Tassel town — Anteater class of ’18 is ready to tackle the future

A sea of caps, gowns and hoods will sweep through the Bren Events Center this month as more than 7,000 UCI students take part in four days of graduation ceremonies – from Friday, June 15, through Monday, June 18. Reflecting UCI’s ranking as one of the nation’s best schools at helping students of all backgrounds achieve academic and career success, half of the university’s undergraduate degrees will be awarded to Anteaters who are the first in their families to finish college. This high percentage of traditionally underserved students is one factor behind UCI’s growing collection of national accolades. The New York Times has twice rated UCI No. 1 among U.S. universities doing the most for the American dream. And Forbes magazine just ranked UCI fourth in the country for delivering the best value, based on tuition costs, school quality, alumni earnings, student debt and on-time graduation. Overall, UCI will grant nearly 10,000 diplomas this academic year: 8,616 bachelor’s degrees, 687 master’s degrees, 115 law degrees (that school’s commencement was May 12) and 335 doctorates (including 95 M.D.s honored June 2). Here are the stories of some of our 2018 graduates:

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Angelica Rowell
Her 3 favorite jazz singers:
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Billie Holiday

B.A. drama | B.Mus. vocal performance

Since age 3, when she belted out a toddler rendition of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Angelica Rowell has loved singing. By high school, the Concord, California, native was part of a female barbershop quartet and swing jazz choir. She also launched a series of YouTube videos in which she covers everyone from Elvis Presley to Radiohead. At UCI, majoring in both vocal performance and drama, Rowell fired up her pipes as a sorceress in the opera “Dido and Aeneas” and in the ensemble cast of “Evita.” Off campus, she helped lead the choir at her church. After graduation, Rowell hopes to find work performing and telling the stories of minorities and women onstage in Los Angeles, while making ends meet with side gigs offering voice lessons and crafting custom Mickey Mouse ears.

– Roy Rivenburg, UCI

Her 3 favorite professors:
  • Peter Bowler, senior lecturer in ecology & evolutionary biology and director of the UCI Arboretum
  • Richard Matthew, professor of urban planning & public policy and director of the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation
  • Nancy Guerra, dean of the School of Social Ecology and professor of psychology & social behavior

B.S. biological sciences

As a child in Uganda, Lydia Natoolo walked several miles to school each day. Her parents instilled in her a deep appreciation for education, and even when her family lacked food and electricity, she rarely skipped class. Watching friends and family members contract preventable diseases throughout her childhood inspired Natoolo to pursue further studies in America, where she hoped to become a doctor. After a decade spent moving from Massachusetts to California, battling homelessness and graduating from community college as valedictorian, Natoolo came to UCI. Now president of the Associated Students of UCI, she splits her time among classes, student government and her own nonprofit. Love a Community brings running water, solar electricity and other resources to a hospital in her home country – slashing its mortality rate by almost 90 percent. Through a new initiative she’s undertaken as a UCI Dalai Lama Scholar, Natoolo is introducing HIV-positive Ugandan mothers to the textile business so they can support their families. After she walks across the commencement stage this month with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, Natoolo will begin applying for M.D. as well as Ph.D. programs, in order to “change the current medical policies in Africa, making them sustainable and effective.”

– Megan Cole, UCI

Yessenia Lemus
Her 3 favorite CEOs:
  • Sophia Amoruso (Nasty Gal and Girlboss Media)
  • Ursula Burns (Xerox)
  • Oprah Winfrey (Oprah Winfrey Network and Harpo Productions)

B.A. business administration | B.A. sociology

It all started with a middle school tour of UCI. When it came time to apply for college, Yessenia Lemus remembered the beautiful setting and vibrant students she had seen that day. Although she’d be the first in her family to go to college, and Irvine was very different both geographically and culturally from her Compton neighborhood, Lemus knew she’d excel. The campus environment inspired her to expand her intellectual boundaries and pursue a double major in business administration and sociology. A SAGE Scholar, Lemus also worked as an intern at Kingston Technology. After graduation, she’ll spend a year gaining additional real-world experience through work and travel before applying to MBA programs. But no matter where in the world she goes, Lemus says, “UCI was the birthplace of my adult development and lifelong friendships, so it will always have a special place in my mind and heart.”

