About 8,000 students will graduate from The University of Texas at Austin at the 129th spring commencement this Saturday, May 19. These extraordinary students who have realized their dreams will come together to share in the spirit of commencement.
“For our graduates, commencement marks a milestone in the development of a cultivated mind,” says Bill Powers, president of the university. “As they begin new lives of accomplishment, we celebrate our graduates’ success and the unlimited possibilities before them.”
Each graduate has a unique story.
Here are stories and a video profiling 11 students who have doggedly pursued their academic goals.
LBJ School grad works to improve life for migrants in El Salvador
The first time Allison Ramirez visited El Salvador, she knew she was destined to return.
During an undergraduate semester abroad in 2005, Ramirez discovered a passion for the country, its people and many of the issues she encountered there. The next summer she did return to work with a small Salvadoran nongovernmental organization (NGO) focusing on immigration issues.
“When I arrived, the NGO put files and files in front of me of migrants who had gone missing,” said Ramirez, who is graduating this spring with a master’s degree in global policy studies from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. “It was a life-changing moment to realize what was going on for Central American migrants. I was already on the side of immigrants in the United States, but this added a completely new dimension.”
From that moment, Ramirez was committed to working with the families of migrants who left El Salvador to travel through Central America toward the United States looking for a better life, but became victims of human rights violations along the way.
“It’s one thing to have lost a loved one,” said Ramirez. “It’s another thing not to know what happened to them, to not know if they are alive or dead, or if they’ve been tortured.”
Ramirez, has journeyed to El Salvador many times, once as a Fulbright Scholar to work on a documentary about the history of oppression and injustice in the country, always with the aim of supporting the families of missing migrants through advocacy work.
While working on her graduate degree at the LBJ School and a second degree in Latin American Studies, Ramirez returned to work with the same NGO in 2010. While there she helped families search for loved ones while also working to gain greater cooperation from Mexico, where the majority of human rights violations against migrants occur. In 2011 Ramirez spent another eight months performing research and advocacy work in El Salvador, trying to understand the most effective advocacy strategies for human rights organizations to use with their government.
After graduation, Ramirez plans to continue her work in advocacy, with a focus on migrants’ rights, either in El Salvador or in the United States.
She said, “Working with the families I realized the kinds of policies that we have in the United States can trickle down through Latin America and the devastating effect that has on average people trying to make lives for themselves.”
By Kerri Battles
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
Top scholars make their mark on the world
In this video celebrating the remarkable achievements of the class of 2012, graduating students Anustubh Agnihotri, Shannon Allport, Eduardo Chavez, Kelly Moynihan and Natasha Verma describe how their academic experiences inspired them to pursue their passions in research and education.
By Christopher Palmer
Graduating student leader makes the most of college experience
After graduating from one of Arizona’s top-ranked high schools in 2007, Natalie Butler had a host of higher education options.
“At the end of the day, The University of Texas at Austin just felt right,” Butler said. “I just felt at home in Austin.”
Her intuition proved correct. Throughout her five years at the university, Butler has had more opportunities than she could have imagined.
For her Plan II senior thesis, Butler researched and wrote about education policy and how high school civics experiences invite and negate positive attitudes about government, public life and future political engagement.
“Her progress was consistently on pace with my master’s and doctoral students, her ability to make sense of data was a joy to watch and her authorial voice emerged in an exciting way,” said Sharon Jarvis, associate professor of communication studies, associate director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation and Butler’s Plan II thesis adviser.
In Jarvis’ civic participation and political communication courses, Butler became a leader, raising the level of conversation for her peers.
“Students looked forward to hearing her points and learning from her questions,” Jarvis said. “I know that they learned more in those classes simply because Natalie was in them. I, and so many others, will miss her terribly when she graduates. We are a better university because she chose us.”
In addition to completing three majors, Butler has served in several Student Government roles, most recently as 2011-12 student body president. Butler also was selected to join several prestigious organizations, including the Friar Society, Orange Jackets, Phi Beta Kappa and the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.
“Milk this experience for everything you can,” Butler said. “These years have been transformational for me, and I know they can be for everyone. Take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to you.”
After she graduates on May 18, Butler will join the Texas Exes as a summer fellow. In the fall, she will work for the Boston Consulting Group in Dallas.
By Laura Byerley
College of Communication
McCombs School grad uses life-changing diagnosis to help others
On Jan. 19, 2005, Kristen Doyle’s dream life came crashing to a halt. The alumna of the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin was out for a jog, eager for a party happening the next day to celebrate her recent promotion at her law firm. But she noticed a sore throat and stopped by her doctor’s office.
