The 122nd spring commencement will be celebrated May 21 by more than 7,000 graduating students, their families and friends, and members of the university community. Graduates at The University of Texas at Austin change the world every day through creative thinking, a curiosity to discover and a responsibility to explore. The following profiles illustrate a few of the special students who have shown how the university experience has transformed them into the thinkers, dreamers and leaders of tomorrow.
Liberal arts student builds a stronger future for Nigeria
When Busola Ogunsola makes home improvements, don’t expect to see new paint colors and fluffy pillows. She’s working on a much larger scale in Lagos, Nigeria, where she has helped with immunization research and plans to work in economic development.
At age 18, Ogunsola was hired by the federal government of her native Nigeria to work on the National Program on Immunization. She was part of a team traveling door-to-door conducting in-person interviews with mothers. The goal was to determine the immunization history of children under the age of 2 to control infant mortality.
“Mothers said they did not take their children to be immunized because it was too expensive, they didn’t trust doctors or they used traditional healing methods,” Ogunsola said. “If a child had had a bad reaction to a vaccination, especially in areas where people were not educated, then the whole area was scared.
“You have to win trust and confidence before you come into people’s homes and ask them to share their personal information,” she said. “I learned communication skills, how to talk to people and how to get their attention.”
The task was harder in wealthier areas because people there were usually at work during the day, Ogunsola said.
“But in the poorer areas there were lots of people around. Sometimes in one house there might be 10 mothers. The experience gave me a different worldview of how people live.”
Ogunsola graduates with a degree in economics, liberal arts honors and a minor in mathematics. While at UT, she has worked as an event staff member at the Erwin Center, served as treasurer for the African Students Association and co-founded the Soul Survivors Christian Fellowship.
She is working on a short film project, “Gone Astray,” based on the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
Her goal is to continue to work on behalf of the Nigerian people.
“Nigeria needs people who can apply proven economic development principles,” Ogunsola said. “We need to advance urban planning—infrastructure, housing, education and communications.
“For example, cement, which is an expensive material, is used throughout entire buildings,” she said. “We need to look at alternative building materials and methods and better manage our resources. My education has prepared me to do that by making me more critical in my thinking and in my choices.”
Office of Public Affairs/College of Liberal Arts
Photo: Marsha Miller
International exposure guides law graduate’s path to service
As the son of a social worker who resettled refugees, Ben Fleming grew up accustomed to sharing his home with Cambodians, Ethiopians, Vietnamese, Lebanese and countless others who needed a place to stay when there was no employment or affordable housing.
This experience, combined with his travels abroad beginning at age 13, have led the 26-year-old Law graduate to spend his life helping people who could not make it to places like his childhood home.
As a first-year student, Fleming was the only UT Law student awarded a Democracy Fellowship to intern with the attorney general for Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he helped develop strategy for environmental prosecutions in cases involving damage to water in poor urban communities.
“The real value in the work I was doing was the effect it had on people, predominantly poor and undereducated, who were being harmed by inadequate access to clean water and sanitary living conditions,” he said.
Last summer he interned with the Center for Justice and International Law in Washington, D.C., working on hundreds of cases involving human rights abuses in the Americas.
This spring in the Law School’s new Transnational Worker Rights Clinic, Fleming provided legal representation to immigrant workers in the Austin area who have performed work but have not been paid. He traveled to Cambodia over spring break with UT Law Professor Sarah Cleveland to examine working conditions in the garment industry.
“More than any UT Law student in recent memory, Ben Fleming has been dogged in crafting an independent path for himself toward a career in international human rights and humanitarian law,” Cleveland said.
The experience that affected Fleming most deeply was working last fall on legal cases involving sexual violence during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He was selected, through a longstanding UT program and a global competition, to spend the semester at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, helping to investigate and prosecute the highest-ranking civilian authorities involved in the genocide.
“These weren’t run-of-the-mill international crimes,” he said. “These were mass rapes and people bull-dozing churches full of parishioners. Despite the disturbing violence of the crimes, by trying to find justice for the victims I felt for the first time that I was making a difference in a situation similar to those I heard about in my childhood.”
