Image ALT Text

Congratulations UNT Spring 2024 Grads!

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 2024 graduates, below are the stories of a few of those freshly-minted alumni who overcame adversity and achieved great things on their way to becoming this semester's Great Grads.


UNT Battle Flag

Photo of David Muñoz-Sarabia standing in front of a UNT building with a pride flag draped around their shoulders.

David Muñoz-Sarabia

Political Science and Digital Retailing

by Bess Whitby

Like most high school seniors, David Muñoz-Sarabia was slightly nervous about starting college — until they visited UNT.

“I took a tour, and UNT instantly felt like home,” David says. “I was able to see myself here.”

David moved to Denton from their hometown of Plano, a distance that felt perfectly close by and far away. After striking up a conversation with a group of strangers, they discovered those strangers were their next-door neighbors in the dorm. The group went to dinner that night and became fast friends.

But college presented new and difficult challenges. As a first-generation college student, David often had to navigate the academic world on their own. Although they enjoyed their newfound independence, they sometimes struggled with loneliness and their mental health.

Despite these struggles, David persevered. They credit the UNT community with supporting them through difficult times. They felt especially supported by UNT staff and faculty members, as well as the student organizations they joined.

“As a queer Latinx person, sometimes you get impostor syndrome and wonder, ‘Do I belong at this table?’” David says. “UNT has people that say, ‘Yes, you do, and you’ll always have a seat here.’”

David’s degree path wasn’t straightforward. They considered the music education program but ultimately chose to join Teach North Texas, UNT’s immersive program that gives future educators hands-on experience in the classroom. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person teaching difficult.

David decided to rethink their plans. They had served as a student leader in various capacities since high school, so political science seemed like a wise choice. A promotion at their retail job provided a new kind of inspiration, and they decided to pursue a secondary major in digital retailing.

“My two majors give me a little more flexibility in my career path. I chose this path because I want to be in the business of helping people,” David says. “I want to bring people joy.”

During their time at UNT, David also was able to hone their leadership skills and help their fellow students. They held leadership positions in several student organizations, including the Latinx Hispanic Student Union, Latinx Student Experience, the Student Alumni Association, UNT GLAD and Lavender Leaders. They were elected student body vice president in 2021 — one of their proudest accomplishments.

As David prepares to graduate, they look back at their UNT years with fondness and gratitude. They hope incoming freshmen will do what they did: take risks, make friends and learn.

“My advice is to get a little uncomfortable — put yourself out there, start a conversation with a classmate, get involved in student organizations,” David says. “It’s scary being in a new place and meeting strangers, but that group could end up being your chosen family, the people you stay in touch with, who go with you to Homecoming and games and events. Those are the best moments.”

Photo of Stephanie Villagomez wearing a graduation stole in a gazebo.Stephanie Villagomez


By Natalie Crawford

Stephanie Villagomez found herself and her passion for research when she found her home at the University of North Texas.

However, Stephanie’s academic journey to excellence first began at Sam Houston State University when she submitted her work to SHSU’s Undergraduate Research Symposium as a freshman.

“I didn’t know how the research symposium worked,” she says. “I didn’t know that you needed a mentor or anything – I just signed up by myself and did everything myself.”

The research symposium would change the trajectory of her educational career. Before even enrolling at UNT, Stephanie’s passion for research and learning were on display and she earned an Honorable Mention for her oral presentation as the only freshman to present that year.

Stephanie’s love of research began in high school when one of her teachers pushed her to take a class on how to do research. When it came time to attend college, Stephanie chose Psychology as her major so she could focus on understanding the human experience. “My main passion is research, so because psychology is very research-heavy, it has definitely helped me do the things that I want to do,” Stephanie says.

By the time she joined UNT in fall of 2021, Stephanie was one step closer to her goal and uncovering her underlying passion. But as a first-generation college student, she needed help navigating her way while attending a university. That’s when she found TRIO, a federal outreach and student services program designed to identify and provide resources and services, as well as motivate and support students throughout their college journeys. “I take a lot of pride in being a first-generation student so joining TRIO and finding a program like it when I was coming into university was really important for me,” Stephanie says.

Because of the support she was given by TRIO, Stephanie was able to overcome tough changes that come with transitioning to college life such as homesickness and isolation. “The mentors in TRIO have been rocks for me,” Stephanie says. “Even though I’m from Dallas, which is pretty close, I didn’t have a car at the time so I couldn’t go see my parents when I needed them. The TRIO mentors served as parental figures for me, and I could come to them with whatever problem I was dealing with. I really needed that.”

TRIO staff helped Stephanie with the next steps in her journey, which led her to the McNair Scholars Program, a highly competitive program that provides scholarships to students hoping to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees. Stephanie applied to McNair and made it in!

With the help of her mentor, Dr. Joanna Davis-McElligatt, assistant professor of Black Literary and Cultural Studies, Stephanie conducted research on Japanese queer culture, its portrayal and how it translates to an American audience. “I got to present that research at two UNT conferences and also one conference outside of the university,” she says. “I was on a panel at The University of Texas at Austin for the BIPOC PoP 2023 conference, and I was very proud of myself.”

Stephanie’s research on queerness and how it functions and is translated from one society to another is something she is passionate – it’s juxtaposed with her upbringing in a deeply Catholic immigrant family.

“I knew I wanted to do something about queerness because my queer identity is something I was able to explore more in college,” Stephanie says. “My mentor was especially helpful in helping me narrow down what type of research I wanted to explore due to Dr. Davis-McElligatt’s own expertise and body of work regarding queerness and people of color.”

Stephanie plans to continue her research as she works toward a Ph.D. in Gender Studies. She plans on taking a semester to celebrate before continuing her education at either UNT or Texas Woman’s University so she can stay in Denton, which she has grown to love. Stephanie wants to become a professor and use her research to demonstrate how important humanities research is. “There’s not a lot of value placed this kind of research, but I think that there should be more. Social sciences matter and we need to expand that body of knowledge to further help people. There’s a lot of value in understanding people.”

Stacy Gentry poses on a bridge.Staci Gentry

Master’s in English Language and Literature

By Lisa Sciortino

Growing up, Staci Gentry thought she would never become a teacher. The daughter of an elementary school reading and writing instructor, she now realizes that fate may have been inevitable.

‘“Apparently, it’s what I’m drawn to,” says Staci, who will graduate this month from UNT with a master’s in English Language and Literature from the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences — two years after earning a bachelor’s in the subject.

Educating and assisting students is something the Denton resident has done quite a lot during her six years at UNT.

From 2020 to 2023, Staci worked as a student tutor and, later, as a graduate assistant in the English Department’s Comms Lab, where she tailored her sessions to students’ individual academic needs as well as their unique learning styles and personalities.

“One of the beautiful things about English and learning how to write in general is learning to think and express thoughts that are genuinely yours,” she says.

She also hosted weekly workshops focused on course concepts, including grammar and resume writing, and implemented data collection surveys among students — the results of which were shared with fellow writing center tutors.

Staci is currently a teaching fellow in the English Department, where she’ll serve as an adjunct this fall. She’ll also research doctorate programs as she sets her sights on earning a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition.

“My teaching philosophy is really centered around granting my students space — space to share their feelings and thoughts, whether personal or academic — and learn how to communicate their ideas without fear,” she says. “I try to teach each one of my students that their voice matters, and I hope they leave my class believing that.”

She encourages students to visit her during office hours. “I like that time because I get to see them as humans who have interests and struggles. I’m really able to relate to them.”

In 2022, Staci worked closely with UNT associate professor Dr. Kathryn Raign, director of the First Year Writing Program, to develop an online course for Coursera. Currently, they are crafting a proposal for a book which will examine the training provided to graduate-student teachers. For the project, Staci is conducting student interviews and surveys with the goal of learning what newly minted instructors want to know as they begin teaching.

It means a lot that Raign recognized her potential early on, Staci says. “It’s such a privilege to have a professor who taught you and really mentored you beyond just your classwork and who sees something in you.”

Raign says she has forged “truly amazing relationships” with many students throughout her career, but that Staci “is in a class by herself. She’s everything any professor could hope for in a grad student. She’s not only kept up but she’s gone a step beyond. I know she has a very bright future ahead of her.”

Staci, who serves as vice president of the North Texas Writing Association, is no stranger to receiving accolades. In 2021, she was presented UNT’s COVID-19 Student Success Award as well as the Scholarship for Continuing Students. That year, she also was awarded the Mary Patchell Scholarship by the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. She recently received the 2024 Eugene Wright Outstanding M.A. Student Award from the English Department.

The latter award is especially fitting this year, as she felt she came into her own within the department. “I’m treated more as a colleague,” she says. “My opinions matter here, and that’s something I’m very grateful for.”

Rachel Richards poses in commencement regalia.Rachel Richards

Hospitality Management

By Jill King

Rachel Richards likes to say she “grew up falling in love with the hospitality industry.” She did take her first plane ride just four weeks after her birth, flying with her mom from their native United Kingdom to the family’s new home in Mansfield.

Her father’s work with an incentive travel company had brought them to Texas, and later, his new job with Maui Jim Sunglasses led to frequent trips to Hawaii. That’s where Rachel experienced one of her earliest luxury hotel stays at age 6.

“I’m at the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, and I’m running across the grass,” she remembers. “I can’t feel a single thing under my feet because I’ve never felt grass softer than that, and we hear the waves and we see a turtle and my brother and I were just so content to play. And how kind the staff were. They would laugh at us if we were doing something funny and they would bring little ice cream treats to us.”

It was the same at Maui’s Grand Wailea, where the children would do their school work on the patio in the morning, enjoy smiles from the staff and play on the water slides in the afternoon.

“Because I got exposed to that and realized how much fun it was and how many memories I can recall to this day in crisp, clear detail, I wanted to do that for other families, for other couples, for other kids,” Rachel says.

She knew if she was going to focus on hospitality as a career, she wanted to do it at the highest level.

“My goal was luxury hospitality,” she says. “That’s what my parents had done and I loved the fact that it has such a good emphasis on quality and making things memorable.”

As a Hospitality Management major at UNT, Rachel found some impressive summer internships. She first interned at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas, a connection made through the College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism Career Fair. Then last summer she interned at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. Resume and interview workshops offered by CMHT and her Honors College classes helped prepare her to seize that opportunity.

During the long semesters, she packed in banquet, front desk, housekeeping, human resources and sales experience through her work at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Denton Convention Center. She also became an inaugural member of the CMHT Leadership Academy.

“That gave me such good resources to use — other students, other faculty,” she says. “We were given a mentor through the program, which was amazing because I had never had a mentor.”

She lists Dr. Christy Crutsinger among her favorite professors (“she’s the reason I’ve grown so much”), along with Todd Uglow (“so easy to talk to”) and Chef Jodi Duryea (“good at pushing me when I needed it”).

Because Rachel took college classes in high school, she is finishing her degree in three years. But that also meant her second year was filled with many time-intensive courses on top of her work.

“You feel so upset because you have all these things you want to give 100% of yourself to,” she says, “but the math just doesn’t add up.”

She also was grieving the loss of two grandparents. Then, her family dog since childhood died, and she hadn’t been able to visit her family for several months.

“Dealing with grief, dealing with stress, dealing with guilt — it all starts to stack up,” she says. “I really don’t think I could have gotten through if I didn’t have such understanding professors.”

Once she made it to the summer and headed for her Arizona internship, she could concentrate on the work there, and she thrived.

“Honestly, I have just been riding that wave ever since,” she says. “It is the best senior year.”

In addition to her degree, she’s earning certificates in food and beverage management, hotel operations and transformational leadership.

As a panelist for CMHT’s Next Generation Intelligence Summit last fall, the 20-year-old shared the stage with high-level executives to talk about generational intelligence.

But her crowning achievement came when — after four interviews and a site visit — she was hired for the highly selective manager-in-training program at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston, where she will begin work in August. She wants to become a general manager of one of the company’s hotels, eventually move to London and definitely continue her travels.

“It’s a dream come true. It’s the best start after college I could have asked for, so I am insanely grateful to everyone from Jeff Pritts at the Embassy Suites, to those at my Four Seasons internship, to Dean Jana Hawley and Dr. Crutsinger,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it without UNT. I really do love the university so dearly.”

Camryn Traylor poses on a balcony overlooking a picturesque landscape.Camryn Traylor


By Lexie Shamir

Camryn Traylor has always been driven by her passion for sports and her supportive family – sometimes literally.

“My mom and my dad would drive me from a soccer game in the morning to a volleyball tournament that was an hour away that same day,” Camryn says. “My family was always there for me.”

