Great Grads: Fall 2021

Each fall, thousands of University of North Texas students earn their degrees and become UNT alumni. Every one of them should be tremendously proud of everything they've accomplished in their time in Denton.

In celebration of our Fall 2021 graduates, below are the stories of a few of those freshly-minted alumni who overcame adversity and achieved great things on their way to becoming this semester's Great Grads.


Lauren Taylor

Lauren Taylor

Master's in Rehabilitation Counseling

Take a gander at a few of Lauren Taylor’s favorite activities, and it’s hard not to be impressed. She’s been a hockey player and a ballerina and a volunteer. She’s hunted and water skied and fished. She’s designed new ways of interacting with the world, including right here at UNT and around the state to make life more accessible (more on that in a minute).

Lauren was born with muscular dystrophy, requiring her to live life on wheels in a power chair. But she never lets anything hold her back, using her own experiences to make immeasurable strides as an advocate.

“I like to think of myself as a voice for people who aren’t necessarily ready to use theirs yet,” says Lauren, who previously earned a Bachelor of Science in rehabilitation studies and graduated with her Master of Science in rehabilitation counseling in August. “I take a lot of pride in educating others on the realities of living with a disability and fostering that safe space for questions and conversations.”

Lauren furthered the dialogue around disabilities as Ms. Wheelchair Texas 2019, a role in which she served as an advocate for Texans living with disabilities. Her platform centered on universal design — structures that can be used by everyone regardless of size, age or ability. For example, a ramp is universally designed because it can be used regardless of whether one is walking or rolling or both, while stairs are not because they are limited to only those who can walk.

“I fell in love with the idea of universal design — it just made so much sense,” Lauren says. “As Ms. Wheelchair Texas, I got to travel around Texas educating people not only about those with disabilities but also the importance and need for universal design.”

She also advocated for universal design closer to home, working with UNT’s Classroom Support Services and Facilities to design a desk that could be used in fixed-seating classrooms, where wheelchairs typically cannot fit. Lauren’s design includes a track that allows the desk to be adjustable for those who need more space to maneuver. She is currently working to have them installed in classrooms across campus.

But Lauren’s advocacy didn’t end there. With her Canine Companions service dog, Buchanan, by her side, she has presented to several UNT departments and undergraduate classes about disability, service dogs and universal design, and is a leading volunteer with the Dallas-based nonprofit To Be Like Me disability awareness program that breaks down barriers — including stereotypes and misconceptions, accessibility issues, violence and bullying, and workplace discrimination — and fosters compassion. The program provides school-aged kids, graduate students and special groups with in-person and online interactions led by people living with disabilities.

Last spring, Lauren completed a graduate internship with UNT WISE, a program that delivers information, continuing education and technical assistance in areas that affect the employment and inclusion of individuals with disabilities. She was instrumental in assisting with curriculum development, universal design and accessibility for transitioning the organization’s in-person programs online and assisted with teaching and implementing the programs.

Lauren also has worked with UNT ELEVAR, a brand new program for young adults with intellectual disabilities. And this fall, she became UNT’s ENGAGE coordinator, where she helps neurodivergent students adjust to and navigate college life. Lauren also was appointed as the disability representative to the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners to ensure accessibility of new and pre-existing architecture, and she’s now a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor-Associate under the supervision of Rachita Sharma, Ph.D., LPC-S, CRC and interim chair of UNT’s Department of Rehabilitation and Health Services.

Lauren’s time at UNT has been an incredible journey, she says, a place where she’s felt seen and understood. In the journey ahead, she wants to play a part in ensuring everyone with disabilities can feel the same.

“Kids are always taught, ‘Don’t look, don’t stare, it’s rude.’ They’re told, ‘Stay away,’” she says. “But we don’t want that. We want to be understood, and we want empathy. We want people to make our lives a little more integrated and accepted into their own so we can all share this world together.”


Zarrin Bashir

Zarrin Bashir

Mechanical and Energy Engineering

Zarrin Bashir has been coming to the UNT campus since she was a child and her mother was a student in the information technology program. Watching her mother study and seeing the campus inspired Zarrin to want to be a college student and to attend UNT herself.

She says both of her parents were role models and encouraged her to do well in school and pursue her dreams, which included being an engineer, something that she can trace back to going to work with her father as a child.

“He had these notebooks where he wrote notes – all these like big numbers and things I didn’t understand at all,” Zarrin says. “I thought it was so cool – like rocket science. That really got me into engineering.”

Zarrin says her love of art also helped decide her future career path. She excelled in math and science, but she loved to draw and paint. When she learned that there was a great deal of drawing involved with engineering, it confirmed her decision. There is a lot of creativity that’s necessary, she says.

“What I also like about mechanical engineering is finding solutions to big world problems,” she says. “I want to innovate products that will help people and to increase the quality of people’s lives around the world.”

Her senior design team created a water desalinization system for use in developing countries. That research led Zarrin to apply for graduate school. She was the team leader for the project – the only team led by a woman. While she has role models in her family, Zarrin says there aren’t as many female role models in engineering, especially not in mechanical engineering.

“I’m proud to say I’ll be the first woman to be a mechanical engineer in my whole family,” she says. “I hope to inspire future generations of women to embrace and pursue an education in STEM if they spark an interest in the field.”