Laura Castro Trognitz
Office of Public Affairs/School of Law
Photo: Marsha Miller
Working with children in India brings out the best in graduate student
If anyone believes in dwelling in possibility, it’s social work student Julie Bienkowski.
She has no clear idea where she will be or what she will be doing in the next five, 10 or 20 years, but she believes the possibilities are endless. That’s what a career in social work is giving her.
Without a doubt, though, she will be working with children, particularly orphans and those living in third world countries. Bienkowski was so intent on achieving this goal that she asked the School of Social Work if she could find and set up her own internship for her final field placement this spring.
“Working with children brings out the best in me,” said Bienkowski, who will receive her master’s degree in May. “All of my skill and understanding is graciously applied to any child I work with—a good sign that I have found my purpose.”
Bienkowski’s purpose for the last five months has been working for ActionAid India, an organization established in part to help children living in poverty. Living and working in India has made an impact on Bienkowski that is more profound than words can express, she said.
“The children and the memories I have with them are forever imprinted in my mind and heart,” she said. “Such courage and resiliency. The childhood of millions of children in India has been stolen from them due to the effects of poverty, HIV/AIDS, abuse and abandonment."
Bienkowski’s field placement includes working with numerous programs in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai (Bombay). One program, “Butterflies,” is for street children in Delhi. Contact points are set up across the city for these children to receive shelter, health care, education services and other means of care.
Another program, “Mobile Creches,” is a service for mothers who work in dangerous and unprotected construction jobs. They can bring their children to the sites for care while they work.
“The struggle for survival for people in poverty in India is immense,” said Barbara Anderson, who is Bienkowski’s faculty placement adviser. She recently traveled to India to perform an evaluation of Bienkowski’s work.
“I was awed and humbled by what is being accomplished and the magnificence of the people who are creating and working in these programs,” said Anderson.
Bienkowski’s mother and father instilled in each of their children the value of giving of oneself to others and “also of viewing the world through many different lenses.
“Each of us has a strong inner desire to experience different places, cultures and people,” said Bienkowski. Her sister has a master’s degree in international public health and social work and her brother is a high school geography teacher.
Having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in family and child development, Bienkowski first became a parent educator and preschool teacher, but said the career path didn’t quite fit.
“My personal belief is that I only live once, and I feel strongly that I am here on this earth for a specific purpose," she said. Once she became a graduate student in social work, her interests narrowed to early childhood mental health and children who have been traumatized.
“I feel a sense of being drawn in,” she said. “I would find myself sitting in class, working on a presentation, writing a paper or listening to a workshop on these topics and feeling a deep sense of rightness,” said Bienkowski.
“This is what I am supposed to do.”
Office of Public Affairs/School of Social Work
Photo courtesy Julie Bienkowski
Experience with United Nations gives law student global perspective
Last summer, Hollin Dickerson became the first law student from UT Austin to intern for the United Nations’ Office of Legal Counsel in New York. Working in the office that provides legal advice to the United Nations, including the secretary-general, was a dream-come-true and a turning point for the 24-year-old May graduate.
“It made me realize how much I love working on the international level, which is different than the national one because you aren’t advocating for a side, you’re advocating for the United Nations and, in turn, for the world as a whole,” Dickerson said. “The legal issues I’m excited about are human rights, international humanitarian law and issues of international justice.”
While at the United Nations, Dickerson attended General Assembly sessions, absorbing the international process as she watched negotiations between countries over the language of resolutions. She also researched ways to better protect civilian rights in internal armed conflicts such as in Rwanda and the Congo, and worked on matters related to the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq after the U.S. war and the aftermath of the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion declaring portions of an Israeli barrier illegal.
Dickerson, who can speak several languages, became aware of her burgeoning interest in international affairs as a college junior studying abroad in Italy.
“One reason I love international law is the interaction between law and politics that occurs at the international level,” Dickerson said. “It is challenging because you are constantly dealing with nations that couldn’t care less about upholding their international obligations and who have their own agendas to further.”
Dickerson believes she is drawn to challenges, in part, because she’s had Type I diabetes since the age of 5.