Multiple ACL injuries cut Camryn’s athletic pursuits short, but her experience as a patient inspired her to consider a career in physical therapy. After graduating from high school in 2020, she decided to earn a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology at UNT.

However, a challenge arose for Camryn and many other 2020 high school graduates: starting college online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was hard to make friends since I didn’t live on campus, and I wasn’t involved in anything yet,” she says.

Camryn lived at home with family 40 minutes away from UNT, causing her to miss out on the opportunity to immerse herself in the UNT community her freshman and sophomore years.

Once the threat of the pandemic subsided and the world started to reopen, Camryn jumped at the chance to get involved — an experience that would change her life in many ways. Since getting the chance to return to campus, she has taken advantage of all the school has to offer the last couple of years through programs like the Emerald Eagle Scholars and North Texas Sweethearts.

As an eligible first-generation college student, Camryn accepted an invitation to join the Emerald Eagle Scholars program her freshman year.

“It’s really cool that UNT has a program like that to help and kind of guide first-generation students and give them resources and opportunities to ask questions and learn more,” she says.

One of those opportunities took the form of a study abroad trip to Italy, offering a vastly different college experience from her first two years of remote learning.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever been out of the country,” Camryn says. “It was just incredible to be in a different culture — the food, the people, the music.”

Through this trip, Camryn made a connection with an Emerald Eagle advisor that accompanied the group, Taylor Mireles, who would later have a big influence on her career path.

After getting involved with the Emerald Eagles, she also discovered the North Texas Sweethearts in spring 2022. The organization’s support for UNT athletics and philanthropy caught Camryn’s eye and she joined that fall.

“I quickly met my closest friends through that,” she says. “Honestly, it’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve made while being at UNT.”

Camryn’s career plans for physical therapy changed after a brief period of working with the UNT football team as a trainer. During her sophomore and junior years, she worked at the same physical therapy location she attended as a patient and realized kinesiology might not be her calling after all. With the fast-paced environment she experienced working with UNT athletics, Camryn decided to explore other options.

With two semesters left, she spoke to different advisors — including Mireles — and a career coach to figure out her new path. The conversation always pointed to her hobbies.

“It’s always been sports,” Camryn says. “I’ve been around sports my whole life, so I think I still wanted to stay in that direction.”

Camryn came across the Sport Entertainment Management graduate program in the G. Brint Ryan College of Business, and after careful deliberation, she applied. In the weeks leading up to graduation, Camryn was accepted. A lifelong fan of the Dallas Cowboys — who are partners of the program — Camryn hopes this path will allow her to network, get work experience and snag an internship.

“Where I see myself with this is hopefully working for a big-name team, that would be really cool,” she says.

Looking at where she is now, Camryn feels so much gratitude for her support system of family and friends and for the experiences she’s had.

“I’ve had a lot of bumps in the road on the way here,” she says, “but everything happens for a reason, and I just feel like I wouldn’t be who I am today and doing what I want to do without those experiences.”

Joy Hague-Werst working at a desktop computer.Joy Hague-Werst  

Doctorate in Organ Performance  

By Allicia Washington-White

Joy Hague-Werst’s passion for music started in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1914, before she was even born.

“My mother belonged to a Baptist church, and even though she grew up extremely poor, it did not mean she was ignorant,” Joy says. “My mother learned to play piano at church, she studied it intensely and ultimately decided that all her children would learn to play.”

The youngest of eight, Joy recalls hearing the piano all day as a small child in the rural town of Pine Forge, Pennsylvania. Under her mother’s “each-one, teach-one” model the siblings would attend lessons in nearby Pottstown, and once they completed all their lessons, the next sibling would attend with coaching from the older ones.

“The piano was pushed up against the wall near my crib and started at 5 a.m. daily. Then the next person came and practiced after school, so I heard music all the time because the piano was constantly going, my mother saw to it.” Joy was three years when she became insistent about learning to play the piano.

At this time, Joy’s 10-year-old sister was introduced to American author and novelist Pearl S. Buck of Bucks County. Joy recalls, “She [Buck] would find children in Germany and parts of Asia who were affected by the war — descendants of American GIs — and bring them back to her ranch and educate them which included piano lessons. “My mother took my sister to play for Buck an hour away from our home. She was so impressed with her playing that she agreed to finance my sister’s musical education through graduate school.”

Joy began begging her mother to learn to play every day! Finally, her mother relented, and she took to playing like a fish to water. “My turn to play for Ms. Buck came when I was 10 years old; I played In the Gloaming – it was a tune that I liked, and I’d learned that piece on my own. She was very impressed.” Buck paid for Joy to attend the Philadelphia New School of Music, a prep for Curtis Institute of Music and Julliard. She would make weekly day trips to Philadelphia. “I took the Redding Express to get there,” recalls Joy.

Forging a future in music was not going to be an easy journey for Joy – although her mother ignited Joy’s fire for music, she thought it should be a passion, not a career path. She sent Joy off to Pacific Union College in California after high school. She attended briefly, married, moved to San Diego and gave birth to her son JJ. She then attended Loma Linda University where she trained as a clinical dietician and worked for several years at the university hospital. 

Joy traveled to the American Conservatory of Music in Fontainebleau, France in the summer of ’78 to study piano. She’d hoped to get some time with Nadia Boulanger, world renowned conductor and composer who was passing by the time Joy arrived. This trip inspired her to return to the United States to work on her music career and obtain a degree in New York City.

Joy returned to California working as a clinical dietician and was offered a full scholarship to pursue an advanced degree in the field. She regretfully declined as she accepted admission to the Manhattan School of Music. Joy was able to complete her plans for going to New York – but ultimately divorced and left California for good.

Joy was invited to pursue a degree in sacred music learning to play the organ, but the Manhattan School of Music’s Sacred Music department closed before she fully considered. Determined, she journeyed to Northwestern University in Illinois to obtain a master’s degree in organ performance and sacred music under the tutelage of Wolfgang Rübsam. “He was the foremost organist in the world. He was my teacher, sparked my interest in organ and when I finished after two years, I was playing things I thought I never could.”

As Joy’s passion-turned-career flourished — she traveled for several years with musical groups as a pianist and conducted at the Chicago Children’s Choir for two years.

Joy moved to Texas in 2007 and taught at a junior college where she was encouraged to attend UNT. She found community in Texas as a longtime member of the American Guild of Organists and was encouraged to get a doctorate by the San Antonio chapter’s dean. Landing in Denton, she joined the College of Music in 2012 to obtain a doctorate of musical arts with a specialization in organ performance. In the midst of her studies, her son lost his life in 2018 and it felt as if everything was taken from her, but she pushed on. She wants to inspire people to chase their dreams and keep the faith to finish no matter what life throws at you.

“My dream has taken me all over the world, music connected me with so many people,” Joy says. “I never thought I was going to get a doctorate, and now I don’t feel like I am ending, I feel like I am starting.”

Jermiah Crowder poses outdoors in commencement regaliaJermiah Crowder


By Lisa Sciortino

It’s rare to see Jermiah Crowder without a smile on her face. After all, there is much for her to be happy about these days.

She’s graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry after having maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout her academic career at UNT — which landed her on the President’s List each semester for four years.

This fall, she’ll begin studying at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, where she’s been awarded a full-tuition scholarship. It’s the next step toward turning her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor into reality.

But that smile hasn’t always come easily to Jermiah, who has faced tragedy and challenges on the road to a future that she hopes will be laden with opportunities to educate, assist and inspire others.

In 2018, just days after her 16th birthday, Jermiah’s father, Patrick Crowder Sr., died unexpectedly.

In the years since, the Tyler, Texas native has focused on growing her resiliency rather than succumbing to sadness. “It was very difficult, but I had to learn that if I could make it through this, I could make it through anything,” she says. “I just kept pushing myself, and that hasn’t stopped to this day.”

For two years, Jermiah served as president of the UNT chapter of the American Chemical Society. She worked with Department of Chemistry staff, faculty and students to resurrect the formerly dormant chapter by scheduling regular meetings, hosting guest speakers and securing a grant from the national ACS organization.

In 2022 and 2023, she participated in the Joint Admission Medical Program, which provides underserved undergraduates guaranteed admission to one of Texas’ 11 medical schools. During a pair of summer internships through the program, she shadowed physicians on the job, engaged in patient care and community outreach activities, and attended Medical College Admission Test prep classes.

Her JAMP internship with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley brought Jermiah to a medical clinic near the Texas-Mexico border. The facility lacked air conditioning as well as much-needed equipment.

“Being there made me realize why I want to be a physician,” says Jermiah, who has also job shadowed at UT Southwestern, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton and CHRISTUS Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler. She hopes to spend her career practicing obstetrics and gynecology and looks forward to educating patients — especially Black women and others in underserved communities — about their health.

On some of the darkest days following her father’s death, Jermiah relied on the support of her family, friends and the UNT community to help her stay on track — academically and otherwise.

When she struggled in an organic chemistry class, she says now-retired principal lecturer Sushama Dandekar questioned the amount of effort Jermiah was putting forth. “She said, ‘I see your potential, and I need you to put your best foot forward from now on.’ Ever since then, I’ve been putting my best foot forward.”  

Jermiah also credits Todd Lang, assistant dean of health professions for the College of Science, with “inspiring me to be the person I am today,” she says. “For every success and failure I have had in the last two years, he was the first person I went to. I hope that he views me as one of his success stories because even though it has been hard, I made it through.”

At UNT, Jermiah worked as a Peer-Led Team-Learning Leader through the chemistry department, tutoring and mentoring general chemistry students. She also served as an athletic tutor through the Student-Athlete Academic Center.

“Whenever a student or a mentee comes to me and says they can’t make it through this class or that lab, I’m like, ‘Trust me, I know exactly what you’re talking about,’” she says. “I’m able to say, ‘Look at me – I made it through. I’m seeing the other side now, and that means you can see it, too.’ I just want to be an inspiration to others.” 

Such interactions — coupled with her desire to help others — are the reasons behind Jermiah’s ever-present smile. “They can hear my story, they can see my struggle and be like, ‘She made it. So can I.’”

Kiran Daulla sits on the UNT fountain in commencement robes.Kiran Daulla


By Amanda Fuller

When Kiran Daulla started her senior year at UNT, she promised herself it would be her “yes” year.

“I’m really Type A, so I told myself that if someone says, ‘Let's do this thing,’ I wasn’t going to say, ‘OK, give me a few weeks — I need to plan this out.’ I was just going to try and say yes.”

She said yes to events, friendships, research and to building a community of peer and faculty mentors, all of which would help her realize her educational dreams.

“UNT has so many events every day that you can start to take them for granted,” she says. “My friends and I wouldn't have done these things, but we realized that we’ll soon all be going our separate ways.”

A Denton native, Kiran chose UNT after touring the Chemistry department with her high school AP Chemistry class. She knew she loved chemistry, but she wasn’t sure where it would take her until she got a taste of life in the lab through the UNT PHAGES program.

Led by Lee Hughes, University Distinguished Teaching Professor of Biological Sciences and associate dean in the College of Science, the program provides opportunities for freshmen to participate in scientific research during their first year in college.

“Dr. Hughes made a really big impact on me,” she says. “I knew I wanted to try research before I came to UNT, but I didn’t know it was the path for me until I found the PHAGES program.”

Most of Kiran’s first year at UNT was online due to the pandemic, so when campus was back open for her sophomore year, she hit the ground running. She became an ambassador for the College of Science and landed her first on-campus job as a Peer-Led Team Learning leader. She served as president of the American Society for Microbiology student chapter and vice president of the American Chemical Society student chapter at UNT since 2021.

“Since my first year was isolating, I always make it a point to reach out to the students I tutor and ask, ‘How are you feeling about your classes? Have you thought about what you might want to do for a career? I've made some mistakes that you probably don't have to.’”

She also began working on phage genetics in the lab of assistant professor Mauricio Antunes, who quickly became a core member of her growing team of UNT mentors, which included Dr. Hughes and Amy Petros, principal lecturer of Chemistry.

“I've never met anyone at UNT who wasn’t accessible and empathetic, especially when I didn't know what I was doing,” Kiran says.

In her junior year, Dr. Hughes and Dr. Antunes encouraged her to apply for the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), a competitive 10-week program where students stay at a host institution and work alongside faculty and other researchers on a specific research project.

She was accepted into the REU site at the University of California, Riverside, where she worked on genetically engineering tomato plants to be more resistant to climate change using CRISPR Cas9 gene editing technology — the very technology she’d learned about in her classes at UNT.

