Senior Scholar’s nine-year odyssey to graduation

12/11/2009 - By: John Trent

Nine years ago, Jessie Marchesseau packed up her skis and snowboard and moved from her home state of Montana to Lake Tahoe. She had about $300 in the bank … not to mention an insatiable desire in her heart to learn “the meaning of life.”

“It was somewhere during that first 140-day season at Kirkwood (resort, near South Lake Tahoe) that I found it … or maybe it was in the half-pipe …. anyway, it was fun,” Marchesseau recalled.

Yet finding the meaning of life on the bountiful snow of the Sierra was only part of the equation for Marchesseau.

“I was also searching for my career direction, my future,” she said. “I needed something that I would never get bored of, never dread going to in the morning.”

So, Marchesseau made an important decision. She enrolled in college, and since 2005 has attended the University of Nevada, Reno, as a student in journalism and interior design.

On Dec. 5, during Winter Commencement, Marchesseau graduated from the University, along with more than 1,000 others. Earlier in the week, she was honored by the University and the Nevada Alumni Association as one of the institution’s eight Senior Scholars – an award presented to the top graduating senior in each of the University’s schools and colleges.

At Nevada, she said she found the best of both worlds: Journalism honed her writing and thinking skills, and interior design not only enriched her sense of creativity, it helped itch a long-standing mental inventory her mind undergoes whenever she enters a new room.

“I’ve always had somewhat of a penchant for words,” she said. “I enjoy putting pen to paper … or in today’s world, fingers to keyboard … and never back down from a chance to be in the spotlight. Interior design was the other thing I always came back to. For as long as I can remember, when I walk into a restaurant, a friend’s house, my own house, or practically any building, I start remodeling: painting, tearing down walls, rearranging furniture … in my mind, of course.

“It’s something I can’t turn off, so I decided to pursue it as well.”

Inspired by the vivid writing in magazines such as Dwell and Ski, Marchesseau found a willing friend and mentor in Deidre Pike, a lecturer in the Reynolds School of Journalism (RSJ) and herself an award-winning magazine and newspaper journalist. Pike was honored as Marchesseau’s faculty mentor for RSJ.

The other Senior Scholars honored by the University had similar stories to share.

College of Education Senior Scholar Kirstie Miller, for example, has always felt the special connection a good teacher can make with a student. In fact, that’s the reason why she knows she has chosen the best career path.

“During high school, I loved tutoring and continue to tutor now,” she said. “There is nothing more exciting than to watch a student finally understand a concept under my tutelage. The light that shines in their eyes is enough to make me want to do this forever.”

Miller has a number of off-campus activities that make for a busy schedule – and show the lengths she will go to make a significant difference in the lives of others. She’s a member of The Center for Spiritual Living in Reno, and, in addition to teaching yoga at the Yoga Pearl, has taken her teaching one step further by creating a movie club with her yoga students.

“The yoga studio is a community full of people I commonly refer to as my second family,” she said.

Of her College of Education faculty mentor, Whitney Foehl, Miller said, “Her classes have taught me better than any others that all students are different and what I learn in a classroom can never prepare me for all of the new and exciting adventures I will have in my own classroom.”

Anna Johnson, the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources’ Senior Scholar, has always had a fascination with biology.

As a child, she said, “I spent hours reading books about animals and watching documentaries on scientific TV channels. I was always very curious about the surrounding world and very eager to explore it.” When she had her first encounter with molecular biology in college, she said, “I knew that this is the path I wanted to follow.”

She said that biology at its most basic level continues to fascinate her: “Every process in an organism, every single cell interaction and metabolic pathway is encoded in the genes. I find it very fascinating how simple organic compounds and monomers join to create complex proteins, which eventually makes up tissues and organs.”

In her faculty mentor, Assistant Professor of Biology Patricia Berninsone, Johnson said she found a person who facilitated her interest in biology by welcoming her into the world of undergraduate research.

“She accepted me into her laboratory where I learned so much, more than I would have in the classroom alone,” Johnson said.

Briana Dodge, the Senior Scholar for the Division of Health Sciences, said that her time at Nevada has been a time to overcome self-doubt and develop confidence that should serve her well in her chosen profession – nursing.

“When I was first accepted to the Orvis School of Nursing,” she said, “I had mixed feelings. I was unsure of my career choice. I had a passion for health care, but would I really make a good nurse? A short 16 months later I know that I have found my calling and am extremely proud to call myself a future nurse.”