Dickerson, who must test her blood sugar level multiple times a day and give herself daily injections of insulin, finds diabetes a daily challenge yet emphasizes that she’s never allowed it to interfere with achieving her goals.
She is a member of the Chancellors, a law honors society for the top 16 students in the graduating class, and is the editor and chief of the Texas International Law Journal, one of the most respected international law journals in the country. In August, she will be the first UT student to serve as a law clerk in San Francisco with Judge William Fletcher of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
UT Law Professor Sarah Cleveland described Hollin as the most outstanding student she’s had in eight years of teaching.
“She is a remarkable legal analyst and writer, with a brilliant mind,” said Cleveland, who hired Hollin to help research the Supreme Court’s historical use of international law in constitutional interpretation.
Dickerson said she hopes to work with the federal government of international organizations such as the United Nations to “promote international law and to increase its effectiveness.” She has aspirations for teaching law someday, too.
“I plan to help change the world by putting myself in a position to influence others, namely those who make the policies that the rest of us live with,” she said.
Laura Castro Trognitz
Office of Public Affairs/School of Law
Photo: Marsha Miller
The sky’s the limit for graduating nursing student
Nurse practitioner candidate Kimberly Miller has pretty much always had lofty ambitions.
As a STARflight nurse for Brackenridge Hospital, she was a member of a small medical team that whirled off to car wrecks, boating accidents, drownings and shootings in a 10-county area. She now has her own single-engine plane and is part of a group of pilots who provide free flights for patients with disabilities or who are terminally ill.
“We try and do nice things for people, many of whom are in a bad way,” said Miller of the 100 MPH Club.
A registered nurse for 22 years, Miller receives her master’s degree this spring in the family nurse practitioner concentration. She spent most of those years as an emergency room nurse at Brackenridge and plans to return on a part-time basis after graduation.
“Being an emergency room nurse—you either love it or hate it. And, I love it,” said Miller.
Work as a STARflight and emergency room nurse has given Miller enormous autonomy and critical decision-making medical experience that will allow her to make a smooth transition to family nurse practitioner, she said.
A nurse practitioner can write prescriptions and performs many health care tasks customarily done by a physician.
Miller also is interested in hospice and nurse oncology and has worked as a bereavement counselor and a registered nurse in Brackenridge’s intensive care and pediatric intensive care units.
“Nursing has given me the opportunity to excel in today’s world,” she said. “I have developed compassion, empathy and advocacy skills and have always had choices in nursing careers. No other profession affords this much opportunity.”
Miller earned her Federal Aviation Administration private pilot license in 1997 and flies her late father’s Cessna 182. Her father had built an apartment at their Lago Vista hangar and Miller lived there until she married her flight instructor. They married, in fact, at the hangar.
Before enrolling in the master’s program, Miller briefly worked at Hospice Austin. It was there she got the idea of using the airplanes to assist hospice patients and others. Miller got to know a veteran at Christopher House, who was a navigator in World War II. He knew she was a pilot and expressed interest in flying.
“I gathered my best flying buddies,” said Miller. “We took him out one day—his oxygen tank in tow—and gave him the ride of his life.” One of the planes the patient got to fly in was Miller’s husband’s vintage 1946 Cessna 140. The veteran died two weeks later.
Members of Miller’s flying club have flown a child with cystic fibrosis, rescued a trapped dog in West Texas and given rides to Boy Scouts and other interested young people. They would like to work again with the hospice, perhaps flying patients home, if outside Austin, for the last time.
On occasion, Miller’s Labrador retriever, Gus, goes along for the ride.
Like many, Miller has had others in her family who were nurses. Her great aunt, whom she considered to be more of a grandmother, was director of nurses in Madisonville, Texas.
“I attribute my career to her,” said Miller. “She put herself through nursing school, rose through the ranks and lived to be a very old nurse.”
“Kim is a professional who balances both ethical and moral decision-making in caring for patients,” said School of Nursing Assistant Professor Margaret Taylor. “She can clearly advance an argument for or against certain clinical decisions, the sign of a true patient advocate.”
Office of Public Affairs/School of Nursing
Photo: Marsha Miller