The Class of 2009

These graduates have tested themselves to reach their academic goals

May 18, 2009

This spring’s graduating class of more than 7,800 students includes outstanding students from around the world, from all walks of life and from diverse and distinctive backgrounds. Each has a unique story. Here are eight of those stories, profiling graduates who overcame obstacles, discovered insights about themselves and doggedly pursued their academic goals.

William Powers Jr., president of the university, said society has great expectations of these students and the academic preparation they received to deal with local, national and global challenges.

“When people think of The University of Texas at Austin, they recognize it is a unique place,” Powers said. “They know that the ‘Eyes of Texas’–and the world–are upon each and every one here.”

Learn more about the 126th spring commencement at The University of Texas at Austin.

After 10 Years in Crime Forensics, Investigator Turns to Nursing

As a forensics analyst for the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), Karen Blakley gathered evidence at numerous crime scenes across the state–from junkyards and trailer parks in Ozona and Uvalde to the burned out remains of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco where at least 80 people died.

Karen Blakley

Although the work was fascinating, the images are still haunting. Blakley decided she wanted to get into a field where she could help people before it was too late.

She found the answer in nursing.

“While I loved forensics and DNA profiling, I have always felt that my help was too late and too distant,” said Blakley who is graduating from the School of Nursing in the Alternate Entry Master of Nursing Program. She hopes to work in internal medicine as a clinical nurse specialist.

“Nursing offers me some of the same opportunities as forensics by using medical science to solve problems,” she said. “The critical difference is the personal and immediate aspects of nursing–the chance to hold someone’s hand, listen to their concerns and use my education and insight to help them today as well as tomorrow.”

Blakley received a master’s degree in biology from the University of Michigan. She investigated the role of mitochondrial DNA in a disease that causes blindness for her master’s research. When she first joined DPS, she worked as a forensic serologist studying blood and body fluids. She also spent a month at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy in Virginia.

DPS trained her in forensic techniques, and she trained her co-workers in DNA analysis. Together they opened DPS’s first DNA forensics laboratory. Blakley later moved over to the Austin Police Department to help open its DNA lab.

“There is no sexy blue lighting in forensics, and we didn’t go to crime scenes in leather pants,” she said, referring to the popular shows on television. “Because investigators don’t want to leave any of themselves at the scene, we wore hair nets, gloves, booties and jumpsuits.”

In addition to gathering evidence, Blakley provided testimony at trials as an expert DNA witness. She also sometimes viewed autopsies.

At 47 years old, Blakley is the mother of two, including a University of Texas at Austin senior. In her spare time, she is writing a murder mystery, “Death’s Counterfeit,” about a serial killer with an unusual medical history that makes him invisible to the best forensic DNA technologies. Blakley also gives forensic DNA seminars at local schools and for various Austin area organizations like the Mystery Book Club.

“During my 10 years as a forensics analyst, I felt there was something missing,” Blakley said. “When I processed sexual assault kits, I found myself poring over the sexual assault nurse examiner notes, looking at how the nurse approached and examined the victim and what medications and follow-up she recommended.

“When working with assault and homicide cases, I was fascinated by the physician and medical examiner notes. I knew I needed to be somewhere else. I wanted the person-to-person contact. You don’t get that with forensics.”

By Nancy Neff
School of Nursing

For Opera Director, Music and Business Make Perfect Harmony

As co-founder and artistic director of Houston’s newest contemporary opera company, Opera Vista, Viswa Subbaraman knows his way around a musical production. Overtures, sonatas, minor keys–this has been the language of his world. Strategic analysis and balance sheets?  Not quite. At least not until he entered the McCombs School of Business.

Viswa Subbaraman
Watch a video with Viswa Subbaraman. (Video opens in a new window on the OnCampus Web site.)

“Arts foundations face enormous challenges in today’s economic climate,” said Subbaraman, who honed his craft in Paris by way of a Fulbright grant. “I came to the McCombs School to gain an understanding of the business strategies arts foundations need to survive, and now business thinking is just as much a part of my career as artistic creation.”