– Pat Harriman, UCI

Veronica Newhart
Her 3 favorite on-screen robots:
  • WALL-E
  • Rosie (from “The Jetsons”)
  • Robby the Robot

Ph.D. education

Sparked by her own experience as a child whose congenital heart condition kept her home from school for weeks at a time, Veronica Newhart has become an international leader on the use of telepresence robots in the classroom. Her research and development have not only garnered global attention, but also resulted in a 2016 senior class gift allowing UCI students homebound due to cancer treatment or a high-risk pregnancy, for example, to pursue their education uninterrupted via robot. Passionate about formulating a way to educate children who can’t always attend school that takes into consideration their emotional, social and intellectual needs, Newhart – who recently earned a doctorate in education – will be continuing her groundbreaking work. She was awarded and has begun a highly competitive postdoctoral fellowship in the National Institutes of Health-funded UCI Institute for Clinical & Translational Science.

– Pat Harriman, UCI

Pedro Castillo
The 3 best uses for rockets, in his opinion:
  • Helping humans become an interplanetary species
  • As a means to collect data to improve our understanding of space
  • As a tool for deploying space stations, satellites and probes

B.S. mechanical & aerospace engineering

Pedro Castillo’s interest in STEM used to get him in trouble. “My dad [a mechanic] got mad at me and my brothers for dismantling our bikes in the driveway,” says the first-generation college graduate (almost). “We just wanted to be able to fix our own machines, like him.” Starting this summer, Castillo will get to tinker with more sophisticated technologies at his “dream job” in Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division – a trajectory that was not always clear for the UCI Rocket Project team member. Castillo’s family emigrated from violence-plagued Guatemala in 2010. His Antelope Valley high school lacked Advanced Placement courses and robotics clubs but offered great counseling and support. At UCI, Castillo volunteered to try to generate interest in science among Latino middle schoolers in Orange County. “It allowed me to give back to the community and be a mentor for kids during a crucial stage in their development,” he says.

– Brian Bell, UCI

Her 3 favorite writers:
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Abu Al-Alaa Al-Ma'arri

B.A. philosophy | B.A. French | B.A. comparative literature

Aya Labanieh remembers watching international news on television with her father when she was young, always staying up to date on developments in their home country, Syria, but she didn’t find her own passion for politics until America’s 2016 election. The triple major – philosophy, French and comparative literature – was introduced to UCI’s political scene through student debates during the presidential election season, and last year, Labanieh herself became president of the College Democrats at UCI, a group she has led through countless marches, protests and activism events. The New York Times and the Orange County Register have featured her as a local leader of young Democrats, working on issues such as housing insecurity and voter registration. Labanieh augments her political fervor with a love of world literature and philosophy, which inform her understanding of international relations and the human motivations behind government strategy. She’s headed to Columbia University this fall to begin a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and Labanieh has already contacted New York Democratic Party organizations in hopes of maintaining the balance between academic and activist that she has perfected at UCI.

– Megan Cole, UCI

Santiago Martin
His 3 favorite Google searches:
  • What sound does an anteater make?
  • Does it rain in Seattle?
  • Is the sumo dead lift cheating?

B.S. computer science

Santa Ana native Santiago Martin is a study in contrasts. After transferring here from Orange Coast College, he used his brawn as a member of the UCI Powerlifting Club and his brains to earn the computer science degree he’ll receive this month. But the keyboard cruncher sees no conflict: “In the weight room, I pursued discipline, consistency, patience, approaching challenges strategically and knowing my limits – all of which helped me succeed as a programmer.” The hard work and sweat paid off; Martin is soon moving to Seattle for a job at Google. He says that being at UCI, where his uncle and sister also studied, helped everything fall into place. Career fairs hosted by the Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences pointed him to a summer internship at Amazon, which impressed his future employer. And being the creator of the Press Strength Training mobile device app also boosted his profile.

