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A Time for Texas: Class of 2007 graduates seize the moment, creating change in their own communities and around the world

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The 124th spring commencement will be celebrated May 19 by 7,440 graduating students, their families and friends, and members of the university community.

“This is an extraordinary time. A time for Texas,” says William Powers Jr., president of The University of Texas at Austin. “A time for this generation to step forward and become the creative thinkers and leaders of a new era. Because what starts here changes the world.”

The following stories profile just a few of the special students who make this moment “a time for Texas.”

Former runaway overcomes homelessness
to receive master’s of social work

Growing up in poverty, becoming a runaway and homeless by the time she was a teenager, Aiina de Triana was destined to become a social worker.

Aiina de Triana
Aiina de Triana graduates with the class of 2007 with a master’s degree in social work after overcoming poverty and homelessness in her native Mexico.

She was born into a family of 12 children in the rural mountains of Durango, Mexico. When de Triana was three years old, she began selling candy on the street to help put food on the table—although her family had no kitchen or utilities in their simple adobe house.

De Triana has wanted to help people ever since. She will receive her master’s degree in social work in May.

Uncertain of what the future held for her in Durango, 13-year-old de Triana ran away from home hoping to better herself and further her education. She lived on the streets for a time in Tijuana and then found her way to San Diego where she learned English and attended community college.

De Triana went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at San Diego, always supporting herself with various jobs.

“I’m the first one to say that my life has not been perfect,” said de Triana, who has had little parental support or guidance. “There have been painful bumps in the road.”

Soul searching and reflection led her to the field of social work.

“I began to realize that I needed to work in a profession where I could play an active role in making underprivileged people’s lives better,” she said.

De Triana became a U.S. citizen five years ago.

“I never imagined myself in the United States,” she said. “I’m still in awe of it.”

“Aiina’s years of growing up in poverty ignited in her a deep sense of empathy for those in need and a passion for promoting social justice,” said Vicki Packheiser, clinical associate professor of social work. “Her story is truly inspiring and has provided her with a fervor for social justice, true compassion for the suffering of others and a cultural sensitivity that far exceeds her peers and many social work professionals.”

During her field placement at Refugee Services of Austin, de Triana was a powerful advocate for her clients—traumatized human trafficking survivors—linking them to much needed services, said Packheiser.

“Aiina is bilingual, but her ability to form relationships with people across cultures exceeds her language skills,” she said.

De Triana has a long history of extending a hand to others. While in San Diego, she bought meals on her way home from work or school to give to the homeless, remembering when she was in the same situation.

She also has delivered meals to indigent elderly people, run a books for prisoners program and helped develop workshops to bring health and sexual education to the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico. De Triana also coordinated with a group of social work students a visit to the Rio Grande Valley to learn about improving working conditions for immigrant farm workers. This semester, in addition to her internship working with substance abuse adolescents, she is teaching Spanish literacy classes to immigrants.

“My insights into social work have led me to recognize the worth, uniqueness and dignity of all individuals,” de Triana said. “Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”

De Triana wants to help foster and strengthen the family and other support systems by helping individuals, groups and communities fulfill their potential.

“I really believe that as human beings, we can create change. If you do—good things can happen.”

By Nancy Neff
School of Social Work

Renowned pediatric surgeon receives
his first undergraduate degree at 79

Ted P. Votteler, M.D., redefines the term “graduating senior.” This 79-year-old pediatric surgeon from Dallas has had a distinguished 43-year career, including successfully separating seven pairs of conjoined twins. When he began at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas at the age of 29, he was one of only three pediatric surgeons in Texas.

Ted Votteler
This May, 60 years after prematurely leaving The University of Texas at Austin, Ted Votteler returns to walk across the stage and finally get his Bachelor of Arts degree in biology.

But—and this may come as a big surprise—he did so without ever completing an undergraduate degree. Believe it or not, both in the 1940s and today, an undergraduate degree is not technically required to get into medical school.

This May, 60 years after prematurely leaving The University of Texas at Austin, Votteler returns to walk across the stage and finally get his Bachelor of Arts degree in biology.

“It’s been a long time to wait,” Votteler says, “but it’s one of the things in my life that I never accomplished.”

Votteler enrolled at The University of Texas at Austin in 1944 when he was 16 years old. As with many young men at the time, World War II interrupted his studies, and he left the university to serve as a pharmacist in the U.S. Navy for 18 months.

