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The Best Spirit of Texas: Class of 2006 strives to make valuable contributions to their communities, to Texas and to the nation

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The 123rd spring commencement will be celebrated May 20 by more than 7,900 graduating students, their families and friends, and members of the university community.

“In the best spirit of Texas, UT has inspired generations of outstanding students to pursue their ambitions and to make valuable contributions to their communities, to Texas and to the nation,” says William Powers Jr., president of The University of Texas at Austin. “Our graduates carry that spirit with them when they go out and make their mark on the world.”

The following profiles illustrate just a few of the special students who represent “the best spirit of Texas.”

May graduate battles debilitating illness,
charts path to help special education students

Shannon Hopkins has the ideal set of traits for a teacher—bottomless stores of energy, optimism, patience, ingenuity and courage in the face of setbacks.

Shannon Hopkins
Shannon Hopkins

These same traits have served her well over the past year as she’s battled a debilitating illness while finishing up her bachelor’s degree in special education.

“Last fall I discovered that I have a serious medical condition that affects my brain and that I would have to go to Houston for treatments,” says Hopkins. “I don’t believe in making excuses and certainly do not want anyone to give me special concessions or treat me differently, so I’ve not really said anything about the illness to anyone but my immediate family and close friends.

“This semester I’m an apprentice special education teacher at Westlake High School, and I love absolutely everything about the job, but, because of the illness, by 9 or 10 a.m. I tend to have crushing migraines that make me want to close my eyes against the light, remove all noise and just lie down and go to sleep. Of course you cannot do that—you hit the ground running at 7:30 each morning and are at the school until at least 5:30 each day.”

Hopkins works with 16 special education students who range from freshmen to 22-year-olds. As a high school teacher her main goal is to give students the vocational and life skills needed to live independent or semi-independent lives. Hopkins teaches them math, science and English, as well as less traditional lessons in how to cross a busy street safely, prepare simple recipes, choose an apartment, manage a checkbook and pay bills. She also takes the students on field trips, oversees each student’s participation in an array of special interest classes, such as theater or sculpture, and coordinates the activities of numerous teacher assistants.

Because Hopkins is teaching special education, lessons must be customized and individual education plans have to be completed for all 16 students. Each student must have his or her own math lesson, for example, which may include instruction in how to tell time for one and how to add up monthly living costs for another.

“Teaching special education—certainly being an apprentice teacher—is obviously more demanding and time-consuming than teaching the general student population,” says Hopkins, “but I would not have it any other way. My older brother has severe disabilities, and I’ve always been very close to him. I’m sure growing up with him somewhat influenced my decision to do this, but, really, I think I would have done it anyway. I can’t describe how much I love my work—it sounds cliché, but this definitely is my calling.”

Hopkins has been accepted into the Autism and Developmental Disabilities graduate program in UT Austin’s College of Education and plans to teach high school life skills courses for a few years before obtaining a doctorate and doing research on autism.

“I know I’m going to beat my illness, and my dream is to someday have someone say, ‘There’s Dr. Hopkins—she’s the one who discovered a treatment for autism.’”

BY Kay Randall
College of Education

Border issues, fight for equity influence career path of Suarez

Itzel Suarez had every reason in the world not to attend college.

By the time the Eagle Pass, Texas, native was 13, her mother had died and her father had abandoned the family. She and her two siblings were living with their retired grandfather and an aunt who supported—and still supports—the family on an annual salary of about $8,000.

Itzel Suarez
Itzel Suarez

“I’m from the border, and it’s not a given that you will graduate from high school and go to college,” says Suarez. “No one in my family attended college, and I had no idea what to do to investigate and see if that was a possibility. As it turns out, I was in the high school band and the counselor was the band director’s wife. She took a personal interest in me and helped me research different Texas universities, obtain financial aid and fill out applications.”

Instead of defeating her or killing her dreams, Suarez’s childhood in a small Texas border town and her hardships only strengthened her resolve to help others in need, fight for equity and serve the Latino community.

Last year she co-founded the Erasing Borders: Helping Latinos Overcome Barriers Through Higher Education conference, which brought at-risk high school students to The University of Texas at Austin campus for tours conducted by about 40 campus volunteers. The day-and-a-half conference emphasized leadership training and public policy issues and, largely due to Suarez’s hard work, was offered to the students free of charge.

Suarez also has been a student assistant at the Center for Mexican American Studies and an active member of the UT chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan (MECHA), two influential organizations in the Latino community. In MECHA she coordinated with other members to build a mentoring program between Austin-area fourth graders and MECHA, setting up a pen-pal relationship that helped the fourth graders polish their writing skills and prepare for the TAKS test.