Twelve hours later she was beginning chemotherapy for acute lymphocytic leukemia. Her condition was critical. Without treatment she would have died within one month. The promotion party was postponed indefinitely.
Doyle ultimately required a bone marrow transplant. (Her sister was the donor.) She spent several months recovering from surgery in a Dallas hospital before returning home to Austin and work full-time in September.
That year Doyle often heard the Tim McGraw song “Live Like You Were Dying” on the radio, but she says she never fully understood it. Unlike the lyrics, she didn’t want to sky dive or go bull-riding — she just wanted to return to her old life.
“I loved my life. I was happy with my work and my family,” Doyle says. “I never wanted to do all these crazy things. I wanted to get on with my life.”
For Doyle, that included finding a way to help cancer patients. So in 2009 she joined the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) as in-house attorney. CPRIT promotes cancer research and prevention programs and services, and one of its goals is to move research from the laboratory to real-world medicine, diagnostics and devices for patients.
CPRIT has only 20 employees, and Doyle views it as everyone’s job to push cancer research into the marketplace. With that in mind, she enrolled in the Master of Science in Technology Commercialization Program at the McCombs School of Business, a one-year degree that teaches students how to identify new technologies with potential and bring them to market.
Cancer treatments can reach what Doyle calls a “valley of death,” where early-stage ideas die without investment. She says that her new skills and knowledge help her structure CPRIT contracts, revenue-sharing terms, and deliverables in a way that can help projects make it through that valley.
“There are things that I learn in class on Friday and Saturday and immediately make use of at work on Monday morning,” Doyle says. “I’ve applied lessons on deal structure, market validation, intellectual property, risk mitigation and management.”
And for Doyle — now healthy and back to normal life — those lessons mean more lives like hers being saved. “UT Law School made me the lawyer that I am, but McCombs gave me an understanding of the complete commercialization process,” she says. “I use that to give the projects that CPRIT invests in the best chance of getting from research labs to patients.”
By Julie Thompson
McCombs School of Business
Adding It Up
UTeach grad applies life lessons from football field to math classroom
Two moments that symbolize the college experience of Luciano Martinez III, who’s graduating with a degree in mathematics. One was on the football field in front of tens of thousands of Longhorn fans. The other was in a small classroom at McCallum High School in north Austin.
It was one of the last home games of the year. The Longhorns were up 43-0 on the Kansas Jayhawks, and Martinez, who’d been a defensive lineman on the Longhorns’ scout team for four seasons, decided it was time for his “Rudy” moment.
“I turned to Coach, and said, ‘Can I get in for one play?’” remembers Martinez, who grew up in La Joya in South Texas.
Despite having never been on the field during a game, Martinez was familiar to the game-going faithful as the player on the sidelines who was always psyching up the crowd. When word went out that he was getting in the game, a chant started up.
“It started in the alumni section, and it spread from there. Martinez … Martinez … Martinez.”
The ball was hiked. Martinez slanted left. The Jayhawks zoned right. And they met in the middle.
“I got taken down, but I took two or three guys with me. The linebacker behind me made the tackle. The way I look at it is that I did my job so somebody else could do theirs.”
At roughly the same time that he walked on to the Longhorn team as a freshman, Martinez applied to join UTeach, the nationally recognized math and science teacher training program developed jointly by the College of Natural Sciences and the College of Education.
“The first thing was always my education,” he says. “That’s what my parents instilled in me. ‘Your education first.’ That’s what they said. And I was inspired to be a math teacher by my high school teacher, Mr. Steckler.”
For the past four years, through UTeach, he’s been earning his degree in mathematics while also spending increasing amounts of time with increasing responsibilities in the classroom. The program has culminated this year with Martinez teaching geometry four hours a day, five days a week to sophomores at McCallum High School.
For every one of those days, until a few weeks ago, Martinez had a mentor teacher in the classroom with him. Martinez was the primary teacher, but he had backup.
And then he didn’t. His mentor teacher was planning to be gone for a day, and he asked Martinez to substitute for him for the entire day.
“It was a learning experience,” says Martinez, “to be there from morning to afternoon, to handle the transition from one class to the next, to be in control of everything. And it went fantastic, especially the geometry class. I felt comfortable.”
Martinez says he’s not completely sure where he’ll go after graduation. He has a job offer to teach high school math in Corpus Christi and a few other likely offers outside Dallas and at home in the Rio Grande Valley. Wherever he lands, though, he knows what he wants to do.
“I want to teach my math and coach my defensive line.”
By Daniel Oppenheimer
College of Natural Sciences
Finding Her Passion
Natural Sciences grad takes holistic approach to life and medicine
When Shannon Allport worked as a camp counselor last summer at AIDS Foundation Houston’s Camp HOPE, her charge was to help the kids, who are HIV positive, feel as much like regular campers as possible. There were doctors on staff to take care of the health of the campers.
