Senior Scholars 2009: Different paths, notable accomplishments

5/26/2009 - By: John Trent

One came from a tiny graduating class of only 30 students in Pioche, Nev., and wasn’t sure what college would hold for him.

Another visited the Nevada campus and her decision to attend came only at the last moment.

A third knew her mother was a nurse and wished to follow in those same big footsteps before deciding to enroll at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Like many others at the University, the students who were selected as this year’s Class of 2009 Senior Scholars faced numerous obstacles in their achievement of a college degree.

Each semester, the University of Nevada, Reno and the Nevada Alumni Association honor an undergraduate student from each school or college. The individual chosen meets the program’s exceptional Senior Scholar standards. In addition, the Senior Scholar selects the faculty mentor who played the most significant role in their scholastic achievement.

The students honored in mid-May were able to achieve at a remarkably high level both in and out of the classroom.

When they received their respective degrees on May 16 during the University’s Commencement, it was yet another notable milestone for a memorable group of eight students who exemplified many of the campus’ virtues during their academic careers at Nevada.

Below are brief biographical sketches of each of the Spring 2009’s Senior Scholars.

College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources
Senior Scholar: Ashish Francis
Faculty Mentor: Gary Blomquist, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Ashish Francis, who was also the Herz Gold Medal winner for this year’s graduating class, compared his academic experience at Nevada with sports.

“Success is achieved in many different ways as is exemplified in sports,” he said. “In individual sports, it is characterized by personal accolades and accomplishments; the hard work and determination of a single person are applauded. On the other hand, team sports promote a different type of success: that of the team and not the individual. The sweetness of victory is predicated on a success shared by everyone involved.”

Francis singled out several of his professors for their guidance.

“I would especially like to extend my gratitude to my mentor Dr. Gary Blomquist,” he said. “He has been my academic mentor and a role model with his dedication to his work and his students. Gary helped me become a better biochemist through his excellent teaching in class and in the lab, as well as teaching me how to be a better individual and leader by his example.”

And without a supportive family, Francis added, none of his academic achievement during his time at Nevada would have been possible.

“Their love and unwavering support of me have been my strongest driving force,” he said. “They are my heroes and I dedicate this award to them.”

College of Business
Senior Scholar: William Yves Mathews
Faculty Mentor: Betty Cossitt, lecturer, Accounting and Information Systems

William Mathews graduated No. 2 from a class of 30 people in high school in Pioche, Nev.

“I never thought a little farm boy from Pioche, Nevada would achieve something like this,” he said. “I did not think that I would amount to much in college. It has not been easy, but it has been worth it.”

He said without the support of many people, becoming a Senior Scholar and graduating would not have been possible.

“I definitely could not have done it alone,” he said. “I am very grateful for the many people around me. I would like to thank my family for all the sacrifices they have made to help me reach my goal of getting a degree. I am especially grateful for my wife who was able to take care of things while I finished school. I also could not have done it without the support of my brothers that I work with who gave me the time I needed to get my schoolwork done.” He also praised his “great teacher, mentor and friend” Betty Cossitt. “She recruited me to do the dual major of Finance and Accounting and showed me the possibilities I had,” he said. “The road has been long and the bumps have sometimes been hard, but I am proud to say that I got it done. It is a special opportunity to go to college and get a degree.”

College of Education
Senior Scholar: Jamie Sparks
Faculty Mentor: David Crowther, professor of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning

Although it was a last-minute decision to attend the University, it was a decision that Jamie Sparks has never regretted. “UNR instantly felt like home, providing a perfect balance of excitement and familiarity,” she said. “Beautiful campus, wonderful weather, exciting college life, and yet still only an hour plane ride from my family back in Las Vegas.“

Unlike some freshmen, who often struggle to choose a major, Sparks knew right away what her life’s work would be.

“I knew exactly what I wanted coming in to my first semester and I never wavered,” she said. “I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. My college courses were so interesting to me because they were relevant and valuable to my future career. Throughout my years at UNR, I was like a sponge— taking notes, discussing great lesson ideas, and sharing effective strategies with colleagues and peers. I wanted to learn whatever I could in order to become an effective teacher. “

She had many outstanding professors, but one, her faculty mentor, David Crowther, left a lasting impression that continues to inspire Sparks.

“His incredible wealth of knowledge and his passion for learning and teaching were contagious,” she said. “I wanted to inspire and excite my future students about learning the way that he inspired and excited me. I want to give a special thanks to him for equipping me with the tools to become the best teacher that I can be.”

College of Engineering
Senior Scholar: Nicholas Ryan Aboumrad
Faculty Mentor: Dean Adams, professor of Engineering

From an early age, Nicholas Ryan Aboumrad knew that he wanted to be an engineer.

“I started thinking back over the past four years and was trying to remember why I decided to go into engineering,” Aboumrad said. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was destined for engineering long before I knew what it was. Growing up, my favorite question was why? Why are things the way they are? I was never satisfied with not knowing. I also spent hours building Legos, snapping together K’NEX, and taking things apart just to try and put them back together. Even though I wasn’t always able to get everything back in working order, it made for some good stories.”