Subbaraman, who will receive his Master of Business Administration degree at commencement, said art institutions are going through a fundamental restructuring and will no longer be able to rely only on funding from upper middle class donors or from grants and foundations. Economic hard times mean that funding for the arts has become harder to obtain, he said.

“I don’t believe that the arts are going to die, but I do believe that we have to rethink the way we go about running them,” Subbaraman said.

So far, Subbaraman’s creative and business instincts have been spot on. The Houston Press, reviewing the inaugural Opera Vista Festival in 2007, said, “If Opera Vista’s artistic director/co-founder Viswa Subbaraman continues on such a high, future full houses are assured, and we can look forward to some exciting nights at the opera.”

Highlights of Subbaraman’s tenure at Opera Vista include the world premiere of James Norman’s “Wake,” the Texas premiere of Amy Beach’s “Cabildo” and the creation of the annual Vista Competition for New Opera, which Subbaraman describes as an American Idol-style competition that allows burgeoning opera composers to have portions of their works reviewed by judges in front of an audience. The audience votes for the winner, and the winner gets a production of his or her opera in the following year’s festival.

Subbaraman said he did not realize music as his own calling until his sophomore year of college at Duke University. He entered school wanting to become a doctor, but he earned dual degrees in biology and music.

“What drew me to music was its incredible communicative power,” said Subbaraman. “The reason it has survived and will continue to survive is that it communicates the human experience.”

He believes the work of great classical composers has endured for hundreds of years because it conveys ideals about freedom, democracy and other universal human principles.

“Beethoven is a great example of this,” he said. “In fact, he dedicated his third symphony to Napoleon when Napoleon was elected to be the leader of France. The day that Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven scratched his name out in such a fury that you can still see the hole in the manuscript. Composers are still writing music about the times they live in.”

Subbaraman hopes Opera Vista, which counts three of Subbaraman’s Texas MBA at Houston classmates as board members, will become an important contributor to the art form’s legacy and staying power. His goal for Opera Vista is for it to become nationally recognized as a creative and innovative institution and for its annual opera festival to become an influential industry competition.

“I believe that the business model we are pursuing can become a flagship for other organizations,” he said. “And since we are a startup organization, we have the opportunity to create a company culture of fiscal responsibility and cultural creativity.”

By Behnaz Abolmaali
McCombs School of Business

Graduation Caps Years of Courage for Student with Brain Injury

Monika Merola was walking her 6-year-old daughter, Cecilia, home from kindergarten when she was struck by an epiphany.

Monika Merola
Watch a video with Monika Merola. (Video opens in a new window on the OnCampus Web site.)

“Mommy, why don’t you have a degree?” asked Cecilia.

Merola stopped in her tracks and suddenly felt tears well up in her eyes.

“I thought, how could I encourage her to pursue her education when I haven’t attempted to complete my degree?” Merola said, “That’s when I knew I had to go back to UT.”

Recovering from a near-fatal brain aneurysm that rendered her legally blind in 2000, Merola spent a year doing very little but praying and walking her daughter to and from school every day.

After brain surgery, doctors said with cognitive therapy she might one day be able to live a comfortable, normal life again. But going back to college was out of the question.

They were right–and wrong. This May, three decades after first setting foot in a college classroom at The University of Texas at Austin, Merola returns to walk across the stage and finally get her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Mexican American studies, exceeding her doctors’ expectations.

“My brain injury specialist told me getting a degree is the single most difficult undertaking for a brain-injured patient,” Merola said. “I am one of only 10 patients she has encouraged to do so.”

Before undergoing brain surgery, she knew there was a chance she would lose her ability to move. But the idea of losing her Spanish frightened her the most.

“I was horribly frightened that this wonderful language that has enriched my life so much would be taken from me,” Merola said. “And I worked so hard to become fluent.”

When she awoke from surgery, she surprised herself and her family when she began singing in Spanish. After that, she knew she was well on the road to recovery.

