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 2020 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.
Interdisciplinary Studies EC-6 & ESL
In spring 2004, Jennifer Washam was a community college student when she received a phone call that changed her life.
Her boyfriend, U.S. Army Sergeant Joe Washam, had been badly burned in an explosion while on duty in Iraq. She finished her finals, but then put her education on hold while he recovered in San Antonio.
“Caring for him was my priority,” says Jennifer.
But this spring, she will graduate and fulfill her lifetime dream of becoming an elementary school teacher. During those 16 years, she married Joe, who earned his bachelor’s degree in Applied Arts and Sciences, and she gave birth to their son, Kingsley, now 10. Five years ago, she decided it was time to return to school and finish her degree.
Her path has been unusual and, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing classes online and commencement in flux, so has her last semester.
“It’s fitting that my whole story has been untraditional,” says Jennifer. “I shook the feeling that I had to do it a certain way. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look the way you thought it would. At the end of the day, I’m going to get the chance to impact the lives of children.”
Jennifer, who lives in Justin, chose UNT for its strong education program, and she says her professors in the College of Education understood her journey and worked with her.
Her family also helped out. Joe would edit her papers and Kingsley would help test out her lesson plans.
She excelled — graduating summa cum laude, getting inducted as a member of Kappa Delta Pi, an honor society for educators, and receiving the Outstanding Student in ESL Award from the College of Education in 2019. She also won a scholarship from Hope For The Warriors, a nonprofit organization that provides support to military families.
And now Jennifer is living her dream — she has accepted a position at a local elementary school where she will teach this fall. She has wanted to be a teacher since the first grade.
She advises non-traditional students to pursue their dreams without second-guessing themselves.
“There’s nothing wrong with being selfish when it means you’re taking initiative to do something that matters to you,” she says.
As a band student in Los Gatos, Calif., Max Swisher would see pictures of Brian Bowman, UNT Regents Professor Emeritus of euphonium, on the back of method books.
Max, a euphonium player, knew UNT was the right place for him since Bowman led UNT’s euphonium program, considered the nation’s best. And Max thrived here, earning the Outstanding Graduate for the College of Music award – even though he had to persevere through a broken knee and pandemic.
The first days of school were overwhelming.
“Being a freshman in the music school brought a lot of self-doubt,” says Max. “People play so amazingly and they’ve been here for years. When I came to lessons, I wasn’t sure if I was good enough.”
But Bowman assured him, often telling him at lessons, “You’re doing just fine.”
And Bowman helped the freshman again when Max broke his knee jumping on a trampoline, mentioning he still had the wheelchair used by his late mother-in-law.
“That night he knocked on my dorm room door with a wheelchair,” says Max.
Bowman didn’t stop there. He would also wheel him from his office to Max’s dorm room in Bruce Hall.
Max, who also plays the piano and trombone, recovered and found his place at UNT. He performed in various wind and chamber ensembles and played jazz with the 4, 5, 6 and 7 O’Clock Lab Bands.
But this year’s coronavirus pandemic moved classes online and he wasn’t able to perform his senior recital.
He had to find creative places to practice. He found the courtyard of the Art Building was the perfect place. The emptiness and the acoustics of the courtyard inspired him to play the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” with its memorable line about “all of the lonely people.” Max’s rendition drew attention on YouTube and a student in Spain even contacted Max for help with a transcription.
Max may pursue a master’s in Music Education, but he wants to gain more teaching experience. This fall, he plans to teach English in Japan as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching program.
“I feel like I accomplished my goals, and I look forward to receiving my diploma,” says Max.
Tiffani Price is ready to help others as others have helped her.
Tiffani is the founder of GloryB, a nonprofit organization that assists survivors of human trafficking with rebuilding their lives – a journey that she has experienced herself. After having missed out on the foundations of education and social skills, she longed to for greater understanding. Her strong will and support from others pushed her to earn her degree in behavior analysis.
“I persevered by choosing not to remain a victim, but instead choosing to step out of that to begin working on my healing and education,” says Tiffani. “I did not let the fear of ‘I am not smart enough for a university’ keep me from pursuing my dreams.”
Her path took 15 years, beginning with community college. She quit her full-time job to enroll at UNT, her dream school, and took two to three classes at a time. Because she was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia, she spent up to four hours completing essays that took her classmates less than an hour.
Occasionally, she would stop schooling for a semester to work on her healing. Some friends even said she should quit.
“In those times I remembered the promise I made to myself to get my degree and that it doesn’t matter the length of time it takes to get it - what matters is that I keep going,” says Tiffani.
She took advantage of tutoring opportunities and explored other available campus services and resources. She received help from the Office of Disability; PUSH, a foster care alumni program; and TRIO, a federal program for low-income Americans. Tiffani’s behavior analysis professors April Becker and Shahla Ala'i-Rosales made sure she understood academic concepts associated with her coursework – and always gave her encouraging words.
Now her goal is to grow GloryB, which provides a support system for human trafficking survivors by helping them make plans for their short and long-term goals and providing referrals for counseling, medical services, tutoring, GED programs and any other needs. In the future, Tiffani hopes to further use her experience by creating and managing a home for them, providing stabilization and residential care.
“With this knowledge, we walk life together on their journey as we support them to make their dreams and goals become reality.”
Since zipping through projects in her sixth-grade home economics class, Jenna Critchlow has had a knack for sewing.
It wasn’t long before she was crafting her own designs — usually princess or other storybook character costumes with a touch of her personal flair.
It probably helped that her maternal grandma was pretty handy with a needle and thread, too.
“I grew up around her creativity — making me custom Barbie clothes, knitting and crocheting — and it really helped spark my interest in sewing, too,” Jenna says.
This month, she’ll be graduating with a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in fashion design — her second bachelor’s degree from UNT.
Jenna first studied drawing and painting in the College of Visual Arts and Design as an Emerald Eagle Scholar. She loved Denton so much, she was in no hurry to leave. She worked as a staff member in a few different departments on campus, including serving as an administrative coordinator for CVAD’s design department.
“That’s what pushed me toward getting another degree — all the fashion kids were coming in and registering for classes, and I was like, ‘That looks like something I should do,’” Jenna says.
That decision was a turning point for Jenna. As she worked through her fashion design classes, she realized that she could turn her love of sewing into a career.
She’s not one to cut corners in her designs. As a self-described contemporary sportswear designer, Jenna has a keen eye for original textiles and has been known to hand-dye her own fabric or create a custom pattern using laser etching and cutting in the CVAD FabLab.
With much of the campus closed during the pandemic, Jenna had to rework her senior clothing collection since she would no longer have access to the laser equipment.
“I think the biggest challenge for me was reimagining those textiles and realizing that it wasn’t going to be the same design that I wanted it to be,” Jenna says. “It’s a good challenge to overcome because when you’re in the workplace you might have to adapt when your original idea isn’t possible.”
