The most challenging year in recent history is finally coming to a close, but not before more than 2,000 UNLV students cross the virtual stage and earn their hard-fought-for diplomas.
In normal times, achieving a college degree is a monumental feat, but in 2020, earning that credential against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic is even more commendable. And to top it off, in 2020, even more UNLV students rose to the occasion.
More than 2,200 UNLV students will earn degrees on Dec. 15 during the Winter 2020 Commencement — up 12% from 2019.
The Class of 2020 hails from 32 states and 36 foreign countries, many are the first in their family to graduate from college, and well over half – 65 percent – are from ethnically diverse backgrounds. This year’s class ranges in age from 19 to 75, with an average age of 27. Since 1964, UNLV has awarded more than 148,000 degrees.
Collectively, the Class of 2020 rose above this year’s obstacles including UNLV’s transition to remote learning, postponed on-campus events, and the inability to study, work, and collaborate with friends, classmates, and teachers in person.
Individually, students also persevered through unique challenges to get them to where they are today.
A group of four UNLV Rebels in particular stand out for their achievements. They’ll be recognized as outstanding grads, an enduring UNLV commencement tradition where the president honors a select group of students who exemplify the academic, research, and community impact of the graduating class.
This winter’s honorees include a budding epidemiologist on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, working to keep the virus from wreaking havoc in the community; a three-time criminal justice graduate researching ways to keep the community safe; an anthropologist who uncovers ancient artifacts and finds ways to make them accessible to the community; and a clinical pharmacist dedicated to healing his patients and improving their care.
B.S. in Public Health
Regina Boston has answered the call to serve her community twice. First, as an active duty Airman in the U.S. Air Force. Second, as a contact tracer for the Southern Nevada Health District, aiding in Southern Nevada’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
Her most recent drive to aid the community came in her final year as a UNLV student, as she worked to put the finishing touches on her bachelor’s degree in public health. She graduates this December with an impressive 3.92 GPA along with the proof that it’s possible to overcome life’s challenges and achieve your dreams if you demonstrate unrelenting determination, passion, and resilience.
“I knew I would need to work hard to overcome my circumstances and I remained motivated because I knew I wanted to pursue a career in public service that would enable me to make a difference in the community, reduce health disparities, and ensure equality and social justice” Regina said.
During her eight years of military service, she served as a Security Forces member and earned her associate’s degree in criminal justice from the Community College of the Air Force. That experience, combined with her upbringing, catalyzed an interest in public health law, policy, and politics.
At UNLV, in addition to her studies, Regina worked closely with public health faculty to improve aspects of the undergraduate program, including helping in the development of the school’s mentorship program. This year, in her role as a contact tracer, she’s been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, working as a UNLV Contact Tracing Team Lead conducting and reviewing hundreds of interviews, training new contact tracers, and helping to ensure 100% accuracy of the data that are collected and sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She graduates as an outstanding grad with the goal to continue her career in public service. After graduation, she is pursuing an internship with Nevada Senator Jacky Rosen and a dual degree in public health and law.
‘My goals for the future include working for the federal government and merging my legal and public health knowledge to help create policies aimed at health promotion to improve the lives of marginalized populations, prevent disease, and enhance emergency preparedness.” she said.
Miliaikeala "Milia" SJ Heen
Ph.D. in Criminology and Criminal Justice
Milia Heen picks up her third criminal justice degree from UNLV this December, having earned a bachelor’s degree in 2012 and a master’s degree in 2014.
And Milia has excelled every step of the way. Earlier this year, she was selected as the recipient of the 2020 Nevada Regents’ Graduate Scholar Award, arguably the highest recognition a graduate student can achieve in Nevada.
While pursuing her latest degree, she served as the research project coordinator on a National Science Foundation grant concerning the use of aerial drones by the police. The work included examining public perceptions of police use of aerial drones for surveillance purposes. She coordinated a team of more than 25 research assistants who completed face-to-face surveys of residents throughout Las Vegas. This research provided important police-community relations data during the height of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
To date, Milia has published 11 manuscripts, including four journal articles, two book chapters, and five monographs, serving as lead author on half of these publications. She also has presented her work at nine national conferences and was the recipient of of UNLV’s Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award.