Zarrin is active in the Society of Women Engineers and plans to continue that indefinitely through graduate school and into her career. She wants to help support future engineers just as she has been supported.

“Especially in engineering and STEM, I think it’s very important to have a support system,” she says. “I really like how SWE does that and encourages so many women. It helps women stay motivated to stay on their path and not be deterred from engineering just because they might not be the majority.”

Zarrin says motivation is important in engineering because the coursework can be very challenging. That motivation helped her earn 18 hours in the honors program, and she is set to graduate summa cum laude. Described by her department as having work ethic, energy, drive, people skills and excellent leadership skills, she has applied for several highly competitive master’s programs in mechanical engineering.

“My advice – especially for engineering students – is to find a healthy balance of your studies and social activities,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions and remember to embrace your creative side!”

She wants to use her creativity to be part of what she describes as “the era of innovation” through a position in research and development in industry. She is in an internship program with Nokia, where she is an electromechanical design trainee and will continue in that role this spring before starting graduate school in the fall. Zarrin believes the opportunities provided by UNT have set her up for success in graduate school and will one day lend to making her an industry leader.

“Being a student at UNT has given me amazing opportunities, as well as long-lasting mentorships and friendships,” Zarrin says. “Because of my memorable experience these past four years, I’ll always be a proud alumna who is grateful to have attended UNT.”


Joselin Orta

Joselin Orta

Marketing with Concentration in Professional Selling

When Joselin Orta came to the United States from Mexico at age 16, she had a dream to prove that everything is possible, and she had the drive to achieve it. What she didn’t have was the language.

“It was a frustrating moment. I couldn’t communicate with my teachers, with anyone. There was a point where I was like, ‘Ok, I need to learn English.’ Every word that I didn't understand, I would write it and translate it. I was reading books, listening to music, just trying to talk to my teachers.”

It took time, but with support from her teachers at Denton High School, Joselin overcame the language barrier to excel in AP and IB classes. When she graduated, she realized there was a critical need for increased support for students like her.

“I started volunteering with my teachers helping ESL students to learn algebra and English, with applying to college, applying for scholarships — just informing them about college and education opportunities.”

She continued to volunteer with the ESL program even after attending North Central Texas College in Corinth, where she worked in the Dean of Student Affairs office coordinating outreach efforts.

“We went to communities and schools and helped them with college applications, with FAFSA applications and scholarships,” Joselin says. “We were especially dedicated to helping first-generation college students in the Hispanic community.”

When she graduated from NCTC with her Associate of Arts, she applied to a handful of universities, but none felt like home until she visited UNT.

“When I came to UNT, they were always so friendly and so helpful, and I knew that the university had a lot of resources,” Joselin says. “I just wanted to be here.”

Some of the most important resources for Joselin were the Federal TRIO Programs, which are designed to help students overcome class, social and cultural barriers to higher education. The guidance and encouragement she received from her advisors in Student Support Services were instrumental to her success in navigating college as a first-generation student.

Joselin decided to pursue a Bachelors in Business Administration in marketing with a concentration in professional selling, a cohort-based degree program in the G. Brint Ryan College of Business culminating in an internship.

Under the guidance of senior lecturer Joy Houser, instructor Terrence Suber and professor Timothy Smith, Joselin continued to flourish.

“It's a wonderful support system,” she says. “They care. They impacted my life and prepared me with valuable skills to be successful in my career and personal life. They helped me tremendously to be who I am.”

The Professional Leadership Program was another vital resource for Joselin, particularly when classes went remote during the 2020-21 academic year. The program allows students to engage in corporate networking, employability development programs and a year-long industry professional mentoring relationship.

“They were so great to me during the pandemic. I look back and I'm like, thank God for this experience because it really helped me, especially my mentor, Les Ehrsam. He would reach out to me every week asking me how I was doing, what other things did I need,” she says.

In Fall 2021, Joselin joined G-Force, UNT’s student outreach initiative sponsored through the Texas Work-Study Mentorship Program, and became team lead at the Consulate-General of Mexico. As the representative of UNT, she leads her team in connecting the Hispanic and Mexican communities with information about educational resources.

“I have so many dreams,” she says. “I want to keep helping my community. Eventually, I want to go to law school to study immigration law.”

“I want to prove that women are able to do anything — especially Hispanic women.”

Joselin earned a scholarship for UNT’s Study Abroad program to Spain in 2020, but the pandemic delayed her plans. Now, with graduation on the horizon, she’ll finally be packing her bags for a post-graduation trip to Madrid and Barcelona.

She’s thrilled that her parents will be able to come from Mexico to watch her cross the stage, joining her two brothers and one of her sisters, who all live in Denton.

“It's so exciting to be the first one in my family to graduate,” she says. “I'm so grateful to my parents and my family for how they have supported me.”

Her advice for fellow first-generation students comes from her own journey. “Life is not going to be easy. We have to be determined, resilient and very committed to our dreams. Don't give up on your dreams just because one person says no. Knock on other doors until you find that yes because there are so many people that are willing to help you.”


Clay Moore

Clay Moore

Master's in Artificial Intelligence with Concentration in Machine Learning

When Clay Moore graduated from Richland Collegiate High School in Dallas in 2017, no one in his family had ever graduated from college. Three years later, he earned his bachelor’s in computer science from UNT.