In 1947, he returned to the university to complete his coursework and was presented with a decision: spend another year finishing his undergraduate degree or walk away from the university with 93 hours (27 credits shy of a degree) and start medical school. He chose the latter.

At age 20, Votteler was one of the youngest students in his class at the School of Medicine at Tulane University. After graduating and five years of surgical training at Parkland Memorial Hospital, he trained under Dr. C. Everett Koop, who would later become U.S. surgeon general, in Philadelphia.

Votteler returned to Dallas and was director of pediatric surgery at Children’s Medical Center for 33 years. Over his life, he has performed more than 20,000 surgeries. In 1977, he also began his career as a clinical professor of pediatric surgery and pediatrics at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Votteler officially retired in 2001, then discovered through a longtime friend, John Stuart, that it might be possible for him to finally return to The University of Texas at Austin for that long-awaited degree.

“I’ve had a lot of honors in my life, but this is very special to me,” he says.

He petitioned to have the classes from his first year at Tulane count toward his biology degree, and this easily bumped him up to the 120 credit hours needed to graduate.

But there was one small twist. The Texas State Legislature mandates that all students must take two government courses to graduate.

So this past March, Votteler cracked open the books, memorized all of the small details like the articles and amendments of the U. S. Constitution, and put pen to paper in a series of essay tests. Through a combination of life experience, intelligence and study of the basics, he placed out of both government courses, gaining all of the requirements needed for a degree.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to take the courses,” he admits.

When asked how he would advise current and future students to make their way through the world, Votteler points to his initials, T.P.V., which have served him over the years as a kind of acronymic beacon.

The letter T, he says, stands for Training. Train yourself, work hard in school, and continue to challenge yourself and learn throughout your life, says Votteler.

P is for Persistence. “To get where you want to be, you have to be persistent,” he advises. “I love that word, persistent.”

And V is for Values. Never compromise your values, says Votteler. Stay true to your values throughout your life.

Votteler’s late-life degree is a case in point: though it’s 63 years in the making, his persistence and belief in the value of education has finally paid off.

By Lee Clippard
College of Natural Sciences

Student educates university through disability

Imagine you’re on the Forty Acres, trying to get to a final exam. It’s raining outside, so you have to be careful because the sidewalks tend to get slippery. The test has been moved from your usual classroom, so you’re unsure as to what route to take, but you consult the campus map and pick your path. Only, when you get there, the way is blocked by a construction project. You find an alternate route, but now you’re running late.

Manasi Deshpande
College of Liberal Arts student Manasi Deshpande, who has been in a wheelchair for eight years, helped improve campus accessibility for people with disabilities during her time at the university. She graduates with degrees in economics, Plan II and mathematics.

Finally, you arrive at the building, only to find that the elevator is out of order. Now imagine that you experienced this in a wheelchair.

Those slight inconveniences can become major problems for someone like Manasi Deshpande (Economics, Plan II and Mathematics), who has been in a wheelchair for eight years. She not only has to worry about grades and studying, but how to get to her classes, find accessible buildings and determine which doors to use.

Inspired by her challenges navigating campus, Deshpande wanted to draw attention to campus accessibility. Funded by an undergraduate research scholarship from the College of Liberal Arts, she conducted a study to discover if university administrators’ views on accessibility would change after they experienced life in a wheelchair.

“I always had this idea that, if the people involved in planning a campus were in wheelchairs, things would be different,” Deshpande says. “Administrators feel like they understand how hard it is to get around campus, but I wanted to know if they really do.”

Deshpande used students aspiring to be university administrators as her sample group. They took a pre-test, with questions about the state of campus accessibility. After using a wheelchair on campus for half of the day, they were tested again, to see if their views changed.

The results showed participants’ awareness and their willingness to spend money on improving campus accessibility significantly increased after navigating campus in a wheelchair.

In 2006, Deshpande presented her report to the president and vice presidents of the university, Services for Students with Disabilities and the Faculty Building Advisory Committee. As a result, the committees began taking steps to implement her recommendations, such as improving wayfinding signs and door entrances, strengthening disability services and seeking feedback from persons with disabilities in the campus planning process.

Another goal of Deshpande’s was to increase faculty and student understanding in interacting with students who have disabilities.

“I think it’s human nature for people to think, ‘Oh, she’s different from me, and if there are 1,000 other people I could talk to or be friends with, then it keeps me from having to worry about seeing something that I don’t really want to see,’” Deshpande says. “So part of what I’m trying to do with my work is educate people so that when they see someone with a disability, they can feel more comfortable about talking to that person.”