She said her studies at the University have given her many tools to use.

“I have learned how to think in a whole new way,” she said, “one that allows me to apply critical thinking skills and clinical judgment to a wide variety of patient situations.”

She praised her faculty mentor, Kate Sheppard, assistant professor of nursing, for “helping me develop into the nurse that I am today.”

Jerome Kulenkamp, Senior Scholar for the College of Business, earned more than a few honors during his studies at Nevada. During the Winter Commencement ceremony on Dec. 5, he was awarded the University’s prestigious Herz Gold Medal, which is given to the top graduating senior each year.

However, Kulenkamp said he would remember the social aspect of his University experience just as much.

“Without question, the education I obtained at the University will prove to be invaluable in the working world—whether I am an employee or an entrepreneur,” he said. “Moreover, my collegiate experience was enjoyable because of extracurricular activities, especially those associated with soccer. Not only did playing soccer give me balance, it helped cultivate many friendships that I hope to retain long after my college years are behind me.”

He said his Senior Scholar award was as great a reflection on those who helped him as it was on his own sterling academic record.

“It is not simply a reflection of the effort I put in but also the effort that countless others made on my behalf,” he said. “My professors, advisers, classmates and friends ensured that my college experience was both valuable and enjoyable.”

In particular, Kulenkamp’s faculty mentor, Jianfei Sun, assistant professor of managerial science, played an instrumental role in helping Kulenkamp in many different arenas, including completion of the student’s Honors Thesis.

“Our shared passion for finance and soccer resulted in a unique and sophisticated end-product,” Kulenkamp said.

Jon Cho, the College of Science’s Senior Scholar, also saw soccer as central to where his life has led him, though for perhaps slightly different reasons than Kulenkamp.

“My father often reminds me of the time when I had been passionate about soccer many years ago,” Cho said. “He asked me if I was going to be a famous soccer player one day, and as much as I loved the sport, I told him unhesitatingly, ‘No Dad, I would rather become a physician.’”

Cho chose the University with that goal in mind.

A biology major, he said, “Learning about various subjects from the knowledgeable faculty was both fun and challenging. Working hard and having an enthusiasm for learning have been steppingstones to my academic success.”

Of his faculty mentor, Seungil Ro, assistant professor of physiology and cell biology, Cho said, “Under his tutelage I was able to take what I had learned in the classroom setting and apply it to realistic situations in the lab. Dr. Ro’s passion for researching the role of miRNAs on the differentiation of smooth muscle cells has shown me how awesome the advancement of scientific knowledge is.”

Kristina Zahtilla, the Senior Scholar for the College of Liberal Arts, had an important decision to make when she entered the University.

“My big decision wasn’t so much picking a major … rather, it was deciding which of my interests to follow: French or music?” she said. “So I decided, ‘Why not, I’ll just do both.’”

Zahtilla said her goal has always been to learn as much as she can, whenever she can.

“My family has instilled the importance of hard work and persistence – of always doing one’s best,” she said. “So have tried to work my hardest and be concerned only with providing the highest quality of work that I can, and remembering that it is most important to learn as much as possible from each person that I encounter. I feel lucky enough to be successful in both creative and academic areas of life.”

She credited her faculty mentor, David Ehrke, professor of music, for being a steadying influence for the six and a half years the two have worked together. “I want to thank him for adjusting to my very finicky learning style, and also for constantly providing opportunities for me to grow as a musician and as a person,” she said.

Milad Oliaee, Senior Scholar for the College of Engineering, comes from a long line of engineers. Both his parents are civil engineers, and “it seems as though it is in my blood,” he said, “everything from grocery shopping to a simple game of soccer had an engineer’s approach to it. It all came down to optimization. So here you have it – 21 years later, out comes a civil engineer graduating from the same university as his parents did.”

Although engineering was a major part of his background, Oliaee said that his most valuable asset learned from his college experience was “outside the classroom.”

“It was dealing with real people, trying to understand them, and getting over my qualms of self-alienation,” he said. “I really enjoy working with others to solve problems, and I feel that it will help me in my future. I also learned how NOT to think like an engineer – in a good way – and to see engineering in a more creative light. It’s a pleasure to have gained so much from my undergraduate experience.”

Oliaee’s faculty mentor was Dean Adams, professor of civil and environmental engineering, who has mentored many of the College of the Engineering’s students during his distinguished tenure at the University.


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