“The research was really independent, and it was rewarding having to figure out firsthand how to troubleshoot when things didn’t work out.”

She knew she belonged in the lab, but sometimes she’d question whether she deserved so many opportunities. Seeing the success of her graduate student mentor, also a minority woman in STEM, reassured her that she was where she was supposed to be.

“You hear stories of amazing people who’ve done amazing things, but those can seem out of reach. Having that one-on-one experience with someone who's going through the same things I'm going through was really rewarding. I want to be that person for someone.”

This fall, Kiran will head to North Carolina State University to begin her doctoral degree in Genetics.

“I didn't know this until I did the NSF program, but getting a Ph.D. is essentially answering a question that has never been answered before,” she says. “As someone who has some more questions coming out of undergrad than answers, that just seems like the coolest thing to me.”

To any UNT student still searching for their place on campus, Kiran has reassurance that it’s not always about finding the answer. You just have to ask the question.

“When I was an orientation leader last summer, I’d tell incoming students that the most daunting thing about coming to university can be making friends. Don’t be afraid to go up to people and ask, ‘Hey, can I sit with you?’ or, ‘Hey, we have an exam coming up. Do you want to make a study group?’ The worst they can do is say no, and you might never even see them again — UNT is a big place!"

Setareh “Star” Moslemi with her son, Raha.Setareh “Star” Dehghani-Moslemi

Ph.D. in Behavior Analysis

By Chelsey Gilbert

At age 17, Setareh “Star” Dehghani-Moslemi fled Iran’s religious persecution by train and boat with her parents and four siblings.

Two days after leaving Iran, her father died.

Now, 22 years later, she is a wife, the mother of an infant, and an award-winning researcher. Soon, she’ll graduate with her Ph.D. in Health Sciences with a concentration in Behavior Analysis.

“I am a survivor of religious persecution, a former refugee, and an immigrant,” says Star, whose family is of the Baha’i faith, a world religion with a minority population in Iran. “The Iranian government discriminates against the Baha’i citizens and does not allow them to receive a higher education.”

Nevertheless, education was important to Star’s family. “My dad wanted to do everything he could for his children to get educated. So, he decided to take us all out of Iran.”

Her father led the family out of Iran despite being very sick and having been told by his doctor not to travel. Ultimately, he sacrificed his life for his family because he died just two days after leaving Iran. 

“Since then, I have made it my mission to take advantage of the opportunities that I will be given here and get higher education,” Star says.  “Everything I have done and will do is to make my father proud.”

Sponsored by her sister, Star and her family moved to San Jose, California, where she resided for seven years. She worked her first job, learned English, and earned her GED.

After marrying her husband, Shayan, she moved to Little Elm, Texas. She began her college journey by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in speech language pathology and audiology from the University of Texas at Dallas where she was introduced to autism and the field of behavior analysis in one of her practicum courses. She quickly developed a passion for this field and working with children with autism. “I was fascinated by how applied behavior analysis can improve the lives of individuals with autism,” she says.

After earning her master’s degree from Texas Tech University, she worked as a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) at an autism clinic for two years and got promoted to the clinic’s director of research and training.

In 2018, Star was drawn to UNT to pursue her doctorate from the Behavior Analysis Ph.D. program, which premiered that same year. Her dissertation advisor, Dr. Samantha Bergmann, has been influential to her growth. “She believed in me and went above and beyond to create a wonderful experience for me at UNT. I strive to be a mentor like her,” she says.

While at UNT, Star has received multiple awards, grants, and recognitions to support her dissertation research, including a University of North Texas Small Seed Grant, the 2023 Graduate Research Award from the Organization for Autism Research, and the 2024 James L. Kopp Memorial Scholarship from the Texas Association for Behavior Analysis. She also earned first place in a poster competition at the 2023 Graduate Research Day in the College of Health and Public Service, received a 2024 Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis Senior Student Presenter Grant from the Association for Behavior Analysis International, and her dissertation was highlighted at the 2023 UNT University Research Day.

In addition to working on her dissertation, which involves an evaluation of a brief podcast that teaches caregivers how to implement positive reinforcement with their children with autism, Star also has started the first-known autism and behavior analysis podcast in Farsi, called ABA Talk with Star, to deliver helpful information to Iranian caregivers who have a child with autism and do not have easy access to evidenced-based treatment.

Star became a new mother during her last year in the Ph.D. program. “While it has been challenging to manage my time while caring for my baby, he has brought with himself so much positivity and given me even more purpose to successfully finish my Ph.D.,” she says.

As Star prepares to graduate, she hopes that her journey inspires others with similar goals and experiences.

“Have a vision of what you want to be in life — not just academically, but the kind of a person you want to be and the kind of things that you want to do in life. Even if you were born in a different country and speak a different language, it doesn't mean that you cannot take advantage of the opportunities that are given to you here to achieve your dreams. Never give up.”

Jason Pitts' headshot.Jason Pitts

Data Science

By Walker Smart

Jason Pitts describes himself as “a bit of a non-traditional student.” Although he didn’t start working towards his degree until 2018, his decision to delay wasn’t for the usual reasons. When he graduated high school in 2013, he earned a full scholarship to study music in the Dear School of Creative and Performing Arts at Northwestern State University in Louisiana. But after seeing that so many of his teachers and peers worked very hard in fields they cared about without ever making much money, he decided not to attend school for fear of losing his love of music.

Instead, he took up jobs in oil fields near his hometown of Marshall, Texas. He eventually moved to The Colony to live with a friend in the area in hopes of finding more options. He worked in food service and retail, but heading back to college was always on his mind: “I always wanted to go to college and do something, but I wasn’t sure what. I was working at Albertsons in Denton when I finally applied to UNT.”

Jason originally enrolled as a computer science major, but after two semesters, it didn’t feel like a good fit. His interest in creative writing led him to a double major in English and history.

“I got to study with really awesome professors. I like learning because any subject you get into has a depth you can’t see on the surface, and it’s hard to appreciate it before you work with someone who loves it,” Jason says. “In Dr. Jehanne Dubrow’s class, I explored so much about the depths of poetry. And history has a convenient relationship with writing. Who doesn’t want to hear a cool story? I think everyone could use a little history.”

Unfortunately, Jason’s schedule didn’t allow him to continue with creative writing. He shifted instead to a Japanese major that he had already started on with his foreign language requirements. As he continued working through his classes, he stumbled upon UNT’s College of Information website and found the data science degree, which overlapped with his original major of computer science, but was more flexible.

“I’m pretty big on statistics. I like logic and answers to make sense of things that don’t make sense. I’ve learned things in math that applied to my creative writing. It’s those abstractions at a high level that make everything interesting,” he says, “Data science makes sense. I’m a system administrator for UNT, so I do programming, software deployment, security — pretty much anything businesswise or IT-wise, I’m involved with it. Looking at the course schedule, I was pretty familiar with it all.”

It wasn’t long before his coursework started to pay off at his day job. “I work with the Office of General Counsel a lot. I’m in class and we’re talking about archive and record management for evidence discovery, and then I get out of class and attorneys are asking me questions about stuff I’ve just covered,” Jason says. “I don’t know that a lot of people get to say they go to class and then right away they cover the same topic at work.”

Jason’s degree has been a long time coming, but that doesn’t mean it was always easy. “It’s been more difficult than I give it credit for, working full time here and going to school full time. People tell me I’m doing a lot, but I think I have an invisible stress that I don’t really realize sometimes,” he says. “Everyone at work has been great, they work with my schedule…it helps to work at the university. We always say students should come first.”

But earning this degree is only the beginning for Jason. During his last year in college, he managed to put together an audition for the College of Music and was accepted into the music program as a classical guitar student.

“Obviously, money is a thing you can’t ignore, but for me personally, you have to do whatever makes you happy — whatever that means at the time,” Jason says. “While you might not always have the resources, you have to try however you can.” 

While Jason is committed to becoming a life-long learner, that doesn’t mean he isn’t taking a moment to stop and celebrate. “I’m proud of getting an audition together in two months and getting into the College of Music,” he says. “I’m proud of graduating — I’m a first-generation student. I think it’s going to be an emotional commencement. I’m excited.”

Maria Pena poses in front of a UNT Veterans flag wearing graduation regalia.Mario Pena


By Lisa Sciortino

From an early age, Mario Pena knew the odds of one day earning a college degree and crossing a commencement stage were against him.

This month, he will do both — for the second time within a year.

Mario completed coursework at UNT for a bachelor’s degree in economics through the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences in Summer 2023 and participated in commencement last fall. This month, he’ll once again don his regalia and graduate with a bachelor’s in history — also through CLASS.

He credits his academic successes to his determination to persevere — something he has carried with him since his traumatic childhood in Central California.

Mario’s parents battled substance addiction and his father was imprisoned for attempting to murder their family. For several years after, Mario and his mother bounced between homelessness and living in women’s shelters.

He attended school infrequently and was eventually placed in the care of his grandmother. This new home was shared by more than a dozen relatives, leaving Mario to sleep on the closet floor. Following his grandmother’s death, he moved in with an aunt, uncle and several cousins, where he used a couch for a bed.

“To me, it was just normal. I didn’t know any other life. Whenever other kids were talking about their families, I had no idea what they were referencing,” he says.

In need of eyeglasses, Mario had difficulty learning English and grammar in school because he couldn’t see information posted on the classroom’s overhead projector. To compensate, he memorized lessons. For a time, he participated in a program for gifted and talented students but struggled to complete the work without a computer or internet access at home.

Although he lacked motivation throughout much of high school, Mario never considered abandoning his education.

“I didn’t really know that I could quit,” he says. “In my mind, it was like, ‘I can’t quit because I’ll get in trouble.’ I never really thought of it as an option, so I never had to weigh the consequences of quitting.”

His life changed in 2009 when he met a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter. Their conversation inspired him to improve his grades so he could graduate the following year and enlist in the military. “Talking to the recruiter cemented my commitment to education and actually learning more,” Mario says.

After training as a Marine crew chief and loadmaster, he was stationed in Japan, where he served as an air wing member flying on KC-130J aerial refueling tankers. When Mario returned stateside, he attended a branch campus of Columbia College at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth and earned an associate degree in General Education.

Since enrolling at UNT in 2019 as a first-generation student, Mario has been involved with several organizations, including the SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society. He served as secretary for the Texas Beta chapter of the national veterans’ fraternity, Omega Delta Sigma. He is also a peer mentor at the UNT Student Veterans Services Center, which he says successfully creates and fosters “the community involvement that veterans want to be part of.”

Mario is also dedicated to giving back by donating to and volunteering for organizations that assisted him early in his life, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. He mentors a “little brother” through the organization’s Tarrant County chapter. “I’ve gotten to see him grow up to be a man and it’s very fulfilling,” he says.

It’s a feeling similar to the one Mario experiences when he’s in a classroom — as a student and an educator.

In the fall, he will return to UNT and begin earning an M.B.A. in Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management through the G. Brint Ryan College of Business. He also is pursuing an alternative teaching certification and hopes to teach high school economics classes.

Above all, he wants to inspire others facing adversity.

“We had a saying in the Marines: Never quit, never surrender,” he says. “You never surrender in life. You keep going and eventually you do achieve your goals.”

Manuel Ruiz sits in a lab surrounded by equipment.Manuel Ruiz

Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

By Heather Noel

As a child, Manuel Ruiz remembers tagging along with his mother as she attended college classes in the evenings to pursue a Psychology degree. The experience planted an intellectual curiosity that still guides his research today.

“My mom didn’t have childcare, so she would bring me along and I remember listening to all the different lectures. One of the things that always caught my attention was discussions on the human brain,” says Manuel, who will soon earn his doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Manuel’s research investigates how neural cells in the brain are affected by high blood sugar levels, which are commonly seen in individuals who have been diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. It’s a disease that Ruiz has seen firsthand within his family. Many relatives on his mother’s side have been diagnosed with it and his great aunt died from diabetes complications.

“Seeing them navigate this disease had a huge impact on me and it’s what led me to want to get into the medical field and research,” he says.

Through his study of the model organism C. elegans, Manuel has found that high sugar diets affect the structure of neurons including increasing the presence of axonal degeneration, which breaks down communication between cells in the brain.

Manuel felt UNT was a good fit for accomplishing his research after learning about the work of Pamela Padilla, UNT’s vice president for the Division of Research and Innovation, who studies how organisms respond to and survive environmental stress with the goal of better understanding issues like diabetes. Manuel says work in Padilla’s lab over the last seven years has been influential for him as a researcher.