Jenna has already founded her own label, Jkaye Creations, which blends art, craft and design and follows the motto of “keeping the art in Earth.” She hopes to grow that business and also land a job on a design team in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where she can focus on the technical drawing side of product development.
At UNT, she’s learned to be open to new ideas and to not be afraid to push boundaries.
“That love for knowledge and love for the community is the biggest high for me. I never feel like I’m limited.”
As a high school student, Virginia Cook was inspired by her art teacher and mentor Mrs. Freeman—a UNT alumna—to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Art History at the University of North Texas. After researching the Art History program, Virginia knew it was the right school for her.
Due to financial restrictions, she wasn’t able to attend UNT as a freshman, but after transferring in 2015, Virginia earned her Bachelor of Arts in Art History. And she’ll graduate this this May with her M.A, also in Art History.
The Multicultural Center in the Union has been one of the highlights of her UNT experience. “I think it’s a hugely important resource and support structure to UNT students,” says Virginia. “It’s a space that always felt so accepting to me.” The art collection at the MC is just a bonus that continues to inspire Virginia as an art historian.
This semester has had its ups and downs, but Virginia continues to tackle each one with grace and a positive attitude. “I could not have gotten this far without my professors. Jennifer Way, Nada Shabout and Laura Evans have all made a huge impact on my life in different ways,” says Virginia. “Unfortunately, with the recent global pandemic, I hit a few curbs in the progress of my thesis.”
She has been working on her thesis non-stop for the past year. Her biggest help? The research library and Rebecca Barham, UNT’s Art, Dance & Theatre reference librarian. Barham taught Cook how to do effective research at the library and online. A huge part of Virginia’s thesis—an analysis on the Spanish institute Casa Árabe and its Mudéjar architecture—was dependent on contacts who live in Spain. “I love ancient Spanish and Islamic architectural design elements.”
Due to the strict lockdown in Spain, Virginia bumped into unexpected challenges as she finalized her thesis, being unable to gain access to resources and documents she expected for her research. With the help of Professor Shabout’s contacts in Spain, Virginia was able to write her thesis by accessing online texts.
After graduation, Virginia endeavors to become a McDermott intern at the Dallas Museum of Art. “I want to make a difference in our local community. The opportunity to be a part of the DMA team would be invaluable to my growth as an art educator and historian.”
There were high expectations for Mean Green softball heading into the 2020 season. Coming off the first conference championship in program history in 2019, UNT was picked as preseason favorites to win Conference USA.
It would have been the perfect way for senior catcher Nicole Ochotnicki to end her college career. Unfortunately, instead of playing her final game in May, Nicole’s last game in a Mean Green uniform came on March 8, just before the 2020 season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was really upsetting at first,” Nicole says. “I’m still sad about it and I miss all my teammates and coaches.”
Even though the team didn’t get to try their luck at the postseason this year, Nicole says they did squeeze in one moment that stands with last year’s championship as one of her favorite memories at UNT – the Mean Green’s first-ever win over the University of Oklahoma on Feb. 29.
“The coaching staff did so well getting us prepared and managing that game,” Nicole says. “It was just a crazy atmosphere because it was in Norman and it was such a big win for our team.”
Although the Cedar Park native would much rather be out on the field than quarantined in her apartment, she says the silver lining is that all the extra time has allowed her to focus more on preparing for physical therapy school.
Shortly after she graduates from UNT with her bachelor’s in kinesiology, Nicole will start PT school at Texas Tech, which she hopes will lead to a career in outpatient, home health or hospital rehabilitation.
“I knew I wanted to major in kinesiology since I’ve been around sports my whole life and I’ve always wanted to help people, so physical therapy is sort of the perfect combination of those two things,” Nicole says.
After her season and senior year were interrupted so abruptly, Nicole hopes future students will make the most of their college experience once life gets back to normal.
“Enjoy college while you can,” Nicole says. “Spend time on campus and go to your classes and just take it all in. Take everything one day at a time and try to appreciate all the little things.”
Ashley Spears is graduating with her master’s degree in library science and an impressive reference — as curator of an exhibit at the museum and childhood home of former President George W. Bush in Midland.
With a concentration in archival studies and imaging technology, Ashley interned for the museum and worked an entire semester on “Friendship for a Lifetime, the Earle and Dottie Craig Collection.” The exhibit contains photos and letters that Bush’s parents, former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, had exchanged with their friends the Craigs since the 1960s. News stations covered Ashley’s research and the opening of the exhibit, which was the museum’s first in more than a decade.
She says the hands-on experience built her confidence in organizing and cataloging artifacts.
“The most exciting part of the internship was getting to see the exhibit I created go from items found inside boxes to being on full display in glass cases inside the home,” says Ashley.
Ashley, who lives in Midland and works at the University of Texas-Permian Basin as the administrative coordinator for the campus, took advantage of UNT’s online master’s program in library science. It required a few trips to Denton but otherwise is offered entirely online.
“It’s a versatile program that gave me the option to work on the degree from anywhere,” says Ashley. “The main challenge was working full time while completing the program, but I am graduating in two years instead of three!”
She says her favorite thing about UNT was how easy it was to get assistance when she needed it.
“I had next to no issues, but when I did, they were resolved very quickly,” says Ashley.
Her goal is to work as a curator or archivist for a special collections library or museum. She earned a Graduate Academic Certificate in archival management in addition to her degree.
With classes already online, changes due to COVID-19 did not affect Ashley much, although a camping trip she’d planned to the Grand Canyon for graduation will have to wait awhile.
The exhibit she built during her internship was a lasting highlight of her studies.
“I was proud to be able to give back to my community in that way,” says Ashley, “and the exhibit will be on display indefinitely so people can enjoy it for years to come.”
Brian Elliott didn’t expect to finish his time at UNT defending his doctoral dissertation in a Zoom meeting, but “it ended up not being a big deal.”
It’s not surprising he took it in stride. Brian earned three UNT degrees in history while living with the challenge of a visual impairment. Diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease as a teenager, he hasn’t allowed that to slow him down.
“Not being able to live a normal life at 16 was tough, especially not being able to drive in a state like Texas. With the support of my family and friends, though, my vision challenges have only pushed me to be a more driven individual who above all things is simply trying to prove I can achieve whatever I put my mind to.”
Brian came to UNT from Granbury, joining friends headed to Denton. He says the opportunity to work with history faculty like Andrew Torget, Randolph Campbell and Richard McCaslin kept him here for his master’s, and he went on to pursue his doctorate for the chance to teach right away.
He first became interested in teaching as an undergraduate, when he worked for the UNT Learning Center. As a master’s student, he was a workshop instructor for the American Culture and Communications Program through UNT International.
“I enjoyed helping international students sharpen their English and better understand culture in Texas and the broader U.S.,” says Brian. “It taught me that we as humans share more in common than we are different, and that made me a more empathetic teacher and scholar.”