“Right now I’m working with a friend in MECHA on an environmental racism issue in Mission, Texas, a small town in the Rio Grande Valley,” says Suarez. “Several pesticide companies used to be in this town and, of course, many of the companies’ workers live there. The workers weren’t told of the hazards, and the pesticides have caused rampant contamination and serious health issues for residents, not the least of which is a very high incidence of cancer.

“The town does not have the resources to hire lawyers who will serve them well and not be influenced by corporate interests. In addition to that, I’m also working with MECHA members and an attorney to create a non-profit devoted to Texas border issues. The organization will be headquartered in Austin and focus on a number of border concerns, like education, healthcare and environmental problems.”

Suarez is obtaining a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies with a concentration in Mexican American studies. Next year she will take teacher education classes and hopes to teach for a couple of years before returning to school to do graduate work in education policy and administration.

“As a teacher, I can influence a classroom,” says Suarez. “But as a principal or superintendent I can influence a campus or a school district. That’s what I want—the ability to make positive changes on a large scale.”

BY Kay Randall
College of Education

Using science at its smallest scale, May graduate seeks
solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges

For Brandon Slaughter, his undergraduate course of study wasn’t so much about mechanical engineering as it was about problem solving.

An older student who first served in the U.S. Navy before getting serious about college, he came to The University of Texas at Austin with perhaps a stronger sense of purpose than the average 18-year-old and quickly settled on the direction he wanted his education to take.

Brandon Slaughter
Brandon Slaughter

“I wanted variety, I wanted to tie a lot of fields together,” says Slaughter, who displays a potent combination of technical proficiency and creative energy. An engineering degree, he reasoned, offers a method for solving problems, and it can be applied to almost any other field to arrive at new solutions to puzzles that have stymied practitioners for years.

For instance, Slaughter’s research with Professor Nicholas Peppas in the use of nanotechnology to deliver medication directly to patients is a combination of engineering and therapeutics, ideally applied in the treatment of cancer.

“This research team and I are designing and modeling a novel drug release system using nano-scale polymer chemistry,” he says. “Problems like this have been addressed by biochemists and doctors for a long time, but breakthroughs often don’t occur until you’re able to look at the problem in a different way.”

Variety also evolved from his final course in mechanical engineering—the senior design class. Working with his assigned design team, Slaughter further explored applications of mechanical engineering in space.

“I don’t think I could have asked for a more interesting project or a better team,” he says of the computer simulation work he conducted to design a heat pump for use in vehicles that operate in microgravity environments.

Awarded a prestigious $30,000 National Science Foundation Fellowship that will fund his continued education, Slaughter enters graduate school in the fall.

“I want to continue to conduct early stage research that will eventually provide the solutions to some of our most pressing concerns, like the environment and health care,” he says.

Although he operated and maintained nuclear reactor plants in the Navy and worked as a technician in the semiconductor industry before entering college, it was his experience at the university that really gave him confidence in his ability to analyze and solve problems.

“I remember absolutely dreading calculus, which I had to pass before I could be admitted into the engineering college.” Slaughter says. “UT’s been a great challenge, but I discovered that nothing here has been beyond my ability to grasp, and that’s been empowering. I feel like I can change the world.”

BY Pam Losefsky

Interest in politics, activism and international perspective
help guide direction of graduating senior’s academic career

Mona Abdel-Halim interned last summer with the U.S. State Department’s Office of Science and Technology Cooperation in Washington D.C., assisting their international efforts to promote sustainable development and the role of women in science.

In the evening, she lived and worked with other students as part of the Muslim Student Network, which seeks to better integrate Muslims into civic society.

Mona Abdel-Halim
Mona Abdel-Halim

The experience allowed her to pursue her interests in science and public policy, while using the unique perspective she has gained as a Muslim growing up in both the United States and the Middle East. Born in Egypt, Abdel-Halim lived with her family in Southern California, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, before graduating from high school in Houston.

“Living in such different countries really opened my eyes to the great dichotomies and socioeconomic divisions in the world,” Abdel-Halim says. “I really became interested in social inequality, gender studies and relating those issues to science.”

Though politics and activism have always fascinated her, that wasn’t the case with science.

“It was my worst subject in high school, but I decided to major in biochemistry anyway,” she says. “I thought majoring in my weakest subject would be the most stimulating and constantly innovative thing I could do—and it was.”

