Resilience. It’s a term that’s been thrown around a lot the past 14 months, but few words better capture the Spring 2021 Graduating Class.
This class has endured the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic that has dominated daily life for us all – in our work, our health, and certainly our education. For more than a year, they’ve adapted to a new academic reality, and they’ve excelled.
More than 3,300 students will join the ranks of UNLV alumni this spring, each one proving that when faced with adversity, Rebels find a way to make it happen. And, for the first time in more than a year, graduates will have the opportunity to once again physically cross the commencement stage.
The Class of 2021 is made up of graduates from 41 states and 56 foreign countries, many are the first in their family to graduate from college, and well over half – 63 percent – are from ethnically diverse backgrounds. This year’s class ranges in age from 19 to 76, with an average age of 27. Since 1964, UNLV has awarded more than 150,000 degrees.
An enduring UNLV commencement tradition that dates back decades 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 a researcher making strides in the race for a cure for Alzheimer's; an educator and mentor committed to increasing student success and diverse representation in STEM fields; a future doctor with a passion for politics; two mathematics standouts who have a knack for numbers that’s matched only by their passion for paying it forward; an honors student and anthropologist with a lengthy list of research and academic accolades who’s committed to capturing the rich history and contributions of the region’s Latinx communities; and a public health leader who took a non-traditional path and is now on a quest to serve marginalized communities facing health challenges.
B.S. in Biology, B.A. in Political Science (Honors)
Khadija Bhatti has certainly made the most of her college experience. The Honors College student will graduate this spring Magna Cum Laude with two bachelor’s degrees — one in biology and another in political science — as well as with three minors — addictions treatment, addictions prevention, and neuroscience.
Her grade point average? An impressive 3.8.
She has achieved all this while serving four years in student government, including one year as chief justice of the organization’s judicial branch. In 2019, she was elected president of the Honors College Student Council. She also served as a student representative on the inaugural College of Liberal Arts Dean’s Student Advisory Council, and has mentored peers through the Honors College and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program.
In 2016, she founded T.H.I.N.K, an educational outreach organization to connect local low-income and minority background high school students interested in STEM with mentors in college. As of 2021, the team has helped 37 students graduate high school and enroll in college. Additionally, for the past five years she has served as the UNLV campus ambassador with the nonprofit foundation The Gift of Life to help support patients battling blood cancer.
Recently, Khadija spent a summer as a policy research intern in the office of U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. That same year she presented her work at a conference at MIT. This spring, she finalized her capstone research project in which she evaluates the impact of political partisanship on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Khadija has devoted equal energy to STEM research, participating in clinical research with the emergency department at University Medical Center, studying novel water purification technology, and serving as a research assistant studying pulmonary hypertension at Sunrise Hospital’s Children’s Heart Center. Already she has received the 2021 Nevada Area Health Education Center Scholarship. Soon she will receive a Nevada Women in STEM award from U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen.
What’s next for the first-generation college grad? She’s headed to medical school.
B.S. in Mathematics (Honors)
Mathematics major Alvaro Carbonero graduates Summa Cum Laude with an impressive 3.95 GPA as a member of the Honors College.
After immigrating to the United States from Peru at age 18, Alvaro began his college career as a business major before discovering his passion for math - and he’s since used that passion to help others achieve their potential in high-demand STEM fields.
In 2019, Alvaro was selected for an eight-week grant-funded research experience on discrete geometry at Lafayette College. His stellar research work earned him national recognition again in spring 2020 when he won the Goldwater Scholarship, the nation's premier undergraduate award in mathematics, natural sciences, and engineering. Later that year, Alvaro was selected for another grant-funded summer research experience, this time with the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Under the guidance of UNLV professor Michelle Robinette, Alvaro completed his Honors College thesis, “On the Structure of Graphs with Either Convergent or Divergent Sequences of Pn-Line Graphs.” His work on graph theory, which is essentially the study of vertices connected by edges, has also led to multiple academic publications in leading math journals.
Though Alvaro has proven that he knows his way around an equation, it’s his fierce commitment to helping others find their place in STEM fields that sets him apart from his peers.
Throughout his time in the Honors College, Alvaro served as a peer-instructor and peer-mentor, and he regularly serves as a tutor in mathematics in the Las Vegas community. In 2020, he co-organized a student-led digital resource fair for fellow math majors nationwide. In addition to the Goldwater Scholarship, Alvaro also received the Hispanic Society Foundation Scholarship and the Honors College Bennett Mentor Scholarship.
