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A Radiant Beacon: Class of 2004 graduates overcome obstacles and challenge themselves to make the grade

Profiles of Accomplished Graduates

World-class triathlete goes the distance in training and in the classroom

Shae Rainer never got the hang of playing with Barbies when she was a little girl, preferring to keep up with the boys instead.

Now that she’s 23, she finds the boys are having trouble keeping up with her.

Rainer, a senior in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, has lived something of a Cinderella story while working on her degree in kinesiology, advancing—in only five years—from a girl who did not own a mountain bike or know how to swim to a world-class triathlete who has her eye on the Olympics.

Shae Rainer
Shae Rainer, who couldn’t swim five years ago, hopes to qualify for the Olympics as a triathlete.

Her photo now graces magazine covers, she wins duathlons alongside Lance Armstrong, has her picture taken as she chats with Gov. Rick Perry at races and hears her name announced by ABC sportscasters.

“My family isn’t particularly athletic, and no one was pushing me to participate in races,” said Rainer. “I just find that I absolutely thrive on competition, and I have to have a challenge. I hate not being physically active.

“Until 1999, I knew enough about swimming to maybe save myself if I was drowning, but that was it. In 2000 when I competed in my first ever triathlon, though, I finished in fourth place in my age group and then finished in first place in my age group in the Trilogy Triathlon that same year. My dream is to participate in the Olympics, and I just feel like it’s going to happen. I know I can do it.”

While taking up to 18 hours a semester of business and kinesiology courses, Rainer has trained for and participated in 40 races all over the nation and won first place or been in the top three in every race. In an almost manic display of energy and drive, Rainer on one weekend may participate in and win a triathlon on a Saturday, then travel to a different locale on Sunday, participate in a mountain bike race and win that competition as well.

Rainer’s most demanding and prestigious competition so far has been the Xterra World Championship triathlon, which took place in Maui in fall 2003. The race occurred only 30 days after Rainer competed in the Xterra National Championship in Lake Tahoe, and was right in the middle of a semester during which she was carrying an 18-hour course load.

The University of Texas at Austin awards an average of 12,500 degrees each year, about 6,800 in the spring and 5,700 in the fall.

The competition subjected the 400 participants to an ocean swim, a bike ride of 19 miles and an almost seven-mile run. The run included seven different terrains, sending runners over everything from lava rocks to foot-sucking beach sand, and the bike ride took them up, down and around a volcano on what ended up being a sweltering, cloudless 93-degree day.

Although Rainer went into the competition never having swum in the ocean and suffering from a stress fracture, she exhibited what has become a modus operandi and won, against the odds, first place in her age division.

“As far as doing something this trying while you’re in pain,” said Rainer, “I just always remember what a fellow runner once told me—pain is only temporary, but pride lasts forever. If I start feeling like I may not make it, I just tell myself to keep on going, I’m almost done.”

Rainer will begin graduate classes in sports management in the fall and hopes to hire a professional trainer as well. Noting that female triathletes peak between 30-35, Rainer looks forward to being one of the top five women who competes in the Xterra competition and to experiencing the thrill of victory at the Olympics.

Kay Randall

Photo: Marsha Miller



Mother triumphs over blindness to live life of vision and advocacy

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way—developing macular degeneration at age 7. But Niki Robinson has done more than just deal with it.

Legally blind since she was a child, 34-year-old Robinson (formerly Mercer) decided to return to school and become a social worker so she could, in turn, help children with disabilities. She will graduate in May.

“I have been presented with a lifetime of hurdles, but these challenges have made me the person I am today,” said Robinson, a single mother of two small children.

Niki Robinson with her son Jake, her daughter Jessie and her service dog Joey
Niki Robinson enjoys the support of her family: Jake, her 5-year-old son; Joey, her 3-year-old service dog; and Jessie, her 7-year-old daughter.

Macular degeneration is an incurable eye disease and a leading cause of blindness for those aged 55 and older in the United States. Robinson realizes she is an anomaly.

“Ever since I made the decision to accept my disability, I have had a positive attitude and do the best I can,” she said. “I believe my unwillingness to give up forces people to look at their own circumstances from a new perspective.”