Brian, who was selected as a special projects research assistant for UNT’s Portal to Texas History, has published book reviews and has manuscripts under consideration by several academic journals. He was named the history department’s 2019 Outstanding Teaching Fellow and teaches history in the diploma program at Westlake Academy.
“The professors I’ve worked with taught me the value of bringing an infectious energy into every learning environment,” says Brian, “and to always believe that every student in the room wants to be there just as much as you.”
His advice for new graduate students echoes his advice for teachers and, really, anyone: “Be passionate about what you do. That love for what you study will carry you through the challenges you face.”
Sport Pedagogy and Motor Behavior
Joonyoung Lee is known as a leader, a mentor and an inspiration by his peers and faculty alike.
A native of South Korea, Joonyoung has helped other UNT international students adapt to university life, serving as an international student orientation leader and mentor. Currently, he is a coordinator for visiting scholars who come from different countries, including 45 scholars from China.
“I am proud to be part of the Mean Green family because of the way UNT cares for the welfare of its students and supports their success,” says Joonyoung. “UNT emphasizes the value of equality and diversity. This means a lot for international students.”
Joonyoung will graduate in May with a Ph.D. in sport pedagogy and motor behavior. He says he has met many great teachers and professors at UNT and they have become his inspiration. It is one of the reasons he wants to devote his life to educating others.
“I have been so touched by the incredible warmth and generosity of faculty and staff in the Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation,” says Joonyoung. “My advisor, Tao Zhang, assistant professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation in the College of Education, has greatly influenced my journey also to become a professor, offering me numerous opportunities to build my leadership skills. I want to become a professor like those I have met here at UNT who are not only my teachers, but my mentors and supporters as well.”
As the manager of the College of Education’s Pediatric Movement and Physical Activity Laboratory, Joonyoung is already teaching and inspiring others. He shares his passion for school- and community-based physical fitness with the graduate and undergraduate student research fellows he trains. He says that UNT’s support for students’ research is one of his favorite things about the university and it has allowed him to engage in diverse projects and travel to present his research.
After graduation, Joonyoung wants to make it his mission to help make physical fitness more accessible, especially to children in underserved populations. He also hopes to create community-based physical and wellness programs after the COVID-19 quarantines are lifted.
“There will be concern about people’s physical health with the increased sedentary behaviors and physical inactivity during social distancing,” says Joonyoung. “I look forward to helping develop fitness opportunities for families and children that will continue to benefit their communities well into the future.”
Juan De Jesus Barroso
Juan De Jesus Barroso’s ceramics and paintings pay tribute to would-be migrants and immigrants, like Juan’s family who have become American citizens.
“My work is about Mexican labor and what an immigrant does to survive. With the current political administration in America enforcing immigration policies that dehumanize and force immigrants into the shadows, recognizing an immigrant’s humanity is vital,” says Juan. “I hope my art honors my people and the dignity with which they work to make a living.”
Already an accomplished artist and teaching assistant, Juan hopes to become a ceramics professor and inspire others as he has been inspired by the faculty and staff of UNT’s College of Visual Arts and Design.
“My professor, Brooks Oliver, has had the greatest impact on my experience here at UNT,” says Juan. “Thanks to him, I know why I choose clay, paint with dots, paint in black and white and paint images of immigrant labor. In his class I found purpose and the source of my happiness.”
Juan’s passion for his art and his heritage is apparent in works like his clay vase Honoring Textile Labor, inspired by memories of his mother sewing, embroidering, repairing and selling clothes. He created the delicate image of a seamstress’s hands feeding cloth through a sewing machine by applying thousands of tiny black dots to the vase’s white surface. Juan says that the dots reflect the thousands of stitches his mother sewed to help provide for her family.
Juan’s art also gives a voice to the millions of Latinos who risk their lives to come to the United States where they hope to find refuge from poverty and violence. Razor Wire at the Border, a painting of the concertina wire that twists across the tops of border fences and No More Caged Children, a black and white portrait of a huddled, frightened child behind a chain link fence serve as cruel reminders of the ways many hopeful migrant journeys end.
“It is important for me to be a part of a Latino community and one of the reasons I chose to pursue my MFA in ceramics at UNT is because of the university’s ethnic diversity,” says Juan. “In my time here, I have felt accepted and respected by all of my peers and professors. It feels like being a part of a family.”
Family is important to Juan who credits his father as the main reason he works with clay.
“My father’s name is Serafin Barroso and it means ‘filled with clay,’” says Juan. “For a time, the mud on my father’s clothes was a source of shame, a sign of poverty. There’s irony in taking the mundane material that was once an embarrassment and transforming it into a fragile, permanent and valuable record of our labor.”
Kansas native Tatum Specht first fell in love with UNT when she visited campus to tour the College of Music. During her first semester as a vocal performance major, Tatum realized that her passion for music was rivaled only by her passion for traveling and meeting new people. Upon returning from an audition, she wondered how to merge her love of music with her wanderlust. Fortunately for her, UNT has an incredible Hospitality Management program. All she had to do was cross the street from the Music Building to Chilton Hall.
To say Tatum immersed herself into the university community is an understatement. The College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism graduate has been involved as a member in numerous campus organizations including the Green Tones (UNT’s premiere pop A Cappella ensemble), Eagle Ambassadors (campus tour guides and prospective students’ first exposure to UNT many times ), Student Alumni Ambassadors, CMHT ambassadors, the international hospitality management honor society; Eta Sigma Delta and the 2019 Smith Travel Research International Market Study team. Despite being heavily involved on campus and changing her major, Tatum will graduate early, finishing in just three years, with her Bachelor of Science in Hospitality Management.
Her advice to incoming freshmen? Tatum says that she can’t stress enough how important it is to meet new people. “Go sit with the person who’s alone in the dining hall. Get to know the students you have class with. Say ‘hi’ to the staff members helping to keep our campus clean. Talk to your professors during office hours. There are so many amazing people who call UNT home.”
We think this hospitality major has the right idea.
Noura Shuqair thought she knew most everything about art in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East – after all, she grew up immersed in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh.
After taking UNT professor Nada Shabout’s art history class, Noura realized she had taken for granted many aspects of her own culture and was inspired to research and write about contemporary art in Saudi Arabia.
“Professor Shabout makes us think critically. An art historian’s job is something most people underestimate. You become a detective because you have to search for the facts. You have to learn about the politics of that area, as well as its economy and culture in order to understand the art in the bigger picture,” says Noura, who will earn her Ph.D. in art education this spring.
As an artist, Noura has found joy in a variety of mediums from painting and drawing to mixed media. At UNT, she’s brought more technology into her art, using machines such as the laser cutter or 3D printer at the CVAD FabLab.
“My work involves the contradiction in my identity. I’m torn between two different worlds – America and Saudi Arabia,” Noura says.
She chose UNT for her doctoral education so she could take studio classes and conduct arts-based research for a creative dissertation.
To say that Noura has enjoyed classes at UNT would be an understatement. On numerous occasions, she’s audited classes, sitting in and observing them for no credit, learning something new each time. After she successfully defended her dissertation, she went straight to one of Shabout’s classes to observe. She’s audited other classes in the art education and art history department as well.
