On May 14, more than 2,700 UNLV students will officially become graduates, each with a unique story of perseverance and triumph that they’ll carry with them across the Thomas & Mack Center stage and into their chosen careers.
The Class of 2016 hails from 42 states and 53 countries, but approximately 84 percent are Nevada residents. The oldest grad is 72, and the youngest is 18. Since 1964, UNLV has awarded more than 120,000 degrees.
UNLV has a commencement tradition to honor a few exceptional students who embody the academic, research, and community impact of the graduating class.
This spring’s honorees include rising researchers in science and engineering, world-class competitive debaters and orators, teacher-advocates for young people and those in need, and a combat veteran with incredible business acumen.
Sara Beth Brooks – B.A. in Communication Studies
There’s no debating Sara Beth Brooks’ place as one of UNLV’s outstanding graduates. The communication studies graduate and core member of UNLV’s nationally ranked debate team is a powerhouse both in the classroom and in competition. Brooks, who graduates with an impressive 3.62 GPA, is regarded as one of the top intercollegiate policy debaters in the nation. Thanks in part to her efforts, UNLV debate made Rebel history this spring by reaching the elimination rounds of the National Debate Tournament.
Academically, her research has been presented at a national communications conference and earned a top award at the university’s fall undergraduate research showcase. Brooks, who also served as attorney general for UNLV’s student government, oversaw the approval of funds to provide accessible technology on campus regardless of a student's physical ability. Her efforts will see UNLV go from one accessible computer lab on campus to 10.
Active both on campus and in the community, Brooks was invited by a national advocacy group last fall to the White House to speak as part of Bisexual Awareness Week. Her debate coach said, “Sara’s drive to not just succeed, but to also make a material difference in the experience of others at UNLV, is unmatched.”
Hongbin Jin – Ph.D. in Public Health
Hongbin “Fred” Jin first earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from China but after years of treating patients he realized his passion for research and made his way to UNLV’s School of Community Health Sciences. He graduates with a Ph.D. in Public Health and an impressive 3.98 GPA.
Jin’s research involves analyzing disparities in cancer incidence and survival among minority populations in the United States. He has been published 11 times in peer-reviewed journals, including the prestigious International Journal of Cancer. His goal is to use high-quality research to improve cancer outcomes in all populations.
Jin has even taken this goal outside of his own research and truly embodies the mission of public health. He gives presentations to local high school students to encourage them to pursue careers in the health sciences, and he was part of the reintroduction of the Pollen Monitoring Program, a collaborative effort to track daily pollen and mold counts throughout the Las Vegas Valley.
Larmaya Kilgore — B.S. in Education: Human Services
It's a surprise to no one that Larmaya "CeCe" Kilgore, a national speech and debate champion since high school, has continued to build on her success while at UNLV. Kilgore, a first-generation college student on the dean's list since freshman year, has the resume of an advanced professional. The Las Vegas native has maintained a 3.84 GPA while juggling jobs and internships where she developed programs, and recruited and trained others to serve incarcerated and other at-risk youth through programs with the city of Las Vegas, local municipal courts' alternative sentencing & education department, and the department of juvenile justice.
At school, the multi-scholarship recipient is a member of several academic and civic student groups. She has built a reputation among classmates and at national conferences as a talented orator, especially regarding issues of race and gender. After graduation, Kilgore has a job lined up working to address the needs of at-risk children through youth development, education, and outreach within the social service and justice sphere.
Alex Lopez – B.S. in Finance; Minor in Economics
It was only a few years ago when Alex Lopez was leading a U.S. Marine unit in providing security support to the U.S. Embassy in Libya following the Benghazi attacks. Four years later he’s won numerous awards and scholarships and is graduating from UNLV with degrees in Finance and Economics from the Lee Business School.