Deshpande’s desire to educate extends to other areas as well. She tutored students at the Undergraduate Writing Center, and, as co-chair of Students for a Sustainable Campus, raised ideas about how economic principles can help protect the environment.

Maintaining a 4.0 grade point average throughout her college career, Deshpande earned the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship, in addition to numerous other honors including the Texas Union Pal—Make a Difference Award, Texas Parents’ Mike Wacker Award, Cactus Yearbook Outstanding Student award and the Texas Exes’ Presidential Leadership Award.

Following graduation, Deshpande will join The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., as a research assistant. She then plans to pursue a joint graduate degree in economics and law.

By Tracy Mueller
College of Liberal Arts

Nursing student hopes to use humor to help patients heal

It took just a few trips to the hospital for Daniel Palma to decide to change his major to nursing.

Daniel Palma
The caring nurses who helped Daniel Palma through appendicitis and car accident injuries inspired him to follow the same career path.

During his first semester, Palma was rushed to the emergency room in the middle of the night with a burst appendix. The next spring he was involved in a serious car accident that crushed his right hand, requiring several surgeries. And then came carpal tunnel syndrome.

“These events served as an enlightenment for me,” said Palma, who will graduate in May. “Hospital stays, surgeries, subsequent doctor’s office visits and physical therapy—all led to my interest in the health care field.”

It was the nurses whom he remembered.

“Nurses were the ones who stood out,” he said.

Taking advantage of his newfound access to professionals in the heath care field, Palma began talking with the nurses about their jobs.

“I think I held common misconceptions about what nurses do,” he said. “I realize now that they are the foundation upon which the health care system is based. Doctors may diagnose and treat diseases, but nurses treat patients.”

Palma was less apprehensive with each hospital visit thanks to the care of the nurses.

“They talked to me,” he said, “made certain I was comfortable and put to rest my fears. I was completely dependent on their care.

“Now, I want to be the person who helps calm a scared child who is in the hospital for the first time. I want to be the person who assists a patient’s return to health.”

Palma also believes it will be important to work closely with families of patients “because they are sometimes in even more of a state of crisis.

“Sick people and their families are usually suffering from fear and loneliness,” he said. “You have to help treat the people, not just the disease.”

Kara Moellenberg, clinical instructor in pediatric nursing, said Palma is a “hard working young man who is always striving to do his best.

“Daniel knows who he is. He will make a difference in the lives of his patients and their families.”

An Austin native who graduated from Bowie High School, Palma begins working at Seton Medical Center in June on the general medical/surgery floor. While at the university, he has had clinical placements at several hospitals, including St. David’s, Brackenridge, Children’s Hospital of Austin and North Austin Medical Center.

Palma also is interested in exploring the field of anesthetics or perhaps going to Africa to help patients with AIDS and tuberculosis.

Like Patch Adams, a doctor who was criticized in medical school for excessive happiness and depicted in a movie with Robin Williams, Palma also has a reputation for zany humor. He has taught improv (improvisational comedy) at Zachary Scott Theater and was part of “Absurdity Core,” a group of orientation advisers who performed for incoming freshmen.

“I think one of the things that makes Daniel special is his sense of humor,” said Dr. Mary Beth Mercatoris, assistant dean of students. “I honestly have never met a funnier student, and I have worked with many talented and funny students through orientation.”

As a nurse, Palma would like to use his humor—when warranted.

“Sometimes it helps to lighten the mood in bad situations,” he said. “You can pretty much tell in five minutes whether a patient is going to be receptive to that.”

By Nancy Neff
School of Nursing

Law student seeks to decrease social and economic inequality

It was law student Parisa Fatehi’s work in the community with immigrants, day laborers and Katrina evacuees that landed her the job of introducing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to 20,000 people gathered on the banks of Austin’s Town Lake last February.

Parisa Fatehi
Parisa Fatehi graduates this month with a joint degree in law and public affairs and hopes her career can contribute to decreasing some of the world’s social and economic inequalities.

“There are those who believe…that the more we divide ourselves black from white, legal from illegal, red from blue, the less we have to take responsibility for each other,” Fatehi, an Iranian-born American citizen, told the crowd.

“But today, there is a new leadership in our country who inspires us to reject the false choices we’ve been given,” she said before welcoming the U.S. senator from Illinois to the stage.

“We need a new level of understanding about one another,” said Fatehi, adding this includes accepting a belief in community and that “we are linked to each other.”