“When I see that my professors are accomplished and how they are so well-known in the world, I feel proud that they are my mentors. I know I’m in good hands,” Noura says.
In the fall, Noura will become a mentor to the next generation, beginning her journey as an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Logan Bruffett has accomplished a lot in her time at UNT:
- Won one regular season championship and three Conference USA tournament championships as a member of the Mean Green women’s soccer team, the last while serving as a team captain;
- Voted CUSA All-Conference in women’s soccer;
- Made the President’s List every semester with a perfect 4.0 grade point average;
- Became the first academic All-American in the 25-year history of the UNT soccer program;
- Received the Golden Eagle Award, the highest student leadership honor given at UNT, for her service on- and off-campus, including working at two local low-income clinics;
- Graduating with a bachelor’s of science in integrated studies with focuses in kinesiology, biology and psychology in preparation for seeking a physician’s assistant (PA) master’s degree after graduation.
As impressive as the list above is, what’s even more remarkable is that she did it all in just three years. While Logan came to UNT out of high school with several college credits, she says the caring nature of her professors was instrumental to her early graduation.
“All of my UNT professors were accommodating and understanding, especially in the fall semesters during soccer season when the team travelled considerably,” says Logan. “I took genetics last fall with Tyra Hall-Pogar, who always made herself accessible—and we had great communication. Another example is my chemistry professor, Susan Broadway, who was always willing to answer emails or stay after class to clarify material with me. I found that the professors at UNT really cared about helping me and my peers succeed.”
Logan says her athletics academic advisor Erica Kral and pre-PA advisor Todd Lang also played significant roles in keeping her on track.
“Planning an intensive course schedule around practices and games can be challenging, but Erica was always really patient, working with me to make everything line up,” says Logan. “Todd also worked with me every semester to make sure I was taking the right courses to stay on the pre-physician’s assistant track and be ready for medical school.”
Unable to find a master’s healthcare program that could coexist with the considerable demands of collegiate soccer, Logan made the difficult decision to forego her fourth year of NCAA eligibility so she could graduate early and apply to several top-ranked PA programs. Although she’ll sincerely miss her coaches and teammates, she says the timing feels right to take the next step toward her ultimate career goal.
“I’ve always known I wanted to serve in the patient care field,” says Logan. “That’s why I’ve decided to go to graduate medical school to become a certified PA. Through working at two non-profit clinics and shadowing PA’s during college, I saw the duties and versatility of the PA role firsthand.”
“Whether diagnosing and treating patients in routine visits, carrying out in-clinic procedures, or assisting in surgeries, PA’s are performing more and more patient care responsibilities previously only done by MD’s. Personally, what really hooked me was seeing PA’s develop close bonds with their patients as they worked with them on achieving their health goals. That’s my ultimate objective.”
Even with all she’s achieved over the last three years at UNT, there’s one accomplishment that stands above the rest for Logan.
“It was one of my greatest honors to be chosen to serve as a captain for UNT’s outstanding soccer program this past year,” says Logan. “It’s hard to express how exceptional this group of ladies and coaches is! Although I had to keep my grades up and get clinical hours, I never considered it a chore to play on and help lead this team. Especially since I shared the position with three other incredible captains.”
“My absolute best UNT memory was when the entire team came together to defeat FAU on our home field in the championship match this year. Looking back, I realize that athletics has shaped me as much as academics, if not more so. It taught me the teamwork skills, work ethic and dedication needed to be successful in every other part of my life. Playing for UNT’s highly competitive program was a real blessing.”
Computer Science and Engineering
Eric Fox grew up knowing that he wanted to fly the friendly skies.
“Who wouldn’t want to be a pilot? I have always wanted to fly for a living,” says Eric. “There was never an eye-opening moment where everything clicked and I woke up wanting to be a pilot. I cannot remember a time when I wanted to do anything else. Once I combined my passion for aviation with a desire to join the military, the Air Force was a natural choice.”
Coming from a long line of UNT alumni, including his great-great-grandmother in the early 1900s, his uncle, his cousin and his parents, who met at UNT when they were both students, he found that the university fit his needs perfectly, offering a great town, an Air Force ROTC program, a well-known engineering and computer science program and a relatively short trip to his home in Mount Pleasant, Texas.
Although he eventually wants to earn a master’s degree, he’s headed down a different path after he graduates in May.
“I have the luxury of knowing what I am going to be doing immediately after graduation. I will be going to Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas, for Air Force pilot training. Where that career will take me, I have no idea. Regardless, my dream is to be the best pilot and airman I can be. Ultimately, I would like to go to Air Force Test Pilot School,” says Eric. “Because of frequent travelling that comes with the military, I cannot say for sure if I will be able to come back to UNT. However, if the opportunity arises, it would be great to come back.”
Part of his training at Sheppard will include the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program, a premier flight training wing and the world’s only internationally manned and managed pilot training program dedicated to building relationships and training fighter pilots for 14 NATO nations. Eric was one of only 50 pilots chosen from the 559 pilots who volunteered for the program.
He also worked hard and excelled in the classroom. Eric was very involved with his major, taking a variety of computer science classes to gain breadth in the field. His favorite class was game design with Ian Parberry, professor of computer science, in spring 2019, in which the final lab was based on how good the game was.
“Those were the only grading credentials,” says Eric. “I think it gave the class freedom to be more creative, take more risks and be forced to operate in an industry-like environment.”
He credits “a catalogue” of UNT faculty and staff with supporting him, both before and after classes moved to an all-online format.
“When I walked out of class on the Friday before Spring Break, I did not know that I stepped out of my last UNT class ever,” says Eric. “As an engineering student, most classes are in-person, so I was not accustomed to the online course flow. Nonetheless, I think the transition was as smooth as possible. UNT did a solid job of communicating and being transparent with the student body, and it certainly went a long way with us.”
Eric has been an ROTC cadet for his entire UNT journey, and has also been involved in intramural flag football, softball and basketball, as well as working as stadium staff for home football games.
“We have an NCAA D1 football team playing right here in Denton during fall semester and a NCAA D1 basketball team playing during spring semester. There is no reason that Apogee Stadium and the Super Pit should not be packed to capacity every single gameday. You want school pride and school spirit? Show up on gameday and get loud,” says Eric.
His favorite thing about the university is the chance to be involved and he recommends that any student do so, either through a group, club, organization or by attending athletic events and supporting fellow students.
“I am proud of everything the university has done since I have been here. Completing the Union, building two new dorm halls, the massive projects for the athletics department. All these upgrades to the campus and to the living environment for students has a huge impact on attitude. I think UNT is only going to continue getting better, and I am proud to have been a part of that,” says Eric. “Last fall, I was the Cadet Wing Commander at Detachment 835 here at UNT. Leading the cadet wing was a huge challenge, however, the experience is certainly one that I will remember going forward and I will take those lessons learned with me.”