His years at the University, whether it was in the classroom or interacting with the students, faculty and staff of the College of Engineering only reinforced this notion.

“I can’t say enough good things about my experience,” he said. “My professors have taught me to think harder and have showed that the best answer is sometimes the simplest. The foundation that they have provided will help me accomplish my future goals. My mentor throughout this journey, Dean Adams, has played a huge role in my success. I looked to him for advice, guidance, and sometimes a person just to vent to. I can’t thank him enough for all that he has done.”

Division of Health Sciences
Senior Scholar: Jamie Michele Schnell Blitstein
Faculty Mentor: Stephanie DeBoor, assistant professor of Nursing

Jamie Michele Schnell Blitstein recalled all of the rigors of being a student in the Orvis School of Nursing: “(an) ominous and frightening condition marked by profound lack of sleep, rewarding experiences, increased anxiety, critical thinking, intermittent tachycardia, periods of caring behavior, nausea, increased LOC and procrastination. It has been one of the best and greatest challenges of my life.”

The daughter of a nurse, she said that she has always had a healthy respect for the profession. “I remember blossoming with pride when I said, ‘My mom is a nurse,’” she recalled. She said her studies have given her not only a strong sense of pride, but of confidence: “Over the last year I have gone from a shaky red-faced girl with a stethoscope to a confident almost-nurse who can actually help people.“
She credited her faculty mentor, Stephanie DeBoor, for being the ultimate role model: “She is the type of nurse I hope to be: strong, honest, and passionate.”

College of Liberal Arts
Senior Scholar: Alix Marie Frank
Faculty Mentor: Christin Schillinger, assistant professor of Music

Alix Marie Frank always loved popular music.

“Shortly after I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, I knew that I wanted to pursue the study of music at a graduate level,” Frank said. “This was a big step for me, because upon entering college I had not even chosen a major, much less a path for the rest of my life.

“Although I didn’t initially know exactly which field I ultimately wanted to enter, after taking various classes in music theory, history and musicology, I realized with certainty that musicology is my ideal area of study. I now plan to pursue a career in musicology, hopefully someday teaching at the university level, and to continue expanding my knowledge of music and its role in society for the rest of my life.“

She credited her faculty mentor, Christin Schillinger, for teaching her “so much and whose support and enthusiasm has helped keep me motivated.” With graduate school at the University of Texas in the not-so-distant future, Frank said her studies at the University have prepared her well: “Having lived in Northern Nevada for my entire life, the prospect of moving away for graduate school in the fall is intimidating. However, my years UNR have prepared me well and I am very excited to continue my education in a new environment.”

Reynolds School of Journalism
Senior Scholar: Stacey Michelle Alonzo
Faculty Mentor: Bourne Morris, professor of Journalism

Stacey Alonzo’s focus in college has been as much about the process and the journey, as it has been about the end result.

“For me, college has never been about getting ahead in the professional world or receiving a degree as a means to an end,” she said. “My focus has been on education as a means in itself, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my college years for the pure joy of gaining knowledge not only about the world as a whole but about myself as well. Every bit of that ‘big picture’ I’ve managed to piece together has been worthwhile, and every class I’ve taken has contributed to that understanding just a little bit more.“

A well-rounded person, Alonzo said it was hard to confine her interests to a single subject area. “This eventually led me to decide on a triple major in journalism, psychology, and sociology,” she said. “However, I truly believe that every class I’ve taken both in my fields of focus and in other areas — ballet, poetry, theater, guitar, and philosophy to name a few — have been thought provoking and have contributed to my personal growth.

She called her faculty mentor, Bourne Morris, “a great role model of success and dedication in the field, for helping me realize my potential and constantly try harder.” And although her college career spanned a bit longer than the usual four-year experience, she remains convinced it was well worth it. “Six years, 24 unnecessary elective credits, and three degrees later, I am finally finishing,” she said. “However, the culmination of my undergraduate studies is in no way the end of my lifelong educational journey. For me, ‘the journey is the destination,’ and what a journey it has been so far.”

College of Science
Senior Scholar: Mitchel John Craun
Faculty mentor: Bradford Snyder, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering

College of Science Senior Scholar Mitchel John Craun has always felt a strong affinity for the world around him.

“My desire to understand how the universe works has always been the driving force behind my academic ambition,” Craun said. “Once I was exposed to the learning environment at UNR I realized just how fulfilling learning and advancing my knowledge could really be. I jumped at the chance to absorb as much as I could from the great minds around me. When I first began to focus my interests, I found that I could not limit myself any narrower than three fields — math, engineering, and physics. So, I decided to pursue all three.“

Although he decided to eventually fully focus on the most theoretical (mathematics) and the most applied (engineering), he still found that even though his college experience was coming to a close, “My thirst for knowledge has not yet been quenched. It probably never will be. I am truly grateful that UNR has helped fuel my desire for knowledge.”

With graduate school in the offing, Craun added that, “The University has more than prepared me for the roads that lay ahead. In the end I hope my studies will provide me with a strong foundation which will support me during my pursuit of whatever field I fall in love with. Who knows though, maybe I will end up mixed up in all of them. After all, that’s basically what happened in my undergraduate career.”


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