Robinson’s life is a juggling act, although sometimes she feels she is juggling bowling balls. Four “J’s” are foremost in her mind: Jessie, her 7-year-old daughter, Jake, her 5-year-old son, Joey, her 3-year-old service dog and Jaws, the screen reader on her computer that speaks to her.

“Jessie and Jake are my fuel to keep me pursuing my dreams,” she said.

Joey will walk across the stage with Robinson when she receives her degree.

Robinson paid only $1 for “the most incredible dog in the world,” trained by Guide Dogs of Texas in San Antonio. She recently spoke to a conference of 400 Texas nursing students about the guide dog school, and Joey received a standing ovation.

Joey lies down under the seat on the shuttle bus as Robinson makes her way to campus from her north Austin apartment. Then, they are off to classes, volunteer work and an internship at Any Baby Can. When they return home and Joey gets “off harness,” he quickly morphs into the family dog—playing with the children, looking around the kitchen for snacks, but always with a watchful eye on Robinson.

In 1963 bachelor's regalia cost $3. In 2004 the regalia cost $43.48 and now includes a stole in the color of each graduate's college or school.

“He’s been loyal, unobtrusive and a friendly diversion when we needed one,” said School of Social Work field specialist Ruth Rubio. “We all have gotten to know him personally.”

Rubio has received glowing remarks about Robinson’s work at Any Baby Can, a program that provides direct services to families who have a child with a disability, chronic illness or other medical needs.

“I have a strong philosophy that if you give people the needed tools to improve their lives and they have the will, then there is no reason why they cannot succeed,” said Robinson, who credits Social Work faculty member Lori Holleran, among others, for sharing her counseling bag of tricks with students.

“If we assist people who just need a little bit of help to climb up one step of the ladder, it will give them some ambition to keep on climbing,” Robinson said. “This is where social workers come in.”

Nancy Neff

Photo: Marsha Miller



Bridge to academic success engineered by enterprising student

Lester Guillory performs a stomp routine
Lester Guillory performs a stomp routine. His involvement in extracurricular activities and service organizations helped fuel his enthusiasm for college life.

Lester Guillory had never known an engineer. No one in his immediate family had attended college. But his high school academic counselor in Beaumont saw promise in Guillory’s high placement test scores in math and science, and encouraged him to join the university’s electrical engineering program.

Comfortable in his new surroundings through the help of the Equal Opportunity in Engineering Office, Guillory performed well enough academically to intern with IBM, Dell, General Motors and Motorola while staying active in extracurricular activities. He became president of two of them: the National Society of Black Engineers and Phi Beta Sigma, an African American social service fraternity.

His involvement and enthusiasm for college life rubbed off on his younger brother, who now is a student at The University of Texas at Austin and whose schedule is slowly becoming as full as Lester’s.

“I’ve always encouraged my brother to be involved with all aspects of college life,” he says. “I know it’s helped me develop so much as a person.”

Stephanie Scalco

Photo: Charlie Fonville



Twenty-year pursuit of education
translates into diplomas for mother, daughter

Elena West knows how to set an example.

Elena West with her daughter Christina
Elena West and her daughter, Christina, will both be receiving their diplomas this spring.

When she told her two daughters that education is important, she meant it. Though it has taken her more than 20 years, she is completing her degree requirements from the College of Liberal Arts with a major in Spanish.

West put her education on hold when her husband’s job uprooted the family several times and her daughters were born. But she knew she would eventually finish what she started.

“Several times I have thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’” West said. “But it was a goal before I had children. I decided that if I was going to push education with my children, I needed to be a part of it.”

When her husband was transferred to Fort Worth more than a year ago, he supported her desire to go back to college. In addition to the commute from Fort Worth, West met the challenge of planning her elder daughter’s wedding long distance.

In the procession of degree candidates, 84 ceremonial banners are carried and are used to decorate the stage.

“The younger students have been so accepting—inviting me to study groups and asking me to take part,” she said. “I admire all the kids in my program. It’s not easy, and parents should keep that in mind.”

West is particularly pleased that she will be graduating with her roommate—and younger daughter—Christina, who is graduating from the College of Engineering.




Robin Gerrow

Photo: Marsha Miller



A model student: Aerospace engineering major
is city-wide pageant winner

Pocket protectors, taped eyeglasses and high-waisted pants often reflect the typical image of an engineering student. Not so with Andrea Sargeant.