“I have received a lot of support here at UNT. I am the scientist I am today because of Dr. Padilla,” Manuel says. “She has been an excellent mentor. She’s really good at adapting to the needs of her students and nurturing their talents.”

Next up in his journey, Manuel will work as a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University where he will be able to continue his work on the implications of a high sugar diet on the brain.

“I’m really excited to continue my work on neurodegeneration,” Manuel says. “In the future, I want to have my own lab to do research and be able to do my part in training the next generation of scientists.”

Daphne Lynd poses in commencement regaliaDaphne Lynd

Elementary Education

By Neil Foote

Daphne Lynd is smiling and laughing a lot these days. That’s a far cry from when  she battled depression and dyslexia and working through the COVID-19 pandemic.  As she says, those were “some really dark days.”

Daphne admits she didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduating from Richardson High School. That’s why she joined AmeriCorps, a national organization that offers paid volunteer work programs.

After a short stint working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Daphne fell in love working in AmeriCorps’ Reading Partners program, where she helped children learn to read  as a literary specialist in a Dallas ISD elementary school.  Her greatest joy came  when she read one of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”   to a very precocious third grader. Daphne brought in her copy of the book to read a chapter to her every time they met. “We hadn't finished it yet when she moved on to her next grade, so I got to give her my copy of it,” Daphne says. “That was something that was really special to me because I got to do it.”

Now, Daphne, graduating with a Bachelor of Education in Elementary Education and Teaching, is bubbling with confidence and embracing the joys of life. She and her roommates took graduation pictures with President Neal Smatresk after she emailed his office asking if he would take pictures with them, despite their doubts that she would get a response.

As part of UNT’s ELEVAR program, a post-secondary inclusive program for students with intellectual disabilities, Daphne says she received support from its program director, Pam Troicki-Ables, and the many faculty members and as she says, “too many to mention,” who rallied her through her college coursework. Of course, she gives huge shout-outs to her parents and brother, Jacob, , who is working on his doctorate in theoretical and computational physics.

Daphne’s undergraduate research focuses on literacy and helping people embrace grief and loss. “First things first, I cry a lot,” Daphne says. “All my friends, all my family members make fun of me. I'm, like, the most emotional person.” She is using her vulnerability to as a way to teach people of all ages, particularly children, how to give themselves space to grieve. She argues that it’s not right to tell a kid that when someone dies, they’re sleeping. “That's not true and scary to say to a child — if they think, ‘Is this going to happen to me If I go to sleep?’,” she explains. “I mean, that's something you see all the time. What does death actually really look like? So, [I’m] looking at all those different concepts of it, which is a difficult thing to do for a child to also make it age appropriate.”

Along with helping children cope with death, Daphne offers great advice to the younger students. First, find your passion and chase it. Second, “commit to the bit.”  Daphne adds, “My motto is just committing to ‘the bit’ – if you think that it's fun or funny or would be a something that impacts somebody else in a really impactful way, if it's something that you want to do, just don't be afraid to commit to it.”

Vi Tran poses in commencement regalia in front of the UNT Esports flagVi Tran

Master’s in Recreation, Event and Sport Management

By Lisa Sciortino

When Vi Tran graduated from UNT in Fall 2021 with a bachelor’s in journalism, he opted not to attend his commencement ceremony.

However, he won’t pass on the pomp and circumstance again this month when he graduates with a master’s in recreation, event and sport management from the College of Education.

In fact, Vi has attended several commencement ceremonies since Spring 2023 when, as the graduate assistant and videographer for the UNT Esports team, he began filming the events for inclusion in a mini documentary series that pays homage each semester to the program’s graduating students. 

“It’s like our love letter to them,” Vi says of the series. “I want them to be recognized and to know what you did here was bigger than you think and that you’ve inspired a lot of people. You’ve done a lot of great things and the fact that you’re graduating should be celebrated.”

Vi’s history with UNT’s varsity esports program dates back to 2018, when he was brought on as one of its first players. He played football in high school and thought his days as a student-athlete were over when he entered college. He tried out and made the esports team, landing a spot on the five-person squad that played the popular battle-arena game “League of Legends.”

Later that year, he competed in his first tournament against players from other Texas university esports teams.

“We played onstage in front of a crowd of 100 people, but there were like 3,000 people watching online. I got the same adrenaline rush, the same excitement playing esports as I did playing football,” he says.

Although he eventually became the esports team captain, the experience wasn’t all fun and games. In Spring 2019, Tran briefly lost feeling in the little finger on his right hand.

“I physically could not move it,” he recalls. “That had been happening for a bit where all I felt was a pain and then it would just start functioning again.”

At the urging of his coach, Vi saw a doctor and was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. He served on the sidelines as the team’s volunteer coach for the remainder of the season while undergoing treatment.

“Never in my mind did I think that I could get injured playing video games,” he says. “That was really heartbreaking for me to go from such a high to such a low when they said I couldn’t play.”

Vi rejoined the team in Fall 2020, but by then the COVID-19 pandemic had physically distanced the team members. Although they continued to compete remotely, “Playing at home, it wasn’t the same,” he recalls. “I no longer felt like I was representing the university. They sent me a jersey to wear, but it was like, ‘Well, no one will ever see this jersey.’ I never reached the same heights again.”

Following graduation, Vi spent eight months working as coach of the University of Texas at Arlington’s esports team and briefly served as the program’s interim director. He returned to UNT in 2022, when he was hired for the graduate assistant position and accepted into the College of Education’s master’s program.

“I was like, ‘Why not go back to where I came from and, instead of being a player, make the esports program great?’” he says.

Vi encourages the team’s players as well as the student staffers he manages to find ways to incorporate their other passions into esports. For example, the commencement series was born after a student-videographer expressed interest in producing a documentary series.

“It’s very much about elevating these players and making sure they know what they did was amazing, what they did was great, and to let all of UNT know that there are some great stories happening around us — we just have to tell them,” he says. “That’s my whole role as the storyteller — I have to make sure that everyone knows how great the people in my program are.”

Now it’s Vi’s turn to shine as he prepares to cross the commencement stage and continue on to a career he hopes will eventually include directing a collegiate esports team.

Guiding students “is something I learned that I really love to do,” he says. “It’s my calling.”

Noelle Marsh in a pool wearing a swim cap and goggles.Noelle Marsh


By Erika Fox

Student-athlete Noelle Marsh was stretching during a routine warm-up before a swim meet in September 2022 when her whole world turned upside down.

She had fallen, but assumed it was no big deal at the time.

“I tried to play it off at the meet just to get through it,” Noelle says. “Then the week after that, I had no movement in my leg at all, especially in that foot.”

What first assumed to be a tear or sprain appeared to be something more complex. In October 2022, doctors initially diagnosed Noelle with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, warning she may never regain function of her foot and could potentially lose it. This diagnosis wouldn’t stick and she recently learned that she has multiple sclerosis.

Although she didn’t know the extent of her condition at the time, Noelle wasn’t going to let this setback take away her whole season. She had transferred to UNT in Fall 2021 because of the support she received from members of the UNT Swimming and Diving team, and they were there for her during this journey, too. Having the support of her teammates and Head Coach Brittany Roth helped her keep fighting to get back in the pool.

“Having that support — I think that helps a lot with coming back because they like me for me, and they want to support me as a person, not necessarily as a teammate,” Noelle says.

She kept up with her training and went from a scooter to crutches to finally walking again. In just six weeks, Noelle defied the odds and was back in the pool competing within the same season that nearly took her leg.

“I was like, ‘You know what? I'm going to try it. We're going see how it goes,’ and I did it,” she says.

Not only was she back in the pool, but she also contributed to the team’s success. Noelle won the 100-meter freestyle during the 2023 American Athletic Conference Championship and proved to herself that her condition would not define her success.

Noelle is graduating with her bachelor’s in Merchandising and will continue at UNT to get her master’s in Marketing with the goal of becoming a fashion trend forecaster. She leans on her perseverance throughout her toughest swim season to help her through her future endeavors, and she intends to do just that as she faces her new diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Now armed with a unique perspective for any challenges she may face, Noelle chooses to see the joy in every situation rather than dwelling on her diagnosis.

“Even if hard things happen, you can still be joyful in the life you have now — and it may be different, it may not be what you want, but you know, you can still have joy and you can still be happy.”

Walter Benitez wears his commencement regalia and stands in front of the UNT student veterans' flagWalter Benitez


By Lisa Sciortino

As a single father, Walter Benitez brings his 6-year-old son, Joseph, with him nearly everywhere.

The youngster will be in the audience when Walter, a first-generation student, crosses the commencement stage and graduates from UNT with a bachelor’s degree in biology.

This summer, the pair will relocate to Pennsylvania, where Walter was accepted at Drexel University’s Pennsylvania College of Optometry. It’s the next step toward achieving his career goal of becoming an optometrist.

From 2010 to 2016, the Dallas native served in the U.S. Navy. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted him to enlist in the military after high school. “Growing up, one of the biggest things I wanted to do was serve my country,” he says.

Walter spent the bulk of his military career in Italy where he was a hospital corpsman before later serving in Japan. “I got to help out with surgeries and many different procedures. It was great,” he recalls of working in hospitals.

Although he briefly considered pursuing a career in behavioral health, he decided that optometry was his calling after spending several months assisting a family whose daughter underwent a corrective strabismus surgery for her crossed-eye condition.

“Seeing and interacting with the patient in that kind of atmosphere is what made me choose optometry,” he says. “That’s when I said, ‘This is what I want to do. This is who I want to be.’”

After earning an associate degree in general studies from the University of Maryland Global Campus, Walter began at UNT in 2021 as a pre-medical student.

Juggling fatherhood with his course load, involvement with student organizations — including UNT’s Pre-Optometry Association — and his work tutoring other biology students wasn’t easy, especially since it was frequently a challenge to secure reliable childcare.

“My son has been with me this whole time, throughout this whole process,” he says — including occasions when Walter was unable to find a babysitter, so the boy accompanied his father to classes.

One of the biggest lessons the harried dad says he learned at UNT was to ask others for help when needed. When he struggled with time management, he turned to Dr. Jessica Moore, senior lecturer and undergraduate advising coordinator for the Department of Biological Sciences, for guidance.

“She connected me with other students who weren’t necessarily in the same situation as me but who she had witnessed do extremely well with time management. Some of them were grad students. They sat down with me and kind of made a schedule for me. They didn’t have to, but they did, and they were amazing,” he says.

Walter also relied on UNT’s Student Veterans Center for support. “It’s given me a space to come in and breathe,” he says. “I go there, and I’m able to sit down and have a coffee. Somebody tells me, ‘Hey, hope your day is going well.’ That little notion pulls me back up, and I’m able to keep going.”

He spent a year serving as secretary of the Student Veterans Association and also was sergeant at arms for the university’s chapter of the Omega Delta Sigma military fraternity. In both roles, Walter helped coordinate programs and initiatives, including an Adopt-A-Block cleanup effort on campus.  

“We try our best to assist people coming out of the service, or even someone who’s worked for 30 years and still has their military benefits and now they want to go to college,” says Walter, who credits the UNT Student Veterans Services staff, including Director of Student Affairs James Davenport, for “helping me out with any little thing that I needed.”

As a first-generation student, Walter says he’s proud of the example he’s set for his son despite the challenges they faced together. “He walks around saying, ‘My dad’s going to be a doctor.’ That makes me super happy and excited.” 

Lani Ahmed poses in commencement regalia on UNT's Denton campusLani Ahmed

Psychology and History

By Devynn Case

Lani Ahmed’s journey to college graduation at the University of North Texas is a testament to the power of determination and the pursuit of passion. As a child of Nigerian immigrants, her mother stressed the importance of education early on.

“My sisters and I were always trying to be the top of our class,” Lani said. “I wanted to go to college somewhere where I could be myself but also have a support system. UNT allowed me to step outside my comfort zone, thrive and find a community.”

Her decision to pursue a double major in Psychology and History was not a random choice but a reflection of her personal experiences and passions. Lani said while growing up that she noticed mental health was often overlooked due to cultural stigmas. She felt compelled to become a counselor to close the divide between mental health literacy and care, particularly for marginalized communities.

“It felt like mental health just wasn't talked about, and I realized at a pretty young age that this is an issue,” Lani said. “It made me want to become a counselor so I can bridge that gap for people trying to reach out and find help.”

Her love for history flourished at UNT, where dedicated educators introduced her to a wide range of perspectives and narratives often absent from traditional history lessons. Lani immersed herself in research where psychology and history overlap, exploring how historical influences have shaped mental health disparities.