Despite her uncommon approach to choosing a major, Abdel-Halim was up to the challenge. After only her freshman year, she was selected for a summer research position studying molecular biology at the University of Houston, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

For the next two years she analyzed red imported fire ant pheromones in Dr. Jennifer Brodbelt’s analytical chemistry lab, earning a 2005 Undergraduate Research Fellowship for her work.

“Brodbelt’s lab gave me the chance to work independently,” she says. “I really enjoyed it because I could be creative and discover new ways to solve problems.”

Abdel-Halim has continued her social activism as well, helping to organize the Islamic Alliance for Justice (IAJ) chapter on campus.

“IAJ came out of a desire for Muslims on campus to be involved in issues and events related to justice, and to be more civically involved and aware,” Abdel-Halim says.

She says her favorite memory was her yearlong participation in the peer-acting troupe, Voices Against Violence. The group traveled to local and national events, acting out scenarios and demonstrating interpersonal dynamics and how to avoid violence.

As for life after graduation, Abdel-Halim is weighing her options.

“I’m still trying to figure out what path or graduate program would best suit me,” she says. “I have so many diverse interests, it’s hard to know exactly what I’ll do. But it will probably have something to do with science policy.”

BY Stephen Schenck

Celebrated magician’s latest feat is no trick;
Tallon earns Ph.D.’s in complex worlds of academia and magic

College of Education graduate Michael Tallon will be earning two Ph.D.’s this spring—one in Foreign Language Education and another in magic.

Michael Tallon
Michael Tallon

Tallon, who teaches Spanish at The University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, became intrigued with magic when he was in eighth grade and a friend showed him several card tricks. When Tallon’s birthday rolled around that year and he received some money, he went straight to the local magic shop and purchased an assortment of beginner’s tricks. When those had been mastered, it was back to the magic shop for more.

“Magic has several appeals, not the least of which is that it’s a unique hobby,” says Tallon, who describes himself as shy, quiet and reserved. “It’s fun to learn and perform. When you watch an audience experience magic live, you see this childlike wonder on their faces. The spectators are able to forget, if only briefly, their everyday problems and be astonished by what seems impossible.”

Over the years, Tallon has grown from an eager beginner into an award-winning, accomplished magician. He has taught several courses in magic and has been a member and/or officer in the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM), the Society of American Magicians and the Texas Association of Magicians. He won Magician of the Year for the San Antonio branch of IBM with a particularly difficult coin trick. He has won several regional contests for expertise in “close-up” magic, and has performed in national and international competitions.

Although past laurels bring pride, it is his most recent honor—bestowed in Batavia, N.Y., at the annual Fechter’s Finger Flicking Frolic Convention this April—which emphasizes the fact that, magically speaking, he “has arrived.”

“Among magicians, Fechter’s is an extremely prestigious event,” says Tallon, “and one attended by invitation only. Each time you perform, you receive a degree. This year I’m scheduled to perform for the third time and get my ‘Ph.D. in magic.’ One can feel rather tense at the event because you’re performing in front of the best magicians in the world, and you always have to be prepared to perform in case you’re called upon. If ever you’re asked to perform and you refuse, you’re never invited again.”

Tallon obtained his “other Ph.D.” in the College of Education in two years and 10 months, when he worked full-time and commuted from San Antonio to Austin.

An exceptional scholar, Tallon was awarded a South Texas Graduate Fellowship for graduate studies in Foreign Language Education, received a University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Amber Award for outstanding contributions and service to UTSA students, and was part of a team that was awarded a $19,000 grant from The University of Texas at Austin to create English as a Second Language online lessons. He also has published several articles in peer-reviewed journals, presented numerous papers at language conferences and completed a dissertation on foreign language anxiety in heritage students of Spanish.

BY Kay Randall
College of Education

Age is no barrier for retired U.S. Army colonel whose hard work leads to Ph.D.

Fifty-six-year-old Mary King describes going back to school at her age as a journey from expert to novice and, it is hoped, back to an expert.

A retired U.S. Army Nurse Corps colonel, King is receiving her Ph.D. in nursing this May. Since she last attended school, King has worked in every position from staff nurse to deputy commander of nursing at army posts all over the world.

Mary King
Mary King

“A Ph.D. education is more than a scholarly endeavor,” says King. “It is coming to understand a new language, a new way of thinking, of asking questions and of examining life.

“It has been a humbling experience.”

King had wanted to seek a Ph.D. soon after earning a master’s degree in 1977, but took time to raise her four sons, the youngest of whom also is graduating from the university this spring with a master’s degree in social work.

