with where I was and staying like that for the rest of my life. UNT has given me the challenge I needed to push me further in my success.”
Following graduation, Juan plans to combine his graphic design and marketing background to work on campaigns and promotional material for a creative agency. In the future, he has more entrepreneurial plans in mind.
“I definitely want to do more designing, but my ultimate goal is to start my own e-commerce business and be independent.”
For the longest time, Dylan Windebank always had an interest in competitive sports. No matter the situation, he had to give it his all.
Dylan’s perseverance has paid off, as he will be earning a Bachelor’s in Computer Science degree. He plans to pursue a career in website design.
“I really like the blend of the technical side of it and the design part of it as well,” Dylan says. “A lot of people will focus on the technical side, and I like the art side that comes with the logistics of programming.”
Dylan, who devoted long hours to UNT’s esports team, found UNT after searching for universities near his hometown of Trophy Club. Unsure of his own path, he chose computer science after taking a programming class in high school.
While his original plan was to create video games, he found his true calling in website design. However, his passion for video games would get another chance to shine in 2019.
“I remember my friend showing me this weird game,” Dylan says.
The game in question was Rocket League.
“You hit a ball around with cars,” Dylan says. “It seemed kind of silly at the time, but the more time that you put into it – the more rewarding it becomes.”
After finding himself at the second highest rank, Dylan found his place with the UNT Esports Rocket League team. Under his username “dbanq,” Dylan has led his team to victory on multiple occasions.
“When you're in college, it's very hard to manage your time and make sure you're getting dedicated [practice] hours,” Dylan says. “I think my peak hours the past two weeks was like 90 [hours], and now I can't even break 50. It's so hard.”
Armed with the skills esports taught him, Dylan looks to the future. He has an internship with Long Drive Agency, a marketing agency with a focus on golf, as a website designer.
“It’s really fun,” Dylan says. “Because it’s a smaller company, I get to work on a lot of different projects and get very honest feedback from my manager.”
Dylan may be finished with Rocket League for the time being, but he still holds fond memories of his time in the spotlight. As he prepares for graduation, he encourages students to get involved with student organizations.
“If there's something you want to do, just go do it,” Dylan says. “Most people are much more accepting of them joining their hobby, so if you want to go join a [student organization] and it seems like they've been doing it for a long time, they'll probably be open to helping you out.”
He may not be a household name yet, but Christian Thornton plans to make the fashion industry stand up and take notice. His construction skills have been called flawless by his professors.
“I want to be great,” Christian says. “I want to be a success. I want to be fulfilled doing the thing I love the most – being creative.”
Like Bob Mackie to Cher and Hubert de Givenchy to Audrey Hepburn, he hopes to find his muse in someone like Marsai Martin (best known for her role as Diane Johnson on Black-ish), and continue to develop his design style alongside that person as their career develops.
Christian says he always has been intrigued by fashion — the aesthetics, the diversity and the versatility to create unique garments.
But his favorite part?
“I love how the right piece can really transform the way a person thinks about themselves. As people find their perfect style, just the right outfit, it can boost their confidence in amazing ways. Fashion can be quiet and tame, blurring the edges like Helmut Lange, or really out there like Rick Owens or Mugler. To put it simply, fashion can be anything and it is everything.”
He describes his style as avant garde, with each piece a work of art that should be studied – an experience for each person who beholds it. He used books with messages he aligned with as starting points on some pieces. Books like Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death.”
“Once you put art out there, it’s no longer yours to control the narrative. I want people to take it in and interpret it for themselves. I love using books, people and themes as inspiration – not to punch you in the face necessarily with a message, but for you to take a step back and be like, ‘OK. This is interesting.’”
Born in the South, Christian moved around to different states, including Alabama, Georgia and other parts in the Midwest, as a member of a large military family. He credits this movement for opportunities to attend magnet schools and to be exposed to and develop an appreciation of people from different cultures.
While a four-year art school was tempting as he considered higher education, the debt he’d carry with that decision was not. And it was the relationships he’d been building (some friends he’d made talked about the great art programs offered at UNT) during his cross-country moves that would later lead him to Denton.
He knew he wouldn’t have a traditional desk job, but it was his first fashion design class that he started to realize he could make a career of his passion.
