Fall 2023 University of Nevada, Reno Senior Scholars announced

The University and the Nevada Alumni Association honor graduates from each college with top grade-point averages

A photo collage of all the fall 2023 senior scholars, as pictured in the article body below.

Fall 2023 University of Nevada, Reno Senior Scholars announced

The University and the Nevada Alumni Association honor graduates from each college with top grade-point averages

A photo collage of all the fall 2023 senior scholars, as pictured in the article body below.

Each semester, the University of Nevada, Reno and the Alumni Association honor an undergraduate student from each school or college that meets the exceptional standards of the Senior Scholars program. Each of the graduating scholars selected a mentor who made an impact on their academic success. These scholars have continuously demonstrated their academic excellence and they embody The Wolf Pack Way.

Lily A. Larsen

College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources

GPA: 3.939 Mentor: Mark Demuth ’98 M.S., ’09 M.S.

Lily and Mark smile outside on the quad.
Lily Larsen and Mark Demuth.

Meet Lily A. Larsen, the Fall 2023 Senior Scholar from the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources. 

Lily Larsen chose to attend the University of Nevada, Reno because it afforded her a lot of opportunities to explore different pathways. Nevada offers a wide range of experiences and allows students to build their own unique education.

At a very young age, she loved animals and learning about the ecosystems they inhabit. As she got older, she took an interest in the concepts of sustainability and conservation and thought about how we can implement them in our societies. As she learned more about the ways humans are impacting the environment and their lack of knowledge about natural processes, she decided to pursue a degree in environmental science.

One of Larsen’s favorite college memories is walking in a snowstorm one night with her roommate to the Pennington Student Achievement Center, where they went sledding on the north side of the building. She liked being able to take a moment to just have fun and be outside playing in the snow. Campus was so quiet and it was fun to feel like a little kid on a snowy day.

Mark Demuth ’98 M.S. (environmental & natural resource science), ’09 M.S. (land use planning) is Larsen’s mentor, who she took two classes with (environmental law and compliance with NEPA). She found his classes to be incredibly impactful, intellectually stimulating and fun. Demuth genuinely cares about the topics he teaches and wants his students to learn, grow and succeed. Those classes were the most rewarding and interesting. She appreciates his commitment to helping his students learn while sharing his expertise.

Following graduation, Larsen plans to pursue her master’s degree in library and information science. She eventually wants to become a subject librarian and use her acquired knowledge in her new adventure!

Caitlin Rose McHugh

The College of Business

GPA: 4.0 Mentor: Bret Leary, Ph.D.

Bret and Caitlin stand outside on the quad, smiling.
Bret Leary and Caitlin McHugh.

Meet Caitlin Rose McHugh, Fall 2023 Senior Scholar from the College of Business.

Reno is Caitlin McHugh’s home, so she chose the University of Nevada, Reno to stay near family and friends. She’s a skier and loves Lake Tahoe and the mountains. Campus is beautiful with many degree options, making it a perfect place for her.

She describes herself as a free spirit and sought a degree with flexibility. She chose a business major for the endless possibilities and opportunities to work in a variety of fields. She is grateful for her experience and now has a better understanding of how the world works; business is everywhere.

One of her favorite college memories was sitting on the Quad with friends, watching the leaves fall off the trees, talking about their lives, the seasons and their favorite holiday foods. She wondered how many students sat there before them, doing the same thing, and if they got to see their dreams become reality. She felt content to laugh with people she loves, finding beauty around her. She’s glad to have a memory at the University that encapsulates that feeling. 

Associate Professor Bret Leary, Ph.D., is one in a million. McHugh could share 100 stories from 100 people about how he’s gone above and beyond for them — from helping with their careers to their rock-climbing technique. He’s an incredible educator and a fantastic person with a big heart. He thinks outside the box, is an optimist with a defiant belief in the possibility of “better.” He doesn’t just care whether you pass his class, but whether you learn something, whether you’re curious, and whether you’re kind. He models those qualities within himself every day.

Following graduation, McHugh wants to continue both formal and informal education. Through travel, she hopes to meet people, explore and learn. She knows she wants to help others find a sense of peace and become the best version of themselves. Eventually, she plans to apply to a degree program in coaching or counseling.

Ja Ja Chang

College of Education and Human Development

GPA: 4.0 Mentor: Rachel Salas, Ph.D.

Ja Ja Chang outside on the quad wearing a commencement sash.
Ja Ja Chang.

Meet Ja Ja Chang, Fall 2023 Senior Scholar from the College of Education and Human Development.