This fall, Alvaro will begin his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Waterloo – one of the top programs in the world for research in combinatorics and optimization.
Ph.D. in Teacher Education
Teacher. Mentor. Leader. Research Scholar. Collaborator.
These are just a few of the terms that encompass the stellar academic career of Chengcheng Li, who graduates with a perfect 4.0 GPA and a Ph.D. in Teacher Education.
An international student, Chengcheng quickly immersed herself in various facets of the UNLV community. She has a strong interest in STEM education, and channeled her passion into building bridges between the Colleges of Education and Engineering via her research and teaching endeavors.
Chengcheng worked on research projects alongside nine professors, published four articles in peer-reviewed journals, and completed 21 conference presentations. Her work as a graduate assistant increased the retention rate for UNLV’s introductory engineering and computer science class for freshmen from 76% to nearly 84% over the course of two academic years. She similarly dug into academic improvements, sponsorships, and scholarships to up participation from low-income children and teens in UNLV’s STEM and math bridge summer camps — leading her to become the STEM camp’s new director this year.
Chengcheng is enthusiastic about increasing the ranks of women in the field too. Through a National Science Foundation grant, she trained secondary school teachers as part of a professional development workshop focused on the constructivist learning environment. She also collaborated with local high schools to increase young female students' sense of belonging and self-efficacy in STEM fields, helping to inform and prepare them for university coursework.
What’s more, Chengcheng worked with the UNLV Grad Rebel Advantage Program to create an inclusive environment for eight undergraduate mentees, who went on to apply for graduate school or embark on their own impressive careers.
And that’s not all. She’s a Graduate and Professional Student Association volunteer who has helped organize and participated in the group’s annual research forums, volunteered at numerous campus events such as TEDxUNLV 2018, and earned multiple accolades. These include the UNLV Community Impact Graduate Scholarship, two UNLV Summer Doctoral Research Fellowships, the GPSA Research Merit Award, the Top Tier Doctoral Graduate Research Assistantship, a 2021 Nevada Regents' Graduate Scholar Award nomination, and several other scholarships.
Nominators say Chengcheng is poised to continue to make significant contributions to her field in years to come.
When Nathalie Martinez isn’t busy documenting history, she’s making it.
Nathalie — an Honors College student double majoring in Anthropology and French — graduates with a 3.91 GPA, a lengthy resume of academic and research accolades, and high praise from several professors who called her the best student they’d encountered in their careers.
Nominators say Nathalie engages with her leadership and community service projects in profound and innovative ways. That includes work with UNLV’s Office of Service Learning and Leadership and the University Libraries’ Southern Nevada Latinx Oral History Research Project, research on language diversity and language revitalization in Latin America, and an honors thesis that focuses on her passions of language and identity by documenting the nuances of Spanish-speakers from the East Side of Las Vegas. As president of the Honors Rebellion group, Nathalie quickly pivoted to meet pandemic restrictions and led a team of students through Zoom workouts and a virtual Tough Mudder challenge.
What’s more, Nathalie has racked up academic commendations including the Spring 2021 VISTA Group Outstanding Senior Award for top College of Liberal Arts undergraduates; an award from Lambda Alpha, an anthropological honors society; and first place for a 2020 UNLV Honors College presentation.
Nathalie’s talents have traveled far and wide. She studied abroad in Costa Rica and France, and has several summer academic experiences lined up at the University of Michigan, where she will be doing a summer research program focusing on linguistics.
In all, nominators believe her ever-growing resume of achievements place her in prime position to excel at becoming a top anthropologist.
Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology
Passion, commitment, and resiliency – these are the words that make up Ph.D. graduate Lorena Samentar’s college career.
Lorena Samentar graduates with a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology stream with a GPA of 3.99. Lorena is also recognized as a prestigious member of Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi and the recipient of the Graduate College Medallion for Spring 2021.
Born and raised in a remote village in the Philippines, Lorena became the breadwinner of the family once her father passed away. Despite the emotional and financial hardships, Lorena finished her Bachelor of Science in Biology cum laude from the University of the Philippines, later saving up money from relatives and friends to continue her academic journey in the United States.
