Whether conquering obstacles to achieving their educational goals, using a disability to teach about diversity or excelling in their academic pursuits, members of the University of Northern Colorado's class of fall 2013 are now poised to make a difference during the next chapter of their lives. Here are profiles of just a few.
(Related: Slide show below of new grads celebrating their achievement)
‘If you keep trying, you will fulfill your dream'
Wafa Yacoub's journey to the stage at the Graduate School's fall commencement ceremony Dec. 13 is about more than the 7,000 miles she traveled from her native Palestine.
It required leaving friends and family behind to escape the belief among some Middle Eastern Muslim families that even the two-year college education needed to be a teacher is wasted on women.
But first it involved surviving a childhood in refugee camps.
Yacoub, who was born in a one-room hut in a refugee camp in 1960s Israeli-occupied Palestine, remembers being hungry most of the time, always being cold in the winter, and as a 5-year-old, living for several days in a "foxhole" her grandfather dug by hand to provide a semblance of shelter for the family of eight during ongoing shelling and bombing.
The family survived that and subsequent hardships in other camps, and Yacoub eventually earned an associate degree in mathematics in 1982 from a UN-sponsored school in Jordan so she could teach in an elementary school.
A job teaching -- something she'd wanted since childhood -- and the marriage and two children that followed, kept Yacoub occupied for a few years, but then she realized she wasn't totally satisfied. She knew she was capable of learning - and teaching - more.
The family immigrated to Canada so she could pursue her goal. She earned a mathematics bachelor's degree in 1999 from Toronto's York University while balancing the demands of running a household, being a full-time student, learning a new language and adapting to a new culture.
"I wasn't satisfied yet," Yacoub said. "I wanted to continue learning and wasn't going to let anything get in the way of that."
And continue learning she did, earning a master's degree in Mathematics from San Jose State University that required finishing her degree requirements from Colorado, where the family moved in 2003 when the dotcom bust left her husband unemployed.
Yacoub then spent four years as a part-time adjunct math instructor, teaching at two Denver-area community colleges and CU's Boulder and Denver campuses before realizing she wanted still more education.
That brought her to UNC, where her advisor, Professor of Applied Statistics and Research Methods Maria Lahman, and Jenni Harding-Kekam, an associate professor in the School of Teacher Education, helped her design an interdisciplinary doctoral major combining Mathematics Education and Applied Statistics and Research Methods.
Then, as Yacoub was beginning the final year of her program and preparing to defend her dissertation, she was diagnosed with a genetic bone disease and underwent four major surgeries in nine months. But she persevered.
"If you have a goal in mind, even if the whole world seems to be standing in your way, if you keep trying, you will fulfill your dream," Yacoub said.
She used her dissertation as an opportunity to study the experiences of Arabic mothers and their children in the American public school system.
She hopes to use what she learned to help other immigrants from the Middle East navigate the school systems and adapt to their new culture.
But first, after a journey of some 30 years, she hopes to finally fulfill her dream of obtaining a tenure-track faculty position teaching math and statistics at a university.
Using a disability to teach about diversity
Paige Speigelberg, who's leaving UNC with a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education, will use it and what some people - but not her - might consider a disability to teach her students about diversity.
When she was 3, Spiegelberg's right arm had to be amputated below the elbow after the limb was accidentally caught in a meat grinder at home.
She says she doesn't remember much about the incident and that it seems like having just one hand has always been a part of her life.
"I've really never known any different," Spiegelberg said. "I found ways to adjust and never really found it a problem to adapt to doing things without it."
She tried wearing a prosthesis, but ultimately found it was easier to do many things without it.
Speigelberg, from Littleton, Colo., said teaching is something she always gravitated toward, but that she denied it for a while because she was an amputee.
"Then I realized that's actually one of the main reasons why I should do it," she said. "I think it's good to teach kids at a young age that they're going to meet people throughout their life who are different and who are unique, but that shouldn't stop them from recognizing that everyone is capable of doing the same things."
And that's how Speigelberg approached the topic during her student teaching experience fall semester with a fifth-grade class. When the first curious student asked about her missing hand, she addressed the entire class.