David Woodward, Juan Ruiz, Tim Stern and Nickolas Bratsch
Computer Science and Engineering
During their time as undergraduates at UNT, David Woodward, Juan Ruiz, Tim Stern and Nickolas Bratsch proved that one small step toward the unknown could result in a giant leap for the future of spacesuit user interface technologies.
The computer science and engineering seniors, who will graduate this spring, formed a team that developed an augmented reality program for space helmets as part of the NASA Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students (SUITS) Design Challenge. Though the team knew virtually nothing about AR when they started, they stretched their wings through mentorship from engineering faculty like Robin Pottathuparambil, user feedback captured via “space walks” in the halls of Discovery Park and several rounds of trial and error. That led to their development of a system that provides real-time visual communication — anything from suit status, biometrics, checklists, detailed instructions and even pictures — via an astronaut’s helmet visor.
At last year’s April event at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the group presented their AR programming to computer scientists, engineers and astronauts, and their program was tested by a NASA astronaut at the agency’s mockup of the International Space Station. Engineer and retired astronaut Steve Swanson told the team that one of the most challenging aspects of spacewalks is for astronauts to see what they’re working on because the suit is so restrictive. That’s why, using their computer science and engineering expertise, the team this year decided to create a glove that would send a live camera feed directly to the headset — providing astronauts a helmet view of their more delicate, hands-on work — as part of their senior design project. The students also added a second live camera feed from the back of the helmet, which they call the “rearview cam.”
“With computer engineering, you program but you also build,” says Juan, a Duncanville native and first-generation college student who recently accepted a full-time position as an embedded software engineer at Lockheed Martin. “We have to not only program, but create the hardware as well.”
Of course, their hands-on work was made much more difficult due to social distancing guidelines following the outbreak of COVID-19. But, as always, the team found a way to make even the most challenging situations work — they participated in video calls every day to finish the project for NASA. They once again qualified this year for the (SUITS) Design Challenge alongside teams from Harvard, Columbia University, the University of Michigan, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M and others.
“Our project is very much reliant on physical hardware and user testing — both of which are unavailable with social distancing,” says David, a Frisco native who in January was also offered a full-time position with Lockheed Martin working on the displays for their F-35 Lightning II aircraft. “We have had to come up with creative solutions like creating a Mars simulator/video game to allow users to virtually test our system.”
But with world-class UNT computer science and engineering professors like Joseph Helsing and Robin Pottathuparambil, the team was fully prepared for tackling the seemingly impossible.
“UNT has an incredible pool of resources to make any dream come true,” says Tim, a Denton native who recently accepted a full-time job with L3Harris Technologies, with which he also completed an internship. “So dream big and go for it.”
Nickolas couldn’t agree more — and that’s partly the reason The Woodlands native will return in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in computer science and engineering.
“UNT has given me the ability to learn and grow as an individual thanks to all of the fantastic faculty, staff and resources available,” he says. “Professor Pottathuparambil has been the biggest supporter of my UNT career, pushing me to be my best and always having my thoughts and interests in mind. I've learned so much about computer engineering, and know that when I pursue my career after graduate school, I will have more than enough knowledge to succeed.”
Jeremy Diamond’s path, from a community college freshman majoring in biology to a UNT senior graduating with a B.F.A. in studio art and specializing in metalsmithing, followed a progression as natural as the art he creates.
It all started with a couple things that didn’t happen.
“Biology didn’t happen because, honestly, I am terrible at math,” says Jeremy. “One of my instructors suggested I try to find something I enjoyed or wanted to try. Drawing and painting has always been something I liked doing so I thought art might be the answer.”
But, Jeremy wondered at the time, what kind of art? Would it be drawing and painting? Or something else? He says he decided to take a ceramics class because it was something he’d always wanted to try. But that didn’t happen, either. He was too late and all the ceramics classes he wanted were full. So he took metalsmithing instead.
“I never really thought of metalsmithing as a form of art,” says Jeremy. “But, as soon as I tried it, it clicked. It was what I wanted to do. In fact, it was the best thing I had ever done.”
Jeremy was hooked, but the number of metalsmithing classes at the community college was limited, so he realized he needed a school that could offer more. Fortunately, it turned out that his metalsmithing instructor, Wynona Alexander, was also a UNT alumna.
“She pointed me to UNT’s studio arts program and it really appealed to me,” says Jeremy. “Studio art is for people who want to make art for art’s sake, and that’s me.”
As Jeremy has honed his artistic talents, he has been particularly inspired by nature and natural themes, which is reflected in his work. He explains there is something very fundamental and complex about the world that he wants to capture in his art. He sees the relationships in nature played out in the relationships between people over and over again.
“Natural imagery has always been an important part of my work,” says Jeremy. “How we interact with things we see really says a lot about a person, and with nature, I believe people don’t have to force it. They just see what is there.”
As a member of UNT’s metalsmithing club, Jeremy has been able to display and sell his works at various art shows in the area. He says his favorite piece so far is Graellsia. It can be seen, along with some of his other work on his website.
After graduation, Jeremy will attend the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Georgia in Athens. He says he hopes to one day teach studio arts to college students and that it “clicks” for them too.
If Meah Lin could give incoming freshmen one piece of advice, she’d keep it simple: It will be okay.
Coming from Tyler, Texas, by way of Hsin-Chu, Taiwan, Meah wasn’t sure what to expect from her first year at UNT. “I was worried about so many things as a freshman,” says Meah. “But I was also excited about trying a new experience.”
She chose to attend UNT at the suggestion of her high school art teacher and mentor. “He recommended I look into UNT's art and design programs because they’ve been reputable and established since he was in college. I toured the campus and decided that this would be my place.”
Meah will graduate in May with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communication Design and a minor in art history. She plans to work as a graphic designer and take a deeper dive into the fields of user experience design and motion graphics. “Some of my dream projects include working on a title sequence for a great show, collaborating with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and successfully hosting a podcast,” says Meah. “I also enjoy helping others. I know at some point I’d like to pursue a master’s degree, which will allow me to teach design and art."
Part of her interest in teaching can be attributed to the exceptional faculty in the College of Visual Arts and Design. “I’ve been lucky to have so many great professors, one of them being David Wolske,” says Meah. “He taught me Type in Motion and Cause-based Design, but I also consulted him for several projects even when I was not in his class.”
Despite enjoying her coursework and being inspired by her professors, Meah's growing mental health struggles became exceedingly overwhelming. When they began to take a toll on her overall well-being, she sought help from the counselors at UNT’s S.U.R.E. Center. “Tim Trail really helped me to work through issues my family and I were struggling with, as well as my anxiety and stress,” says Meah. “He believed that everyone should have the chance to feel better, and he would spend his personal time helping people who wanted to talk to him. I will always keep the wisdom he taught me in mind.”