“I am somehow certain being bilingual has been instrumental in helping my brain to rewire itself,” she said, smiling. “I have always had a strong will, which was not lost with the brain damage. Essentially, my stubbornness has served me well.”

Merola, who worked as a senior financial analyst for 17 years, was highly skilled in accounting and bookkeeping. But after the brain aneurysm, she had trouble just balancing her checkbook. In addition to losing more than half her vision, the brain damage depleted her thought-processing and problem-solving abilities.

“Learning about and accepting the complexities of my disability has been a gradual, sometimes painful process,” Merola said. “Keeping a positive attitude is essential. More than anything, my faith has carried me through.”

As for life after graduation, she is still weighing her options. With her love of the Spanish language, she strives to work with heritage speakers of Spanish to help them learn how to hone their English speaking abilities, yet retain their Spanish. She also has aspirations to be an advocate for students recovering from brain injuries.

The most important advice she could give to students with learning disabilities, she says, is to ask for help.

Merola credits the university’s faculty and staff, including Arlene Montgomery, a lecturer in the School of Social Work, and Cristina Cabello de Martinez, a lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, for their emotional support and assistance guiding her through the university’s resources such as Services for Students with Disabilities.

“Monika is gifted with courage and empathy that exceeds anyone’s expectations, yet she is humble, intelligent and filled with a childlike joy that can only bring happiness and awe to anyone’s heart,” Cabello de Martinez said. “With eloquence she has accomplished her dual degrees, and in the process, enlightened many of us who have had the privilege to work with her.”

By Jessica Sinn
College of Liberal Arts

Law School Student Helps Reshape Future of Juvenile Justice System

A rare glimpse inside maximum security prisons last year led law student Hannah Miller to groundbreaking work in policy reform at the Texas Capitol.

Hannah Miller

“What I witnessed that day changed my life,” the 29-year-old student said. “The cells were smaller than I ever imagined.  Bodies cramped, eyes bloodshot and desperate,” she recalled, noting the disorienting absence of natural light in windowless solitary confinement.

“Men were literally in cages. Twenty-three hours a day under fluorescent lighting, rocked to sleep by violent screaming from cell to cell,” she said.  These conditions only aggravated inmates’ mental problems, Miller said. “It was hellish–just absolutely dehumanizing.”

But Miller said the experience moved her to refocus her legal career on policy issues affecting prisoners, particularly death row inmates and juvenile offenders. Miller now is doing work at the Texas Legislature to promote less punitive, more rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration.

“You can’t address these complex problems through legal representation alone. In many cases, policy reform may be the more effective mechanism,” said Miller, who saw inside the prisons when she studied last year with attorney Michele Deitch, a criminal justice expert at the university’s School of Law and LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Deitch said Miller, who will graduate this May, already is doing “absolutely groundbreaking work” in Deitch’s juvenile justice service learning course. As a policy intern with the Travis County Juvenile Court, Miller is “having an enormous impact right now on the direction of juvenile justice reform,” Deitch said.

Travis County may receive as much as $17 million for a pilot project Miller helped design, and the proposal already is reshaping views of the future of juvenile justice. A response to the 2007 sexual abuse scandal in the Texas Youth Commission, this project would fund counties to house and treat juvenile offenders in their local communities rather than send them to distant state institutions.

“Travis County and all of Texas will be better off because of her efforts,” said Travis County District Judge W. Jeanne Meurer, Miller’s supervisor. “Hannah condensed complex ideas for reforming Texas’ juvenile justice system into communications that seized the attention of the state’s policymakers. She’s triggered a potential paradigm shift in the way Texas deals with youthful offenders.”

Miller says working on the proposal has inspired her to see the potential for change even amid tragedy, like the sexual abuse scandal that led to her efforts.

“Working with juvenile probation departments across the state,” she said, “it has been amazing to witness their newfound enthusiasm for treating youth in the local community. The counties have started to embrace the belief that juvenile offenders, even those who have committed some of the worst crimes, have the potential to be of value in their communities. They no longer seem resigned to view these kids as criminals on their way to adult prison.”

More than 50 counties have adopted Miller’s proposal.