In a recent interview, as in her introduction speech, Fatehi recounted her experience as a law student providing legal services to immigrant families detained for lengthy periods in the Hutto Detention Center—a former prison—located northeast of Austin.

She said the sight of hundreds of young kids detained in prison-like conditions just because their parents sought a better life for them inspires her to help those who are often forgotten and misunderstood.

One of her clients was a 24-year-old pregnant woman from Central America who was detained at the center along with her eight-month-old baby. Fatehi and another student attorney in the Immigration Law Clinic successfully argued in court that the woman, who was seeking asylum, be released from the detention center pending a trial.

As a student in the Transnational Workers Rights Clinic, Fatehi helped immigrant workers in Austin obtain unpaid wages for work they completed. “They are entitled to a minimum wage regardless of their immigration status,” she said. During one summer, she worked on policies protecting low-wage and immigrant worker rights at the National Employment Law Project in New York City.

Last summer, she clerked at the Texas Civil Rights Project. This year, she worked part-time at the Center for Public Policy Priorities focusing on issues such as access to healthcare for low-income children.

Fatehi, who graduates this month with a joint degree in law and public affairs, says she is also inspired by her family’s experience. Her parents left Iran with Parisa and her brother in 1978 and settled in Austin, where her father received his doctorate at the university. They became U.S. citizens in 1998.

She says she’s motivated in part to work with immigrant populations because of challenges her parents experienced by not always speaking their first language and beginning anew in a foreign country with two young children. “But they were very dedicated to their communities, new and old,” she said.

“I didn’t become a citizen until I was a sophomore in college, so I really have a clear sense that you are the same person whether you are on this side of the line or the other,” said Fatehi, who speaks fluent Farsi and has visited Iran three times since her birth there.

“You’re important and valuable to your community regardless of your immigration status,” she said.

“There are movements to restrict immigrant access to education and healthcare but I think that’s unfortunate,” Fatehi said. “We are living in the same community. When you start denying some of your neighbors access to basic rights and services, the whole community will be the worse for it.”

Over the past year, Fatehi has also devoted time to two city commissions. She was appointed to the Austin Commission on Immigrant Affairs and the Day Labor Community Advisory Committee. Her service in the latter grew directly out of the work she did in the Transnational Workers’ Rights Clinic. Other community involvement included volunteering at the Austin Convention Center’s shelter for Katrina evacuees in September 2005.

Fatehi received her B.A. in the Plan II Honors Program with a concentration in government from UT in 2001. As an undergraduate, she served as president of the student body and also restarted a campus organization for Iranian students to participate in cultural activities. As a graduate student she co-founded the Middle Eastern Law Students’ Association, served as president of the American Constitution Society and co-chaired law student efforts to establish a loan repayment assistance program.

For her extraordinary commitment to public service and human rights, Fatehi was named a Human Rights Scholar for 2005-06 and selected as a Public Service Scholar for 2006-07. Recently, she also received a University Co-op Public Interest Award. At the end of this summer, Fatehi will begin a clerkship with a federal district judge in Houston.

Fatehi is particularly interested in pursuing a career that builds on her interests of serving low-income populations, immigrant rights, civil rights, access to social services and healthcare, and community-based solutions. “In some small way, I hope that my career can contribute to decreasing the social and economic inequalities that surround us,” she said.

By Laura Castro
School of Law

Graduate set to receive MPA and publish first novel

Sherry Ma is no ordinary accounting student. She’s also a romance novelist. Her first novel, “Schemes of Love,” was accepted for publication last summer—about the same time she began the Master in Professional Accounting program at McCombs.

Sherry Ma
Sherry Ma graduates with her Master in Professional Accounting degree in August, and her first novel “Schemes of Love” hits bookstores this fall.

She never planned to be a writer, or an accountant for that matter. In 1997, after reading a library book she deemed “the worst-written book ever,” Ma was pretty sure she could do better. Writing under her married name, Sherry Thomas, she finished her first book in 2000 and began querying agents.

“It was soundly rejected,” Ma laughs. “One agent did say I had talent, but as it stood, the book just wouldn’t fly.”

Rather than undertaking a revision, Ma decided to send in a second novel she was working on. But that one didn’t sell, either. By summer 2005, Ma had submitted three more manuscripts that were also nixed. With two children in grade school and no book contract on the horizon, Ma felt it was time to put down her pen and look for a more lucrative career.