Lorena joined the UNLV’s Ph.D. program in Fall 2015 as a Graduate Recruitment Scholar, being one of the semester’s top recruits of the College of Sciences. Lorena has since helped UNLV researchers through projects, mentorship, and research throughout her academic career.
Her dissertation project on the Development of a Novel Alzheimer’s Therapy and co-authorship of three papers in degenerative diseases from the UNLV Caberoy Laboratory has offered critical results that supports the race towards the development of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
Lorena’s research and presentation skills have earned her first place for two consecutive years as podium presenter during the GPSA research forum. She also won third place out of more than 70 participants during the 4th Rebel Grad Slam 3-Minute Research Rumble, leading Lorena to become one of UNLV’s representatives for the 1st Southwest Showdown 3-Minute Grad Slam in Phoenix, Arizona.
And throughout her time as teaching assistant in Molecular Genetics, Lorena has since been the only instructor who has been given a perfect evaluation by everyone in her class.
Lorena Samentar will be the first in her family and in her village to earn a Ph.D. Once graduating, Lorena plans on returning to the Philippines to use her training towards the improvement of science research and teachings in her home country.
B.S. in Mathematical Sciences (Honors)
The numbers add up when it comes to math major Michael Schwob’s selection for UNLV’s Spring 2021 class of outstanding graduates: A 3.96 GPA, five peer-reviewed journals, two prestigious national awards, and over 500 volunteer hours teaching local high school students about academic research and the benefits of attending college.
To top it off, he’s helped multiple students from marginalized communities choose the college route.
And he’s just getting started.
Michael published his first peer-reviewed journal by the end of his sophomore year, following that up with four research papers each exploring a different scientific discipline, “revealing his intellectual curiosity and ability to complete a project from its inception,” wrote one of his nominators. The Honors College student has also worked with interdisciplinary teams at the national Air Force Research Laboratory and Colorado State University.
In recognition of his impressive undergraduate research portfolio, Michael garnered two competitive national awards — the Goldwater Scholarship in 2019 and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2021 — as well as several local awards, including the Sam Lieberman Regents' Scholar Award.
In addition to his research and academic successes, Michael founded two new student groups, served as a peer mentor for the Honors College and the College of Sciences, an ambassador for the Office of Undergraduate Research, and a rebel recruiter for the Office of Admissions.
He also helped establish the university's Army Education Outreach Program, where he volunteered over 500 hours to help local, marginalized communities engage with higher education and academic research. His efforts were acknowledged with a Congressional Award.
Following graduation, Michael will be pursuing a Ph.D. in statistics at the University of Texas at Austin beginning this fall. He was accepted into all of the graduate programs to which he applied, including Johns Hopkins and Emory for biostatistics.
“He is undoubtedly representing UNLV to the highest possible degree and has exceeded all of our expectations,” another nominator wrote. “Mr. Schwob's character and academic contributions should be celebrated with equal measure.”
Adugna “Adu” Siweya
MPH in Public Health
Adugna “Adu” Siweya’s higher education journey is non-traditional in more ways than one, perfectly embodying the qualities of UNLV’s “different, daring, diverse,” mantra.
First, Adu’s studies at UNLV came after a few decades off from school. He was a pharmacist in Ethiopia, but started over in the U.S., changing course in his career and deciding to pursue the public health field.
Second, his accomplishments will be celebrated alongside his daughter — not as a spectator in the stands — but as someone who will walk across the stage with him as she earns her master’s degree from UNLV, too.
Adu “stands out from the rest,” one of his nominators wrote, because of his dedication to juggling both school and family responsibilities, all the while earning a 3.97 GPA. In addition to his studies, he worked full-time as a taxi driver and later transitioned to working part-time at UNLVto take care of his family, and to pay not only for his college tuition, but that of his two daughters.
Another nominator said his drive to achieve his degree has inspired many along the way.
While at UNLV, Adu was involved in a number of research projects, co-publishing two papers, one studying indoor air pollution in Nepal, and another on cancer mortality disparities among Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander populations in California. He also presented at numerous conferences.
Outside of his academics, Adu was also engaged in serving others. He volunteers at the Three-Square Food Bank and Rebuilding Together, with an eventual goal to create a community organization focused on Ethiopian community health issues.
"What drives me to engage in community service is the ability to serve my local community and contribute to projects that help propel the community forward,” he said.
A public health leader who took a non-traditional path and is now on a quest to serve marginalized communities facing health challenges