The power of higher education lies in its ability to open doors to new ideas, to drive innovation, and to change communities – and families – for the better. There is perhaps no greater testament to this power than commencement, when thousands of students realize their academic dreams and embark on new or changing careers.
On May 13, nearly 2,900 students will officially become UNLV graduates, joining the ranks of more than 110,000 alumni.
The Class of 2017 ranges in age from 19 to 85 and hails from 33 states and 50 foreign countries. The class is diverse – more than 50 percent racial/ethnic minority – and 84 percent of grads are Nevada residents.
An enduring commencement tradition is for the president 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, psychology and engineering; activists, educators, and survivors; an advocate for healthier communities; and a transportation expert working to make our roadways safer.
Casey Barber – B.S. in Public Health (Honors)
Casey Barber graduates with a bachelor of science degree in public health, a minor in biological sciences, and a 3.98 GPA. A member of the Honors College, she has earned University Honors as well as Research and Creative Honors.
Even though she is an undergraduate, Casey was one of the authors of an article recently published in the Journal of Community Health as well as first author on one of two other articles awaiting publication. She was a key participant in a large-scale research project, the Henderson Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes Program, in which researchers conducted fieldwork to evaluate homes for lead-based paint and other health and safety issues.
She also has found time to volunteer with several community organizations, including Rebuilding Together of Southern Nevada, which assists elderly, disabled, and veteran homeowners with minor but critical repairs to their homes.
On campus, she volunteered as a lab assistant while still in high school. She also has completed internships with the Nevada Department of Transportation as well as the Global Health Initiative in the School of Community Health Sciences. Somewhere along the way she found time to spend a semester studying in Ireland.
According to one nominator, "Casey exemplifies all the qualities that we hope to instill in our students; she is an exceptional scholar and human being with a passion for improving the quality of life for those around her."
In 2016 she was the UNLV recipient of the NSHE Regents’ Undergraduate Scholar Award. Next, she plans to pursue a master of public health degree in epidemiology and then a doctoral degree before finding a job in research or public service that allows her to continue her commitment to public health.
Kevin Briggs – B.S. in Mechanical Engineering
Kevin Briggs is the unanimous nominee for Outstanding Graduate from the Mechanical Engineering Department this year.
All the stats certainly look impressive: 4.0 GPA. Membership in Tau Beta Pi and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies. Dean’s Honor’s List. Millennium Scholarship winner. Marjorie and Victor Kunkel Scholarship winner. Participant in the BS-Ph.D. integrated program. Engineering Intern at Southwest Gas. Undergraduate Research Assistant in the intelligent structures and controls laboratory.
But his extraordinary achievements seem even more impressive when you find out he battles with Ulcerative Colitis, a health condition that kept him out of college for three years following high school.
Once he learned how to handle his medical condition, Kevin also found time to give back by mentoring at-risk youth. Through an outreach referral program with a local organization, Kevin guides students away from dropping out of school and helps them realize they too have the potential to become college graduates.
Brendan O’Toole, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Dr. Woosoon Yim, one of Kevin’s professors, and Alexa Krauss, Kevin’s fellow student, lauded him for being selfless, giving, caring, and determined.
Kevin plans to continue his education and research as a Ph.D. student this coming fall here at UNLV.
Briceida Hernandez-Toledo — B.A., Gender and Sexuality Studies
Whether inside or outside the classroom, Briceida Hernandez-Toledo is known as a leader. The first-generation college student graduates UNLV with a 3.9 GPA and her pick of two Ph.D. programs. She ultimately chose UCLA, where she will continue the research and activism that has earned her respect in gender, sexuality, and ethnic studies circles at UNLV and across the nation.
As a woman of color who hails from humble surroundings, Briceida has poured a personal passion into her work to advance human rights. She works tirelessly to create safe spaces for marginalized students, and, she says, to end violence in our nation, especially against Latinx, queer, and undocumented students.
Her advocacy has included reviving the campus's Chicano student organization MEChA, and working with the Center for Social Justice to develop programming and training that promote equity and inclusion.
The McNair scholar has received several highly competitive scholarships; presented at five national conferences; served as a teaching assistant for a core subject in her major; developed two research essays on university resources for undocumented and LGBT students; and co-authored a peer-reviewed journal publication. Her precocious passion and intellect has prompted peers to seek her guidance.
Put simply, Briceida's nominators said, "our university and our community will never be the same because of her contributions."
Hannah Kelley – B.A. in Secondary Education (Honors)
A teacher. A writer. A leader. Hannah Kelley is all of these things. A 2017 Fulbright grant recipient and a 2016 Harry S. Truman Scholar, Hannah is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education with a 3.99 GPA.
The Honors College student has said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher to give back to the community.
While at UNLV, the former Green Valley High School valedictorian worked full time to support herself while balancing extracurricular activities such as serving as Editor in Chief of UNLV's chapter of The Odyssey online news publication, as a workshop instructor at the Writer's Block Bookshop, and as a peer instructor and mentor for the Honor's College.
