More than 3,000 students will join the ranks of UNLV alumni May 18, each with a unique path of perseverance that led them to the Thomas & Mack Center stage to receive their hard-earned degrees.
The Class of 2019 hails from 37 states and 50 foreign countries, many are the first in their family to graduate from college, and well over half – 60 percent – are from ethnically diverse backgrounds. This year’s class ranges in age from 18 to 71, with an average age of 27.
Since 1964, UNLV has awarded more than 140,000 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, a future Air Force pilot, a champion for global public health, a student-athlete with a future in public policy, and a Route 91 shooting survivor with a powerful message of hope and healing.
As a child watching his dad design custom homes in Tucson, Dominic Armendariz realized the impact that an architect can have on the community and got hooked on the idea of designing spaces for people to live, work, learn, and play.
It's a lesson he's embodied ever since.
Today, Dominic is graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor's in architecture and a minor business administration. Along the way, the Honors College student has also made it his personal business to help his campus and Las Vegas communities learn.
As president of UNLV's chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students, Dominic created a student-led workshop series, re-instituted a peer mentorship program, increased membership by 60 percent, founded one of the national organization's first K-12 outreach programs, and worked his way up to a spot on the group's board of directors. His leadership helped UNLV top 150 other chapters worldwide for the 2017 National Chapter Honor Award. He also serves on the national board of the AIAS, where’s he currently West Quad Director and oversees nearly 40 college chapters.
Dominic's community service has also earned him honors from UNLV's School of Architecture and the American Institute of Architects.
Even his path to graduation included an Honors thesis focused on designing a Las Vegas high school that would improve student learning.
Dominic has already accepted a job with a prominent local architecture firm and plans to pursue a master's degree in architecture.
Ph.D. in Sociology
Valarie Burke, who is graduating this spring with a doctoral degree in sociology, is a very busy woman.While earning her doctoral degree, this now three-time UNLV graduate has been serving as executive director of graduate student services in UNLV’s Graduate College. Among her achievements in this role have been building the college’s Professional Development Academy from scratch and also playing instrumental roles in the success of the Grad Ambassadors program, the Research and Mentorship program, the Post-Master’s Career Pathways program, the college’s Writing Bootcamps, and its Advantage program, which helps prepare undergraduates for graduate school. She’s also served on more than 20 university committees.
And she does all this not only while working on her degree and completing her dissertation, “Email is Alive: How to Communicate with Graduate College Students,” but also while she and her husband Devin Burke (also a UNLV alum) raise a toddler son, Jace.
In nominating Valarie for this honor, her dean, Kate Hausbeck Korgan, said, “I can confidently say that Ms. Burke is one of the most talented, hard-working, reliable, professional, insightful, accomplished, and overall terrific employees with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working…Ms. Burke is exactly the type of student, employee, and recognized campus leader that we should be recognizing with this award.”
Valarie was named UNLV’s administrative faculty member of the year in 2016 and is an active member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. She has also published her work in academic journals and has delivered more than a dozen presentations at academic conference – two of which she organized and hosted.
Rebecca Xinke Cao
With a 3.97 GPA, Rebecca Xinke Cao is graduating with two bachelor's degrees — in mechanical engineering and computer science — a minor in mathematics, and a job as a U.S. Air Force software engineer awaiting her after she crosses the Thomas & Mack stage.The journey here was difficult for Rebecca, a first-generation college student. After graduating as Clark High School's valedictorian, Rebecca financed her own education and living expenses at UNLV through financial aid, grants, scholarships, and multiple jobs including teaching physics at UNLV and interning at Southwest Gas.
Just last semester, she juggled six classes with 20-hour work weeks in the College of Engineering's Quorum lab, which focuses on a computer programming language developed primarily for the visually impaired. That's on top of conducting research as a National Science Foundation-funded fellow on an emerging genre of soft robotics that uses electric field to control and reshape materials.
What's more, Rebecca went beyond the requirements of her mechanical engineering degree by taking additional classes, and even decided to pursue a second degree in computer science during her senior year out of curiosity.
Calling Rebecca "an amazing student," nominator and distinguished professor Kwang Kim praised her time management skills, ability to work independently, eagerness to help peers, and said he "without any reservation" recommends her as an outstanding graduate.
B.S. in Mathematics; Aerospace Studies minor
The recognition of Outstanding Graduates requires success in the classroom and beyond – and Air Force ROTC Distinguished Graduate Nicholas Forester proves just that.
Nicholas, a first-generation college student, has exhibited academic and personal achievement that has inspired his professors, his fellow cadets, and most importantly, his family. Graduating with a B.S. in Mathematics and a minor in Aerospace Studies, Nicholas has persevered and will soon achieve his dream of becoming an officer and pilot in the United States Air Force.
Amidst handling college courses and ROTC, Nicholas had to overcome challenges on a personal scale. On his first day at UNLV, his infant daughter was diagnosed with the most serious form of spina bifida.
Over the past four years, Nicholas – whose wife also serves in the Air Force – has been a diligent student and father – he balanced 18+ credits per semester, worked part time, and was a primary caregiver for his daughter, who has required multiple operations since birth. Nicholas has also exhibited top performance within UNLV’s ROTC program – he has been presented 28 ROTC awards, is recognized as top 10 percent of all AFROTC graduates nationwide, and most importantly, has been selected to attend USAF Pilot Training once becoming an officer this spring.