Meah also found comfort in the friendships she made while serving as historian, secretary and marketing chair of World Echoes, a multi-cultural student organization that hosts events to strengthen friendships among different cultures. “The diversity of cultures is what I love most about UNT,” says Meah. “I met friends from all over the globe through experiences like Cultural Night, Global EncoUNTer, and Cooking and Tasting.”
UNT’s art and design programs were what originally drew Meah to campus, but the community made it feel like home. For all the freshmen feeling worried, anxious or simply unsure about the road ahead, Meah gets it—but it really will be okay. “Try to be open to new experiences. Ask for help when you need it. And most importantly, take good care of yourself.”
Meah’s taking her own advice and doing her best to keep COVID-19 from overshadowing her senior year. “It’s certainly a very different picture than what I imagined my last semester would be. I didn’t realize how much being around my friends and professors meant to me until I could no longer do it. Chit-chatting in the hallway, stopping by my professors' offices to say hi, getting dinner on Fry Street after working on projects for hours—those little things helped me stay upbeat and ready for the next challenge.”
But she’s setting aside time to stay connected and enjoy the little things, even if it’s just a funny meme or a video from a friend. “I’m also working on a yearbook for my class of graduates in my major,” says Meah. “There are exactly 40 of us, so it's manageable. It’s my way of celebrating the memories we made as a class before the outbreak. It’s heading to the printer soon, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.”
Women’s and Gender Studies and Communication Studies
The smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, yoga and quality time with her three dogs—Luna, Pico and Rolo is Leah Brooks-Hall’s new morning routine before she dives deep into her day as a teaching fellow and classwork for her graduate courses.
“I have enjoyed developing a morning routine that front loads my day with positivity and stability,” says Leah.
Double majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies and Communication Studies isn’t an easy task, but Leah has a wonderful support system.
She was the first graduate student to successfully compose and defend her thesis titled, "In the Near Future: Decolonial Perspectives on Subjectivity in Her and Ex Machina” in the Women’s and Gender Studies program.
“Weaving together new materialism, decoloniality, and women of color feminisms, I performed a critical analysis of the relationship between humans and robots in the science fiction films Her and Ex Machina. The experience was challenging, but I had amazing support from my advisor and committee. It is easily the academic achievement I am most proud of. A few years ago, I did not expect to finish a bachelor's degree, so completing a master's thesis was extremely rewarding,” she says.
Her thesis advisor Megan Morrissey, associate professor of rhetoric in the Department of Communication Studies, has had the greatest impact on Leah’s experience as a scholar and person.
“Megan models empathy, integrity, patience and excellence in her scholarship and myriad roles on and off campus,” says Leah. “I feel lucky to learn from her and will take so much of what she has taught me, personally and professionally, into my future endeavors. Including, but not limited to, investing in a planner to organize my time and responsibilities.”
The support Leah has experienced is part of the university’s DNA.
“I’m most proud of being part of an institution that offers support to students on multiple levels – caring for physical, mental and emotional health. COVID-19 has highlighted how willing UNT faculty and staff—from those helping students succeed in the online learning environment to those providing counseling sessions via Zoom—are to collaborate with students to ensure that people are staying safe, healthy and on track to succeed academically.”
Leah loves that UNT is a place that people from all walks of life can come together, be who they are and start their professional journey. She participates in the Social Justice Lab, an interdisciplinary collective of scholars from various departments on campus, who meet to share research, workshop projects and work across departmental/disciplinary lines to accomplish social activism through scholarship and community building.
“The university creates an environment that provides resources for queer folks to be seen and supported. As a queer student and instructor, I have gained a great deal of confidence in my identity during my time at UNT and I work hard to provide that same support for the students I have the privilege of instructing,” says Leah.
Leah’s graduating in August with her master’s in Women’s in Gender Studies and in Spring 2021, she’ll also complete her master of science in Communication Studies with hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in Communication Studies. Her dream is to become a communication studies professor with a focus on rhetoric and critical/cultural studies.
“I’m still looking into options in terms of where I hope to pursue a doctorate. McGill University in Montreal offers a Ph.D. in Communication Studies: Gender and Women's Studies which brings together all of my academic interests, it is certainly at the top of the list,” she says.
To incoming students, she says, “don’t worry about being friends with everyone you meet. Invest energy in relationships that are life-giving, supportive and create space for you to be your most authentic self. Develop relationships with your professors. It is so worthwhile and adds depth to the academic experience.”
UNT senior Allison Taylor could have let a medical condition slow down her academic plans or even her life, but instead, she’s using it as inspiration to reach her goals. Diagnosed at 18 with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, commonly known as CMT, she has dedicated her life to finding a cure.
The most frequently inherited peripheral neuropathy disease, CMT leads to muscular and sensory degeneration. Allison’s grandfather died from it, and the disease also affects her mother and two sisters.
“I am fortunate enough to have a mild enough case to be able-bodied,” says Allison. “But it will get worse. CMT is associated with neurological pain and a slow, degeneration of abilities.”
Allison grew up west of Lubbock in Smyer, Texas, and graduated first in her class of 16 students at Whiteface High School. She visited several universities but says “none of them felt as nice as UNT. When I toured UNT, I really enjoyed the warm and welcoming culture.”
Beginning her career at UNT as a biology major, Allison originally planned to become a genetic counselor to help people affected by CMT find diagnoses. But she fell in love with research as a freshman, taking part in the UNT PHAGES program, Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science. The next summer, encouraged by honors college professor Tom Miles, she participated in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at Mississippi State University, where she studied proteins that malfunction and lead to CMT.
“Professor Miles has helped me see that I had an aptitude for research. He has been the most encouraging and warm person,” says Allison. “He is the reason I got the Research Experience for Undergraduates and that I got it as a freshman.”
Back at UNT during her junior year, Allison approached her neuroscience professor Jannon Fuchs about working in her lab to continue research into the mechanisms behind CMT. Soon she joined Fuchs' research group and began the work for her honors thesis, which she completed in November 2019. Her research centered around Schwann Cells and their role in CMT. Schwann Cells support nerve regeneration of the peripheral nervous system and according to Allison are “the coolest cells in the human body.” Allison believes her research in understanding their role in CMT could one day lead to the development of gene therapy for the disease.
“The hardest part of succeeding in college is believing in yourself,” says Allison. “It’s very rare for somebody to truly have confidence and know their worth enough to act on it. I know all of us are capable of doing incredible things in our own way, but sometimes we struggle in recognizing that.”
While CMT has sidelined Allison from marching band and running, she doesn’t stay off her feet. In addition to being a full-time student and working in Fuchs’ laboratory, she worked 20 hours a week in a local restaurant. Add to that, she spent a year spent writing her honors thesis and applying to graduate school. She will be graduating magna cum laude with a 3.99 grade point average as a Distinguished Honors Scholar.
Allison’s academic and professional goal is to become an expert on her own disorder. She believes that her research is only a piece of an eventual cure. She has accepted a postbaccalaureate research position at the University of California at Davis, which is scheduled to begin in June, while also applying for Ph.D. programs in neuroscience.