She graduates in May with a degree in aerospace engineering, one of the most selective academic programs on campus. This February she also won the title of Miss Austin, the city-wide beauty pageant, which qualifies her for the Miss Texas pageant in July.

“People are always surprised when I tell them I’m an engineer,” said Sargeant, a 6-foot tall engaging personality. “It’s especially startling when I add aerospace to the conversation—after all you don’t think of a lot of rocket scientists winning beauty pageants. I enjoy challenging the stereotype of the typical engineer.”

Andrea Sargeant with some of her classmates
Andrea Sargeant, who holds the title of ‘Miss Austin,’ is challenging stereotypes of the typical engineer and of pageant winners.

The Arlington native became interested in pageants when a cousin entered the Miss Colorado USA pageant, an event Sargeant says “planted the seed” for her future pageant participation.

Meanwhile another family role model introduced her to engineering. As a grade school student, Sargeant looked up to her older sister, a mechanical engineer. Later a calculus teacher, who had been an aerospace engineer, showed her how math could apply to practical, every-day situations. She decided to become an engineer, and qualified under the College of Engineering’s stringent academic acceptance policy.

She spent the next four years shaping her engineering future, with hopes of eventually working in the field of orbital mechanics. As she neared that goal, her other passion became ignited again. Last year a friend entered the Miss Lubbock USA pageant and invited Sargeant to attend. Her friend’s experience convinced Sargeant to try it.

The Miss Austin pageant marked Sargeant’s first time to compete in a beauty pageant. As the winner, she received $1,000 in scholarships, which she will use to help repay her college loans.

The title also requires public appearances to promote the pageant and qualifies her to compete for the Miss Texas Galaxy pageant. The state winner advances to the Miss U.S. Galaxy pageant. This succession of pageants is called a system—the pageants that lead to Miss America and Miss USA represent different systems.

As the president of the university confers degrees, the Tower is lighted orange in honor of the new graduates.

A pageant winner has a busy schedule, but as an engineering student, Sargeant had experience balancing her time. Besides studying, she was a student mentor, a student ambassador and a member of the Society of Women Engineers.

These activities included travel with other engineering students to elementary and middle schools to demonstrate engineering concepts to young students. She also worked part-time as a teaching assistant at Hyde Park Baptist Church’s child development center.

Sargeant has also added job interviewing to her calendar. She was offered a full-time aerospace engineering position with Bell Helicopter in the Fort Worth area.

That doesn’t mean she’s giving up her pageant dreams. She’d like to continue competing in pageants and become a part-time model. On the academic side she’d like to eventually earn an MBA.

She plans to be married in June 2005. Fortunately, pageants also exist for married engineers.

Stephanie Scalco

Photo: Charlie Fonville



Carmen Valdez
After graduating from the university, Carmen Valdez will begin a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in prevention research at Johns Hopkins University.

Culture shock: Life experiences inspire
graduate student to aid troubled children

Taken from war-torn El Salvador when she was 9 years old and thrust into a different culture with a new and unfamiliar language, Carmen Valdez was forced early on to think about how change and adversity affect one’s mental and emotional health.

“While I was hoping to become, in many ways, the average American teen-ager,” said Valdez, “my parents desperately wished for me to remain connected to my Latino values. Finding myself torn between two cultures, I cherished my family and their values but also was a very independent person by the standards of my country of origin.”

Because of her experiences as an immigrant to the United States, she began to study how people face challenge in their lives and develop resiliency. As a doctoral student in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology, Valdez has focused on learning as much as possible about developing, implementing and evaluating mental health services for children.

Valdez has spent the past year completing an internship at the Harvard Medical School/Children’s Hospital in Boston, where she worked primarily with Latino families who, like herself, were struggling to adapt to a new culture.

Her research at Harvard into the relationship between maternal depression and children’s school functioning revealed that, while mothers improve after being treated for depression, their children continue to have social, emotional and mental difficulties. After graduating from the university, she will begin a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in prevention research at Johns Hopkins University.



Kay Randall

Photo: Marsha Miller



Alex Fierro
Alex Fierro plans to eventually open his own pharmacy in El Paso, his hometown.

A positive side effect: Student fills need for pharmacists in hometown

Like many entering the health care arena, Alex Fierro originally wanted to be a doctor. But then he began to learn about the pressing need for pharmacists in his hometown of El Paso.