Clay didn’t stop there. This December he will add a master’s degree in artificial intelligence from UNT, the only university to offer such a program in Texas, and along with that, experience in the research, development and commercialization of a tool to deliver COVID-19 vaccines.

Clay hadn’t planned to work in research. His first semester at UNT, in his Computing Foundations course with Joseph Helsing, he learned about the Center for Computational Epidemiology and Response Analysis (CeCERA), and its work on modeling the spread of diseases.

CeCERA developed RE-PLAN, a tool that was originally designed to be used by public health agencies to build response plans for anthrax or smallpox events. Something about the work there intrigued him.

“During that class we had a project to simulate disease spread through a population. For instance, if someone’s infected in a particular location grid, you know the people around them are going to get infected. It takes three days for them to get cured. You can run this whole simulation,” says Clay. “It sounded really cool.”

He wanted to learn more about it, so he contacted the researchers at CeCERA and was invited to join as a research assistant — he’s been working there since.

Marty O’Neill, his mentor and director of CeCERA, says Clay was fearless as an undergrad in the research lab. Surrounded by doctoral students, Clay went home every night and not only learned what he didn’t yet know, but also researched the best ways to solve problems the team would address in the lab the next day. He wanted to prove they didn’t make a mistake letting him join the team.

“I want to always make sure I’m adding value,” Clay says. “That was instilled in me by my dad. If I’m not the smartest in the room, I’m at least going to the be hardest working. Whatever you’re going to give me, I’m going to learn how to do it. My preferred strategy to learn is just to jump in.”

When the pandemic hit, RE-PLAN was extended into a COVID-19 vaccination tool. Juvare, a company that specializes in emergency preparedness and incident response, licensed the technology. Clay has been working closely with Juvare to integrate the system into the company’s platform.

Clay says he has been impressed by how collaborative and approachable all the faculty are in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. In addition to working at CeCERA, he also worked on a research project with Rodney Nielsen in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering about mild cognitive decline.

To gain more industry experience, last summer he did an internship at McKesson in data science related to the medical field. Much of his experience is related to health care, but he is open to careers in other areas.

Although he has considerable experience in software development, Clay is a member of UNT’s first graduating class in artificial intelligence and hopes to find a role in that field. He thinks the program gives him marketable skills and that his research experience will set him apart.

“I recommend to everyone around me to do something in a research lab,” says Clay. “I learned so much.”

Clay didn’t merely contribute in the lab by doing his homework, he also helped recruit and train other students. He hosted weekly meetings to help the other undergraduate and Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science students who worked in the lab. He presented PowerPoint lectures over Zoom about different topics including software and other aspects of the research project.

“I said ‘If you want to know more about a topic, come to me. Join these groups, and I’ll teach you a little bit about what I know,’” says Clay. “I find the best way to learn is to teach. It definitely solidified my own knowledge. It’s a research lab located in a university, so one of the big goals should be to learn, and that’s what I always wanted to be a part of.”


Noor Almayahi

Noor Almayahi

Ecology

Whether it is her art or work in food sovereignty and ecology, all of Noor Almayahi’s interests take root in nature.

“Working with the land is really important. I feel like a lot of disconnection and miseducation people have with nature comes from the fact that they are separating themselves from it. Interacting with the land reminds you that you are nature,” says Noor, who used to plant gardens with her mom growing up.

Named a member of the Emerald Eagle Scholars Program, Noor’s decision to come to UNT was mostly based on its affordability. However, when she graduates this month as the first in her family with a bachelor’s degree, she will not only be debt free, but will be taking away experiences affecting real change in a community and the environment.

At first, Noor enrolled in the College of Visual Arts and Design to study metalsmithing and jewelry. She enjoyed the hands-on instruction and opportunities to hone her art skills. She says professors such as Ana Lopez struck a perfect balance of giving guidance and offering space for individuality in her art. Lopez even helped her find a scholarship to exhibit her art at the Yuma Symposium in Arizona.

“She was really monumental. She ensured that any opportunities I was interested in and willing to do the work for, she would do anything that she could do to support me,” Noor says.

Noor’s growing interest in intersectional environmentalism drew her away from art into UNT’s ecology program, where she learned from influential faculty members such as Ana Hoeinghaus, Jaime Jimenez and Jaime Baxter-Slye. She also relished any instruction that brought her outside, such as field assignments at the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area and Denton Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center.

Transferring into ecology, Noor worried about obtaining enough experience required by employers after graduation. That changed when she became facilitator for the UNT Community Garden, a student-led project funded by the We Mean Green Fund. In the garden, Noor had the opportunity to dig into food sovereignty, the type of environmental work she hopes to continue after graduation.

“I feel very privileged to have this position because I already have a year and a half of work experience in the exact field that I’m interested in,” Noor says. “For the jobs I’m applying for right now, I have some professional experience for essentially every single aspect that they are asking for thanks to my role with the UNT Community Garden.”

As facilitator, Noor helped streamline the process for donating the garden’s harvests to the UNT Food Pantry presented by Kroger, so that more fresh foods could make it into the hands of students who are in need. In the last year, the garden has donated more than 100 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to the pantry.

Additionally, she made education and community building a priority by hosting events such as Pick Your Own Produce and meal planning workshops, allowing students to literally put their hands in the dirt to see where their food comes from and learn ways to prepare it. The work has not only been resumé-building, but fulfilling in how she has learned to respond to a community’s needs and feed her own soul.