– Brian Bell, UCI

Star Leal
Her 3 greatest inspirations:
  • My mom, Cora Barker
  • My husband, Ryan Leal
  • My children, Layla, 6; Ariana, 4; Cruz, 2; and 1-month-old Cameron


It was a busy week, even for superachiever Star Leal. On Sunday, May 6, she gave birth to her fourth child, Cameron. By Saturday, she was on the dais as the UCI School of Law’s student commencement speaker, selected by her classmates. “It feels surreal,” she said before the speech, in which she thanked her “supportive husband, who embraces the chaos with me.” Leal, 29, from West Palm Beach, Florida, has fit a lot into her three years here, and it’s all been dedicated to helping kids. In addition to pursuing her legal degree to practice special education law, she has undertaken myriad volunteer activities. A toy drive Leal started garnered more than $8,000 and 200-plus toys over two years for foster youth and children living in shelters or with special needs. Her Mother’s Day gift to her own mom this year was her commencement speech. “She has been my biggest inspiration in life. She was a single parent who worked multiple jobs to raise my brothers and me,” Leal says. “She told me I was going to be a lawyer since I was in kindergarten, so it was amazing to have her here when I walked across the stage.”

– Janet Wilson, UCI

Samuel Saenz
His 3 greatest influences:
  • My family
  • My partner, Bianca Argueza, a pediatrician
  • Dr. David Kilgore, UCI professor of family medicine


The drive to serve defines Samuel Saenz and his 10 School of Medicine classmates in UCI’s Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community who became physicians at their June 2 commencement ceremony. A five-year master’s-M.D. program, PRIME-LC is the first of its kind specifically designed to train future doctors to meet the distinctive needs of Latinos, and it’s a model for similar endeavors across the country. In addition to classroom and clinical studies, PRIME-LC students volunteer in Latin American clinics from Mexico to South America. These international sojourns create lifetime memories. Saenz – who also earned a Master of Public Health and will start a residency in psychiatry at Stanford University this summer – fondly recalls his rotation in Peru. When he wasn’t in the hospital’s infectious diseases ward, he was joining locals on a street soccer pitch and playing ukulele with his friends in Lima. “PRIME-LC has been the best part of my medical school experience,” Saenz says. “I look forward to contributing to this wonderful family as a proud alumnus.”

– Tom Vasich, UCI

Manisha Ati
Her 3 favorite things about UCI:
  • Faculty in the School of Nursing
  • Reputation of the STEM community
  • Her diverse nursing classmates

M.S. nursing science

Nursing graduate student Manisha Ati is slowing the spread of preventable diseases in Southern California, where she discovered her love of community health a decade ago. In 2008, Ati joined AmeriCorps and worked alongside nurse practitioners in a Costa Mesa school district. This “life-changing” experience inspired her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing at New York University – and later a master’s degree in nursing science at UCI, which Ati will earn this month. Following her public health passion, she has spent a year conducting research at UCI’s Family Health Center in Santa Ana, implementing a screening and treatment program for latent tuberculosis. The Orange County Health Care Agency and California Department of Public Health support her project, which seeks to eliminate TB in high-risk, foreign-born populations. Ati hopes to continue promoting such community health initiatives after graduating, when she will begin working full time as a family nurse practitioner in Los Angeles. “The tuberculosis project has shown me the power of community clinics to make a difference in public health,” Ati says. “I hope to make the same screening processes feasible throughout Southern California and, eventually, everywhere.”

– Megan Cole, UCI

His 3 favorite video games:
  • “Overwatch”
  • “MapleStory 2”
  • “Fortnite”

B.S. pharmaceutical sciences

Along with a bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences, Aaron Boyer will graduate this June with a string of national accolades from his time on UCI’s esports team – an opportunity he almost missed. Although he has been gaming since childhood, Boyer was hesitant to join UCI’s esports team when it launched two years ago – until his parents encouraged him to try out. He made the team, earning a prestigious “Overwatch” scholarship. “I know lots of esports players who struggle to find support from their families, so I feel very fortunate to have mine,” Boyer says. “They’ve watched every stream of my matches and drove to Arizona this year to watch the finals live, even making custom T-shirts and signs and sitting in the front row.” He says esports instilled in him a competitive streak that has helped him succeed in rigorous classes. After leaving UCI, Boyer will take a gap year before starting graduate studies in pharmacy, with the goal of becoming a pharmacist. “I want to use my UCI education to support my future family – and also repay my parents for everything they’ve given me,” he says.