“It would be super cool if my work led to a cure, but I don’t have any unrealistic expectations about that,” says Allison. “I think the most realistic hope I can have for myself is to live my life in a way that inspires others to do good things.”
Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences
For Lynett Mapenzauswa, there are lessons to learn from every moment in life — especially the difficult ones.
Lynett grew up in Zimbabwe, where many girls continue to face gender discrimination and limited access to education. Inspired by her early life experiences, strong spirituality and deep sense of compassion, she went on to build a career around helping others.
“Looking back, I did not grow up with a lot on my plate,” she says. “Now I feel the need to give back to those in need whenever I can.”
When she moved to Texas in 2006, she began working for World Vision International, a Christian nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children and families struggling with poverty.
“I love nonprofit work because it gives me a chance to make a positive impact,” she says. “It is an incredibly humbling feeling to help someone in need. My years at World Vision were some of the best — I learned how to connect with communities and what it takes to run a nonprofit effectively and efficiently.”
Lynett attended Collin County College, but she was forced to put her studies on hold when her financial challenges were exacerbated by complications and delays within the immigration system.
After years of working and volunteering with various nonprofits, Lynett began to seriously consider starting her own. In order to make that dream a reality, though, she knew she had to complete her degree. She transferred to UNT and will graduate with her Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences this semester.
As a nontraditional student with plenty of real-world experience on her resume, Lynett was drawn to the B.A.A.S. degree for its holistic blending of educational and professional experience.
“After a long road of trying to finish school, I finally found the right program,” she says. “I love UNT because they were able to offer me a clear path to graduation,” she says. “I love the counselors, too — their guidance, along with advice from Dr. Margaret Shadduck [acting associate dean for curriculum in the B.A.A.S. program], helped me choose the right classes and stay on course.”
Lynett also attributes her success to generous support and guidance from her mentor, Dr. Norman Dolch, adjunct professor in the Department of Public Administration.
“Dr. Dolch is a great encourager, cheering you on as you continue with your studies and encouraging in the way he teaches his classes,” she says. “His responsiveness and constant reminders to study gave me the confidence to know that I really can make it out there.”
After graduation, Lynett plans to continue working in the nonprofit sector and someday start her own.
“I want to be an advocate for less privileged girls in Africa,” she says, “and work to break the barrier of gender inequality, particularly by increasing their access to education and other opportunities.”
To her fellow nontraditional students — and to anyone feeling discouraged by the obstacles and detours on their path to success — Lynett offers the following advice: “Don’t look back on past failures and times of confusion with regret. And make wise choices! Procrastination is a thief of time, but being proactive will help you keep the promises you’ve made to others and yourself.”
Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science
Christopher Zhou says his experience at the University of North Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science changed his life. He describes himself as unmotivated and discouraged in high school prior to joining TAMS, spending all his time reading textbooks and studying for tests. Coming to UNT gave him the opportunity to explore his interest in chemistry and computer science beyond textbook knowledge and experience many things he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to participate in before.
“When I chose TAMS, I was hopeful that I was joining a community where I could freely explore my interests and pursue opportunities,” says Christopher. “I really think that coming here has been truly a transformative experience.”
A key part of that experience for Christopher has been hands-on research, which TAMS encourages for all students. Christopher’s interests led him to Tom Cundari, director of the Center for Advanced Scientific Computing and Modeling.
In Cundari’s computational chemistry laboratory, Christopher’s work focused on the design of novel transition metal catalysts, which he describes as building blocks for the future of alternative energy sources, using supercomputers and artificial intelligence instead of the wet lab techniques of a traditional chemistry lab.
“Being involved in this process has shown me that my interests truly lie in interdisciplinary research fields like computational chemistry because I believe that the most innovative solutions are created by working across disciplines,” says Christopher.
Because of his research, Christopher earned the Steve and Kathy Weiner Research Scholarship at UNT and a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most prestigious national merit-based scholarships for students preparing for careers in mathematics, science and engineering.
Aside from working with Cundari, Christopher says he was influenced most by chemistry professor Sushama Dandekar who helped him through the Goldwater application process.
“Professor Dandekar has had a big impact on my education at TAMS,” says Christopher. “She taught me a lot about how I could articulate my ideas and present them clearly.”
Christopher didn’t spend all his time in the research lab. He was on a competitive coding team representing TAMS that won first place in the advanced division at Lockheed Martin’s CodeQuest competition. He also mentored two TAMS juniors who were able to win first place in the Energy and Transportation category at the Fort Worth Regional Science Fair.
Christopher enjoys bringing people together, which led him to another interest. He is “secretly a theater kid.” He was a very active member of pROfiLE, the TAMS arts and theater club, and was elected theater director his senior year.
“On opening night, I was able to watch the production come together from my director’s chair. When it came time for the curtain call, I realized again why I love theater so much. Theatre may have some spectacular moments, but it is not just about the spectacle; instead, it’s about bringing people together.”
The freedom and flexibility of being in the TAMS programs had a big impact on his life over the last two years and have given him lasting memories.
“Living with my friends and peers has really changed my high school experience,” says Christopher. “While in the TAMS Summer Research program, I started playing ultimate frisbee. Every night, I would emerge from my research cocoon and run out to the field, facing off in casual games of ultimate frisbee with friends. Tired and sweaty from the summer heat, we would run to Smoothie King, hoping to make it there before the doors closed at 8:50 pm on the dot.”
Christopher plans to study at Caltech after graduating from TAMS where he will explore more of both computer science and chemistry.
“I hope to find a community that’s as supportive and encouraging as I have experienced at UNT.”
Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology
When Maite Olivia Gomez was diagnosed with a neuro-muscular disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth at age 11, it led her to find her passion.
“I attended Texas Lions Camp, a camp specifically for children with disabilities, for many years. Each year I grew closer to the other campers and one of the disabilities that other children presented with was hearing impairments; many of them had hearing aids or cochlear implants. I really saw that not a lot of other campers were able to communicate with these children and they were, unfortunately, being left out,” says Maite. “During high school, I got involved in our debate team and we qualified for state and national competitions. Long story short, I spoke a lot during my high school years. I really wanted to help other people communicate, like the friends I gained while at Texas Lions Camp. I felt like I had done enough talking for myself and I wanted to give a voice to those no one would listen to.”
From her home in El Campo, Texas, she researched schools and audiology programs across the state. She found one that surpassed all her criteria — UNT.
Maite will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in audiology and speech-language pathology and she hopes to continue at UNT, eyeing a master’s degree in speech-language pathology and a doctorate in audiology before eventually working with children in a hospital setting.
From the professors to the other students to the staff at the Office of Disability Access, the sense of community is Maite’s favorite part of being at UNT.
“All the professors in this field really care about their students and students’ success. I really appreciate each and every professor I’ve had. They make everything possible with their hard work and dedication to the field,” says Maite. “I am grateful for the ODA at UNT. The faculty and staff there will help you with any obstacle you have to make sure you have the best fighting chance at an education. They make you feel validated and capable.”