“Tending to the land has helped me develop that relationship with the ground that I walk on and feel that it is home and that I have responsibility and obligation over protecting it,” Noor says.


Deken Taylor

Deken Taylor

Master's in Journalism

Deken Taylor has a list of goals he wants to reach before he’s 30.

He would love to work as a publicist in the music industry. He also wants to make an album and publish a book, and perhaps get into voice acting or podcasting. And he’d love to go to culinary school.

He’s on his way. Deken will graduate with a master’s degree from the Mayborn School of Journalism, where he was involved in almost every aspect of its programs. He completed his studies while creating content for his own YouTube channel, “Deken’s World,” that includes cooking segments, lifestyle vlogs, and song covers, and he produced a Christmas EP.

“I just believe in good vibes, positive energy — you got to have it,” he says.

Deken grew up in the East Texas town of Pittsburg. He has been writing since he was a kid, when he penned Marvel-esque stories called “Navel and Friends” about a woman with superpowers who fights evil. (“I didn’t know that ‘navel’ meant belly button,” he says.) He also watched WWE with his family, and he was fascinated by the managers who advised the wrestlers on how to play the matches and negotiate contracts.

“I want to help somebody with their image,” he says. “I didn’t know what PR was at the time.”

A first-generation student, he chose UNT when he fell in love with the campus while on a tour. And he found his home in the Mayborn. “It’s been my family,” he says. “There’s UNT. Then there’s Mayborn.”

He started off as a student assistant worker in the dean’s office, answering phone calls and fielding questions from students. He worked in the Swoop ad agency and AGENZ PR, a public relations agency focusing on Generation Z. When the pandemic hit, and he was unsure about job prospects, he decided to pursue a graduate degree. He assisted with the school’s website, worked as a research assistant and served as a graduate ambassador.

“The Mayborn has been my life,” he says. “I loved every second of it.”

He especially appreciated former dean and professor Dorothy Bland, who advocated for first-generation students; lecturer Kim Keller for helping him understand how public relations works; senior lecturer Rebecca Poynter, his boss at AGENZ; associate professor Sara Champlin, who got him to like research; and associate professor Koji Fuse, the quantitative data expert who “taught me things I hate.”

Deken also earned an Emerald Eagles Scholarship, several Mayborn Scholarships including the prestigious Graduate Scholarship and took advantage of other resources around campus.

He advises freshmen to get involved, especially with student organizations.

“Try to take on leadership roles, it will really help you,” he says. “You’re held responsible for something. You are a leader for something. You have to build upon that.”


Meg Van De Walle

Meg Van De Walle

Master's in Recreation, Event and Sport Management

Juggling school, work and everything life throws at you can be a challenge, but through the Outdoor Pursuits Center at UNT’s Pohl Recreation Center, Meg Van De Walle found an encouraging community where she could relieve stress and help others do the same.

Growing up next to a lake and wooded area in Conroe, Meg spent many hours in nature as a kid. However, before coming to UNT, she had never heard about the concept of an outdoor recreation center.

During her first semester of freshman year, Meg learned about the resources and opportunities available through the program and fell “head over heels” for the Outdoor Pursuits Center.

“I was really pleased to find a community of students who prioritized getting outside,” Meg says. “It really complemented all the textbook information I was getting with my ecology degree as well and put me in an environment of people who had very different interests. We were from all different types of majors, but our core connectedness was a love of the outdoors.”

Meg started as a student attendant with the center and worked her way up to other positions, eventually leading trips for day hikes, paddling and more outdoor fun as she continued her study.

“I went from being a student who was really nervous and super shy when I came to campus and then slowly was working up to be a student supervisor, a trip leader and manager,” Meg says. “I was supported the whole way and pushed by other students and my boss Kyle Tilton.”

When a graduate assistantship position opened as she was completing her bachelor’s degree, Meg figured it was a sign she was meant to stay and continue her studies, this time in recreation, event and sport management. As a graduate assistant, she’s created the same kind of experiences that were so inspiring and impactful for her as an undergraduate student.

“I love being a part of something that’s bigger than me and providing that sanctuary for students to feel safe and help them relieve stress,” Meg says. “The spirit around here is like having a really tight family. Our program is really focused on development of the student. We look out for each other, while also pushing each other to grow as people and as professionals.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person activities in Spring 2020, Meg turned to the virtual space to continue engaging the community. With her infectious enthusiasm and positive spirit, she began filming short educational videos about whatever she was curious about that week, whether it be wildflowers, poison ivy or three-toed box turtles. The “Moments with Meg” series developed a following online and even caught the eye of some local teachers who used the videos to educate their kids during remote instruction.

Meg has recently collaborated with other groups across campus to organize events, including a winter fire pit night complete with s’mores and hot chocolate for the Multicultural Center. In October, Meg worked with the Pride Alliance to take a small group of students on a camping trip to Lake Ray Roberts State Park.

After earning her master’s degree this month, Meg plans to work with the Outdoor Pursuits Center for another semester, then the world is full of possibilities.

She’s not sure exactly what her future holds, but she hopes to do something in her career that’s environmentally focused and helps inspire conservation in some way. Being able to interact with people and encourage them to learn more about the natural world around them is something she wants to continue.