With a desire for independence and a proclivity to work hard, he decided to spend some of his time in high school earning his cosmetology license so he could support himself and go to school without accumulating a lifetime of debt. Christian says it’s a great creative outlet and he works four days a week – Friday through Sunday – with “no days off,” as he puts it.
Christian doesn’t mind not having days off since when he isn’t in the salon working, he is at the studio on campus working on his craft and helping others develop theirs. Christian can often be found helping other undergrads with their projects, perfecting their stitching, or using a technique they may have seen him use in his designs.
Christian credits his professors, especially Barbara Trippeer, for mentoring him along the way and inspiring his creativity.
Most of all, Christian is proud to be the first male in his family to earn his college degree.
“I know my father and grandfather would be happy for me. I always remember that no matter what my grandfather was doing or how he was doing in his business, he always remained grateful and fulfilled. That’s the same love I have for fashion.”
On a snowy day in Van Alstyne, Riley Sprowl’s life was forever changed after one wrong turn while sledding.
“One of my friends took kind of a wide turn and it led me into a metal pipe fence,” Riley says. “I broke my C3, C4, and C5 (spinal) vertebrae, and it left me paralyzed from the neck down.”
Riley had quadriplegia, a paralysis of all four of his limbs and his torso.
Despite frequent hospitalizations and some low moments, Riley worked hard for his bachelor’s degree in integrative studies and sociology, and even founded Able Faith, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting people with disabilities.
“I’ve just been taking it one day at a time, learning more about myself and taking life less for granted,” Riley says. “I know my God's got a plan for me, and I just got to trust it and, you know, just believe in him and believe in the process.”
Riley’s school journey hasn’t been easy, but he believes UNT has helped him every step of the way.
“I would say UNT has definitely been an advocate for me,” Riley says. “They've kind of made me feel where I'm a student first that just happens to have a disability.”
Riley credits much of his success to Laurie Carroll, a senior academic counselor for the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. She even first suggested he pursue a double major.
“She was amazing,” Riley says. “She helped me step by step, she advocated for me, and the process was honestly a joy.”
With his outlook on life affected by quadriplegia, Riley wanted to help others like himself. He and a friend co-founded Able Faith, a non-profit dedicated to assisting people with disabilities.
“Its main goal is to help people with neurological disabilities grow in their faith, community, and also their fitness as well,” Riley says. “We really empower people with neurological disabilities and give them hope [that] they're not alone in this world.”
A transfer from Collin College, Riley was initially unsure of what degree to pursue. After speaking to an advisor, he decided to pursue a major in Integrative Studies.
“It’s kind of a jack of all trades,” Riley says. “You can take all these hours in different classes, and it can give you a feel for what you want to do.”
After taking a sociology class, he grew to love it. His advisor even suggested that he become a double major.
Riley hopes to further the mission of his nonprofit and expand its reach. As for himself, Riley is planning to take the next step in his life, finding a career. His goal is to be able to live as independently as possible.
“Right now, I need full-time care and stuff that’ll take care of me,” Riley says. “Having that sense of ‘I got my own job, pay my own bills, bought my own groceries,’ It’s a big deal for people like me that have lost a lot of independence.”
Riley is set to graduate magna cum laude. Reflecting on his experience, he recommends students to keep their eyes on the ball.
“Just focus on the now,” Riley says. “Embrace the newness that comes from experiencing college, study hard, take your time, there’s no rush.”
Trust the process. It’s a motto that Thi Ton Nu lives by.
Thi, who grew up in the central Vietnam city of Nha Trang, always dreamed of studying abroad in the United States. She had her sights set on UNT, but her grades in high school weren’t at the level to earn an academic scholarship. Not wanting to add additional strain to her parents who were paying her tuition, Thi attended Tarrant County College instead.
As a first-generation college student, she earned her associate’s degree with a 4.0 and transferred to UNT. While at UNT’s transfer orientation she learned about Teach North Texas, UNT’s innovative math and science secondary level teacher preparation program that addresses the need for a more STEM educated workforce.
Thi was intrigued. She planned to major in biology but wasn’t sure what career pathway to pursue. After trying out an entry level teaching class, Thi realized she had found her calling.
“I truly enjoy helping people,” Thi says. “I want to become an educator that will teach effectively and build healthy relationships with my students.”