“I believe everyone needs to learn history, but I understand that it can be hard for people to be engaged with history if they are only learning about it from one point of view,” she said.

Lani’s time at UNT was not only about academics. It was also about finding a community and making a difference. From her involvement in the ACCESS Mentoring program to her role in the Student Government Association, she thrived in leadership roles, connecting with peers and faculty members alike.

“My experiences as a peer mentor have felt like a step in a pipeline that leads to counseling,” Lani said. “It’s about engaging with people and letting them share their concerns about classes or their personal life. Then, offering advice to help with things like professional development or time management.”

With graduation approaching, Lani anticipates the milestone with a mix of excitement and disbelief. The prospect of crossing the stage — a moment she missed in high school due to the COVID-19 pandemic — fills her with a sense of accomplishment and gratitude. Despite any nerves and uncertainties, she’s eager for the future and grateful for her network of encouragement.

“I want to be in the moment and cherish it,” she said. “I hope to be surrounded by my support system. I invited my family, friends and even faculty mentors from over the years.”

As she prepares for graduate school to study mental health counseling, Lani reflects on the connections she’s built and aims to make a meaningful impact.

“My advice is to shoot your shot and dream big,” Lani said. “Even if you doubt yourself or the outcome, just apply yourself and take those risks anyway. Putting yourself out there can really surprise you. You might just stumble upon some self-discovery or find someone who really believes in you. And it’s not just about you — it can inspire others too and go a long way.”

Flip Flippin wears commencement regalia and poses in front of UNT at FriscoFlip Flippin

Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (B.A.A.S.)

By Michelle Hale

For most of his life, “Flip” Flippin thought coffee tasted like dirt. But his wife had a dream that flipped the script and today he owns a successful specialty coffee company and understands the beverage the way a sommelier appreciates a fine wine.

Flip will graduate from UNT in May with a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree and a 4.0 grade point average, which he maintained while operating his coffee business and keeping up with his family of five. Earning the degree was a decades-long dream for the non-traditional student, who left a career in hotel management and brought 158 college credits with him when he enrolled at UNT in Spring 2022.

“When I was in the hotel business, they kept looking for a degree, but I had so much experience, I could have taught the classes,” Flip says. “I’d get the job, but every time they’d ask about a degree, it created agony inside and it was a frequent reminder of what I hadn’t done.”

UNT’s B.A.A.S. program and UNT at Frisco allowed Flip to take all those credits, along with his experience, and fast-track his degree. After years of frequently relocating, jumping from one hotel company to another, his family finally got to put down roots.

It was a different dream that brought him into the coffee business — a literal dream his wife had almost 12 years ago.

“She woke me up and said, ‘God is telling me you’re supposed to be doing coffee,’ and then she went back to sleep. But I couldn’t — it didn’t make any sense,” he says. “Why coffee? I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t even like it. But the next night, the name came to me in my own dream — Reviva, a Hebrew name which, loosely translated, means ‘water in the desert.’ Not long after that, I started learning all I could about coffee.”

Flip’s research took him all over the world — to coffee plantations and production operations in Africa and Central and South America. He studied everything from the impact of altitude and soil and water content to how the fruit of the coffee plant is harvested affects the flavor of a coffee bean. And that’s before the specialty roasting process even begins. That process is designed to bring out a variety of notes within the flavor: nuts, chocolate, brown sugar, even caramel.

He brought all this knowledge with him when his family moved from San Diego to McKinney, where Reviva was launched in March 2020. One dream down, one to go — earning the degree he’d wanted for decades.

Flip remembers the first time he set foot on the UNT at Frisco campus.

“It was the day of Frisco Landing grand opening,” he says. “I had no idea that was happening when I wandered in. Hope Garcia [assistant vice president of student services at regional campuses] saw me from across the room, locked eyes on me and headed my way to welcome me in. She made me feel special and important, even in the middle of that important day.”

Garcia’s warm welcome was just the beginning. Flip says the concepts he learned in the B.A.A.S. courses, the devotion of his instructors and the curiosity of other students combined to create an inspiring experience for him. Two standout professors to him are Dr. Miranda Williams, assistant professor of multidisciplinary innovation, and Dr. Tina Mims, lecturer of marketing. Williams taught Flip’s courses on civic engagement and career management while Mims instructed a class called Inquiry and Discovery.

“Dr. Mims really knows how to challenge students in a ‘let’s learn this right’-kind of way,” Flip says. “And Dr. Williams really knows her stuff, but she’s so down to earth. She is a great authority but has an uncommon ability to really listen and teach.”

One of Flip’s favorite courses, which centered around wine pairing, was taught by Dr. Leta Durrett, adjunct professor of hospitality, event and tourism management.

“There is such emotion involved with taking one thing that tastes delicious and putting it with something else that’s delicious,” he says. “The same techniques can be applied to pairing coffee with a great meal.”

After graduation, Flip wants to use his passion to educate people about how and why coffee is a craft.

“I think as an entrepreneur, pursuing passions has always been more of my desire than pursuing money,” he says.

He intends to return to UNT to earn a master’s degree in business administration and, maybe one day, even more.

“I’d love to earn a coffee chemical engineering degree,” he says. “UNT just hasn’t started that one yet!”

Photo of Moon Twayana wearing her cap and gown.Moon Twayana

Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

By Heather Noel

Plants were a mainstay in Moon Twayana’s childhood. Moon would tag along with her parents as they worked at farms outside of Kathmandu, Nepal. She’s seen firsthand how food is grown and how pests could be detrimental to crops.

Now, through her research as a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology doctoral student, she’s contributed foundational evidence that could lead to more aphid-resistant plants in the future. This could help save billions of dollars for the agricultural industry worldwide and boost food production because less plants would be lost. Aphids are small insects that can be catastrophic to plants by sucking out vital juices in leaves and stems, which can stunt growth, transmit plant viruses and promote growth of plant fungus.

“Aphids are one of the top pests for agriculture in the U.S. and farmers lose a lot of crops because of infestations,” Moon says. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pests are responsible for losses between 20 to 40% of global crop production each year.

Working with a model plant that’s a close relative of mustard, Moon studied a gene that provides a natural defense against green peach aphids. She then successfully genetically modified other plants in the lab such as the oilseed plant, Camelina sativa and tomatoes to include this gene.

While studying plant science seems like a natural fit with her background, Moon never imagined she’d be doing it. After a hepatitis outbreak in Nepal, Moon decided she wanted to be a scientist, but back then she thought that meant studying potential medicines to treat diseases.

“The more I learned in science, the more I started getting interested in exploring plant science,” Moon says. “I realized this is where I belong.”

Moon came to UNT for its research strengths in plant science, especially through the university’s BioDiscovery Institute, which houses an interdisciplinary team of researchers focused on creating bio-based solutions that work across industries for a more sustainable future. Her time at UNT has been important to her growth as a scientist and person, but the 10-year journey for her doctorate hasn’t been easy.

Social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic meant less time in the lab for her work and power outages on campus during the 2021 winter storm damaged important research samples, setting back her work even further.

One of the biggest challenges Moon faced though was a personal struggle with her health.

Only one semester into the program in 2015, Moon started experiencing widespread pain that inhibited her quality of life. A year and a half later, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic autoimmune disorder that can cause severe pain throughout the body as well as fatigue and trouble focusing. There were some days Moon was so overwhelmed with balancing her health and the demands of grad school that she didn’t think she could continue her studies.

“There were many times along the way that I wanted to quit, but my mentor Dr. Jyoti Shah encouraged me to keep going,” Moon says. “It’s been a blessing to have such a patient mentor. He’s been my uplifting power in these years.”

Moon is working to submit her doctoral research for publication in a major academic journal. She hopes it can be a key step in understanding aphid-plant interactions and eventually help farmers prevent aphids from devastating their crops.

After graduating she plans to work as a science communicator disseminating scientific advancements to audiences beyond academia. 

“I know this is complex science and the ideas of scientific processes, and I want to put it out there in a way that others can understand, too. I want to help create a love for science in everybody.”

Photo of Erin Gish wearing commencement regaliaErin Gish

Hospitality Management

By Melisa Brown

What a trip – a quick walk next door during the pandemic to help out some neighbors solidified Erin Gish’s passion for travel and hospitality and helped her prepare for her career.

Beginning in 8th grade, Erin started volunteering for the Society of Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), a nonprofit dedicated to advancing incentive travel and motivational experiences through global connections.

Erin was already hooked on the industry, having volunteered for so long. Afterall, travel is in her blood. Her mom is an international flight attendant for American Airlines. And, for Erin, it was all so enticing, seemingly all glitz and glam with lavish parties and incredible experiences.

She couldn’t wait to get her degree in Hospitality and Tourism. Erin is a Dentonite, born and raised, who wanted to stay close to home. And since her sister is a UNT alumna and her fiancé is a current student, attending the College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism was the perfect fit.

When the pandemic came along, so did the downtime. Lucky for Erin, they’d just had some new neighbors move in, both of whom were SITE Texas members planning to deliver the first hybrid event – Erin jumped at the opportunity to work it and she loved it!

Helping people who were going to be immersing themselves in cultural experiences and assisting them in navigating all the conference had to offer was very gratifying for her. She’s even volunteered at some of the in-person SITE Texas Technology and Innovation summits, traveling to the Dominican Republic, Cabo San Lucas and most recently, Vancouver. The farthest away was her trip to Dublin for the Global SITE conference where she was the only student attendee. Erin even won the 2022 Laura Sprouse Award for impact as a committee leader, volunteer and member. And now, she’s been named 2024 the Director of Young leadership for SITE Texas, the first student ever on the Board.

Erin knows the value of mentorship and networking as complements to a great education. She is a member of the inaugural CMHT Leadership Academy. The academy was created as a conduit to transform students into visionary leaders who are confident, articulate, ethical and adept in relationship building and problem-solving. Through coaching, networking, academic coursework, mentoring workshops and service-learning activities, students learn valuable skills that change the way they think and lead.

“I've had mentors since I finished high school, so I've learned a lot of different career and personal perspectives,” she says. “Networking and mentorship go hand in hand, and I attend a couple of networking events each month. I’ve been fortunate to have Dr. Christy Crutsinger as one of my mentors. She's been incredibly patient and accommodating, even with all the things that I'm doing outside of classwork. She's been incredibly supportive.”

Erin has also worked two full-time jobs while getting her degree and squeezing in all these other activities. While it’s very clear how serious she is about her future, she admits that things can get stressful and emphasizes the importance of self-care.

“I volunteered at the Linda McNatt Animal Shelter. Since I didn’t have any pets of my own at the time, it was a great way to destress from all the emails, schoolwork and the pressure of life,” she says. “Walking a dog or cat-cuddling for an hour can do wonders for your mental health. It’s a lot of fun and they are great teachers. I always felt much better after volunteering.”

Erin’s going into a role as a program coordinator with an incentives company in June and is excited about the prospect of starting her career. She’ll continue her networking and keep up with her industry mentorships as she moves forward. She wants to continue to develop her skills so that she can be a leader in the incentive travel industry.

That leadership role could come sooner than later. As one of her industry mentors told her, “Hurry up, graduate and get some more experience under your belt so that you can take my job and I can retire.”

Kayla Ford posing in her commencement capKayla Ford

Master’s in Kinesiology

By Katie Neumann

Grounded in her love for sports and psychology, Kayla Ford is on the path to becoming a sports psychologist for professional athletes.

A native of Austin, Kayla’s formative years were filled with athletic pursuits — from track and basketball to dance and cheer. But when a debilitating knee injury sidelined her in high school, it pushed her to confront a new reality.

After recovering from nearly tearing her meniscus, she discovered that her heart wasn't in track and field anymore and wondered why.

As an undergraduate student at Prairie View A&M, a pivotal moment occurred.

"I saw my friend get injured during track, recover, then unexpectedly quit,” says Kayla. “He went to a regular psychologist, but it didn't work. And I said, ‘Probably because they don’t specialize in sports.’"

This experience led her to explore the field further. When a career aptitude test revealed "sports psychologist" as her top career choice, Kayla knew she was on the right path.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology and a minor in psychology in 2021, she attended Michigan State University to start her master's degree.

“I completely hated the cold in Michigan, so I made the leap to come back to Texas. I had to find somewhere that would give me what I need, and then I found UNT,” she said.

Her return to Texas in reflected her dedication to her studies. She was driven by the desire to help athletes overcome psychological barriers and better their performance.

“A big reason for me going into this field was to address the lack of diverse counselors,” Kayla said. “I wanted to be there for athletes who looked like me. I know how it is not having a counselor that I can relate to.”