The Plot Thickens

About that time Enron was writing a complex tale of its own, a misadventure involving power plays, deception and dishonor. News coverage of the scandal introduced Ma to the world of forensic accountants, who combine accounting, auditing and investigative skills as they assist in disputes and litigation. With her keen eye for details, Ma could envision herself in that role.

She was familiar with the Texas MPA program and sailed through the admissions process with a perfect GMAT score and a B.S. in economics from Louisiana State University (with a 4.0 undergraduate GPA, no less).

“Then, inexplicably, my very first manuscript called to me from its dusty box,” Ma says. Taking the original premise, she embarked on a total rewrite. In June 2006, Ma made a last-ditch effort and submitted it to a new agent.

Ten days after entering summer school last July, “Schemes of Love” sold to Bantam/Dell, a division of Random House, in a two-book contract with an option on a third. Her second book was due April 1, so Ma’s school year has been a blur of studying, writing and family life. One highlight was winning the prestigious Harrington Fellowship from the university last October.

The Next Chapter

Graduation will bring a much-needed hiatus.

“This year has been so crazy, I will probably take a year off just to write,” she says. Then she intends to pick up where she left off in anticipation of sitting for the CPA exam. She says she is looking forward to the stability of a job in accounting that will offset the more tenuous aspects of being a writer.

And so Ma’s double life continues. But don’t belabor the obvious dichotomy between accounting and historical romance novels—she’s ready for that: “Just wait until you hear about the futuristic science fiction romance I’m planning,” she laughs.

Ma will graduate with her Master in Professional Accounting in August 2007 and “Schemes of Love” will hit bookstore shelves this fall.

By Dorothy Brady
McCombs School of Business

Texas evening MBA graduate paves path
from the ranch to the boardroom

Shawn Beebe doesn’t think of himself as exemplary. He’s just too stubborn to quit something once he’s started.

Shawn Beebe
Shawn Beebe completes the Texas Evening MBA program this month. Throughout the three-year program, Beebe also managed a full-time job at Applied Materials and his own business, a beef cattle ranch in Beaukiss, Texas.

In addition to working full time as a project manger for Applied Materials, Beebe is also a student in the Texas Evening MBA program, a three-year program designed for working professionals at the McCombs School of Business. While many students in this program have their hands full with a full-time job, classes and family, Beebe has an additional responsibility to balance—he manages his own business, a beef cattle ranch in Beaukiss, Texas.

“What amazes me the most is that people never stop to consider the family farm or ranch as a business,” he says. “In my capacity as owner, I am responsible for profits and losses, vendor and supplier selections and negotiations, logistics coordination, sales, training, maintenance and operations scheduling—basically overall management of my farm. It is another full-time job.”

While the Texas Evening MBA program is very demanding of Beebe’s already scarce free time, he manages to stay on top of his many tasks by conducting conference calls during his two-hour commute to and from work and by designating time for his schoolwork.

“On school nights, I usually don’t get home until 11 p.m. or later, and there is always something in need of attention,” he explains. “I reserve early mornings and late nights to get anything done for school since the house is quiet, and I am not so tempted to go outside and work on the ranch chores.”

Beebe—who grew up on an Arkansas ranch with beef cattle, milk cows, chickens, dogs, cats and several horses—has always been quite disciplined.

Prior to starting his own ranch in 2001, he spent nine years in the military—four years at West Point and five as a commissioned officer traveling all over the world.

And though his military background surely helps him stay focused, he says spending as much time as possible each day with his wife and their animals is what truly keeps him sane.

“I find that at the end of the day, this gives me the strength and perspective I need to continue,” he says. “The cows and horses don’t care about what happened at work or school, and that helps me relax and release a lot of the anxieties and pressures that build up.”

Beebe is already searching for his next great opportunity. After graduating in May, he hopes to land a senior management position in the financial industry.

“The Texas Evening MBA program reinforced my strongest skills and traits while helping me develop skills to overcome my weaknesses,” he says. “I feel that I am in a superior position to compete against anyone for current job opportunities and quite possibly to start my own non-ranching business.”

While he wants to take a couple of months off in the summer to recuperate from the past two-and-a-half years of working, ranching and taking classes, his hiatus won’t last long. He is already considering expanding his ranching activities. Call him what you like—stubborn or exemplary—but Beebe refuses to turn down a challenge.

By Andrea Ferdinand
McCombs School of Business

Photos of Aiina de Triana, Manasi Deshpande, Daniel Palma,
Sherry Ma, Parisa Fatehi and Shawn Beebe: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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