“I could see myself in a lot of different areas and I’m really excited about whatever comes next.”


Sarah Harper

Sarah Harper

Master’s in Art Education with Art Museum Education Graduate Academic Certificate

Growing up near Hot Springs, Arkansas, home of The Gangster Museum of America where she works, Sarah Harper heard many colorful stories from the city’s past. It started her on the path to her academic interests today.

Her road took a few turns after high school when, following 9/11, she dropped out of college and enlisted in the Army. On active duty with the National Guard, she earned her Combat Medical Badge and worked in field and hospital settings in Iraq, and she traces her love of teaching to training military first responders.

However, transitioning back to civilian life was difficult, to the point that she lived out of her car for a while. Returning to school to finish her bachelor’s degree after more than 15 years wasn’t easy either, but it’s where her interests converged.

In an undergraduate art history course at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, Sarah learned that before the invention of pre-mixed paints, artists were expected to know enough chemistry to compound their own pigments. That began her fascination with the intersection of art, history and science.

“Those pigments are a reflection of the overall knowledge and technologies of the time and place that created them, and they barely scratch the surface of all the symbols and cultural knowledge that would have been understood at the time,” she says. “I realized that restricting what we can learn about art to what only a 21st-century person might take away from it is restricting opportunities for the public to learn, and that stuck with me.”

As she was completing her undergraduate degree, her mentor Timothy Garth — who earned his doctorate in art education at UNT — encouraged her to look into his alma mater as a place that would support her goal to become a researcher in the field. She still carries with her a book he recommended, written by Nadine Kalin, now her UNT advisor and mentor.

Through UNT’s museum education certificate program with her second committee member, Laura Evans, Sarah has interned with the Heritage Village at Chestnut Square in McKinney, a living history museum with homes from as early as the 1840s. She has taught visitors — many of them children — soap making, botanical illustration, jam making, fabric dyeing, sewing and other craft traditions. The innovative curriculum she created to bridge the gap between art and the cultures that inspired it won her the 2021 Excellence in Historical Education Award from the Collin County Historical Commission.

Sarah wears clothing she either created or sourced through replica companies and seamstresses, made from authentic materials. Whether she’s churning butter or spending the day in a corset, or both, it’s given her some insights.

“For me, it's helped open up a kind of empathy about what women's lives were like,” she says. “I try to imagine myself if I were this person with this body in this time and this place — and for being a person of, let’s just say, indeterminate racial background in Arkansas or Texas, that would have been tricky.”

For her thesis, she created a new methodology that includes closely examining objects, learning what it’s like to live and work with them, and communicating that through narrative.

“We may not all have a detailed understanding of the Civil War period, but we can understand it must be a very different experience to only have one outfit. And if you want to get that clean, you have to boil it over a fire as you're poking it with a stick for a couple of hours,” she says. “As human beings, even very small human beings, we can all understand story and things we experience with our bodies.”

Helping her along the way at UNT have been the lifelong friends and community she found at Student Veteran Services. And Kalin and Evans saw her through a very challenging Spring 2020.

Her advice to other students is to “never give up,” which she’s taken to heart not only in finishing her bachelor’s and adding an M.A., but also in planning to move on to a doctoral program, expand her research and become a professor.

She remembers her first thoughts of teaching, back when she was training military medical responders.

“I thought if I can give people something that can help them save lives, maybe I can give them something that can change lives too, even if that's their own life and their own thoughts and how they perceive the world,” she says. “And that's what I hope I'm doing with art education. That's what I'm trying my very best to do.”


Xaria Hicks

Xaria Hicks

Psychology

Xaria Hicks first became interested in psychology during a general psychology class she took her junior year of high school. Around the same time, she started working at a preschool, which sparked her curiosity in child development, propelling her toward a psychology degree with a goal of working with children.

“Once I started working with children, I became more intrigued with psychology, and I was able to get a feel of how I want to apply it in my career,” Xaria says.

Xaria entered UNT as a junior due to credits she received at El Centro Community College while in high school. It was during her first year at UNT that she discovered the McNair Scholars Scholarship after it was brought to her attention by Sharon Rae Jenkins, professor of psychology who taught a multicultural course in which Xaria was enrolled. The McNair scholarship helps fund students who plan on pursuing a Ph.D. and provides them with a mentor to research alongside. After discussing the scholarship with family and friends, Xaria decided to apply.

“My mentor, Brenda Barrio, is really the best mentor ever,” she says. “She’s super mindful of your well-being rather than focusing solely your academic being, and she’s really supportive of my goals. Within our research, she is always considering what I want to study and allows me to get as much experience as I can, preparing me for graduate school.”

In addition to her studies and research, Xaria also works with UNT ELEVAR (Empower, Learn, enVision, Advance, Rise), a four-year program for students with intellectual disabilities who are pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Xaria assists students with homework and issues in their personal life and helps acclimate them to university life.

“Working with UNT ELEVAR helped me greatly in my psychology degree,” Xaria says. “I was solely focused on children and didn’t have much experience with young adults, and so I gained experience of working with individuals with intellectual disabilities and learned what it means to support them.”

While at UNT, Xaria has received immense support from Barrio, Jenkins and her supervisor, Brandi Levingston. These mentors, as well as the community of Denton, have been her favorite things during her time at UNT.

And she has advice for incoming students about how to make the most of their time on campus.

