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5 UNLV Stories of Hope and Good Cheer

From a home for homeless students to inspiring the next generation of health crusaders — these worthy causes will warm your heart during the holidays.

Campus News  |  Dec 21, 2016  |  By UNLV News Center

In this season of gratitude, it does our hearts good to reflect on the people and programs that make us proud to be part of the UNLV community. Here are five feel-good stories from 2016 that remind us why UNLV is worth celebrating and supporting.

Raising Hope

Lots of kids leave home to come to college. Theresa Butler came to college to find a home.

Theresa ButlerHomeless throughout high school, and struggling with a mother facing drug addiction, Butler is one of six freshmen who form the inaugural class of the UNLV HOPE Scholars Program. She now lives on campus and is driven to achieve her goal of one day earning a medical degree and opening a clinic.

“I got help getting into UNLV without worrying about where I was going to live, and whether or not I would be kicked out of my house the next day,” says Butler, who had been couch-surfing with friends and struggling to find a safe place to stay.

“HOPE relieved that stress so I could focus on my dreams, and focus on the things that matter.”

A new partnership between UNLV, the Clark County School District Title I HOPE Program, and Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, the UNLV HOPE Scholars Program helps unaccompanied homeless youth get into college — and once in, helps them to succeed.  The program provides housing, as well as academic and financial support, including a $7,500 scholarship.

There are approximately 12,000 unaccompanied and/or homeless youth in Clark County, which includes about 700 of whom are high school seniors.

“Programs like this are a vital part of giving students a hand up, not a handout while supporting their dreams of a college education,” says Richard Clark. “Our vision is that this program will help break the cycle of poverty and open doors for many more students in the future.”

Understanding Experience

A lot of immigrant families could use a helping hand. But for many, asking for help simply isn’t an option. Claudia Mejia grew up in an immigrant family in Texas; her Mexican parents wore their resiliency with pride.

Claudia Mejia“In many cultures, people are taught that asking for help is a last resort,” Mejia says. “I want to show that you don’t have to wait until situations are unbearable. Voicing concerns and accepting help from others can lead to major change.”

“I hope that my personal experience will let people know I do understand,” she adds. “I was there.”

Today, Mejia is a post-doctoral fellow at The PRACTICE, where she works with Spanish-speaking children and families to help them share their feelings, frustrations, and fears. The PRACTICE (an acronym for Partnership for Research, Assessment, Counseling, Therapy and Innovative Clinical Education) is an on-campus clinic that is a collaboration between the colleges of Education and Liberal Arts.

Mejia’s fellowship is funded by a gift from the Eleanor Kagi Foundation, A Lynn M. Bennett Legacy. It is one of two post-doctoral fellowships created to address acute mental health challenges in our community. Stephanie McLaughlin, the other Kagi Foundation fellow, is focusing on expanding group psychotherapy services in order to provide better access to care and support.

 In 2014, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services ranked mental health as the highest need in the state, outranking family support, food security, and education. Despite tremendous demand, Nevada has only 13 psychologists per 100,000 residents.

“The Kagi Foundation fellows provide invaluable services to people who have nowhere else to turn,” says Michelle Paul, director of The PRACTICE and associate director of clinical training in UNLV’s Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program.

“Every child, every parent, every individual who they help has a family, and an even wider circle of colleagues whose wellbeing is improved.”

Inspired Adventurer

Dr. Mary Guinan, a trailblazing public health expert, helped save tens of thousands of people from polio, HIV, and other communicable diseases. Inspired by the race to the moon announced by President Kennedy in 1961, Guinan applied and was accepted to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. This was only possible because a donor had specified that the university should admit women into the all-male program — and offered to help with scholarships.

Dr. Mary GuinanGuinan recalls, “This was one of the greatest thrills of my life.”

To know Guinan at all is to be humbled by the enormity of her appreciation for the scholarship. The gift made a lasting impression in a life that has never been short on once-in-a-lifetime thrills, from riding an elephant across the back country of India to traveling in war-torn Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Guinan compiled these and other stories in her new book, Adventures of a Female Medical Detective In Pursuit of Smallpox and AIDS.

Inspired by the impact of her that scholarship many years ago,  Guinan is now paying it forward to students and faculty at the UNLV School of Community Health Sciences, which she helped establish as the founding dean. Her estate plan includes a gift to fund the school’s first endowed professorship, the Mary Guinan Endowed Professor of Epidemiology. She is also funding stipends for students doing field work in public health and is donating proceeds from her book to the school.

Boundless Possibilities

Ernesto Zamora Ramos saw his first computer when he was seven. It was in his elementary school classroom in Cuba. The size of a large TV, and with no internet access, the computer was slow and outdated.  But to him and his classmates, it was something new and amazing.

“Other kids were happy playing a few games. But I wanted to know how it worked,” he reflects.

Ernesto Zamora RamosThat curiosity drove Zamora Ramos many years later to UNLV, where today he is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering.

“Through high school [in Cuba], I had very limited access to hands-on computer experience. So my knowledge was all theoretical.”

That knowledge is now being applied to researching how image and signal processing can be advanced through artificial intelligence. Working with professor Evangelos Yfantis and other collaborators, Zamora Ramos is exploring ways to increase the efficiency of solar panels. Using data collected through a camera, weather instruments, and a computer, he is designing software that detects when panels will require cleaning, before their energy output declines.

When Zamora Ramos received his B.S. from UNLV in 2013 with a 4.0 GPA, he was accepted into graduate programs at UC Berkley and the University of Southern California. But he opted to stay at UNLV. “UNLV supported me in many ways, including very generous scholarships. I will always be grateful to the donors who are allowing me to make the most of my education,” he says.

Zamora Ramos is a recipient of the Gilman and Bartlett Scholarship, the Wolzinger Family Research Scholarship, the Victor and Marjorie Kunkel Scholarship, and the Ralph S. Dippner Memorial Scholarship. As an undergraduate, he received support from the Konami Gaming, Inc. Scholarship for Computer Science.

“I love America for giving me opportunities that used to seem beyond my reach,” he said. “When I arrived in the U.S. with my parents, we had to start from zero. 

“Now I have boundless possibilities to build a bright future for myself, my family, and my community. And I have UNLV and its supporters to thank for making it happen.”

A Daughter’s Legacy

“My mother wasn’t there for many of the big events of my life,” recalls UNLV sophomore Carolyn Osborne. “But she would be super happy to know about my scholarship!”

Carolyn OsborneOsborne is a recipient of the Samantha Drobkin Scholarship. The award was established by Bill and Erminia Drobkin in memory of their daughter — a spirited girl who succumbed to cancer at age 13. Osborne understands this type of sorrow; she lost her mother to cancer while she was in high school.

Osborne’s loss didn’t derail her high school success. She was valedictorian of her class at Boulder City High School and is striving for perfect grades as she explores majors at UNLV. An avid Agatha Christie fan with an interest in law and human behavior, she is considering a major in criminal justice.

The Drobkin Scholarship offers financial support to students who have battled cancer or who have a family member who has. “Getting this scholarship is a huge honor,” Osborne says, “especially knowing that it comes from someone who actually understands what I went through.”