Ja Ja Chang believes God set the path for her to attend the University of Nevada, Reno because of all the wonderful opportunities and experiences she’s had. The University was a change of pace compared to being raised in Las Vegas. With two of her brothers living in Reno, she chose to start somewhere familiar and yet foreign to her. She also loves nature combined with city life in Reno. The University offers an excellent education program that her mom had to persuade her to pursue when Chang considered enrolling at UNLV — she her mom was right and the University was the right place for her!

She always wanted to be a teacher and there was no doubt about choosing the integrated elementary teaching program, as her passion is to work with young students. In high school, she enrolled in a program where she learned about special education and teaching English. She believes it is inevitable that classrooms will have students of different needs, so she feels it is best to learn all sides of education to prepare herself.

Her favorite memories involved working at the Child & Family Research Center. She spent two astounding years watching children grow from infants to toddlers! Witnessing each child develop their personality, observing how they interact with each other, and seeing them understand they have responsibilities made her value this career even more. She misses the children she worked with and often thinks back to them crawling, and how they’re now running and about to be in kindergarten!

Associate Professor Rachel Salas, Ph.D., has been present in Chang’s college career since day one. From learning about children’s literature to tutoring children how to read, Salas supported her learning and development as an educator. Salas taught her how to value the title of an educator beyond the cliché expectations and emphasized the impact educators of color make on students. Salas extends her resources to all of her students, both present and past, by offering to financially support classrooms, build robotics programs, and teach STEM throughout the state. Not only is she an inspiring mentor, she is a tremendous blessing to education.

After graduation, Chang plans to teach K-2nd grade. She is still deciding where, but she knows she will be back to complete a master's in reading curriculum and instruction. She also hopes to extend her teaching skills God has provided on a Christian missionary trip to Taiwan this summer!

Brigida Rovarino

College of Engineering

GPA: 4.0 Mentor: Keith Dennett, Ph.D.

Keith Dennett and Brigida Rovarino stand outside on the quad, smiling..
Keith Dennett and Brigida Rovarino.

Meet Brigida Rovarino, Fall 2023 Senior Scholar from the College of Engineering. 

Making the decision to attend the University of Nevada, Reno was easy for Brigida Rovarino. She knew she wanted to major in engineering, and the University of Nevada, Reno has a great engineering program. In addition, the financial aid opportunities and cost made obtaining a good education affordable.

When she started at the University, Rovarino was debating between majoring in chemical engineering and civil engineering. She liked chemistry, but wasn’t sure what a career would look like, so she chose civil engineering instead. Civil engineering excited her because of her ability to see the projects she designs and the opportunity to work toward sustainable infrastructure.

Her favorite college memory is participating in the American Society of Civil Engineers Concrete Canoe Club. During her senior year, she helped design and construct a concrete canoe to be raced in competition. Some of her best memories will forever be at the Sparks Marina during paddling practices. This club expanded her horizons and helped her make lifelong friends.

Associate Professor Keith Dennett, Ph.D., is her mentor because she had him for several classes during her time at the University. He’s made a great impact on her as an engineer and as a person. She is appreciative of the way he incorporates real-life applications of engineering in his classes and finds herself thinking of the lessons he’s taught her while at work. He really cares about all his students and she feels like she can come to him with any question.

After she graduates, Rovarino plans to continue her education at the University through the accelerated master’s program in structural engineering. Once she graduates with her master’s in the spring of 2025, she plans to take a full-time position at the company where she is currently an intern. There, she will gain experience and work toward her Professional Engineer (P.E.) license.

Ryan Rose Vortisch

College of Liberal Arts

GPA: 3.959 Mentor: Alissa Surges, M.A.

Ryan Vortisch and Alissa Surges stand outside on the quad, smiling.
Ryan Vortisch and Alissa Surges.

Meet Ryan Rose Vortisch, Fall 2023 Senior Scholar from the College of Liberal Arts.

Ryan Vortisch chose to attend the University of Nevada, Reno because it is close to home. He initially went to an out-of-state college his freshman year, but realized it was important for him to be close to family. He also chose the University because it has a high-quality criminal justice (CRJ) program, which wasn’t the case at his prior school. The CRJ program is very detailed and covers a diverse range of topics that has prepared him for his future career.

Prior to coming to the University, Vortisch attended a small liberal arts college in Oregon where they were assigned classes freshman year to try before choosing a major. He was assigned a class on legal topics, which he thought he would hate but which he ended up enjoying. This inspired him to switch to criminal justice and partly encouraged him to come to the University for the incredible CRJ program with an emphasis in law, specifically. 

One of his favorite memories was getting breakfast burritos from Las Trojes in the Ansari Business Building every morning after his 7:30 a.m. classes. That place has the best and most affordable breakfast burritos with all the hot sauce options. It was the best — and a daily staple.