– Megan Cole, UCI

Derek Du Bois
His 3 favorite books
  • “Bad Science,” by Ben Goldacre
  • “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” by Steven Pinker
  • “Tuesdays With Morrie,” by Mitch Albom

B.S. chemistry

The second time was the charm for Derek Du Bois. After enrolling at UCI a decade ago and compiling miserable grades, he dropped out and spent the next seven years bouncing around the U.S. and even Australia dabbling in various occupations, including pizza deliveryman, real estate agent, video store clerk, firefighter trainee and national park restaurant waiter. In 2016, Du Bois decided to give the Anteater kingdom another whirl. Majoring in chemistry, he quickly impressed a teaching assistant, who recommended him for a spot in Professor James Nowick’s research lab. There, Du Bois got hooked on “the joy of discovering” while conducting experiments on the antimicrobial properties of a new antibiotic. He also co-authored a chemistry journal research paper and landed a $4,000 fellowship from Allergan. Hoping to eventually become a research chemist, Du Bois is set to begin doctoral studies this fall at the University of Michigan.

– Roy Rivenburg, UCI

Philip Terry Chen
His 3 favorite late-night study drinks:
  • Lavender green tea latte
  • Caffé latte
  • Monster Energy


An unfavorable encounter with organic chemistry forced Philip Terry Chen to rethink his career aspirations. Instead of studying to be a physician who would treat individual patients, the Hacienda Heights resident decided to major in public health policy and treat entire communities. After earning his bachelor’s degree at UCI in 2014, the first-generation college grad headed to Oakland for a stint with AmeriCorps, during which he developed an after-school academic program in gardening and cooking for at-risk youth. He also taught the students how to make sculptures from cardboard, a skill he still uses to craft “Star Wars” Stormtrooper helmets, light sabers and other movie props. In 2016, Chen returned to UCI for a Master of Public Health. Following graduation, he hopes to find work protecting blue-collar employees from dangerous chemicals and other job hazards.

– Roy Rivenburg, UCI

Skyler Phamle
Her 3 biggest positive influences:
  • My mother, Loan Le
  • My Santa Ana College counselor, Jane Mathis
  • My UCI mentor, Rosezetta Henderson

B.A. psychology & social behavior

Four years ago, Skyler Phamle came to the United States from Vietnam speaking almost no English. This month, she’ll graduate from UCI with a bachelor’s degree in psychology & social behavior. As a girl in Saigon, Phamle heard her parents speak occasionally of her mother’s siblings. They had perished one by one on perilous boat journeys to America after the city fell to the North Vietnamese. “Most of my aunts’ and uncles’ bodies were lost in the ocean,” says Phamle, now 25. Her parents saved money for years to bring her and her older brother to the U.S. Now she wants to repay their hard work and help other impoverished international students navigate university life. This fall, she’ll begin earning an M.S. in counseling (with a student development in higher education option) at California State University, Long Beach. A Santa Ana College mentor convinced Phamle that she could attend a four-year college. UCI provided scholarships and other support. “I want to thank UCI,” she says. “Over there [in Vietnam], if you don’t have money, you can’t do things. Here, if you have the skills and you have the knowledge, even if you’re broke, you can make it.”

– Janet Wilson, UCI

Iman Siddiqi
Her 3 favorite foods:
  • Fish tacos
  • Lasagna
  • Hummus

B.A. political science | B.A. global Middle East studies

It began with a family trip to Turkey. When political science and global Middle East studies major Iman Siddiqi visited the country three years ago, she encountered a number of Syrian refugee families and saw firsthand the impact of that nation’s ongoing civil war. When Siddiqi returned home to Irvine, she couldn’t forget the experience. She enrolled in Arabic classes at UCI, and through online conversations with Syrians, she met many refugees who had been students and scholars but whose academic dreams had been cut short by the conflict. Siddiqi used her new language skills to help them find educational opportunities abroad, but she wanted to do more. As a UCI Dalai Lama Scholar, Siddiqi orchestrated a fundraiser in November that netted nearly $100,000 for refugee scholarships; in January, she organized Refugee Awareness Week on campus through her club, Peaceful Passions. Siddiqi will leave for Oakland the day after commencement (where she’ll be the School of Social Sciences speaker) to participate in a summerlong Arabic language immersion program. After that, she’ll come back to UCI as a law student and continue fighting for refugee rights.

– Megan Cole, UCI

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