Fierro entered The University of Texas at Austin/University of Texas at El Paso Cooperative Pharmacy Program designed to diversify the profession and alleviate the shortage of pharmacists in largely Hispanic and medically underserved populations. There also is a cooperative program at UT-Pan American.

“This is an area where an individual such as myself can make a difference,” said Fierro, who will be the first person in his family to earn a college degree. He will be receiving a PharmD (doctor of pharmacy) degree.

He intends to eventually open his own pharmacy in El Paso. “I have always liked the idea of getting to know your patients,” he said. “Pharmacy should not be like a fast food restaurant in which a person places an order and sits in front waiting to pick it up.”



Nancy Neff



Law student hopes to prosecute international criminals

Jay Bischoff
Jay Bischoff is pursuing a career in international criminal law as a human rights advocate intent on prosecuting war crimes.

Two years ago law student Jay Bischoff worked on the high-profile genocide prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania. He investigated claims against Hutu military leaders who led the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis in 1994—an experience that inspired him to pursue a career in international criminal law as a human rights advocate.

“It solidified my desire to work as a prosecutor of war criminals, “ said Bischoff, 27, a graduate of the joint-degree program between law and Latin American studies. Bischoff spent two weeks in Rwanda visiting massacre sites permeated with blood stains and bones and interviewing witnesses and victims, many with machete scars on their faces and arms or suffering with the AIDS virus.

This year more than 2,300 pyrotechnic devices will be used in the commencement finale during the playing of 'The Eyes of Texas.'

Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, Bischoff also has interned on a judicial reform project in Guatemala and an anti-forced-labor initiative in the Amazon. He helped organize a war crimes conference at the law school last year and is co-writing a book on its proceedings.

Recently, he received a Fulbright scholarship to attend Leiden University in the Netherlands, near The Hague. His goal is to combine his interest in Latin American issues with international criminal law and become a prosecutor of Latin American war criminals.



Laura Castro

Photo: Marsha Miller



Deaf-defying dedication: Student perseveres in the hearing world

Ingrid Tidblom signs 'tree'
Ingrid Tidblom signs “tree.” She will receive a master’s degree in social work this spring.

Many university students fondly quote renowned luminaries such as French novelist and existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre or American author, poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ingrid Tidblom prefers to espouse the teachings of her heroine—Helen Keller.

Tidblom, who will receive a master’s degree in social work this spring tries to live by Keller’s “self pity is our worst enemy” philosophy of life. The 30-year-old University of Texas at Austin student became profoundly deaf at the age of 3 after contracting spinal meningitis and has been navigating through a world of the hearing and deaf ever since.

She is one of only three deaf students at the university who use American Sign Language. Two interpreters are assigned to her when she is in class.

Tidblom is doing her field placement work at the Austin State Hospital and believes her “calling” is to try and provide more comprehensive mental health services for the deaf.

“Ingrid has gone through our program with courage, integrity and humor and will enter the profession as a leader and advocate for the needs of the deaf population,” said Kathleen Armenta, clinical associate professor of social work.



Nancy Neff

Photo: Marsha Miller


Susan Franzetti
As the school nurse for the Del Valle Independent School District in the 1990s, Susan Franzetti was the force behind the creation of the Children’s Wellness Center.

Nursing student prescribes remedy
for children facing health care crisis

Measles, mumps, rubella. If anyone knows about the “right shot for the right kid at the right time” it is nursing graduate student Susan Franzetti.

As the school nurse for the Del Valle Independent School District in the 1990s, Franzetti was the force behind the creation of the Children’s Wellness Center. The nurse-managed, school-based facility, an ideal clinical setting for nursing students and faculty, provides comprehensive health care to low-income children in the area. About 60 percent of rural school district’s children live in economically disadvantaged families.

“Working with children, so they may have a better tomorrow, is what I cherish about nursing,” said Franzetti, who has been a practicing nurse for 25 years.

The mother of three decided to return to school and will receive a master’s degree in nursing this spring.

Franzetti knew from an early age that her “gift” was taking care of living things and not becoming frightened during emergencies.

“Even my animals knew I wanted to become a nurse—although they were probably hoping for a veterinarian,” she said.



Nancy Neff

Photo: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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