Senior Lecturer and Interim Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of English Alissa Surges, M.A. is genuinely one of the best professors Vortisch has ever had. She shows continuous support for her students inside and outside of the classroom, and pushes her students to grow by thinking outside of the box. She is very passionate about the topics she teaches and presents dynamic and interesting lectures that personally made Vortisch excited to attend class every day. Although he didn’t take one of her classes until late in his academic career, she definitely played a part in his academic success. 

After graduation, Vortisch plans to take a few months to rejuvenate and do some light traveling before seeking out paralegal positions. He’s had the pleasure to do internships with multiple attorneys during his time at the University. Per their advice, he plans to work as a paralegal while he decides whether to pursue law school or continue with a paralegal career.

Alexis Reanna McGuire

College of Science

GPA: 3.99 Mentor: Christopher Blair ’08, ’12 M.A., ’15 Ph.D.

Alexis McGuire and Christopher Blair standing on the quad, smiling.
Alexis McGuire and Christopher Blair.

Meet Alexis Reanna McGuire, Fall 2023 Senior Scholar from the College of Science.

Alexis McGuire toured campus her senior year and fell in love with the atmosphere and surrounding nature. The weather also reminded her of living back home in New York City where she grew up. She was interested in the research specialization and research opportunities offered by the psychology department for undergraduate students.

In high school, she took her first psychology course and fell in love with the subject. She was intrigued by the study of human thoughts and behaviors, and she wanted to not only understand others but also more about herself. She also loves that psychology is a diverse and multifaceted field that overlaps with many other fields that reflect how complex the human experience can be. Psychology gave her the opportunity to explore additional interests like public health, criminal justice, gerontology, sociology and geology. This major allowed her to strive to be a well-rounded learner and thinker.

Throughout college, McGuire appreciated the smaller experiences like enjoying the beautiful trees while walking on campus, or the joy and laughs she had with her peers in class. All the learning experiences and relationships she built have been her favorite part about being at the University.

Teaching Assistant Professor Christopher Blair ’08 (German), ’12 M.A., ’15 Ph.D. (psychology) is her mentor because he’s been supportive since the first course she took with him during the pandemic when all classes were virtual. She really appreciates the way he teaches, which inspires her to consider being a teacher in her future career. In addition, Blair has supported her interests in research and gave her the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant for one of his research courses. This gave her the chance to learn from him as a psychology professional, while also having a mentor to guide her in her career goals.

After graduation, McGuire plans to get a master’s in public health starting next fall at the University. Until then, she will take some graduate special courses and find an internship related to public health. She plans to become a Peace Corps volunteer to support efforts related to public health in other countries, while also broadening her perspectives of other cultures. In the future, she plans to work as a public health analyst to influence the programs and policies that are being put in place to support her community's health and well-being.

Tyreis Mikale Gatson

Honors College

GPA: 3.944 Mentor: Angelina Padilla, Ph.D.

Angelina Padilla and Tyreis Gatson stand outside smiling on the quad.
Angelina Padilla and Tyreis Gatson.

Meet Tyreis Mikale Gatson, Fall 2023 Senior Scholar from the Honors College.

Through generous scholarships and a relatively low cost of tuition, the University of Nevada, Reno enabled Tyreis Gatson to focus on his academic, professional and personal endeavors without financial stress. He knew he had to make the most of his college education — looking back he believes he did thanks to the student organizations, research opportunities and numerous faculty members.

He accredits television personality Bob the Builder as being the initial impetus for pursuing a career in engineering. His parents continued to get him involved in engineering activities. In middle school, he was accepted into a robotics program where he helped build and compete with LEGO and VEX robots. He attended a technical high school where he majored in construction technology. He landed two internships at the Allegiant Stadium construction project — one that rotated departments — and the other in the mechanical, electrical, & plumbing department. This is where his love for mechanical engineering was born, and the rest is history!

His favorite memories on campus were unironically during the pandemic when he and his friends would convene for dinner after a long day of online coursework. Because each of their face-to-face social interactions were mostly non-existent during that time, it made them appreciate the time spent together so much more.

Teaching Associate Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Mechanical Engineering Angelina Padilla, Ph.D. is his mentor; her style of teaching resonated with him the most, as it’s consistently methodical and well-organized. Due to the inherent complexity of the course material, Gatson spent hours in her office and she’s always been accommodating. Beyond the classroom, Padilla provided him with insight about graduate school and has given him ideas for the University's National Society of Black Engineers chapter, a club he founded this year with other students.