“Live in the present, but think for the future,” says Xaria, who will pursue a master’s in counseling at UNT. “If we put so much energy into what’s going to happen next, we miss out.”


Taylor Jay

Taylor Jay

Linguistics

When Taylor Jay graduated from high school, she didn't initially have plans to attend college. But, trying to navigate her next steps after a battle with depression, she struggled to find the motivation to continue her full-time educational journey.

She visited family members across the country for several years and would attend introductory college courses when she could. Then, while enrolled at a junior college in Northern California, she received news that her mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Taylor did everything she could to be closer to her mom, and in 2019, she enrolled as a transfer student at UNT.

Having been to three other colleges prior to attending UNT, Taylor began to feel that college might not be for her. However, that quickly changed when she took her first class. UNT was the first "big" school she had ever attended and reviewing degree options was awe-inspiring. Taylor juggled a full course load with 10-hour, round trip visits to see her mom each weekend. It wasn’t easy, but knowing that her mom’s goal was to live long enough to see her walk the stage, Taylor pressed on.

"For the first time, I believed that I could do anything I wanted to do," Taylor says.

Choosing linguistics as her major sparked something inside Taylor.

"People always say that work doesn't feel like work when you are doing something you love, and for the first time, I completely understood," she says.

One professor who made an impact during this time was Sarah Crowder, a principal lecturer in linguistics.

"Professor Crowder does an excellent job of keeping her course material relevant, relatable and applicable to potential jobs," Taylor says.

All seemed to be heading in the right direction for Taylor, and then COVID hit. The feeling of isolation during quarantine elevated her depression symptoms, at times making her feel especially low. To help navigate these trying times, Taylor utilized UNT's mental health services. Shifting toward a virtual format was difficult, but she joined virtual study groups with her classmates, eventually leading to great friendships.

Taylor lost her mom to cancer this July.

While her mom won't see her walk across the stage, Taylor has been determined to make it there.

"Losing my mother, in addition to my fight with depression, has made school a great challenge, but I am proud of how far I have come and how hard I have fought," she says.

With everyone cheering her on toward graduation, Taylor continued to push through her schedule and mental health issues.

"I would not have made it to graduation without the encouragement and support of my professors and family,” says Taylor, who plans to attend graduate school to pursue a career in forensic linguistics. “I will always be thankful for my time at UNT."


Anjali Sebastian

Anjali Sebastian

Marketing

Anjali Sebastian is a songwriter, a dancer, a choreographer, an actor, a creative marketer and a published poet.

Now she can add college graduate to her list.

“I came to UNT when I was 16. I’m 20 now,” Anjali says. “Those few years gave me a chance to grow in my own way. I always felt like there was something more that I needed to be doing throughout high school.”

At 15, Anjali decided to take on an accelerated program to finish high school in three months and attend UNT early.

“I have always been someone who thought education is very self-oriented,” Anjali says. “It's very self-paced, very self-driven. I was longing for that sooner. I was looking for a place where self-driven education is expected because the process is way more rewarding this way, in my opinion.”

She says getting her degree was the framework for everything she wants to do in terms of the creative world and business. After she graduates, Anjali will move to Los Angeles to pursue a songwriting career.

“I didn't really understand all the moving parts in business,” Anjali says. “To have to think about business from a certain lens, and the creative industry from a certain lens, every day for the past three and a half years was so helpful for me. While there's no play-by-play framework out there for the entertainment industry, seeing through the lens that I gained at UNT has really bolstered my ability to be a consistently courageous creative and decision-maker.”

When Anjali visited campus at 16, she felt like UNT was a home filled with underdogs, which was a feeling she didn’t get on other campuses she visited.

“I didn't even explore other options,” Anjali says. “I was like, ‘Okay, there are thriving creative and mentor communities here.’ I realized this is where I'm going to grow the most at this phase of my life.”

Anjali also credits her mother’s influence, noting that she graduated from UNT in the 90s and even worked on campus for a while.

“She was aware of the early option for me,” Anjali says. “She knew that was what I personally needed because everyone is different.

In addition to her classes and creative work, Anjali was a dancer for UNT and TWU’s Indian/South Asian dance team, Chingaari.

“It was a joy to bring together our love of dance and our shared culture on these college campuses,” she says.

Anjali hopes future students will remember, “Every moment of your life is preparation for all you are called to be and do. Approach life that way and you will move from a place of freedom, gratitude and abundance, as opposed to places of fear and scarcity. And how you move matters!”

She said UNT has offered opportunities to meet amazing people in a variety of creative spaces, from a work-study position in the College of Music to dance and yoga classes, university events and even riding the A Train from Carrollton her first year of classes.

“If you see something on campus that sparks a seed of interest, pursue it,” Anjali says. “I remember I saw one of those little event posters, and it was an evening with Common. I was like, ‘He’s one of my biggest musical inspirations. I’m going to go to it.’ I ended up being able to show him my lyrics. He read straight out of my lyrics book, and he's the reason I have a published poetry book. That all came sprouted from just the most simple, ordinary observation. I internalized a sign while walking down the sidewalk."

Anjali’s journey was influenced by many people at UNT, especially in the College of Business.

“Strategic brand management with Dr. Francisco Guzman was my favorite class. He made marketing so fun, so easy to love,” Anjali says. “Dean Marilyn Wiley has been one of the top influences on my undergraduate career and as a person. She's so motherly, as well as such a force, so it's nice to see that combination in a professional and to see that in a place of education.”