"I was upfront with them and told them what happened, but pointed out that some people with a disability might not want to answer questions about it and they should respect that," she said. "Then I told them ‘You're going to meet a lot of people who look different and have different abilities, but that's one of the things that makes our world so neat, because different people make life really interesting."
As proof, Speigleberg was active in UNC's President's Leadership Program, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and the campus Relay for Life organizing committee; participated in two Alternative Spring Break experiences; spent a semester studying abroad in Ireland; and worked in UNC's Technical Support Center for two years.
She plans to substitute teach to hone her skills while she waits until UNC's Teacher Employment Days in April. She hopes to leave with a job offer.
Speigelberg said her friends sometimes tell her that they forget she's an amputee because she's able to do everything they can do.
"You know, I kind of forget too because it doesn't limit me," she said.
History in his future
Although he's not sure yet where his bachelor's degree from UNC will ultimately take him professionally, Owen Volzke knows it will involve history.
The uncertainty for Volzke, who graduated summa cum laude (3.9-4.0 GPA) with a History major and secondary education emphasis, is the result of the internship he served at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., this past summer before his final semester at UNC.
Until then, the only question in his mind was whether he'd use his degree to teach on the high school level or go to graduate school to prepare for teaching at the college level.
Now, after what could be described as a life-changing experience at the national museum, he sees another option.
"At this point I'm planning on working either as a history teacher or in a museum until I apply for graduate school in a year or so," he said. "As I move forward, I cannot fathom my internship not influencing how I approach history." Read more about the internship.
Either way, the award-winning history student seems bound for success.
After winning the College of Humanities and Social Sciences' Student Scholar Award in 2012, Volzke learned in April that he was one of just 15 university students in the U.S. to receive a 2013 Gilder Lehrman History Scholar Award recognizing academic excellence in the study of American history.
The award included travel and lodging and meals for a June 7-10 trip to New York City, where winners enjoyed a celebratory formal dinner and participated in a program of special presentations, including meetings with eminent history scholars, and tours of the historic Gilder Lehrman Foundation archives.
Students from Ivy League and private universities traditionally dominate the competition, which requires students to submit a writing sample, letters of recommendation and transcripts.
Passionate about leadership and Greek life
Lauren Zdanowitz's passion for leadership and Greek life were evident both on and off campus while she pursued her bachelor's degree in Business Administration with an emphasis in marketing.
Zdanowitz, from Westminster, Colo., was a member of UNC's President's Leadership Program, served as administrative assistant for the Student Senate during her final semester and as election commissioner last year, and was the student representative on UNC's Board of Trustees during the 2011-12 academic year.
She also was a site leader on two Alternative Spring Break service trips, and topped off her time at UNC by being selected as the student speaker for the morning undergraduate fall commencement ceremony.
Her involvement with Sigma Kappa Sorority included serving as president her senior year and as vice president of alumnae her junior year, while also serving as president of the Junior Panhellenic Council.
Zdanowitz spent her summers feeding her interest in government relations and leadership. She spent this summer as an intern in Senator Mark Udall's Greeley office, the summer before in Washington, D.C., as a program advisor for the Fund for American Studies' Institute on Business and Government Affairs, and the summer before that as a government relations intern with the D.C.-based Security Industry Association.
In addition to regularly making the Dean's List, she earned a Monfort College of Business award for Excellence in Marketing Research and Sigma Kappa's Pearl Award for Academic Excellence three times.
While her ultimate goal is a job in government relations in the nation's capital, Zdanowitz has applied for a position with Sigma Kappa's national office to provide leadership training to the sorority's chapters at colleges and universities across the nation.
She says her advice for other students at UNC is simple.
"Don't be afraid to take chances and don't underestimate what you're capable of," Zdanowitz said.
Don't tell her she can't
As the student speaker in UNC's afternoon undergraduate commencement ceremony, Jeri Salas related how she was told in high school that she had a 2 percent chance of graduating because of where she came from and what she looked like. Although she didn't say who told her that, they didn't know Salas very well.
Not only did she graduate from Denver West High School with honors and without missing a day of school, her bachelor's degree in Social Science from UNC gave her the distinction of being the first member of her family to earn a college degree.
Salas hopes to use her personal experience and what she learned in pursuit of her degree to help urban youth follow in her footsteps.