After graduation, Gatson will be embarking on a backpacking trip in South America before relocating to Los Angeles, where he will begin as a structures engineer at the SpaceX headquarters on the Dragon Mechanisms team. The Dragon spacecraft is capable of carrying up to seven passengers to and from Earth’s orbit, is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth and is the first private spacecraft to take humans to the space station.

Eva Sigrun Burgeson

Orvis School of Nursing

GPA: 3.982 Mentor: Shannon Richard ’08, ’12 MSN

Eva Burgeson and Shannon Richard smile in front of a wall.
Eva Burgeson and Shannon Richard.

Meet Eva Sigrun Burgeson, Fall 2023 Senior Scholar from the Orvis School of Nursing.

Eva Burgeson chose to attend the University of Nevada, Reno as an undergrad transfer student because it was only a few hours from her hometown and she loves all of the outdoor activities Reno has to offer. Because of the friendships she has made and the proximity to Lake Tahoe, she decided to stay in Reno to complete her second BSN at the University.

Burgeson has always known she wanted to work in some area of health care because she enjoys learning about the human body and ways to promote health. Throughout her first degree, she was involved in Kesem — an organization that supports children affected by a parent’s cancer. Being in Kesem, Burgeson has seen the fear of a devastating disease turn into a plethora of love and support. Through Kesem and working in the hospital as a CNA she knew that she wanted to be a nurse and provide this type of compassion and encouragement to her patients and their families.

Her favorite college memory is making friends in nursing school. There is a special bond you make with friends in this type of program and all of the new experiences they had together.

She chose Assistant Professor Shannon Richard ’08 (nursing), ’12 MSN as her mentor because she had the biggest impact on her as a student and a soon-to-be nurse. Richard’s passion and knowledge are so inspiring and makes her an important role model as Burgeson begins her career. She cannot thank Richard enough for the impact she has had on Burgeson and their cohort.

After graduation, Burgeson plans to work as a registered nurse at Renown in the oncology unit. She is excited to be a nurse and see what the future has in store for her.

Haley Katherine Ekberg

Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism

GPA: 3.865 Mentor: Paromita Pain, Ph.D.

Paromita Pain and Haley Ekberg stand outside on the quad, smiling.
Paromita Pain and Haley Ekberg.

Meet Haley Katherine Ekberg, Fall 2023 Senior Scholar from the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism.

Haley Ekberg chose to attend the University of Nevada, Reno because her mom attended the University for her undergraduate degree. After touring the campus in 2020, she knew she wanted to come to the University, too.

She was originally an art major but decided to switch to journalism to do something more practical that required critical thinking. Ekberg enjoys doing research projects and writing, and she thought it would be a good fit for her.

Her favorite college memory was joining the taekwondo club in 2021. She was able to make a lot of friends and meet her boyfriend in that club. She also had many fun nights out with the rest of the members, including going to the Black Rock Desert for bonfires.

She chose Associate Professor of Global Media Paromita Pain, Ph.D. as her mentor because she had three classes with her over the course of her undergraduate career. Pain has been a wonderful professor to learn from. She is welcoming, understanding, well-spoken and incredibly engaging. Pain is one of her favorite professors at the University.

After graduation, Haley plans to come back to the University in the near future to further her education. She also plans to work on personal projects, like developing a photography business.

Dai-Nien Tran

School of Public Health

GPA: 3.992 Mentor: Jennifer Pearson, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Jennifer Pearson and Dai-Nien Tran stand outside, smiling.
Jennifer Pearson and Dai-Nien Tran.

Meet Dai-Nien Tran, Fall 2023 Senior Scholar from the School of Public Health.

Dai-Nien Tran is originally from Las Vegas and wanted to go to college a bit further away from home. The University of Nevada, Reno was a great option because of how affordable it is and it has more of the traditional college feel.

Tran has always wanted to work in a field that has an impact in our communities and can truly help people. He picked his major during the COVID pandemic, realizing how vital public health is to the community. Public health tries to focus on upstream factors, or trying to prevent or solve problems before they happen, and can often have a major impact on people’s lives even if they do not realize it.

His favorite memories involved meeting and interacting with so many amazing people that led to many new relationships and experiences at the University. One moment in particular is when he got to meet Bill Nye when Nye presented a talk in the Lawlor Events Center.

Tran took his capstone course with Associate Professor Jennifer Pearson, Ph.D., M.P.H., which happened to be his favorite class he ever took at the University. That class helped to bring together everything he learned in previous classes. Pearson always valued student input and challenged them to think critically about the topics. Tran is excited to work with and continue learning from Pearson as a research assistant on a study regarding cannabis policy.

After graduating, Tran hopes to pursue a master’s of public health in epidemiology at the University and to eventually work directly in the field of public health at a health department.

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