More than 3,000 students will officially become UNLV alumni this weekend, as grads cross the Thomas & Mack Center stage during the university’s spring commencement.
Each of UNLV’s graduates have a unique story of success and perseverance, completing their bachelor’s or advanced degrees during a global pandemic when, for many, the prospect of even attending class became monumentally more difficult then they’d ever dreamed when they began their studies.
The Class of 2022 gives a new meaning to the often used phrase of completing a “hard earned” degree. The class hails from 40 states and 56 foreign countries, many are the first in their family to graduate from college, and well over half – 62% – are from ethnically diverse backgrounds. This year’s class ranges in age from 19 to 77, with the average age of 27.
Since 1964, UNLV has awarded more than 160,000 degrees.
An enduring UNLV commencement tradition is for the president to honor a select group of outstanding graduates who exemplify the academic, research, and community impact of the graduating class.
This spring’s honorees include rising researchers and innovators, artists and activists, business and public policy trailblazers – all of whom are Rebels making a difference here at home and around the world.
UNLV undergraduate and aspiring public health physician Emily Carter has several passions: medicine, research, women’s leadership in science and healthcare, and promoting health literacy. But her primary goal? To positively impact her native Las Vegas community.
Graduating with a biology degree concentrated on integrative physiology, a minor in public health, and a 3.65 GPA, nominators say Emily has shown a commitment to the community at multiple levels, a robust set of research skills, and a level of professionalism and resilience that is typically only seen in Ph.D. students.
As a student researcher with the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, Emily researched statewide traffic injuries and fatalities and created a social media campaign and educational materials for lawmakers considering child passenger safety legislation. She’s also an undergraduate researcher with Rutgers Department of Obstetrics, where she investigates gender bias, stigma, and post-operative outcomes between male and female surgeons.
Her passion has gained notice from observers outside academia, too. In May 2019, Emily was recognized by Sen. Jacky Rosen as a Nevada Woman in STEM. Her work also earned her a spot among the National Education for Women’s Leadership Nevada’s class of 2019.
After completing the program, Emily was inspired to found and serve as president of the UNLV American Medical Women’s Association Premedical Branch. She’s also a member of UNLV’s Scientista chapter, which provides resources to encourage young girls and women to pursue STEM education. Through the program, Emily brought more than 100 5th- through 10th-graders, mainly girls of color, to UNLV where many encountered a college campus and STEM workshops for the first time. Emily used data gleaned from the event to complete her honors thesis on minority middle school girls’ perceptions of STEM fields. Emily has also contributed a chapter to a book on global health and healthcare disparities, presented at national conferences, and participated in science and policy research programs at Yale and Johns Hopkins.
She also finds time to volunteer with Elaine Wynn Palliative Care, Susan G. Komen Nevada, Nathan Adelson Hospice, Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Nevada HOSA Future Health Professionals.
And she plans to stay busy. Emily’s next step is a master’s in public health and her MD.
If dictionaries included photographs of people who embodied the definitions, nominators say former CSUN Senate President and public policy researcher Olivia Cheche would easily earn the spot for the word “leadership.”
A UNLV Honors College student who has spent her undergraduate career in service to her peers, university, and community, Olivia graduates with a perfect 4.0 GPA, a bachelor’s degree in political science, and a minor in Brooking Public Policy.
In the classroom, Olivia made waves with her honor’s thesis, which explored how the Black Lives Matter movement affects individuals’ level of participation in politics. Her work led to a Best Podium Talk Presentation Award and rave reviews from scholars at a national political science conference.
Around campus, Olivia is known as a vocal advocate for the UNLV student body. In addition to serving as an Office of Admissions orientation leader, she was tapped as a keynote speaker for the 2020 welcome ceremony for new students. During her time as CSUN student government senate president, she played a central role in keeping the organization on track during the pandemic via virtual meetings and supported a statewide push by students for a pass/fail grading option.
The Las Vegas native has fostered her passion for community advocacy through her work as a co-author to the Data Hub, a collaboration between Brookings Mountain West and The Lincy Institute that provides digital access to critical regional data. Working closely with leading policy scholars in Washington, D.C., Olivia has produced over three dozen fact sheets on topics ranging from criminal justice and education to issues impacting Nevada’s children and public health landscape.
Her tireless efforts have been recognized both locally and nationally. In 2020, Olivia was selected for a national three-day conference on public policy and social justice by the Harvard Kennedy School, and this summer she will represent Nevada as a delegate at the Western Governors’ Leadership Institute. Olivia was also one of only a handful of undergrads inducted into UNLV’s Student Affairs Hall of Fame in 2021 for dedication, service, and leadership at the university level.
Olivia will soon begin a full-time position researching and writing about federal higher education policy for New America, a D.C.-based public policy think tank.
MFA in Art
Fawn Douglas’ artistry, research, and tireless commitment to community organizing and activism exemplify her belief that art can truly change the world – one art center, one exhibition, and one community at a time. This spring, she becomes a two-time UNLV graduate, following a 2015 bachelor’s degree by earning an MFA in Art with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
Douglas is an Indigenous American and enrolled member of the Las Vegas Paiute tribe who is dedicated to working at the intersections of art, activism, community, education, culture, identity, place, and sovereignty. She is co-founder of Nuwu Art + Activism Studios in Las Vegas, a former tribal councilwoman, and curator of the recent Ah’-Wah-Nee exhibition at UNLV – the first-ever Indigenous feminism focused art exhibition on UNLV’s campus, the traditional homelands of the Southern Paiute people.