As part of her requirements for the Teach North Texas program, Thi already has a head start. This spring, she worked as a student teacher at Amon Carter-Riverside High School in Fort Worth. Her job is to assist the primary teacher with teaching the class, grading papers and other tasks.
“When I first started in January, I would be teaching and sometimes my mentor would jump in and take over if I wasn’t sure,” Thi says. “Despite how hard those first days were, I trusted the process. By the time February hit, I was more confident, and I was able to teach by myself with no issues.”
Thi will finish up her degree this summer and plans to apply for teaching jobs. She plans to stay in the United States, with her family joining her.
“My parents worked so hard in their prime in our home country of Vietnam to let my siblings and me pursue the American dream,” Thi says. “I would not have gotten this far today if it were not for the help of my family, friends and of course encouraging faculty and students in the Teach North Texas program."
At a very early age, Ryan Simmons began dipping his toe into all kinds of physical labor like home building, welding and foundation repair — with the hope of one day opening up his own construction business.
But when Ryan was 13, he was involved in a nasty car accident that left him with a broken femur and six weeks in crutches. This would change the course of his life forever. He received a sizable amount of money from the court settlement and, without hesitation, his parents told him he had use it to pay for college. His goal of becoming a business owner was still possible.
Now Ryan, an entrepreneurship and enterprise management major, is the first in his family to graduate from college and the recipient of the Kuehne Speaker Series scholarship. While he loves having the whole college experience, one of the biggest challenges he’s had to face was finding that work-life-school balance.
“It was so exhausting trying to maintain a healthy balance of the three,” he says. “Working 40 hours a week plus going to school full-time was definitely something I had to take seriously because I didn’t have the luxury to just go out in the middle of the week and hang out with my friends.”
While he does envy some parts of going out during the week, he’s also grateful how far ahead he is in his respective field because of all the experience he’s attained with his job and with the opportunities he had at UNT.
Ryan’s first job was at Caliber Collison, one of the many auto repair shops that his dad manages. This job taught Ryan the value of a dollar and that you must put the work in to see any sort of progress. This job has allowed him to transition into his current position at Strive Concrete Solutions, where he’s learned most of his knowledge on concrete restoration.
Not only has he been getting hands on experience working in construction, but he’s also been making connections while on campus.
Recently, Ryan received the UNT Kuehne Speaker Series scholarship for $25,000 that grants students mentorship and networking opportunities to further their academic success.
“This scholarship is probably one of my biggest accomplishments,” says Ryan, who still intends to own his own construction business. “It wasn’t necessarily the money that made it special, it was the fact that I was able to network with other people who are in a similar field as me and being in the same room as them was something that made me really proud.
“I want my kids and my grandkids to have the opportunity to go to college because education is such a vital aspect to a person’s life.”
In his hometown of Lumberton, Cooper Dix showed an early love for science and was encouraged to pursue engineering, which he did at Texas A&M University. However, he quickly realized what he really loved was the prospect of research — figuring out the “why” behind a given topic.
As a graduate student at UNT, Cooper bounced around the sciences until finding his passion in astronomical research. He will earn a Ph.D. in physics and plans to attend the University of Texas at Austin to continue his research as a postdoctoral fellow.
“Being able to collaborate with so many smart minds that are all aimed at the advancement of knowledge is such an exciting experience for me,” he says. “Getting this experience has led me to continue my journey in academia.”
When Cooper arrived at UNT, Ohad Shemmer, an associate professor in the physics department, had just secured a grant for time at the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii to improve our understanding of quasars — active black holes way out in the universe.
“Quasars give us a wonderful insight as to how our universe has evolved,” Cooper says. “Effectively, the farther out we see an object, the farther back we are looking in time. So, what our work is trying to do is match what we see close by with what we see far away, and then try to see if there’s any sort of evolution going on.”
As initial data started coming in, Cooper developed a pilot project analyzing infrared data from the United Kingdom InfraRed Telescope (UKIRT), also in Hawaii. This project ultimately informed the larger Gemini project, which studied quasars’ location in the universe (redshift), mass and growth rate. Through Gemini, Cooper and the research team constructed the largest homogenous sample of high-redshift quasars measured to date.
In addition, using NASA’s space-borne Chandra X-ray Observatory, researchers studied x-ray wavelengths to look for additional indicators of a quasar’s growth or accretion rate.