“This project has the potential to redirect juvenile justice in Texas,” she said. “If the programs funded this session succeed, then the 2011 Legislature could embrace this concept statewide.”

A Florida native, Miller came to the School of Law after having attended Harvard Divinity School for a year and working in hospice care.  Law school, she said, gave her rich and varied experiences. She worked to improve conditions at the Hutto immigration facility, represented condemned prisoners in the Capital Punishment Clinic, published in the Texas Law Review her academic research on the issue of mental illness on death row, attended arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case she worked on with the Supreme Court Clinic and worked in the legislative arena. After graduation, Miller plans to clerk for a federal appellate judge in Macon, Ga.

Last summer, Miller was part of the legal team that secured an 11th-hour commutation for an inmate sentenced to death in Georgia–a rarity in that state’s history. She said she found a glimmer of hope in the state’s recognition of her client’s value.

“I do believe,” she said,” that everyone has basic worth as a human being and the potential for transformation.”

By Laura Castro
School of Law

War in Lebanon Strengthens Student’s Determination to Promote Multicultural Understanding

Sometimes activism can be a dangerous business. But it wasn’t the work of being an activist that almost cost doctoral candidate Rita Stephan and her two young children their lives–it was the study of it.

Rita Stephan
Watch a video with Rita Stephan. (Video opens in a new window on the OnCampus Web site.)

When Stephan embarked on her trip to Lebanon in May 2006 to conduct research for her dissertation, she knew there was conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, but did not expect a full-blown war.

That all changed on July 12, 2006 as a war erupted between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon and led to massive destruction and loss of lives.

Stephan and her then 4 1/2-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter had to run for their lives.

“I panicked as I listened to the sound of Israeli fighter jets fly over my head, only to be followed in less than 10 seconds by loud explosions that shook the house,” she recalled. “The long silence that followed the bombing was even scarier because of the uncertainty and calamity enfolded in it. The kids were crying and the American Embassy’s phone was always busy.”

Back in Austin, faculty and administrators at The University of Texas at Austin worked feverishly to secure her safe return.

“In addition to pleading in vain to Congress,” Stephan said, “they contacted the International SOS and kept in close contact with my husband as I orchestrated my very dangerous route of escape.”

On July 14, Stephan decided she could not spend another night in Lebanon, and called a taxi in an attempt to flee the country to her aunt’s house in Syria. As she held her two small children on her lap, she decided if they were bombed, she would cover them with her body in hopes that they would survive.

“The decision to flee Lebanon after less than two days of the war was the most difficult decision I have made in my life,” Stephan said. “The four-hour trip I made was dangerous even by Lebanese standards, as we were intermittently under heavy attack.”

Despite the harrowing circumstances, Stephan held on to hope by thinking of the people at the university working so hard to bring her family home.

“In my mind,” she said, “I kept thinking that the Sociology Department and UT are waiting for me, in addition to my family. Therefore, I did not give up or leave my research behind. I knew that they trusted me with this mission and that they were waiting for me.”

Stephan did not know how or when she would finish her dissertation and become a Ph.D., as her experience had given her mixed feelings about Lebanon and the war. She eventually returned to her research on activism and found optimism and hope from her interviews with women whose lives had been shattered by war. Stephan’s supervisor, Dr. Mounira Charrad, was also particularly supportive in encouraging the completion of her work.

She undertook new research, interviewing American evacuees to understand their experiences and to help her process her own. She has incorporated her experience into her research and career plans.

“Whether in scholarly research, activism, or teaching, my overriding motivation throughout my career continues to focus on increasing multicultural understanding in our global village,” Stephan said.

Pursuing a tenure-track academic position, Stephan plans to teach as a lecturer at the university next year and will publish her dissertation as articles and a book. She plans to return to Lebanon this summer to participate in a project on election reform and women’s citizenship rights.