At UNT, Kayla quickly became involved on campus as a graduate assistant at Pohl Recreation Center overseeing all UNT sport clubs. With 37 active teams — each with its own functions, schedules and budgets— she managed a wide range of responsibilities at the center.

“One of my favorite things to do while I'm on campus is to use the recreation center,” she says. “It’s a way to decompress from everything. I also enjoy working with my clubs, going to their games and being able to see the students I work with in action.”

She attributes much of her academic success to her fellow doctoral students and the rec center’s staff including Anthony Miller, Jackson Hughes and Britton Sherry.

Miller describes Kayla as dedicated and compassionate.

“When difficult situations arise, Kayla works hard to find solutions to help whoever is in need,” Miller says. “She finds joy in helping others and her dedication is uncanny. She strives to bring out the best in people.”

Kayla is the first in her family to earn a master’s degree. The achievement signifies an important milestone in her journey: the opportunity to work hard for a brighter future — not just for herself, but also for her family.

“My family and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment during my freshman year of high school,” Kayla says. "Being in those type of environments motivated me to make sure I'm able to provide not only for my own family, but for my parents.”

Witnessing her parents' dedication to her education, despite the hardships, instilled in her a sense of admiration.

“I admired them working so hard for me, so I want to be able to work hard for them,” she says.

Now — on the brink of becoming a mental performance consultant, and with a master's degree nearly in hand — she carries the lessons she's learned with her.

Her advice for incoming students? “Be your own advocate and create your opportunities,” Kayla says. "Be intentional with your time in college. Explore campus, get involved and make the most of it. Remember your why — especially in times when school and even life get tough.”

Kassandra Aguilar poses in her commencement regalia.Kassandra Aguilar

Audiology & Speech Language Pathology

by Bess Whitby

For years, Kassandra Aguilar knew she wanted to be a speech therapist. Her inspiration came from her younger sister, who was born with a cleft palate and received medical procedures and speech therapy treatments from a young age. Over many years of appointments, Kassandra became a translator for her parents, who are originally from Mexico.

“I grew up being there with the speech therapist since my parents don’t speak English very well. I was helping interpret between them,” she says. “I would talk to the therapist and eventually I thought, ‘I want to do what they do.’”

When she began researching universities, UNT stood out for two reasons: its proximity to her family’s home in Fort Worth and its audiology and speech-language pathology program is ranked one of the best in the state.

“I spent a lot of time looking at those programs, and I saw a lot of good things had come out of UNT,” she says. “That really appealed to me, so I decided to come here.”

The transition from high school to university life was tough. Kassandra is a first-generation college student, and learning to navigate that new world made her first year especially hard. She also realized that despite excelling in high school, her coursework at UNT would be challenging.

But her dream of attaining a college degree kept her going.

“I always wanted to go to college because I felt like I could give back to my parents and family. I could forge a new path and show my siblings what was possible,” she says. “It was important to me to set a new path for myself, too.”

Kassandra got involved with the UNT chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA). With her fellow members, she participated in community outreach and on-campus events at the UNT Speech and Hearing Center. They also participated in national events like the Walk for Apraxia, a fundraising and awareness event for a motor speech disorder that makes speaking difficult.

Eventually, Kassandra also joined the Division of Research and Innovation as a research assistant. She worked with Brenda Barrio, assistant vice president of research and innovation, to increase awareness of undergraduate research opportunities on campus. Organizing workshops to help students find, fund and submit research opportunities was another initiative. She even worked with UNT professors to develop a research-centered course for undergraduates in each of the university’s 14 colleges and schools.

On Kassandra’s road to success, two professors in the speech-language pathology program were especially helpful: Dr. Katsura Aoyama and Dr. Boji Lam.

“Dr. Aoyama has always been encouraging and supportive. I can always go to her for advice,” she says. “And Dr. Lam really helped me build my research skills.”

Kassandra plans to deepen her knowledge of speech-language pathology by pursuing a master’s degree at UNT. When she enters the field as a speech therapist, she hopes to work with bilingual demographics.

“Many current treatments and assessments are for people who speak one language,” she says. “I want to expand the field to be more inclusive of bilingual communities.”

She hopes incoming students will harness the same determination and courage she did to complete her bachelor’s degree.

“Don’t let fear hold you back,” she says. “Once you get past that fear — whether it’s reaching out to a professor, joining an organization or meeting new people — you can learn from it.”

Alaia Snell's headshotAlaia Snell

English Literature and Economics

by Bess Whitby

Long before she graduated high school, Alaia Snell knew she wanted to attend UNT. Thanks to her dad, a nontraditional student who finished his degree in 2012, she basically grew up on the Denton campus.

“I’d go see football games with my dad, or my school would take us to the planetarium for field trips,” Alaia says. “I grew up in the UNT community and saw the pride everyone had for the school. I pretty much always knew I’d go here.”

Alaia and her family originally hailed from New Orleans, Louisiana. Then, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the city. Alaia’s family evacuated their homes and fled to Pennsylvania, where their nearest relatives lived. For six months, she and about 20 other family members who also had escaped Katrina lived in a two-bedroom house. Eventually, her parents found a home in Frisco and settled the family there.

Frisco provided Alaia’s family with much-needed comfort and stability. With UNT on the horizon, Alaia studied and worked hard, earning her high school diploma in spring 2020. But with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, it was a strange time to begin college. Still, she managed to make a smooth transition to college life — thanks in part to a supportive Mean Green community.

“I was entering this entirely new environment. But I had a much less challenging time, I think, because I got so involved in campus organizations,” she says.

And get involved, she did. A Ronald E. McNair Scholar, Alaia enrolled in the Honors College and joined the UNT Debate team, UNT Moot Court, and the Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society in her freshman year, eventually becoming president of all three. She also became a student ambassador for the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS) and took leadership roles in the Terry Scholars and Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership programs. She even found time to become an undergraduate research fellow in the Department of English.

Alaia always knew she wanted to study English literature, but she discovered an affinity for economics during her senior year of high school. She decided to take a double major in both subject areas. Her hard work didn’t stop there: Alaia also chose a double minor in Spanish and history. Her interest in race and ethnic studies led her to pursue UNT’s Latina/o and Mexican-American Studies certificate as well.

“A lot of my research is informed by personal experiences. My work primarily centers on the environmental humanities, but because I’m multiracial, it’s also important that I study narratives from those communities,” she says. “I feel a real responsibility to bring minority stories into the conversation, and one way to do that is studying race and ethnicity since it shapes our disciplines.”

During her time at UNT, Alaia excelled outside the classroom as often as inside. She attended the 2023 Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature, where she won an award for best critical paper. Her involvement with UNT Debate also yielded wins, including a gold medal for public debate from the International Forensics Association (IFA) in 2022. She claimed fourth place in one category and placed in the top 16 competitors in another at the 2024 IFA tournament in Dublin, Ireland. And, in her last undergraduate semester, she placed as a two-time semifinalist in extemporaneous speaking and a quarterfinalist in persuasive speaking at the 2024 National Forensics Association (NFA) tournament.

Now Alaia can add another achievement to this impressive list: She recently accepted a fully funded offer from Northwestern University to join its Ph.D. in English literature program. She plans to become a college English professor.

“I really want to teach more narratives about displaced peoples. Due to climate change, I think these stories will continue to matter,” she says. “I’d like to teach stories from indigenous perspectives — or even stories from climate migrants like myself.”

Alaia attributes her success to several CLASS faculty members from UNT’s English, political science and economics departments. She also thanks UNT for helping her realize her potential.

“UNT is an amazing research school, and I think any student could benefit from taking advantage of the research opportunities here,” she says. “I never even knew I could become a doctoral student until I came to UNT.”

Black and white photo of Tierani Bryan posing on a concrete platform in a fieldTierani Bryan

Studio Art with Ceramics Concentration

by Bess Whitby

Tierani Bryan’s path to success wasn’t a straight line — it was one with many twists and turns.

“I think I realized going into college that I wasn’t going to stick with the major I had coming in,” they say. “I liked that UNT had every option I could possibly imagine.”

Tierani came to UNT as a journalism major. Over the semesters, their major shifted to fashion design, then to interior design, and even interdisciplinary art and design studies. At one point, they changed their status to undeclared. Eventually, the studio art program called out to them. They shifted majors one last time, choosing a concentration in ceramics.

Once enrolled in the studio art program, Tierani felt at home. They took classes and got involved with extracurricular activities like the Dallas Pottery Invitational, an artist-led event focused on functional ceramics, and Empty Bowls Denton, an annual charitable event that raises funds through sales of ceramic bowls. They also organized events with local organizations such as Denton Workbench, a makerspace that was used by many ceramic artists.

One of their proudest accomplishments is saving the Natural Dye Garden. Originally built as part of UNT’s fiber arts program, the garden housed plants that provide natural dyes for fibers and fabrics. However, when the program shuttered, the garden was left to dry out. Tierani wasn’t about to let that happen.

“I saw a listing for the garden manager position and knew I wanted to keep it as a special place within the College of Visual Arts and Design,” they say. “So, I helped with reconstructing the entire garden, planting new things and holding events that involved CVAD and other Denton-based art programs.”

Those events included creative, hands-on activities like naturally dyeing tote bags and making paper. The Natural Dye Garden also provided the necessary supplies for Tierani’s alternative photography class to create cyanotypes and anthotypes, photographs made using juices from plants.

Despite its success, maintaining the garden was a struggle — routine maintenance and flooding were just a few of the challenges. There were personal challenges, too: four of Tierani’s family members passed away during their time at UNT, and both of their parents have become incarcerated since they started their coursework.

Through it all, they kept moving forward. Tierani is a first-generation college student, and finishing a degree was important to them.

“No one in my family has a college degree. I wanted to do that — I wanted to set a foundation for my younger siblings and show them that they can do anything,” they say. “That was my motivation, for sure.”

A close-knit group of friends, which Tierani calls “a chosen family and a great support group,” lifted them up when they felt down. UNT’s supportive staff and faculty also kept them going through hard times. Tristen Wheeler, the project coordinator for the We Mean Green fund and their supervisor, was an especially big help.

“Tristen was just nominated for a Supervisor of the Year award, and it’s so well-deserved. She’s understanding, always on my side and makes me feel comfortable. I can always come to her for help.”

As graduation approaches, Tierani’s natural curiosity keeps growing. Although they love working with ceramics, they’re eager to explore new artistic mediums.

“I finished my ceramics concentration, so recently I’ve been getting into photography and new media,” they say. “So right now, I’m kind of deciding whether I want to continue with ceramics or try something new for grad school.”

It's that kind of confidence that’s gotten Tierani to where they are today. They encourage new students to approach college with a similar courage.

“My advice is — just go for it. And if you’re scared, do it scared,” they say. “It’s going to be okay.”

Jonathan Stewart posing in his commencement regalia with UNT's flying eagle statue in the background.Jonathan Stewart

Mechanical Engineering and Technical Theater

By Amanda Lyons

Jonathan Stewart isn’t afraid to tackle any challenges that come his way. As a legally blind, non-traditional student, he persevered to earn a degree with a double major in mechanical engineering and technical theater, along with a minor in mathematics.

“I have this big desire to become an engineer in the themed entertainment industry,” says Jonathan. “My mechanical engineering classes were very theoretical. My theater classes, which I started taking last spring, let me get more hands-on and see the technologies being used in the industry.”

While Jonathan doesn’t let his blindness slow him down, it did cause minor bumps at the beginning of some classes.

“For example, when I signed up for my first theater classes one of the professors shared concerns about how a blind person would do things such as lighting design or working with power tools,” says Jonathan. “In engineering, others were nervous about me using lab equipment.”

Jonathan has been blind from birth due to optic nerve hypoplasia. Essentially, his optic nerve is half the size it should be.

“It affects my ability to see things at a distance or up close. I also have to put in twice the effort to make sure whatever I’m doing is right because it takes longer for my brain to process what it sees.”

While his blindness would cause concern at the beginning of a class, Jonathan says communication was key to smoothing things out.

“That’s one thing I’m thankful for — there were never any limitations placed on me. There were concerns and questions, but, through proper advocation, I showed them I can handle the class, and if I’m uncomfortable with something, I will let them know.”

Jonathan is also an older student at 26. He first joined UNT in 2017. In 2019, he was accepted into the Disney College Program. While the pandemic cut his experience short in 2020, one of the highlights of his college career was returning to the program for a full year in 2021.

“I had an amazing time. I got to be a park greeter and work at every single park. I made amazing friends, and one of them is flying in from Florida for my graduation.”