As he continues to help support his family and serve his country, Nicholas Forester is prepared to overcome any obstacle to achieve his dreams.
Ph.D. in Public Health
She left her native country of Nepal to pursue and achieve her educational goals in the U.S. But years later, Saruna Ghimire’s doctoral research at UNLV led her back home to help hundreds of young girls through a public health project.Saruna, who graduates with a perfect 4.0 GPA and a Ph.D. in public health, co-led a project to distribute sanitary resources and educate Nepali girls about menstrual hygiene. She wanted to shed light on “menstrual exile” — a criminalized practice where women and girls are forced to sleep alone during their menstrual cycle.
It’s projects like this that demonstrate both Saruna’s academic prowess, and her inspiring spirit of philanthropy. At UNLV, Saruna authored 24 peer-reviewed scientific publications and has developed a collaborative research relationship with epidemiologists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She was also actively involved in student governance, where she served as a graduate liaison officer in the Public Health Student Association at UNLV, treasurer of the Nepalese Students’ Association, a volunteer in the International Council, and a mentor to both undergraduate and graduate students. Earlier this year, Saruna was one of only eight individuals who were named a Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents’ 2019 Scholar.
Nominators describe Saruna as an “intelligent, reliable, and humble” researcher, who has great potential for continued success in her academic career. The first-generation high school graduate hopes to become a university professor, with a long-term research goal to promote healthy aging and longevity worldwide.
M.S. in Biological SciencesTiffany Pereira approaches science with the eye of an artist. Graduating with a master’s in biology and an impressive 3.97 GPA, Tiffany came to UNLV two years ago to begin her master’s research on the Las Vegas bearpoppy plant, a Nevada state critically endangered flowering plant.
Her work – which beautifully represents the concept of science as art – includes the first reported long-term research of the Las Vegas bearpoppy and an original collection of botanical illustration and photography. It will soon be used as an identification tool for state, regional, and federal agencies working together to ensure the plant’s conservation.
A mentor for undergraduate students – many of whom nominated her – Tiffany is committed to both making science accessible to the public and spurring budding scientists into careers in the field. According to one faculty nominator, they’d rarely seen a master’s thesis defense that was standing room only due the number of undergraduates and community members in attendance.
“I struggled to find meaning in my college career before I started working with her,” said one undergraduate nominator. “Tiffany is the most incredible mentor and researcher; I know she is the one graduating, but I feel like all of us are graduating with her.”
Tiffany has earned multiple honors from the UNLV Graduate College for her research, mentorship, and communications. She won the top prize for science in the 2019 Graduate and Professional Student Association Research Forum and was selected to present at the UNLV Graduate Showcase.
B.S. in Hospitality ManagementKaressa Royce is the epitome of a successful UNLV student. As an undergraduate studying hospitality management, she maintained a solid GPA, worked in the hospitality industry in Las Vegas, was a member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority, and served as a past member of the UNLV Rebel Girls, the university’s renowned dance team.
On Oct. 1, 2017, her life – and so many others – changed forever. Karessa, who was attending the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, was shot, suffering a collapsed lung and a broken collarbone and shoulder.
A few weeks after the tragedy, Karessa – who had at the time just recently been released from the hospital – delivered a speech at a remembrance ceremony on UNLV’s campus. In spite of having gone through so much, she offered a comforting voice of hope, resilience, and positivity to the university and Southern Nevada community.
And she’s just getting started. Karessa’s story is not one of tragedy, but of hope, of healing, and of transformation.
She was determined not to let her traumatic experience strip her of her passion. She doubled down on her academic studies and helped the College of Hospitality develop safety policies and procedures for the new Hospitality Hall. In May 2018, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority honored her with a Hospitality Heroes award. Last fall, she delivered a riveting presentation on post-traumatic growth during TEDx UNLV.
“At just 22 years old, she’s the bravest person I know,” said one faculty nominator. “Her unshakable spirit inspires every person in this college, this university, and this city. She embodies what this industry is all about.”
Ashley is graduating from UNLV on Saturday with two majors and two minors: a dual baccalaureate in economics and political science, and minors in Brookings Public Policy and Spanish. Her overall GPA is 3.91.
As an undergraduate, Ashley was part of a one-of-a-kind partnership between UNLV and the Brookings Institution, a leading think tank. As a member of the program, her research focused on policies for paid family leave and the motherhood wage gap, and she recently authored a column where she explored single-payer health care policy in the U.S.
The Honors College student has excelled in her rigorous academic coursework while also participating on the Rebel Girls dance team as a member and more recently as captain. With Ashley at the helm, the dance program won multiple national championships. She also served as an advocate for fellow rebels on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the Rebel Leadership Counsel.
Nominators say that Ashley exemplifies the “very best of our students and the very best of our athletes.”
This summer, she’ll take her spot — one of only five chosen from across the nation — in a prestigious summer internship program at Brookings in Washington, D.C. Ashley will work alongside world-renowned researchers and experts on creating evidence-based policies for the American middle class. She plans to join UNLV’s Boyd School of Law as a student this fall.