On May 12, more than 3,000 students will join the ranks of UNLV alumni when they cross the Thomas & Mack Center stage and officially become graduates.
The class of 2018 hails from 37 states and 57 foreign countries, many are the first in their family to graduate from college, and more than half – 56 percent – are from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
On Saturday, they’ll join more than 117,000 UNLV graduates who have witnessed first-hand the power of higher education to improve communities, create new ideas, and change life trajectories – from the individual to the entire family tree.
An enduring 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, educators, and change agents, an aspiring physician, and a combat veteran turned business leader.
Sabrina Mae Antonio
With a 3.98 GPA, Sabrina Mae Antonio is graduating with two bachelor's degrees — in biological sciences and psychology — a minor in neuroscience, and a dream to become a doctor.
It's been a long road for Sabrina, who was uncertain she could stay in the United States after moving from the Philippines at age 7. Her family relied on the success of their business caring for elderly people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia to stay in the country legally. Seeing the struggle of patients' and their loved ones inspired Sabrina to pursue medicine.
At UNLV, Sabrina earned several scholarships, served as a Bennett Honors Mentor, and snagged a coveted undergrad research assistant spot in professor Nora Caberoy's lab. She spent weekends and holidays investigating retinal degeneration, hearing loss, and adult obesity. Her Honors College thesis led us one step closer to understanding how the three conditions develop and may one day lead to a cure.
In her free time, Sabrina trains undergrads and assists with graduate student projects; has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, Relay for Life, Opportunity Village, and on a medical mission in Mexico; and she helped create a food assistance program at a federally qualified healthcare center. Sabrina received 10 interview invites at prestigious medical schools this past year. But she's chosen to take her talents just across town to UNLV’s Shadow Lane campus, where she'll start classes at UNLV's School of Medicine this summer.
Ph.D. in Criminal Justice
Breanna Boppre is the first student to graduate from UNLV’s doctoral program in criminology and criminal justice. And she set the bar high, graduating with an impressive 3.98 GPA to go along with a stellar research record.
Earning a doctoral degree is never easy, but for someone who faced the challenges that life presented Bree, it is a especially noteworthy. She was raised by her great-grandparents as both of her parents struggled with substance abuse. For most of Bree’s years growing up, her father was in and out of prison for drug-related offenses. Bree visited often and what she observed had a profound impact on her life.
Instead of letting this difficult situation hold her back, she chose to let it propel her forward, deciding to study the criminal justice field, and do what she could to improve the United States correctional system through the use of scientifically driven policies and programs. As a result of working closely with her mentor and current UNLV professor Emily Salisbury, Bree strives to work with correctional practitioners to improve interventions for justice-involved women.
To date, she’s authored seven peer-reviewed research articles — serving as first author on four of them. She’s also contributed several handbook chapters and encyclopedia entries. Bree has delivered more than 20 presentations at national and international conferences, and won numerous awards.
Professor Terry Miethe describes her as “the best graduate student I have ever worked with in over 25 years of teaching in multiple Ph.D. programs across the country.”
It’s important to know that Bree is not her family’s only success story. Her father, who has been out of prison since 2009, currently is pursuing a bachelor’s degree at UNR.
M.A. in Communication Studies
Darrian Carroll’s research on race, rhetoric and public address as a master’s student rivals that of established faculty in the field.
His work seamlessly pulls together contemporary and classic examples of public discourse to explore intersections between race and rhetoric, posing important and timely questions for current public and scholarly discussions on race in America.
Darrian has presented six papers at multiple academic conferences, one of which was chosen as the conference’s best paper; he was lauded by multiple nominators as a natural, engaging teacher in and out of the classroom; and he earned an impressive 3.97 GPA on his way to being named the communication studies department’s outstanding graduate student.
A top collegiate debater as an undergraduate at the University of North Texas, Darrian has also devoted countless hours as an assistant coach for UNLV’s nationally ranked debate team. His mentorship was integral to the team’s top five national ranking during the regular season and a trip to the Elite Eight of the National Debate Tournament in March.
According to one nominator, “Darrian lifts those around him through sheer enthusiasm and joy for his work. We have all been blessed by his time in our program.”
Darrian will join the Ph.D. program in communication studies at the University of Maryland this fall.
Ph.D. in Anthropology
To say Katelyn DiBenedetto is popular around UNLV might be an understatement.
Katelyn, who is receiving her Ph.D. in Anthropology with a 4.0 GPA, received 10 nominations to be an outstanding graduate from UNLV professors and administrators.
Beyond her stellar academic record, including research on land-use on the island of Cyprus 12,000 years ago, Katelyn has played a vital role in helping UNLV achieve Top Tier status as a research university.
As a Top Tier Graduate Assistant, she helped create five successful Grad Rebel Programs designed to help graduate students integrate into the UNLV community, hone research skills, and enhance mentoring. Her accomplishments also include a role in establishing the Graduate Student Success Institute, which helped obtain stipend increases for graduate assistants, advocating for graduate education in Washington D.C., and working on a committee which led to the creation of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.