However, that program also led him to another unique challenge — most of his friends had graduated while he was in Florida.

“It felt very isolating. I decided to pray over it and got to connect with the Christian Campus Community. They really have become a big support group for me.”

Jonathan brought his unique perspective, as a visually impaired and non-traditional student, to his job at UNT as an academic coach – a job he’s held for two years.

“It’s a really great job,” says Jonathan. “I get to bring knowledge from my personal experiences and the resources UNT provides to help people learn new ways to take on whatever challenge they’re facing.”

Other organizations Jonathan has been a part of are the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the UNT Robotics club and the National Federation of the Blind. He was also able to attend the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions expo twice. He self-funded his trip the first time. For his second visit, he earned a scholarship from the Big Break Foundation, a non-profit that aims to share the importance of diversity and inclusion within the entertainment industry.

Jonathan also reflected his passion for the industry with his senior capstone project for his mechanical engineering degree. He and his team took on the challenge of designing an animatronic dragon that can be controlled through virtual reality.

“It was great because I was able to merge my two worlds, and our capstone professor really supported the project.”

With one dragon under his belt, Jonathan is ready to join the industry as an engineer, but he has another goal he hopes to attain once he’s further along in his career.

“Maybe 20 years down the road, I’d love to start doing accessibility consulting for the themed entertainment industry because it’s an area that’s not really touched on.”

With graduation around the corner, Jonathan advises other students to follow their passion.

“Just keep pushing for it. If you have to take a class three times, like I did with calculus, so be it. If you have a route you want to go, you’ll find a way to make it work.

Nema Kolta poses on a balcony wearing her grad cap with a UNT installation in the background.Nema Kolta

Project Design and Analysis

By Genesis Tates

Nema Kolta has always been a dedicated and hardworking student at UNT at Frisco. She excelled in her studies and quickly became the star of the program. But her journey has not been without its challenges.

In April 2022, Nema received a call that would change her life. Her father had been diagnosed with stage 3 stomach cancer, and she knew that her family would need her support. Her father underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy and had his stomach and part of his pancreas removed. Despite the emotional and physical toll of caring for her father, Nema never faltered in her commitment to her education and her two jobs.

“There were definitely some ups and downs but I had the most tremendous support from my friends and faculty,” she recalls. “I'm tremendously thankful that I've been met with grace and compassion.”

Nema and her family are from Alexandria, Egypt. Her dad and other family members struggled to communicate with doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. As one of the three children, she stepped up and decided to serve as the main translator for her father.

“I had to do a lot of translating for my father during doctor's visits and be his advocate so that he got the best care he could,” she says.

Through it all, taking a full load of 19 credit hours, Nema remained an exceptional student, balancing her responsibilities with grace and determination. She inspired her classmates and professors with her resilience and strength, showing that nothing could stand in the way of her dreams.

“I’m a very passionate person,” Nema says. “I put my all in whatever I am doing.”

Nema landed three internships during her journey, including Tomorrow's Leaders Today, My Personal Health Information and a study abroad to Florence, Italy. Based on her experience with her father and the challenges her family had faced, she channeled her drive into the healthcare industry.

Nema is a part of the cohort that calls themselves the “Fab 5.” Over the past three years, they’ve worked closely together on projects with such companies as the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), Serve Denton, and Sam’s Club. For one project, she worked with Sam’s club executives to improve the flow and layout of their store to draw more attention to certain areas. She and her peers diligently studied other competitors and pitched their suggestions to operation executives of Sam’s club. She worked and led some parts of her team to collect feedback from customers, analyze data, and redesign/build a simulation of improvements for the store for the final presentation.

“The PDA program is where I met my best friends,” Nema says. “It was fun working with them and the hands-on experience helped build my professionalism.”

As Nema prepares to graduate, she’s considering continuing her education with a masters at UNT in a dual program Applied Anthropology and Public Health, but she also has some job opportunities as well. She ultimately desires to make an impact in how the healthcare industry supports minorities that are not as educated or have financial challenges.

Nema sums it up this way, “My dad is cancer free and no matter what I choose to do I will always dream big.”

Kouschica Bosadi Ulaganathan sits next to the Scrappy statue in front of the UNT Union.Koushica Bosadi Ulaganathan

Master's in Information Systems and Technologies

By Autumn Gunnels

From a young age, Koushica Bosadi Ulaganathan’s parents taught her that serving those around you requires hard work and determination.

Koushica is driven to help people and mostly helped those around her by teaching. When she was in her undergraduate studies, she would teach others about coding languages and applications of technology. She even joined a coding team while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in India. She also helped her peers prepare for the professional world by conducting mock interviews and offering guidance for the job search process.

“I realized I can use my passion and skills with coding to help people on a larger scale,” she says.

Koushica’s motivation to help others came to a head during her undergraduate studies. One of her projects during undergraduate studies focused on a social cause, combining her coding passions to make a positive difference in her community. Her work revolved around manual scavengers, those who put their lives in danger while inspecting and clearing the clogs in large drainage systems. She built a system with the guidance of her professor to help limit the liability and risk involved with the job. This project opened Koushica’s eyes to how her knowledge and experience with technology can be used to help people on a much larger scale.

Inspired by Zoho Corporation's mission, she became determined to start her career there. Despite encountering setbacks, she eventually succeeded and worked at Zoho for over two years. Later, she was married and moved to the United States. After a year, she applied for graduate school at UNT where, at first, she encountered the obstacles of finding community while adjusting to the language and local culture.

“In every moment you spend, don’t think of it as a struggle or challenge or even the difficulty you’re facing,” says Koushica, who managed her stress by dancing and practicing gratefulness. “See that, in a way, it is building you even stronger.”

She tackled these obstacles by exploring campus and getting involved with university groups and events, such as the Parade of Nations. With each new discovery and event, Koushica realized that UNT provides many valuable services that all students may not know about. To pitch in and help, she looked for volunteer opportunities on campus and soon began serving students at the UNT Food Pantry.

At the Food Pantry, Koushica was quickly known as a welcoming and friendly face. She found belonging and friendship with the students and other volunteers. Koushica soon earned a higher position at the Food Pantry and used that opportunity to make the systems more efficient to aid as many UNT students as possible. This includes spreading the word about the food pantry on social media outlets like Instagram.

When she began her journey at UNT, her main aim was just to study hard and become a software engineer. But when she started volunteering on campus, she started thinking about how she could use her coding passion to help others in the community. This idea strengthened her determination to pursue her dream of becoming a software engineer. In today's digital world where everything is going online, she realized that creating websites, social media and other digital tools could reach and help many people.

“I believe technology offers the best way to help and educate people in need, and I want to use what I have learned and experienced to make a positive impact on the world.”

Robyne Ciza poses in the Business building wearing a green gown.Robyne Ciza

Master of Business Administration – Business Management

By Anthony Simone

It’s rare for someone straight out of high school to know what career path they want to pursue; let alone selecting a major. Robyne Ciza, like many, felt the pressure of not knowing what path to choose.

In 2018, when she began her bachelor’s, there’s one word she used to describe that initial feeling of starting college – fear. Coming from a high school graduating class of 64 students, the culture shock of being around so many different people was overwhelming.

She would go on to complete her bachelor’s in 2021 and began her M.B.A. in June of 2023.

Robyne’s goal was to find a career focusing on helping people. “I was initially admitted into the Rehabilitation Studies program,” she says. “I really wanted to help people, and like many others, I thought the only way I could help was to be a part of the medical field, which is completely false.”

Thanks to guidance from a professor and a conversation with a close friend, she switched majors as her interest in journalism grew. She discovered her love for marketing and ultimately decided her concentration areas would be public relations coupled with a minor in business management and marketing. With caring faculty to help guide her, she knew she was on the right track. And then she found community with like-minded individuals in several student organizations:  the National Association of Black Journalists, the Caribbean Student Association and Faith-Filled Women of Christ.

Through her unwavering commitment to helping others, Robyne would find the power the internet has of bringing people in need together. She authored two books and published them on Amazon as an undergraduate student: The Caged Bird Finally Sings and Signed, A Girl Trying to Heal.

And then she had an idea. “I started blogging and I had a blog dedicated to helping Christian college-aged women overcome their obstacles and stand tall in who they were created to be,” Robyne says. “I didn’t want them to be limited by the things they experienced.” The blog titled Robyne Speaks was a platform dedicated to helping women go from trauma to triumph for those who experienced emotional or physical abuse. Not only was this the blog used for sharing past trauma but also for building a community, allowing women to connect and encourage each other to break the “glass ceilings” that hold them back.

 “Oftentimes we find the reason why most people don’t execute on their goals is because of fear… sometimes people think, well, ‘I can’t go further than this or this experience takes away from my value or my worth’. So, I’ve been dedicated to breaking that narrative by hosting goal setting classes and mentorship opportunities.”

She best describes herself as an “imagination instigator” which perfectly explains her undying devotion of reaching out to women and young girls and helping them in any way that she can. As she gets ready to graduate, she and her husband are also expecting their first child.

After completing two degrees and overcoming tough personal obstacles, Robyne’s wisdom should be heard by any incoming freshmen students. “My advice to freshman or anyone still in school would be to fail fast but get up quickly because things are so temporary. Your situation is temporary, but it’s all about your mindset and the ability to get up is based on what you say to you.”

Rachel Trammel poses under the UNT library mall book arch sculpture.Rachel Trammell

Integrative Studies

By Christiana Flores

For Rachel Trammell, 13 turned out to be a lucky number. She began working toward her college degree in 2011. This year, she is set to graduate from UNT with a degree in Integrative Studies, with concentrations in Psychology, Sociology, and Addiction Studies.

“It’s been a long journey since I first began,” she says. “And I’ll finish it just 13 years after I began.”

Rachel has openly struggled with mental health issues and had to delay taking classes and repeat some classes she didn’t pass due to depression.

“For me, my depression started in high school. I would go through periods where I was doing great, and then the struggles would come,” she says.

Rachel completed her first two years at North Central Texas College (NCTC), then transferred to UNT where she started pursuing a degree in economics. Both of her parents went to UNT, and she was excited to follow in their footsteps. Rachel started out well, ending with a 4.0 grade point average her first semester on campus.

But soon, her struggles with depression started coming to a head. As a result, her grades suffered, and she had to take a few semesters off.

“I went through so much trial and error and had to do research on my own to figure out how to cope with this myself,” she says.

As it would turn out, the research and work she did to handle her own mental illness and struggles with depression would alter the course of her college journey. As the years passed and after everything she’d been through, she felt drawn to a degree that would enable her to work with others who share similar challenges.

“I think really seeing the mental health struggles of friends, family members, people in my generation – just how pervasive it is – I feel like I have a calling to help people in my position because I know it so intimately.”

Despite the clearer program focus, Rachel still faced challenges, living with crippling depression and its effects on her coursework.

“I almost resigned myself to the fact I might not be able to complete this and finish my degree.”

Rachel found support in her UNT family. Around 2019, she utilized UNT’s Counseling and Testing Services. She also utilized the Office of Disability Accommodations to obtain some accommodations for her classes that helped during particularly difficult times.

This past year, she has been involved in the R.I.S.E. Center (Recovery and Intervention Support and Education).

“I’ve had so much amazing support from several of the people over there.”

With that support, she’s been able to maintain a 4.0 GPA for the last three semesters.

“I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do it without their help. I was already on a much better path, but being able to find community and support there was really instrumental in getting me to graduation.”  

Support from people like Michael Council, Student Services Coordinator for R.I.S.E, and Roberto Almonaci-Padron, graduate assistant for R.I.S.E., were especially impactful to Rachel.

One professor inspired her as well: Senior Lecturer and Addiction Studies Coordinator Paula Heller Garland.

“She really solidified my decision to go this route and become a counselor myself,” Rachel says. “She would put on symposiums that brought in professionals in the field of counseling. She really cares about what we take away from her courses.”

After commencement, Rachel plans to pursue a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling at UNT. She also intends to continue working with individuals with intellectual disabilities, mostly children on the autism spectrum – a cause she’s advocated for since she was 15 years old.

Through personal struggles, Rachel has persevered and grown.

“In 2011, I was just very lost. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do. Today I’m purpose-driven, resilient.

Don’t be afraid to reach out if you’re struggling,” she says. “It really helps to build community and have people around you who are going through similar things.”

She also suggests to students not to be so hard on themselves when they may not meet others’ expectations.

“Everyone is different. Some people can get their degree in four years, find a job and build a life. Some take a bit longer, like me,” she says. “Do it at your own pace, in your own time. Whatever happens is what was supposed to happen.”