So Allport swam with the kids, who were between the ages of 7 and 15. She helped them make tie-dye T-shirts, ride horses and plan clever girly pranks on the neighboring boys’ cabin. And she loved that part of her job. She couldn’t quite keep away, though, from the medical side of things.
“I didn’t have to, but I asked to help the doctors,” says Allport, who is graduating with a degree in biology and will be attending the Perelman School of Medicine at The University of Pennsylvania in the fall. “I wanted to see the kinds of interactions they had with the kids.”
What she saw was a clear glimpse of the kind of medicine she wants to practice and the kind of system she wants to help build.
“It was so much more than handing medication over, running tests, taking care of the technical things,” she says. “You have to be able to calm the kids down and talk to them and be there for them because they are away from their parents for the week. Most of them did not come from very happy households, if they even had households at all. What I realized is that you have to look at the whole patient, and they have to understand that they can trust you to help them.”
That kind of holistic orientation, says Allport, has been at the root of almost everything she’s valued while in college. It’s what she’s tried to foster as a leader of a dizzying number of student organizations, including the Kappa Rho Pre-Medical Honor Society, Multicultural Students in Natural Sciences, the Student Involvement Council for the Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights and the President’s Student Advisory Council.
It’s the attitude she’s brought to her job as a senior student associate in the Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement. It’s what she’s practiced as a peer mentor and orientation adviser. It’s what compelled her to ensure that she was one of two undergraduates on the search committee for the new dean of the College of Natural Sciences, and why she made sure the student perspective was heard on President Bill Powers’ Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates. It’s why she’s helped expand the doctor shadowing opportunities for pre-med students. It’s what she was the beneficiary of as a freshman and sophomore in the Biology Scholars Program, an intensive enrichment program for biology majors from under-represented groups. And it’s what shapes her goals as she moves forward.
“Bringing people together, offering support, listening to what people need and trying to help them get past the obstacles in their way — that’s what’s most gratifying to me,” says Allport. “It’s what I’d like to be doing everyday as a doctor.”
By Daniel Oppenheimer
College of Natural Sciences
Law School graduates find positive power of peers
Parents may dread peer pressure, but School of Law students Meg Clifford and Christine Nishimura have discovered a way to make the middle school scourge work for good.
In the fall of 2009, Clifford and Nishimura began working with the director of the Law School’s Pro Bono program on an initiative to help divert middle school students in low-income neighborhoods —students vulnerable to entering “the school-to-prison pipeline” — onto a more productive trajectory.
The project harnesses the power of peer pressure in a positive way, allowing preteens to help address behavioral infractions of their peers in school through a peer court that is premised on restorative justice principles.
Youth Court at Webb Middle School in Austin enables sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to serve as prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors and judges in peer “trials” and recommend consequences that help address the underlying reason for the disciplinary offense. These middle school students are trained and assisted by students at the Law School, who help them frame their arguments, deliberate and propose consequences that rehabilitate the respondent and the community. Consequences including writing letters of apology and reflective essays and performing community service.
Although early results are primarily anecdotal, the program is working. And with the rise of zero-tolerance policies on campuses, the turning over of classroom discipline to police and the widespread practice of issuing Class C misdemeanor tickets inside school walls for behavior that wouldn’t be criminal outside of school, finding better ways to deal with disciplinary infractions is a topic of great importance to educators — and to Law School students with experience in the education system. (Clifford and Nishimura have another thing in common. They are both Teach for America alumnae.)
Clifford and Nishimura, who are graduating in May, say they are optimistic about the program’s future. Clifford is working to help expand Youth Court to other schools in Austin, building on the accolades that the program has already garnered. And Nishimura was awarded a prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowship to join the Education Issue Team at the Austin office of Disability Rights Texas, where she will work on behalf of minority special education students.
“Youth Court is a remarkable accomplishment,” said Tina Fernandez, director of the Law School’s Pro Bono program. “It’s an example of the kind of innovative thinking we need. The program itself has been tremendously beneficial for the students at Webb, as well as a terrific opportunity for law students. We’re proud of this program and how it helps restore, rather than punish, young people when they make mistakes.”
By Kirston Fortune
School of Law
What to read next:
- Tower shines orange this weekend: The Tower will be lighted May 19 and May 20 in celebration of the 129th spring commencement and the Class of 2012
- Look out, world!: With commencement festivities fast approaching, take a by-the-numbers infographic tour of the remarkable students in the Class of 2012
- Convocation speakers at The University of Texas at Austin represent diverse walks of life and roles in society
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