The research from the Gemini Project was published in four different papers in the top astrophysical research journals. Upon graduation, Cooper will have published seven referenced papers in these journals, including two as first author.
“Dr. Shemmer and his research group really helped support me throughout and taught me how to research and present research,” he says. “The seven publications that I will have contributed to throughout my time here at UNT are a huge mark of my achievements as an astronomer and will propel me forward through my future career as a scientist.”
Cooper was in his second year at UNT and working as a teaching assistant when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. To stay connected with those in the astronomy program, he and some other graduate students started an “Ask an Astronomer” show on the UNT Astronomy Facebook page. There, they gave presentation livestreams and answered questions. He also organized and participated in the Astronomy Journal Club, which would find and present the latest research in the field.
Cooper points to several faculty and staff members in the physics department who helped him hone his research skills, including Yuan Li and Ryan Bennett. He encourages students to talk with their professors — especially if they’re feeling lost in their educational journey. He also credits his wife Allison for pushing him when he was nervous about deviating from the traditional get-a-degree-and-get-a-job route.
“Looking back, it was a long few years to grind through, but I couldn’t be happier with all the progress and accomplishments that we’ve made in our field,” Cooper says.
UNT offers all kinds of pathways to earn a degree — even halfway across the world.
Daniella Brown was in the middle of completing a degree from a college in the Netherlands when her graduation plans stalled, leaving her looking for other opportunities.
“Finding the B.A.A.S. program at UNT was a lightbulb moment for me.” Daniella says.
Thanks to UNT, she applied the credits she earned from a university in the Netherlands and finished her degree without starting over. Her time at UNT was such a success that she joined the honor society Phi Kappa Phi and became a B.A.A.S. ambassador for UNT’s Digital Strategic Innovation program.
Daniella believes that her concentration in Media Innovation was the perfect opportunity for her to continue her career path in digital marketing within the fashion industry.
Whether on her island of St. Maarten or in the Netherlands, Daniella always has worked closely within the fashion industry.
“During carnival time on my island, I assisted with creating costumes for parades,” Daniella says. “When I moved to the Netherlands, I volunteered at a textile research center in which I assisted with PR activities and workshops to enhance my knowledge of textiles and the weaving and wefting of those materials.”
Now she plans to use her public relations and branding courses to spotlight her creativity and passion for fashion.
“Branding and marketing studies gives you so much room to be creative and to think outside the box,” she says. “When I was growing up, my parents always gave me art and drawing books. They gave me the foundation to express myself, so I have my parents to thank for that. They never stifled my creativity.”
Creativity and accessibility are two of Daniella’s most significant reasons for getting her degree from UNT and taking advantage of the B.A.A.S. program.
“I like that everyone at UNT is so personable and easily accessible, maybe even more so because they are online,” she says. “For example, if I want to have a quick chat with a professor, I can just email or video call instead of going in person, where they may not be in their office.”
However, making connections with people is a struggle when you are solely online. Daniella quickly learned that she would have to take the initiative to network with her professors.
“Reaching out to my professors and having video call meetings about their course allowed me to create a rapport with the professors where they get to know me a bit,” Daniella says. “I already have a recommendation letter from one of my professors because of my effort.”
Daniella has made great leaps during her time at UNT and has become someone who takes the initiative, who starts the conversation, and who uses available technology to ensure she can succeed. This initiative has led to many doors opening for her.
“Last year, the DSI [Digital Strategic Innovation] program wanted an ambassador who could be a liaison to prospective students,” Daniella says. “This was such an opportune moment to network with the DSI Enterprise team as well as engage with other B.A.A.S. ambassadors. I participated in live webinars to share my experience at UNT and my story as an international student in this online program. I also was able to voice my thoughts on how the B.A.A.S. program could be even better for students in the future.”
The DSI Enterprise team helped Daniella with anything she needed as an international student.
“They went above and beyond in aiding in the resolution of any roadblocks or assisting with any challenges I encountered as an international online student,” Daniella says. “The B.A.A.S. program is great for international students because it also gives them insight into the American educational system.”
Daniella wants to ensure future international B.A.A.S. students know how important it is to take advantage of this opportunity and how accessible this program is.
“Don’t give up on yourself. Never think that because you are working or a parent or whatever situation you may be in that it isn’t possible to complete your degree,” Daniella says. “Keep at it. You are never too old to reach whatever goal you set for yourself.”