By Kathleen Mabley
Graduate School

International Student Overcomes Health, Social Obstacles and Finds Herself

Imagine leaving your close-knit family at the age of 16 to attend college on another continent and only returning to visit every two years. Add to that the struggles of managing a life-threatening illness in a foreign country and you have a glimpse into the life of Olawunmi “Wunmi” Bakare, who comes from the West African country of Nigeria.

Wunmi Bakare

A lack of technological facilities in Nigeria makes it difficult for students to pursue higher education, so Bakare’s parents encouraged her to go abroad for her college education just as they had. Thanks to a climate comparable to Nigeria and the fact that her older brother had completed his undergraduate studies in engineering here, she enrolled at The University of Texas at Austin.

“In Nigeria, there is a heavy emphasis on the sciences in order to be successful, so I began my freshman year as a human biology major with the hope of one day finding a cure for sickle cell anemia,” said Bakare, who suffers from the disease–a life-long blood disorder most often found among people from regions where malaria is common.”

Bakare’s plans changed during her freshman year when she was hospitalized for a month to manage the disease. Symptoms of sickle cell anemia include jaundice, severe joint pain, chronic weakness and a lowered immune system that makes one susceptible to infections. Bakare nearly died at age 8 due to complications from osteomyelitis, a bacterial bone infection.

After being out so long, Bakare realized she would not be able to make up for the missed class time. Following a period of introspection, she changed course and decided to take a public relations course the following semester.

“After the first class I knew I’d found my future career,” said the 21-year-old who loves to write.

Despite multiple hospital stays and bouts of homesickness throughout her undergraduate studies, Bakare has persevered, embraced the campus culture and excelled.

“One of the cultural differences I noticed between the U.S. and Nigeria is that most people in the U.S. seem to belong to a niche group based on shared ethnicity or background,” she said. “That can make it difficult to break into those groups and make friends.”

Not easily deterred, Bakare applied for and was accepted into the Orange Jackets, an honorary women’s service organization. Through the group, she engaged in community service projects throughout campus and volunteered at the Settlement Home for Children, a home for abused and neglected girls.

“I spend an hour and one-half tutoring and playing games with the girls,” she said, beaming. “Those girls lift my spirit. They have faced so many challenges in their lives, yet they continue to wear a smile on their faces.”

Bakare will move to Chicago this summer to complete an internship at the international public relations firm Golin Harris.

“Ultimately,” she said, “I’d like to earn a master’s degree in English and return to Nigeria to show people that you don’t need to work in the sciences to be successful.”

Asked to look back on her time on the Forty Acres, Bakare said she regrets nothing.

“Life is way too short,” she said. “I wasn’t supposed to live past the age of 21.”

By Erin Geisler
College of Communication

Learning, Reading Disabilities No Obstacle to an Engineering Degree

In the first grade John Bridgman was diagnosed with dyslexia, a brain-based type of learning disability that impairs a person’s ability to read. According to the International Dyslexia Association, as many as 15 percent of the population have some symptoms of the disability.

Bridgman

Bridgman was lumped into general special-education classes within his Central Texas school district, but after two years he wasn’t progressing. Frustrated, his parents forced the school district to provide the proper services for his disability, and he was placed in a newly created district program that used materials from the Scottish Rite dyslexic curriculum.

In this new environment, Bridgman finally excelled and finished the program in two years, surprisingly reading on a college level.

“I still remember when I couldn’t read the instructions on my grade-school homework,” he recalled.

This May, the 27-year-old Bridgman, who forged his own educational path with the support of his parents, will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a 4.0 grade-point average.  It was his love of learning that dictated his success, even if life kept placing obstacles in his way.

Despite Bridgman’s reading advancements in public school, his parents still noticed deficiencies in other areas such as spelling and writing, which were at second-grade levels. So his mother, Jane Bridgman, chose to home-school him starting in the ninth grade.

“He couldn’t spell his middle name,” she said. “I felt like if John had a chance, I wanted to give it to him.”

Using General Educational Development (GED) manuals and reading 40 hours a week, Bridgman improved his spelling and earned his GED. He took classes part-time at Austin Community College for several years before transferring to the university. As uncertain as he was about succeeding academically in a university setting, he was equally undaunted by the challenge at hand.