Alessandra Murrey poses in green commencement regalia under the UNT book arch sculpture.Alessandra Murrey

Information Science

By Walker Smart

Alessandra has known she wanted to be a librarian since she took an aptitude test at age 13, and since, according to one of her middle school teachers, “opera singer is not a real career,” she says.

Even though opera singer is a real career, her belief when she was 13 turned out to be a great catalyst for her educational goals.

When she applied to UNT, she was originally actually interested in the Music program, but she changed her major to Information Science during orientation. “I learned about the University of North Texas from my history teacher, Mr. West, who went to UNT,” Alessandra says. “He nominated me as history student of the year when I was a sophomore in high school and wrote me a letter about how one day, I’d be an amazing librarian.”

Her love of the library, in part, came from volunteering. When her mother became a teacher, she had to drop Alessandra off at school early. The school librarian noticed her hanging around and asked her to help in the library instead of waiting outside. This was significant, as it provided an opportunity for her to finally be able to plug into a community. Community was something Alessandra hadn’t had before since she attended 16 different schools growing up because of her father’s work. “I didn’t have friends until I was ten, and even then, we kept in contact through email.”

 “I grew up all over, but in one of the towns I lived in, the only library was the high school library. A lot of people in my neighborhood didn’t have stable access to internet and so the library was important for their day-to-day lives, Alessandra says. “That’s one of the reasons small libraries have my heart.”

“My favorite part of working in libraries is when different people would come in, and how I could help them with resources,” she says. “There’s a certain satisfaction in finding a specific book without having all the information. Reference work is amazing. It’s like magic.” While at UNT, she also spent two years volunteering at the Denton Public Library.

But that’s not the only way Alessandra served her community. Denton Wesley Methodist Ministry, a church near campus, connected her with UNT’s food pantry – a service that provides food to students free of charge. “Most of my classes are online, so that experience was a way to get outside and talk to people.”

Once she started at UNT, it was a relief to finally be in one place. “I was surprised by how well I was doing in college. High school was so much more difficult, but by the time I got into college everything was making sense,” she says.

“I was worried about making friends in the Honors College. They kind of locked us in a room with each other for a week, but that’s how I met my partner and best friend,” Alessandra says.

Her second year of college was much harder. “Over the summer I worked at a summer camp. I thought it was a literacy camp, but it was basically a glorified day camp for low-income students.” Though the program was offered through a church, she faced discrimination. Coworkers called her slurs and she received multiple threats based on her sexuality. “It’s one thing when you feel like you don’t fit in, but it’s another thing when someone is threatening you.” When she started school that fall, she was still feeling the effects from the experience.

Unfortunately, Alessandra wasn’t able to find a place to live on campus during her second year. “I developed a stress disorder,” she says. “Not having easy access to dining halls made it harder to eat. Thankfully, I had amazing professors who were really supportive and helped me get through it — who gave me leniency on turning stuff in on time. And Counseling Services connected me with places that would take my insurance so I didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket.”

Despite her struggles, Alessandra is graduating from the Honors College after only three. “I had so many influential professors at my time at UNT,” Alessandra says. “Coming from the College of Information, I got to know a lot more faculty and counselors. There was a lot of one-on-one time. It felt more like a family.” 

Next, she’s headed to Simmons University in Boston, where she earned a substantial scholarship to get her master’s in Library and Information Science. “My main interest area is book banning and censorship. Some libraries are moving young adult books into the adult section. Some LGBTQ books aren’t properly logged in library catalogs — research is missing because it wasn’t tagged properly.”

For someone who spent so much time moving as a kid, she’s still a little nervous. “When I studied abroad in Ireland, it was just for a month. It was a finite thing, but this is the next two years of my life.”

But she’s still looking forward to it and getting prepared in whatever way she can. “Right now, I’m preparing for the cold, trying to collect things for the weather. And finding a place that’s OK with cats.”

Jayla Wilson poses in her green commencement regaliaJayla Wilson

Early Childhood Education

By Linet Cisneros

As a transfer student, Jayla Wilson was searching for a university that could not only provide a great education but the full college experience. A place she could call home.

Starting college in the fall of 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hard for her to find a sense of community at her first institution. However, after learning about UNT and the more than 450 student organizations available by looking on OrgSync, she was convinced UNT would have something for her.

Due to a chance encounter on the bus with her now best friend, Jayla joined the Professional Women’s Council, which was just the start of her involvement on campus.

“We just joined all of these organizations together and just, like, ended up networking with so many people,” she says.

Jayla then became an Orientation Leader and a Transfer Ambassador, joined organizations such as the Black Student Union, Alpha Kappa Psi professional business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and even participated in volunteer work.

“It's crazy, but I had worked like three jobs at one point, and two were with the university,” she says.

As a transfer student who found her community at UNT, she has loved being able to help new transfer students find their way on campus.

“The students that come here are from many different backgrounds, and I loved being able to tell them there are clubs and organizations where you can find people who literally are just like you,” she says. “You could tell that helped reassure them of their decision of coming to UNT.”

During her first year as an experience leader at UNT, Jayla organized a free trip for freshmen to go to the Texas State Fair in Dallas to foster a sense of community and familiarity with the North Texas area.

“I was actually shocked it was approved because I knew it was a far-fetched idea, and it was a lot of money,” she says. “But I felt like it'd be a really cool experience.”

She credits her mentor, Shaun Holloway, Student Services Coordinator, and the Orientation and Transition Programs (OTP) office for being supportive and always encouraging her.

While working at the OTP office helped Jayla thrive, it was the people and resources at UNT’s Counseling and Testing Services that helped her through some of her more personal roadblocks and persevere.

“There was one woman who helped me a lot,” she says. “We connected, and she had experienced the same thing. It was like she was meant to be that soundboard for me.”

As Jayla graduates with her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, she is looking forward to applying everything she has learned at UNT to her future career. She’s been accepted to Teach for America and is thinking about potentially applying for a master’s in counseling.

Jayla will leave UNT having earned more than a degree. She earned new friends, new mentors and a new home.

“At UNT, there's always resources for you because you're not alone, because UNT is a school for everybody,” she says.

Photo of Jacklyn Perez posing in front of UNT's university sealJacklyn Perez

Rehabilitation Studies and Psychology

By Kelley Pound

Get your foot in the door. 

The phrase her father so often repeated has served as a mantra, a rallying cry, a voice in Jacklyn Perez’s head since the day she began her UNT journey. 

Raised by her grandparents, Jacklyn wasn’t sure going to college was the right choice for her. 

“My high school senior year came, and you start visiting the advisor, and they tell you it’s time to start thinking about college, and at that time, I was like — I’m good, I don’t want to go, no one in my family has gone,” Jacklyn says.

Involved in band since elementary school, Jacklyn had heard of UNT and its reputation as one of the best music schools in the country. 

“I didn’t want to pursue music, but I knew that if I was going to go to college, I needed something more than just academics, but that’s all I had known – academics and band,” she says. “COVID hit, and I just ignored everything, and finally, it was March or April of 2020, so I said, ‘okay, I’m going to UNT.’”

Jacklyn always knew she wanted to enter the mental health or medical field and discovered that UNT also had an excellent psychology program. “I realized that UNT is the best of both worlds — a great psychology program and it has the music school. It was almost like it was already chosen for me before I chose it,” Jacklyn says. “Also, when you look up UNT it’s stated and obvious that it’s a Hispanic- and Minority-Serving Institution. There wasn’t a ton of diversity in my hometown, so since I’m actually going to a university, I want to become culturally competent and be immersed in different cultures.”

By the time Jacklyn was admitted to UNT, opportunities for financial aid had dwindled. “Coming from a low-income family, that was a challenge.”

“But my dad just kept saying ‘Get your foot in the door. You’re accepted, you’re in, so just get that foot in the door. You’re going to be great and you’re going to figure it out,’” she says.

Amid the COVID pandemic, Jacklyn’s opportunities to open doors were limited. But she never let the door close.

“It was a rough start. Not only did I lose my senior year of high school to COVID but I basically  lost my first year and a half of college. I didn’t know what I was doing, and since everything was virtual, it was very isolating,” Jacklyn says.

“I went home over the holidays and my dad just kept saying ‘It’s going to get better. You’ve just got to get your foot in the door. Your education is your crown,’” she says.

By the following spring, opportunities for engagement opened up, and she got her foot into a few new doors and then some.

Jacklyn got her first job at Eagle Landing and was there the day it opened. She also became a resident assistant and joined the Honors College Programming Council, the Psychology Student Association and the First-Generation Student Organization, among others.

“Every time I do something new, I think about how I was a really shy kid, and one of my biggest fears is disappointment and failure. I know that success comes with some failures, and I have to learn from that, so I began to really think about the resources and the opportunities (at UNT) and seeing what all I could do because I’m really big on how experiences build you.”

Scholarships and an undergraduate research fellowship opened doors for Jacklyn her junior year. She became a McNair Scholar and found a mentor in Dr. Jessica Craig, an associate professor in the College of Health and Public Service, who specializes in juvenile justice and the impacts of traumatic experiences on criminal behavior. They partnered on research that was presented at conferences locally and nationally.

“She’s my number one supporter,” Jacklyn says. “I hadn’t really made any connections with professors, but she was completely different and has been one of the biggest parts of my success.”

Her senior year, she became one of five Kuehne Scholars, a scholarship program that supports academic excellence and is one of the largest donor-funded scholarships at UNT. 

A graduate of the UNT Honors College, Jacklyn will now pursue a Student Affairs in Higher Education master’s degree from Texas State University.

“At the end of the day, I want to do something within higher education and teaching, and I want to build a better foundation for students who are coming through because there are so many resources and opportunities – unless you know how to search and find them, you can miss out because you’re afraid to ask,” Jacklyn says. “I want to spend my career being that bridge, especially for first-generation students.”

As Jacklyn moves on to the next step in her educational journey, she credits the engagement opportunities at UNT as the key to her success.

“As a first-gen student, I didn’t think I was going to make it this far,” she says. “But I tried as many new experiences as I could. You’ve just got to get your foot in the door.”

Paige Sanders poses on campus in green commencement regaliaPaige Sanders

Communication Design

By Michael King

Paige Sanders didn’t choose the graphic design lifestyle, it chose her.

A high school student in a business class, she was introduced to the art world thanks to her teacher.

“We were supposed to be learning business info management, but my teacher sped through it really fast,” Paige says. “He was like, ‘I'm going to teach you Photoshop,’ and I ended up really liking it.”

Paige spent her days on her mom’s work laptop, experimenting with Photoshop to her heart’s content. She was so comfortable with it that people started bringing her requests.

“People started asking me, ‘Hey, can you do our t-shirts, or can you design our yearbook?’” Sanders says. “From there it just started spinning and I stumbled into graphic design.”

Paige is set to graduate in Spring 2024 with her bachelor’s degree in communication design with a concentration in graphic design. As a Terry Scholar in the Honors College, she’s learned how to manage a work life balance while juggling four minors in Art History, Marketing, English and Printmaking.

“My time is valuable and there's only so much of myself I can give before I start to burn out,” Paige says. “I’ve learned how to lighten the load, with my Marketing, Art History, and Printmaking minors all contributing to my major as well.”

Paige’s work has been prominently featured in the North Texas Review, a yearly print publication that promotes art, writing, and music from UNT Students, where it even made the front cover of the 2022 issue! More recently, her work is currently featured in the Dallas Society of Visual Communication’s National Student Show, a creative competition dedicated to promoting students into professional artists.

“There's a rewarding feeling in design where you print your stuff and you see this digital thing you've been looking at for so long finally on paper,” Paige says. “I think, in spite of all the doubt and the worry and the chance that I really took in choosing design, it's rewarding to see my work recognized in such a way.”

Some of her work even extended outside the field of art, such as a paper she published on the relationship between the Christian faith and theatre.

“I took a course that was about Puritans and Unitarians, and everyone had to pick a subject to write about,” Paige says. “I wrote a paper about why Puritans hated theatre, why Unitarians accepted theatre, and how that line of thinking led to things like Kanye West’s Jesus is King album.”

While her time as an undergrad student has reached its end, Paige hopes to keep climbing the ladder of education, planning on earning a master’s degree in graphic design.

Despite initially coming to UNT only because of her brother, who was a student at the time, Paige is thankful of the well-rounded education she received.

“I'm really grateful that I came here,” Paige says. “I feel that if I went to a school exclusively for art, then I wouldn’t have gotten so many opportunities to learn and be excited about different things.”

UNT Battle Flag