She admits going back for a Ph.D. has been a challenge and a time of great transition. But, King doesn’t think about age. After all, her 75-year-old mother still milks the cows twice a day on the family’s Wisconsin homestead.

King originally had wanted to be a teacher, but changed her goals during her junior year of high school.

“I got a sense of peace that I would be better able to make a difference in other people’s lives by delivering nursing care,” she says.

Now—40 years later—King hopes the subject of her dissertation research will have a positive effect. The topic, “The Lived Experience of Becoming a First-Time Enlisted Army Active-Duty Military Mother,” grew out of her clinical experience as a pediatric nurse practitioner. At the time, she noted that mothers under 30 and enlisted mothers had a more difficult journey to motherhood.

King says this is one of the first-known studies that examines this experience. Prior research on active duty military mothers has focused on pregnancy outcomes.

“I am a firm believer that to better the health of our patients, we must understand their experiences and the resources available to them,” she says.

“As a doctoral student, Mary blends commitment to excellence in research with compassion for women becoming mothers under stressful conditions,” says Dr. Lorraine Walker of the School of Nursing.

David King believes his mother earned the chance to obtain a higher degree after serving more than 25 years in the military.

“Going back to school is the opportunity to challenge yourself and create something new. My mom earned it.”

He sees similarities between social work and nursing.

“Both fields honor the individuals we serve,” David King says. “We are the compassion and the information for individuals in a very impersonal professional society.”

BY Nancy Neff
School of Nursing

McCoy headed for promising career in medicine

Chloe McCoy is the type of person who loves to watch the Surgery Channel. While the rest of us are gagging and turning away, she’s snacking on popcorn and gushing, “Just look at that—amazing!”

Lucky for all of us that she’s turning her fascination with open body cavities and organs into a promising career in medicine. She wasn’t always so sure about that.

Chloe McCoy
Chloe McCoy

As a high school student looking at colleges, the Austin native had been a little doubtful.

“I knew I was interested in the human sciences,” she says, “but I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, so I just wrote down a bunch of words, crammed them all together and looked for a program that sounded like that.”

Coincidentally, in her own back yard that year, The University of Texas at Austin was starting a new biomedical engineering bachelor’s degree program, and its descriptors closely matched McCoy’s program wish list.

While her choice appeared random, McCoy’s interest mirrored the ambitions of many of her peers that year, and the program immediately became the most selective in the university. Once selected for one of the highly competitive spots in the inaugural class, McCoy soaked up the opportunities like so many surgical sponges. Each one brought her closer and closer to her true calling. She participated in the Texas Research Experience, where she learned how to conduct basic research and present results at conferences. The paper she wrote on drug release films won an award for best project, and she recently learned of its forthcoming publication in the journal Biomaterials.

One summer, McCoy created her own study abroad program, working with a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia to design helmets for space shuttle travel. The professor’s study was funded by NASA, she says, and her job was to research head size variability to determine the ideal places on the skull and neck to measure the impact of certain forces.

It was an internship in Austin that truly cinched her career choice.

“I really didn’t like doctors at all,” she says. “I’d had some negative patient-doctor interactions growing up.”

She was born at home and had never been in a hospital except to visit family or friends. But she was lured into a doctor-shadowing internship with the promise of gallery seating for surgeries.

“I loved it! I was skipping classes to stay at the hospital and catch the next surgery,” she says. “The doctors were so great, I hated to stop.”

She immediately began adding the pre-med classes to her already full load.

Following graduation, McCoy will head to the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a National Institutes of Health Fellowship to begin a seven-year program in which she will earn both a medical degree and a Ph.D. After that, she’ll have a front-row seat to all the operations she can stomach.

BY Pam Losefsky

Graduating Truman Scholar finds balance inside and outside classroom

Lauren Gilstrap is a pro when it comes to time management. With three rigorous majors—pre-med, business honors and Plan II—and a full slate of extracurricular activities and internships, Gilstrap graduates this month knowing she got as much as possible from her college experience.

Lauren Gilstrap
Lauren Gilstrap

“I came to the university thinking ‘medicine,’ mostly because of my experience with biology in high school,” she says. “But I like the idea of not being a typical doctor. I hope to someday do health care policy or manage a hospital—which is where my business education comes in.”

Her work for two different Texas legislators reinforced her passion for economics and policy-making. Gilstrap interned during the 78th Legislative Session in spring 2003, while also working at the UT School of Public Affairs. She was the Health and Human Services assistant for Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso), where she learned the “nuts and bolts” of senatorial work—juggling lots of projects and making connections whenever possible.