“I really didn’t know how well I would do in college,” Bridgman said. “But having a learning disability did not deter me at all. In fact, it made me more determined.”

Employing new tools and techniques that helped him cope with the learning disability, he excelled in his engineering, English and language courses.

“I’m at the level I can compete–without handicap–with everyone else,” said Bridgman, who recently took a Japanese language course and earned an “A.” “It says to me that I’m still improving.”

Bridgman’s next educational chapter is graduate school where he has been accepted into the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s nationally ranked program. His focus is in embedded systems, digital signal processing and issues of concurrency. He hopes to teach someday to inspire the next generation of engineers. Yet, his story seems to do that on its own.

Not long ago, Jane Bridgman couldn’t read the handwritten notes her son left for her. She’s not even sure he could.

“Now, I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage him to write a book. He’d write a fabulous book,” Jane Bridgman said. “Through this, he has learned to endure. He’s gained character. I’m probably going to cry my eyes out when he graduates.”

By Daniel J. Vargas
Cockrell School of Engineering

Social Work Is Foundation of Football Player’s Life

Quan Cosby has gone from being an underprivileged troubled teen to a high-salaried professional baseball player, a husband, father, mentor, two-time all Big 12 Conference wide receiver and now a graduate in the School of Social Work.

Quan Cosby

It’s all about the choices you make and the roads you take, Cosby said. And, of course, hard work.

There are many paths that Cosby, who grew up in the small Texas town of Mart, could have taken. His father left the family when Cosby was young, leaving his mother, Ethel, to care for four sons. She worked as a cook during the day and a janitor at night. When Ethel remarried, Cosby clashed with his stepfather and eventually moved in with one of his teachers, Deborah Satchell, and her family.

Life started getting better. He had found a role model who provided structure in Albert Satchell, Deborah’s husband.

Cosby was one of the top athletes in Texas when the Longhorns originally signed him in 2001. But Cosby was lured away by the Los Angeles Angels baseball team with a lucrative contract. Five years later, he was back at the university, where he has often been described as quarterback Colt McCoy’s “go-to guy.” In the 2009 Fiesta Bowl, Cosby capped off an outstanding senior season when he scored the winning touchdown on a pass from McCoy with 16 seconds left in the game.

It took a while, but Cosby knew he had made the right decision to go to college, and social work was a perfect fit.

“Social work tackles some of the more difficult and important challenges of today,” said Cosby, who is married with two small children. “The field of social work is an excellent preparation for many jobs in addition to the usual ones we think of like child welfare and mental health assistance. A social work education prepares you to understand individual and community potential no matter what career you choose.”

Cosby has dealt with many challenges since childhood and has developed a remarkable degree of discipline, said Dr. Michael Lauderdale, professor of social work.

“Quan looks at life carefully and with measure before making a decision,” Lauderdale said. “He has been a steadying influence not only on the football field, but in the classroom. Quan’s special value in social work is his knowledge of the challenges faced by others and his ability through discipline to change the world he sees.”

Cosby was a leader on and off the field. Now 26 years old, he was called the Longhorns’ elder statesman not to mention “old man, grandpa and wily veteran.” Cosby says he didn’t mind the names because he knew he was respected.

Talking to teens about the advantages of staying in school is just one of the ways he continues to give back to the community.

“Make good choices, stay in school, stay off drugs and stay out of trouble,” Cosby tells the young kids.

He also has worked with families with cancer, children with disabilities and children of soldiers who have recently died in Iraq, among other “tough and humbling” situations.

Cosby spent the April National Football League draft weekend in New York City with comedian Bill Cosby (no relation), who took an interest in Cosby a few years ago. The Monday after the draft, Cosby signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent.

“I could not have written it up better,” Cosby said. “I know I made the right decisions. And, social work has helped provide me with a strong foundation for life, whatever I do.”

By Nancy Neff
School of Social Work

For more information, contact: Photos and videos: Christina Murrey

Photo of Viswa Subbaraman: Buckner Photography