Through her work, Douglas tells stories to remember the past and ensure the important stories of Indigenous peoples are heard both now and into the future. During her time at UNLV, Douglas has served as a member of the Native American Student Association, the American Indian Alliance, and the Native American Alumni Club. She also instructs art students as a graduate assistant, served as a community organizer for environmental conservation of Standing Rock, Gold Butte National Monument, and the Desert National Wildlife refuge, and she’s working as a Cultural Engagement Specialist for immersive art company Meow Wolf.
In early 2020, prior to the pandemic, Douglas co-founded the Womxn of Color Arts Festival, which presented art, workshops, discussion panels and performances. The project has evolved into an ongoing exhibition series in partnership with UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art.
As one nominator shared, “Fawn has been an arts leader and a generous and inspiring change-maker, paving the way for our Native students and so many.”
George William Kajjumba
Ph.D. in Civil & Environmental Engineering
George William Kajjumba’s childhood in Uganda included a daily trek for water. One year, a seasonal drought dried up a local spring, forcing him and his family to move longer distances – miles – in search of drinking water.
That childhood experience inspired Kajjumba on his current path, where he’s now engineering solutions to global water scarcity. This spring, he graduates with a Ph.D. and a perfect 4.0 GPA in Civil & Environment Engineering.
Already an accomplished researcher with 12 publications and numerous conference presentations under his belt, Kajjumba is working to find solutions that bridge water scarcity and the food crisis. He’s developing new materials to treat wastewater, recovering the nutrients that have been lost and finding ways to incorporate them back into food production. He also uses his research and business skills to push for improved healthcare in his native Uganda and in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Last summer, Kajjumba was invited to attend the prestigious 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, where he exchanged ideas with Nobel Laureates and some of the world's brightest young scientists. He was also selected as one of only 19 participants for the 2021 Black Trailblazers in Engineering fellows program, a new initiative by Purdue University.
In addition to his research, Kajjumba has volunteered for K-12 STEM and community organizations, and he serves as a mentor for undergraduate students interested in pursuing graduate school. His next step? Advancing his water treatment research as a postdoctoral scholar with the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
B.A. in Psychology (Honors)
As the famous saying goes: "Health is wealth." It's a motto that Ava Platt has kept top of mind as the yoga instructor and budding neuroscientist graduates with a bachelor's degree in psychology and an impressive 4.0 GPA.
Ava, a UNLV Honors College student, is on a quest to help people, especially those with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, live a healthy lifestyle — and she's already built a strong resume.
In summer 2018, she traveled to Israel for an internship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to research the relationship between time perception, attention, and brain waves. As a research assistant and technician in two UNLV labs renowned for brain health and neuroscience studies, Ava delved into research that made international headlines for strengthening the link between Type II diabetes and memory deficits associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In 2020, she was awarded the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship for her accomplishments in the genetic, cellular, and molecular research realm.
As if she weren't busy enough inside the classroom, Ava founded NURO, the Neuroscience Undergraduate Research Organization, and served as the group's president. And she didn't forget her classroom lessons about the links between mental and physical health; Ava also taught yoga at the Student Wellness and Recreation Center.
These days she's busy packing her bags. Ava's next stop is Rhode Island, where she’ll pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience through the Brown University-National Institutes of Health graduate partnership program. Her work there will focus on computational neuroscience and investigate neural circuitry, memory, behavior, and motor learning.
B.A. in Accounting, minor in Global Entrepreneurship (Honors)
Since she played with makeup as a girl, D’Nasia Thompson has dreamed one day of working in the beauty industry. Choosing to major in accounting might seem like an unusual pathway, but as the saying goes, there’s more than one shade of rouge.
During the pandemic, D’Nasia found herself searching LinkedIn profiles for a contact at mega cosmetics company L’Oreal. Considering the global shutdown, it might seem lucky for a Las Vegas student to win an internship for the Paris-based global beauty brand.
A member of the Honors College, where she also served as Honors Student Council president, D’Nasia’s journey has been less about luck and more about working hard. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in accounting, D’Nasia will earn a minor in global entrepreneurship upon graduating from UNLV with a near perfect 3.976 GPA. She earned her minor as part of the Global Entrepreneurship Experience, which will help her realize another long-term goal.
Driven by her passion for fashion, D’Nasia wants to develop an adaptive clothing business that helps teenagers with physical disabilities.
And her dreams don’t stop there. As a Black woman, D’Nasia has noticed a lack of resources available for minority women in the business world. She plans on helping change that by developing an ecosystem where minority female business leaders can access funding and the mentorships needed to get their entrepreneurial ideas started.
D’Nasia has been recognized for her academic and leadership skills as a two-time Lee Scholar winner and as the 2022 Audre Lorde Leadership Award winner, which annually recognizes a Black student leader at UNLV. She also won first place in the National Institute of Management Accountants Case Competition and placed second in the Nevada Gold Mines Case Competition in 2021. D’Nasia also has helped Las Vegans in need, including helping organize a “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” homelessness awareness event in collaboration with the Las Vegas Rescue Mission and the Eta Chi chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. In 2021, she also participated in the Harvard Business School Summer Venture in Management program, an intensive one-week educational program for rising college seniors.
Following graduation, D’Nasia will rejoin L’Oreal at their New York City offices in the company’s Finance Management Trainee Program. She then plans to pursue her master’s in business administration as she works to achieve her goals of helping minority entrepreneurs and differently abled individuals.