"Hannah is a dynamic student who will be working to change the world,” Honor's College Dean Marta Meana said. "Her passion for her discipline shines through in all that she does."
After graduating, Hannah will be moving to Norway to teach English as part of her Fulbright commitment. Hannah plans to go into educational policy after returning from Norway and teaching in the Clark County School District.
Janet King – Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction
Janet King graduates with a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction (educational technology) and a 3.7 GPA.
Janet has taught in higher education institutions across the nation for the past 30 years. She began by teaching sociology, but eventually chose to study psychology so that she could teach that as well.
Interested in computer technology for many years, she decided in 2011 to begin working toward a doctoral degree in educational technology here at UNLV. At the same time she continued to work in e-learning at our sister institution, CSN.
Then came what for many would have put an end to further studies. In 2015, on the same day she received that year’s Woman of Influence Award from CSN, she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. For someone who never had smoked nor used any tobacco product, this news was shocking. Within one month, she had surgery, followed by chemotherapy. She suspended her studies for a year, but then returned to UNLV.
Although she says that several times she has briefly considered throwing in the towel and stopping her studies, she always decides against that path. She had set the goal of earning a Ph.D. and was determined not to give up. So determined is she, in fact, that she recently told her doctors that she would be putting off her next surgery until June so that she could be here today to walk across this stage and pick up that hard-earned degree.
Janet says, “I just wanted to show my three children I could do it. If I could do it, they could do anything. I want them to be proud of me.”
Nemanja Novakovic — B.S. in Biochemistry & Biological Sciences (Honors)
The path to Nemanja Novakovic's graduation with a perfect 4.0 GPA was full of twists and turns.
He was a toddler when his family fled to Las Vegas from their native Sarajevo as war refugees. It was Nemanja's own diagnosis in middle school with diabetes that spurred his desire to pursue a future in the medical field. He thought he would do it at UCLA. But a UNLV college visit during his senior year of high school changed his path once more.
Today, Nemanja is graduating with a double major in biochemistry and biological sciences. The professors who nominated him say he "epitomizes what it means to be a high-achieving undergraduate."
He’s conducted HIV research in UNLV's Institute of Personalized Medicine lab, co-authored three peer-reviewed publications, received multiple prestigious Honors College and university scholarships plus the 2017 Regents' Scholar Award, and mentored younger Honors College students. That's on top of volunteering at a feral cat clinic and with the Ronald McDonald House, and participating in Relay for Life.
All this has moved the aspiring brain surgeon closer to his dream of medical school. He will be attending the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Meghan Pierce – Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology
Meghan Pierce is a true UNLV success story. This spring, she earns a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, but it won’t be the first time she walks across the Thomas & Mack Center stage to pick up a degree. Meghan has now earned four degrees from UNLV – a bachelor’s, two master’s, and today a Ph.D.
As an undergraduate, she balanced a 40-hour workweek with school and research, earning a psychology degree in 2009. As a master’s student in mental health counseling, she dedicated nearly 4,000 hours providing services to those suffering from trauma-related disorders and compulsive behavior disorders, including pathological gambling.
Her current research focuses on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where she examines the relationship between PTSD and high-risk behavior and is laying a foundation for effective treatment.
Meghan has made extraordinary contributions to service and leadership at UNLV, serving on 19 university committees this year alone. She is also active in the university’s Graduate and Professional Student Association and just finished her term as its president.
According to one nominator, “As an undergraduate, she functioned more as a graduate student; as a graduate, more as a post-doctoral fellow. I would not be at all surprised to one day find Meghan serving as president of a top research university.”
She appears well on her way. Meghan has published multiple research articles, taught classes at both UNLV and Nevada State College, and this fall will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University.
Naveen Veeramisti – Ph.D. in Civil Engineering
As Nevada’s roadways become a little safer in the years to come, we can thank Naveen Veeramisti. Naveen, who graduates with a Ph.D. and an impressive 3.58 GPA in Civil Engineering, currently performs traffic and operational studies throughout Nevada with CA Group, Inc.
For more than 10 years at UNLV – where he earned a master’s degree and now a Ph.D. in engineering while working as a research associate – Naveen has been involved in traffic safety research that can be used by transportation agencies to guide infrastructure improvements and policy decisions.
He has developed a system that can forecast crash patterns, helping decision makers anticipate safety performance and make our roadways safer before accidents happen.
“Traffic safety is an area where we can contribute to community as well as home,” said Veeramisti. “There are profound issues to address, and by identifying roadway segments and corridors with potential for engineering safety improvements, we can reduce fatalities and serious injuries and that is very motivating.”
Naveen has published six peer-reviewed journal articles and nine peer-reviewed conference papers, and he is working on a possible patent submission. His plans include teaching transportation engineering courses at UNLV.