Having CMT has been a challenge for Maite, sometimes causing excruciating nerve pain or muscle weakness, but she takes things day by day.
“Over the years I have been extremely hard on myself because of things I couldn’t do at the pace of other people; however, I am slowly realizing that school is not a race and I am an individual. I am worth more than the sum of my accomplishments.” And that’s the advice she has for anyone.
“You may not always finish when you want to, or you may finish earlier than expected and leave behind some of your classmates. Take things at your own pace. It is not worth risking your mental health to rush through classes. It is better to take things slow and get good grades than to rush and make mediocre grades.”
You may recognize Kendal Lyssy from her quest for a service dog on the Disney+ original series, “Pick of the Litter.”
Kendal and her sister Nikki shared their experiences living as visually impaired twins on campus with the documentary’s camera crew following their daily routines at Santa Fe residence hall and other UNT spots.
The communication studies major initially came to UNT to pursue a degree in converged broadcast media. Kendal wanted to be a radio DJ, but after taking a couple of communication courses, she changed her major and hasn’t regretted it for a second.
“I found a home in the major, and I’m so grateful I decided to pick UNT,” says Kendal.
After graduating, she’ll continue her education in communication studies at UNT, pursuing a master’s while working as a teaching assistant for the department. Eventually, she’d like to also get her Ph.D. in the same field and become a professor.
Kendal is a remarkable student. She’s a member of the National Communication Honor Society, the UNT Debate Team and COMM Future Pros.
“Each organization has given me an outlet to make a difference, meet amazing life-long friends and gain connections with professors that I otherwise would not have had. I met some of my best friends through my involvement,” says Kendal.
To incoming freshmen, Kendal recommends engaging with student organizations and clubs.
“My biggest piece of advice for freshmen is to pick a major you love. If you love your major the way I love communication studies, you will be excited to go to class and learn. I would also strongly encourage freshmen to find extracurricular organizations in and outside of their major.”
Kendal successfully completed a full academic research project on peer mentoring in graduate school and earned an undergraduate research fellowship with the help and guidance of her mentor Karen Anderson-Lain, who serves as the basic communication course director and a principal lecture in the Department of Communication Studies. Because of the project, Kendal presented her study at UNT’s Virtual Scholar’s Day. She’s the only undergraduate in the department to have presented at two national conferences. Kendal is also a past recipient of the department’s Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award and the Cathy Krendl Service Award for the debate team.
“All of my professors throughout my time at UNT have assisted me in succeeding in their courses. They were all open to accommodating my learning style and were so approachable. I always felt as though I could ask them questions and they were always so willing to explain concepts further,” says Kendal. “I am so indebted to the faculty who have had a part in my success at UNT.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the move to online course delivery, Kendal says her biggest challenge has been being away from the UNT community.
“While online learning ensures I’ll still receive a top-notch education, I really miss my peers and professors,” says Kendal.
Kendal misses spending time with her friends and, although they can use FaceTime to call one another, she can’t wait to hang out with them once it’s safe again.
UNT is Kendal’s home away from home where she’s surrounded by people who come from all different walks of life.
“We are such a diverse community and on any given day I get to talk to people who have amazing stories and experiences that are completely different from my own.”
Integrity and respect are huge components of the Mean Green nation and she’s proud of being part of the UNT family.
“The way we look out for each other and stand up for one another makes me proud.”
The sound of fingers tapping on a keyboard, the hissing steam wand and the enticing aroma of fresh coffee in the air are memories Nikki Lyssy will cherish. As a creative writing major, her favorite locations to write — Café G.A.B, West Oak and Aura Coffee — are typically coffee shops.
“As a writer, I am always looking for community and coffee, and there is no shortage of both at UNT. Everyone at the GAB knew my name and order before I ever told them what I wanted. I am forever grateful for their kindness and for the constant supply of caramel lattes and marshmallow mochas that got me through long study sessions, writer’s block and everything in between,” says Nikki.
The Austin-native’s journey to UNT isn’t a typical story. When Nikki was a junior in high school, she won the Barbara Jordan Media Award for a newspaper column. “I penned on my first and only experience parasailing as a person who is blind.” The award ceremony was held at UNT in March 2014. Nikki and her mom made the four-hour trek from Austin to Denton, a town she had never even heard of.
“When I began applying for colleges a year later, I knew UNT was my top choice. And when I got in, I knew I’d found my place,” says Nikki.
During her freshman year, learning the campus layout was the biggest challenge Nikki had to overcome.
“It took me about a year to fully learn where all the buildings were in relation to other buildings, and even after that, there were still times I found it a bit confusing,” says Nikki.
One of the funniest moments she experienced was when she accidentally sat in on an algebra class instead of her short story course. “It was a case of mistaken room identity; I thought I had walked into 205, when really I walked into 204,” says Nikki. She wondered why her classmates were discussing math problems instead of short stories and books.
“I figured they were only talking about another class. When the professor walked in was when I realized I might in the wrong class. I scurried out as fast as I could to slide into my short story class. I am forever grateful to the guy who told me I was in the wrong room.”
Despite the challenges Nikki faced during her time at UNT, she is a stand-out student. She recently earned the Outstanding Undergraduate English award, is a Mary Patchell Memorial Scholarship recipient and has made the Dean’s List since 2016. With multiple essays published — "On Blindness and the Teaching of Form”, “An Interview: Hillary Stringer” and “This is What (Real) Freedom Is” — her career as a writer is just beginning.
Nikki has made an everlasting impression on the people she meets and she is beloved by her classmates and professors. “In 19 years of college teaching, I have never had a student give more to a course than Nikki Lyssy gave to my Shakespeare class,” says Jeffrey Doty, associate professor in the English Department.
“I’ve never met anyone like her, the way she surges into a room ready to learn or talk or ask about someone’s day. She has a contagious appreciation and joy for life, for people, for fuzzy sweaters, cowboy boots and pink Starburst,” says non-fiction associate professor Jill Talbot.
Nikki wasn’t alone when she arrived at UNT. Her twin sister Kendal, a communication studies major, is also a soon-to-be grad. Although they always had different classes and opposite schedules, they loved to share stories from their day each evening. “Having Kendal on campus and living with her for the past five years was an amazing experience that I will always cherish. There is nothing like sharing the college ride with someone who knows me better than anyone, going through the good times and the bad times and everything in between.”
Nikki will continue her education at the University of South Florida where she will pursue a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction.
“I hope to publish a memoir and to become a creative writing professor. I have always loved to write and UNT has given me amazing opportunities to hone my craft.”
Nikki’s advice to others? “Both of my parents have offered great advice— words I really live by. My mom reminds me that everything that happens in life happens the way it is meant to, and that we should live in the present. My dad tells me to try new things and when I fail, to try again until I succeed. ‘Just be sure to give it your best shot.’”