She also enjoyed working with Associate Dean Audhesh Paswan, who Anjali said invited her into his office as a freshman while she was waiting to meet with another professor.

“He started talking to me about branding,” Anjali says. “He pulled out a piece of paper. He was like, ‘Let's explore this from this simple perspective.’ I hadn't had someone say that. It can be as simple as asking the right questions.”

Overall, Anjali is thankful for her time at UNT and excited for what lies ahead.

“It's just been so nourishing. I am overflowing with gratitude for my entire experience at UNT and the journey that will continue to unravel because of my time here. It's been so healing and awakening. It takes a village and I've been blessed to be in this particular village.”


Denise Winchester

Denise Winchester

Human Resources

Most students go straight to college after high school, earn a degree and start working. They may even get married and have children.

But Denise Winchester chose a different path.

After completing high school, Denis, a southern Louisiana native, got married and had two children, becoming a stay-at-home mom—a role she had for 13 years. Denise’s husband was in the military, so the family moved quite a bit. As time went on, she reached a point where she wanted to do something for herself and decided to go for her college degree.

Denise began her studies at UNT as a non-traditional student, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in human resources. With her years of experience in customer service, she wanted to continue helping others — specifically those in the workplace.

“I am a service-oriented person,” she says. “But I wanted to do something different… I wanted to do something where I could still be of service and help my colleagues, and that just brought me straight into human resources.”

Throughout her college career, Denise has enjoyed participating in her in-person classes and being a member of UNT SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management).

She was determined worked hard on her studies, even through physical health issues. For 15 years, Denise suffered chronic pain due to a bulging disc. It didn’t become serious until Labor Day 2020 when she couldn’t walk, and it led to her undergoing emergency surgery on her back for a herniated disc pressing onto her spinal cord.

From December 2020 to June 2021, Denise remained on bedrest until her second back surgery. While she still faces some physical challenges post-surgery, she has managed to remain positive even during her biggest lows.

She gave presentations virtually, completed her assignments on time and worked with professors to make sure she could get her work done. With the obstacles she has faced, Denise is the true definition of a fighter.

After earning her human resources degree, she hopes to work specialize in talent acquisition and slowly transition to compliance. In a few years, she plans to continue her education in graduate school and work toward her master’s.

“Even though I didn’t go the traditional route, it’s OK because I’m in a great place right now. I’m confident and I have experience working in the field. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, I’m in a place where I can excel moving forward.”


Alex Ortiz

Alex Ortiz

Social Work

Sgt. Manuel “Alex” Ortiz and a fellow teammate were walking down a narrow path in Afghanistan around 2010, clearing out the compounds.

He saw a flash, then heard a muffled sound. His colleague, James, had stepped on a mine that exploded.

“For me, it felt like an eternity to gather my bearings to what was going on,” Alex says.

He saw his friend lying on the ground. A medic was administering first aid. When James was put into a helicopter, Alex realized what was happening.

“Everything seemed distorted and surreal,” he says. “You never think it's going to happen to you.”

He sustained injuries for which he was awarded two Purple Hearts. One of the injuries was to his right leg and back, and he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Eventually, he was medically discharged from the military due to his injuries.

And it put him on a new path.

His experiences inspired him to earn his bachelor’s degree in social work, where he earned praise from his professors during his internship for his work with refugees. He now plans to pursue his Master of Social Work through the UNT-TWU joint program with the eventual goal of opening a clinic that serves veterans.

Looking back, the road was extremely tough after the explosion.

Alex spent a week at the hospital doing physical therapy. After he was released, a case worker with the Veterans Administration checked up on him every week. (His colleague in Afghanistan is a double leg amputee who is now living in New Braunfels.)

At the time, Alex wasn’t sure what he would do for a career. He had planned to serve in the military for 20 years. He had previously attended college but dropped out—he wasn’t disciplined. He considered joining the police force, but his wife Amy suggested going back to school.

“She said, ‘What do you want to do?’” he says. “I knew I wanted to help people.”

Specifically, he wants to help his fellow veterans. Many of them don’t have the support at home and have died by suicide.

“The question is why,” he says. “What could have been done to prevent that?”

Alex, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, says he could have easily fallen behind academically or turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms since he didn’t have a strong support system back then. The Student Veteran Services office at UNT helped him when he came to campus, which can be a different experience for an older student. He also completed an internship with the Supervised Independent Living Program from Catholic Charities Fort Worth, in which he guided foster kids who were refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East in their new country while not letting them forget their homeland’s culture.

“The impact for me was keeping their story alive. They would tell me a story, and I’ll tell my children about it,” says Alex, who is father to Luna Luz, 1; Zara, 5; and Maya, 10.

Working with refugees and veterans provides him a unique perspective.

“My experience in the war has really opened my eyes and my heart and viewing the collapse of Afghanistan unfold on the television has made me reassess how I felt about serving. I can tell you now that I didn't serve the U.S. government but rather, I served the people of Afghanistan,” he says. “Both veterans and refugees share similarities; both have experienced lifelong trauma that will stay with them, impacting their relationships and emotions forever. This is something that I share with them, and in telling my story of how I overcame the lows, and now with a good support system and endless encouragement, I believe I can offer them something they have longed for — hope.”