Alex has maximized every opportunity at UNLV. He was chief economist for UNLV’s student-led Rebel Investment Group, was a lead team member for a global student research challenge, coordinated the Lee Business School’s Medallion Program, and interned for the UFC. He also served as a member of the UNLV Student Veterans Affairs Committee, where he helped present U.S. Sen. Harry Reid with initiatives to support veterans in the Las Vegas community. As one faculty member said, “Alex is one of our best and brightest students and we know he will make an incredibly valuable contribution to the world around him.”
Erica Marti – Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering
Erica Marti is a three-time UNLV graduate, having previously earned master’s degrees in education and in civil engineering prior to earning a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering.
Her research focuses on water reuse — a topic of major importance as pristine water sources dwindle. Marti studies water and wastewater treatment with an interest in chemicals that are used to disinfect drinking water. She’s working to prevent the formation of harmful byproducts and how to safely remove them to create clean water.
So far, she has published two peer-reviewed journal papers and co-authored three more. She also has presented her work at 12 professional meetings. In 2014, a National Science Foundation grant allowed her to do research in Australia. In 2015, she was selected to attend a Nobel Prize Laureate meeting in Germany. She has received numerous scholarships and awards, including the Regents Graduate Scholar Award and the UNLV Presidential Award.
But Erica isn’t all about her research. The former Teach for America educator volunteers with Habitat for Humanity and continues to teach local students about water, wastewater treatment, and environmental engineering.
Diana Pena – B.S. in Biological Sciences; Honors
Diana Peña’s combination of academic aptitude, research excellence, and civic engagement has set the bar high for future UNLV undergraduates.
Peña is a first-generation college student, biology and psychology double major, and member of UNLV’s Honors College whose research in the School of Life Sciences has earned recognition both on campus and beyond. Through tadpoles, Peña is exploring how insulin – when introduced at the right time – can promote tissue regeneration and repair, work that could one day positively impact human health. She received a 2014 award and 2015 fellowship through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program for her work, and she was among the first to be honored with UNLV’s Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award.
When the rising researcher is not in the lab or in class, she volunteers as a tutor for UNLV Buddies and mentors young at-risk students on the ins and outs of higher education. Peña, who graduates with an impressive 3.71 GPA, is the recipient of numerous university and national scholarships, including the UNLV Rebel Achievement Scholarship and the Ronald McDonald House Charities Alumni Scholarship.
Margie Toves — M.A. in Social Work
As Margie Toves leaves UNLV with a 3.95 GPA and master's degree in social work, she will continue her work in Las Vegas to help others turn tragedy into triumph. She has a personal connection: Her time in counseling following her parents' divorce when she was 10 helped shape her interest in wanting to make things better for others.
In pursuit of that dream, Toves moved to Nevada from Guam to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology from Nevada State College, graduating magna cum laude. At UNLV, she has continued to excel, balancing rigorous coursework with practicum hours and part-time case manager work at Seven Hills Hospital, a grad assistant job with the School of Social Work, and her role as a Women's Center CARE Advocate.
Toves was selected for special training with President Obama's "Now Is the Time" initiative to increase mental health care access for children and better train practitioners, and she was among the first group of graduate student cohorts to receive a mental health worker pipeline grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. After graduation, Toves will continue to pursue full licensure as a Licensed Social Worker and eventually a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.
Kaiyang Wu – M.A. in Applied Economics
The many members of the UNLV community who nominated Kaiyang Wu as an Outstanding Graduate describe him as an exceptionally dedicated student who excels in research and will settle for little less than perfection in his work.
Wu, who graduates with a master’s in economics, is lead author of an article about food consumption by Chinese tourists that has been accepted for publication in the impactful Journal of Business Research.
He also is described as someone whose presence and contributions in class and in meetings motivate others to succeed. His motivational talents have taken him to the stage, as he was a featured speaker at TEDxUNLV this spring and a UNLV commencement speaker in 2014 after earning a master’s degree in hotel administration and graduate certificate in management information systems.
And he has accomplished all this — as well as achieved a 3.86 GPA — in a foreign language — English. This fall, he will be enrolling in the prestigious doctoral program in marketing at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.