Katelyn also helped create and manage graduate student academic certifications in teaching, mentorship, and communication, and she participated in campus planning for the 2016 Presidential Debate at UNLV.
Oh, and by the way, she juggled all that while working as a part-time instructor teaching Anthropology 101, being an active member of UNLV’s Phi Kappa Phi chapter, and serving as a UNLV Presidential Student Ambassador.
Katelyn’s Ph.D. advisor, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Alan Simmons, said “Without a doubt, she is one of the most exceptional graduate students our department has ever had, and has a bright future ahead of her. She represents a new generation of very creative scholars.”
Ph.D. in Chemistry
Eshani Gandhi-Lee graduates with a doctoral degree in chemistry with a research focus in chemistry education.
According to professor MaryKay Orgill, Eshani is a living example of UNLV’s motto of “Different, Daring, Diverse.” She is different in both her field of study and her research choice. She is a woman, a group typically underrepresented in the sciences. And, she chose to focus her research on chemistry education — a relatively new field. In fact, UNLV is one of the few universities in the western U.S. to offer such a doctoral degree.
She chose chemistry education because she wants to help others like herself develop ability in — and a passion for — the sciences. Eshani has been daring in her efforts to make a difference on campus and in the Southern Nevada community. Among those efforts was participating in a Nevada System of Higher Education project aimed at increasing the number of students from high-poverty schools in the state who go on to attend college.
Somehow, she also found time to write about the research, resulting in three published manuscripts — including two for which she is the first author. Her commitment to diversity is showcased in her dissertation focusing on making chemistry education at the college level more equitable for English language learners. For that dissertation she received the highly competitive President’s UNLV Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
Eshani will join the faculty at Penn State University this fall as an assistant professor of chemistry.
Lee Business School student Casey Moore's college career is a study in numbers.
8: Number of years serving in the Army; where he served with a meritorious service record as a campaigned-combat veteran.
3: Number of separate degrees he's graduating with today in the areas of finance, management, and information systems
3.78: Grade Point Average
5: Consecutive number of times on the dean's honor list
80 to 120: Number of hours a week he dedicates to studies; juggling two separate internships with the U.S. Department of Commerce and a private equity firm while mentoring students in research activities, tutoring, and helping to organize and coordinate hackathons.
Casey also participated in or led groups in a number of extracurricular activities including trading and investing competitions (where he served as a captain on a Trading & Derivatives team), the UNLV Real Estate Club, the Rebel Veterans Club, the Risk Management Association, and Beta Gamma Sigma and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies.
Last fall, Casey founded the UNLV-FinTech Group, an organization that provides students of all academic disciplines with free training in coding, analytics, and speaking seminars to industry professionals. The group is fast becoming one of the largest student-run organizations at the Lee Business School with nearly 100 members.
While Casey is a non-traditional student, his nominators say that he has in traditional Rebel fashion succeeded in changing the lives of everyone he encountered in just four short years.
M.S. in Mechanical Engineering
Zakai Olsen is a rising star in robotics research, but his fascination with the tech-heavy field didn’t begin in a campus engineering lab. As a teen, Zakai competed in the FIRST Lego League, a national robotics competition designed to encourage young people to consider careers in STEM fields. Mission accomplished.
After completing his undergraduate mechanical engineering degree from UNLV with a 3.96 GPA, Zakai upped the ante for his master’s degree and graduates with an impressive 4.0 GPA.
Distinguished Professor Kwang Kim, who nominated Zakai, said, “He is the best undergraduate and master’s student with whom I have worked during my academic career.”
Zakai's research is focused on advancing techniques for 3D-printed soft robotics, particularly 3D-modeling of biological structures. He’s presented his work at professional conferences; he’s written two published journal articles (with four pending) and a book chapter; and he’s participated in research funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, the latter of which included a summer working with peers at a university in South Korea.
He’ll continue his Ph.D. work at UNLV in the fall.
Yana Ryjova moved to the U.S. from Russia as a toddler and is the first in her family to attend college. A member of the Honors College, she graduates with a 3.98 GPA in psychology and a lengthy list of accomplishments.
She’s worked in four psychology research labs at UNLV, including the Neuropsychology Research Program, the Metacognition, Motivation and Advanced Learning Technologies Lab, the Psychophysiology of Emotion and Personality Lab, and the Baby and Child Rebel Lab, where she became the head research assistant as an undergraduate.
Soon, Yana was designing her own study examining cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes of first-generation college students and academically under-represented ethnic minority students, for which she won a mini-grant and undergraduate research award.
Yana was also a peer mentor for the College of Liberal Arts and the Honors College, a Hixson-Lied Scholar, and a student instructor in the Honors Orientation Seminar.
In her spare time, when Yana isn’t twisting and bending her mind, she is literally twisting and bending her body as a contortionist and freelance circus performer to help pay her way through school.
Next year, Yana will begin pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology after earning a full ride scholarship to the University of Southern California. She plans to focus her research on peer relationships between kids revolving around bullying and friendships and how that affects mental health.