During the 79th Legislative Session, Gilstrap worked for Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), contributing to a bill expanding telemedicine, a program that brings big-city experts into rural communities using the latest technology.

Gilstrap maintains a full schedule by dedicating her free time to Orange Jackets, Student Government, the Senate of College Councils, honors and pre-med organizations, and volunteering at Brackenridge Hospital and the Children’s Hospital of Austin.

“It’s about finding a balance inside and outside the classroom,” she says. “To be happy you need intellectual stimulation, but also all of those other extracurricular activities and hobbies.”

While some may see such diverse interests as a study in contrasts, Gilstrap knows just how to marry the fields.

“I see business, liberal arts and the sciences as the three corners to my educational triangle,” Gilstrap says. “Science teaches me what I need to know to become a physician. Liberal arts has taught me to think logically and creatively, and business teaches me how to work with people and how to communicate clearly and effectively to accomplish my task.”

After graduation, she will intern with the Harry Truman Foundation in Washington, D.C., a result of having won the prestigious Truman Scholarship in 2005. This fall, she will enter a joint Medical Doctor/Master of Public Policy program at Harvard Medical School and the Kennedy School of Government. She plans to use her medical, political and economic experience to bridge gaps between the three professions.

“Doctors, politicians and economists can’t talk to each other,” Gilstrap says.

Her wide array of studies will help her act as a translator to help find solutions to the barriers among them.

“I am leaving UT with a world-class undergraduate education,” she says. “There is nowhere else in the world I would have been given the same tremendous breadth of opportunities I have been afforded here.”

Even after all of her hard work at the university, she still gives credit to her mentors.

“So many people have done so much for me over the last four years,” she says. “I only hope to one day make them proud of their investment.”

BY Amy Lavergne

Diverse academic career prepares Barry for future as educator

Last spring break, Shannon Barry (Plan II/History and Religious Studies) grabbed a couple of friends, some suntan lotion and her passport and jetted off to Mexico for an unforgettable party. But she stayed clear of student hotspot Cancun, and the only shots she took were with her 35mm camera.

Shannon Barry
Shannon Barry

Instead, Barry went to Monterrey to attend a religious festival in the nearby town of Espinazo, in honor of Niño Fidencio, a Mexican healer and saint. It’s not exactly the typical spring break trip, but then, Barry isn’t the typical student.

Barry, who also is receiving a degree in Studio Art, says she finds the thought of never taking another class again “very depressing.” Luckily, she won’t be away from the classroom for long. Barry wants to work with Teach for America for a few years before returning to graduate school, with hopes of eventually becoming a professor.

It seems like an ideal plan for Barry, who has demonstrated a knack for research. Her Plan II thesis is about a group of Hindus in Trinidad who gather every year to worship a dark Virgin Mary statue they believe represents the Hindu warrior goddess Kali. She chose to research the festival after her original topic, New Orleans churches, was no longer feasible because of Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to scouring journal articles for references to this obscure topic, Barry has made two trips to Trinidad to witness the pilgrimage firsthand and to interview local residents.

Barry loves to examine the way people live their daily lives in the context of greater historical movements, and this festival speaks to that theme. Trinidad, she says, is a country with a complex social history of indigenous peoples, British, French and Spanish colonialists, descendants of the colonialists’ slaves and immigrant populations, all with their own religious practices and ideas of national identity.

So how does an art degree fit in with research papers and religious festivals? For Barry, whose specialty is photography, they go hand-in-hand.

“I think it fits well with what I do in history and religious studies – looking at these common, daily things,” says Barry. “I like the stories a photo can tell, showing the way people interact.”

Lately she’s been shooting with her Holga, an inexpensive plastic camera that has gained popularity because of design “flaws” that create unusual, retro-looking photos with light leaks, distortions and fuzzy edges.

It seems fitting that Barry sees beauty in these imperfect images. After all, she prefers that her history lessons be of the daily grind variety, rather than in dramatic epic moments. She spends her vacations getting to know decidedly unglamorous characters in locales miles away from pristine tourist attractions. To Barry, that’s picture perfect.

BY Tracy Harwell
College of Liberal Arts

PHOTOS of Shannon Hopkins, Itzel Suarez, Brandon Slaughter, Mona Abdel-Halim,
Michael Tallon, Mary King, Lauren Gilstrap and Shannon Barry: Christina Murrey

PHOTO of Chloe McCoy: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 6 June 2006
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