Kristen Miguel

Kristen Miguel

Biology

Kristen Miguel’s decision to pursue her degree came after dealing with a tragic loss in her family. It was then that she decided not to wait any longer. It was time to go after her dreams.

Kristen came to UNT to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry.

“Science has always fascinated me — I got this crazy idea that I wanted to become a doctor, so that’s the dream I’ve been chasing since I started at UNT,” says Kristen, who has been heavily involved with the chemistry department as a peer-led team learning leader and in the chemistry education research lab.

Along with being a student, she also is a wife and a mother to two boys. During the pandemic, she became a teacher to her children when the world went into lockdown.

The challenges that Kristen faced during her college career have made her more resilient, and she has enjoyed every step of her journey.

“I learned how much grit I have, and the things that I thought would break me I made it through,” she says. “You shouldn’t ever limit yourself to the things you think are the easiest or aren’t difficult.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in biology, Kristen hopes to further her education either in a medical or physician’s assistant program and start working. With balancing schoolwork and devoting time to her family, she has made it through even the toughest obstacles and hopes to show others that hard work really does pays off.

“I want to show my children that you can follow your dreams and that anything is possible at any age,” she says.

Kristen also wants to be an example to other UNT students that anyone can achieve their hopes and goals no matter how old they are or what place they’re at in life.

“As we’re coming out of a pandemic, and we all kind of survived this together, remember that you’re enough,” she says. “Your dreams are possible and just keep going, one day at a time.”


Tramy Tran

Tramy Tran

Doctorate in Educational Leadership

Tramy Tran has always put education at the top of her priorities — not only for herself, but for her students.

While finishing her Ph.D. as an elementary school principal during COVID-19, it became even more important to her to show that she was prioritizing education in all facets of her life.

“Education has always been a number one focus for me,” Tramy says. “It was something instilled in me by my parents, and I have worked on being an example to my students and my son. It's taken me eight years, and there were times I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I can't do this,’ especially during the last two years in the midst of trying to lead learning and teaching during a global pandemic. Many times, I thought, ‘I don't need it, I don't need it.’ But I kept pushing myself and telling myself that I can't quit because that's not a good example for my students, my colleagues, and my son.”

She started her doctoral program in educational leadership in 2013 at the urging of her then-superintendent, who had also been part of the program.

“Her superintendent said, ‘The doctorate is highest degree one can obtain in the culmination of education. It is the biggest example that we have to show our dedication to learning to our students,’” Tramy says. “That's absolutely right. Eight years later, here I am. Finally.”

While she had hoped her parents would be able to see her walk across the stage to receive her degree, her mother died in May 2020.

“It was not COVID related, but because of COVID, I was able to spend the last month and a half with her,” Tramy says. “I was able to work remotely and I was thankful for that. I'm not sure my dad will be able to travel to attend the commencement ceremony, but he is proud. He has four daughters — all of us have higher ed degrees — and are first-generation college graduates. My dad always wanted a doctor in the family, and now he has a doctor of some sort.”

While Wylie, Texas, is now home, Tramy was born in Vietnam. Her parents emigrated to California when she was a child in the 1970s.

“I am a first-generation American citizen,” Tramy says. “My parents gave me the opportunity to live and grow up in the United States. It's important for me to be a role model to my students, as they will be future leaders of our country. I want them to know the privileges we have in this wonderful country and anything is possible with hard work and determination.”

She says going back to school was a way to continue to improve herself, to be better and to improve teaching and learning on her campus and within her district.

“In some ways, this year is a little bit more heart wrenching than last year,” she says. “We had to respond to the need of providing schooling for all of our learners. Each campus housed a virtual school for students whose parents desired from them to participate from home, and then we also had students who were learning in the building. We had to devise safety protocols to mitigate the spreading of the virus, which affected many aspects of how teaching and learning occurred on campus. It was very important for us to figure out how we make learning equitable for these two groups of students and families.”

Tramy’s dissertation focused on the development of in-service principals to find ways to continue education for school leaders.

“Our schools are changing. Students’ needs are changing,” Tramy says. “Society's needs are changing, and the development of in-service principals has not always been something that was focused on. We always think of growing teachers because they have the most direct impact to students. I was at the point in my career eight years ago where I felt ineffective as a school leader, so that was when I decided, ‘I need to go back and learn some more to improve myself.’”

She credits professors Dr. Frances van Tassell, Dr. Miriam Ezzani, and Dr. Jane Huffman for helping her succeed, noting that Dr. van Tassell carefully read through assignments and gave feedback that improved her students. Tramy says from the proposal through the final dissertation, Dr. van Tassell was there, offering advice, proofreading and sometimes even making dinner while they worked.

“I anticipate her continuing to be part of my life,” Tramy says. “She's an amazing woman and I strive to be like her in many ways.”

Tramy’s students are already proud of her example, although she says some have asked if she’ll be their new school nurse, since she’s a doctor now.

“I want them to know you can always continue to learn,” Tramy says. “There are always ways to continue to improve yourself, because the better you are, the better you make the world you live in. There are people out there to support you — wonderful teachers, professors, moms, dads, coaches. They don't have to be formally educated themselves to be able to help you learn in life. Yes, I earned my doctorate, but that's not the end of it. I still want to learn and grow.”