An additional line of research that she pursued involved exploring ways of reducing sexual assaults in crowds, particularly at music concerts and festivals as well as at day clubs and nightclubs — research that caught the attention of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
She also serves as the student experience coordinator in charge of the College of Urban Affairs’ Urban Adventure class, a second-year seminar course that involves Milia supervising a team of 70 people.
Milia has excelled in traditional academic settings. As a graduate student, she taught 18 sections of Research Methods. Somehow, she also found the time to serve as program coordinator of the UNLV women’s lacrosse team from 2014 onward.
Little wonder then that the professor nominating Milia, Joel Lieberman, chair of the department of criminal justice, said, “There is not a day that goes by that I do not think how incredibly fortunate I have been to work with Milia. She is, by far, the most exceptional graduate student I have ever encountered in my 23 years at UNLV.”
Completing a four-year degree is a major accomplishment in and of itself. Few students up the ante and pursue a grueling double major. And then there’s Alina Lindquist, who graduates this December with a triple major and with an impressive 3.92 GPA as a member of UNLV’s Honors College.
Alina graduates Summa Cum Laude with degrees in Anthropology, Art History, and Art (concentration in painting, drawing, and printmaking).
For her Honors College thesis, Alina completed a cross-cultural study of ritual practices spanning small-scale societies all the way to post-industrial countries. Her work led to an internship with UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, where she studied artifacts from the Colima Region in Mexico and assisted with the museum’s efforts to create digital 3D models of Mesoamerican artifacts.
Alina has also been an active member of the Honors College since her freshman year, serving both as a peer mentor for incoming students and peer instructor for the college’s first-year seminar.
“Alina is the kind of student that stands out for seeing UNLV as a place of opportunity and fully embracing what this could afford,” said nominator and UNLV anthropology professor Peter Gray. “She has done so much in her years at UNLV, serving as an inspiration for how fellow students get involved and push personal and other boundaries.”
Raised in the small town of Sparks, Nevada, Alina has become a true citizen of the world during her undergraduate years. She spent two semesters studying abroad, first in Italy during sophomore year and then in Thailand, where she served as a volunteer English teacher and launched a yoga club at Chiang Mai University.
“I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to serve as a faculty advisor to several outstanding Honors College students for their theses over my 20-year career at UNLV, and Alina stands above them all,” said nominator Daniel Benyshek, professor and chair of UNLV’s department of anthropology. “She has keen intellect, endless curiosity and enthusiasm, a tireless work ethic, and a pleasant and easy-going manner, and I cannot think of a better recipient of an outstanding graduate award than Alina Lindquist.”
As clinical pharmacist Jamal Sims graduates this December with an Executive Master of Healthcare Administration and a perfect 4.0 GPA, nominators say the first-generation college student has just the right prescription for success.
Jamal's leadership chops were apparent during his undergraduate and doctoral pharmacy studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he served as the diversity programming chair, a student government senator, and class president. He organized various health and wellness events that allowed him to perform blood pressure and lipids screenings as well as provide education to people of the community and administer vaccinations.
He has stayed active with his pharmacy school, continuing to serve on the admissions committee, and brought that same community-minded approach to Las Vegas. While performing his rotations during his year-long residency at Mountain View Hospital, Jamal became an active member of the acute care facility's cancer and pain management committees, as well as created and helped enact various hospital-wide protocols and policies aimed at improving patient care.
It was there that Jamal discovered his passion for quality improvement and leadership in healthcare, inspiring him to pursue an EMHA degree at UNLV -- all while working as an oncology pharmacist, overseeing patients receiving chemotherapy.
Jamal's capstone project focused on decreasing the utilization of intravenous opioids in a hospital by revising their pain management protocol. He plans to use his degree to pursue a healthcare management position, either as a chief pharmacy officer or director of pharmacy for a hospital.
“I want to possess the ability to inspire my employees in a way that they continue to be innovative in their field in order to reach new heights. I have the goal of becoming a healthcare executive within a hospital system. Whenever that time comes, the mission of my department or organization will be ‘service excellence,’" Jamal wrote in a leadership class paper that moved nominators. "In order to reach this goal, it will be important to cultivate an environment where communication is key, the voices of employees are heard, and innovative ideas are always welcomed."