"For many kids in urban environments, there's not much to look forward to in life," Salas said. "I'd like to try to give them something to aspire to."
Salas will be well-prepared to inspire those youth.
In addition to internships she served with youth-oriented nonprofits in Denver, as an intern in UNC's Student Teacher Education Program, she completed all three levels of the Secondary Professional Teacher Education Program model, including more than 150 hours of field experience in Greeley-area middle and high schools.
She also was a volunteer volleyball coach for a local middle school and provided world history, U.S. government and psychology tutoring to students at Greeley Central High School.
Salas, who served as a staff liaison for UNC's Cesar Chavez Cultural Center for more than three years, also was active in the school's chapter of Pi Lambda
Chi Latina Sorority, serving as its president during the 2011-12 academic year.
Salas' charge to her fellow graduates at commencement also serves as sound advice for all students.
"There is no reason to settle for anything less than your best, no matter who you are or where you come from, in anything you set your mind to, in anything you start, finish!"
Distance is no barrier
With her own experiences living in a global society, Alyssa Allgaier wrote her master's thesis on a cultural exchange project she developed for her class at an international school in Shanghai.
Her "twinning" project connected high school students in her classroom with students living in different countries. Students shared information about themselves and their worlds, both electronically and through the mail system. The project concluded six months later with a theatrical performance.
"The project was designed to help remove prejudices and stereotypes," said Allgaier, who adopted the concept from Noel Greig's book, Young People, New Theatre. "The final presentation included a montage of monologues, short scenes, movement-based pieces, soundscapes and film clips, all of which were devised by the participating students and were based upon their findings and experiences."
Having taught in England and Ireland before arriving in China, Allgaier took advantage of UNC's Theatre Education graduate program — a combination of online courses with three-week campus institutes over the summer and a final thesis designed for teachers like her, who can continue to work anywhere in the world while enrolled.
The two-year program, which admits 12 students a year and had 65 applicants last year, is the only master's Theatre Education program with an online component and with short face-to-face sessions in campus workshops over the summer.
Professor Mary Schuttler, who co-directs the program with her colleague Gillian McNally, visited Allgaier to conduct a workshop in Shanghai last summer and was struck by the enormity of staging a production there. Finding staging materials, even costumes, was challenging, she said.
Algaier called the twinning project, which she linked with a classroom of a fellow student she met in UNC's Theatre Education program, the "most rewarding experience I've had in my career."
"As my students compared their world with the world of their twin, they saw things from a different perspective and also began to question their own environment," she said. "Participating in the twinning project is a way to prepare students for a successful cultural integration in an ever-growing global community."
‘Immerse yourself in college life'
Like others in her graduating class, Emily Musumecci correlates her level of involvement at UNC with her academic success. Perhaps that's why she graduated summa cum laude (3.9-4.0 GPA) with bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Art and Design.
Musumecci worked as a student assistant for UNC's Women's Resource Center, participated in UNC's student photography club, Behind the Lens, and also worked in the Graduate School.
Despite the sometimes overwhelming schedule of work, late nights and study sessions common to most students, Musumecci, said she found her balance amidst the chaos of college.
"It's a day-to-day challenge to find your balance," she said, "but I've gotten better at it."
She offers solid advice for students who also want to succeed while at college. She urges them to immerse themselves in college life and get involved with clubs and organizations.
"I know it gets annoying to hear, but it gives you a sense of belonging," Musumecci said.
She also advises that studying must be the first priority.
"Even if you just like to hang out at coffee shops, find time to study there," she said. "Find some way to relate studying back to your hobbies."
Overall, she says college is just about enjoying the ride. Musumecci loves that college brings something new every day. "That's what makes it fun," she said.
Musumecci, from Golden, Colo., paired sociology with art because of her great passion for both. She plans to find a photography job within the magazine industry so she can incorporate both fields into her work.
'Study your passions'
Abby Crisafulli plans to impact the world in a big way, but right now she isn't sure where her life is headed.
As a summa cum laude graduate (3.9-4.0 GPA) with a bachelor's degree in International Affairs, she says it doesn't matter if she works in the U.S. or outside of it, as long as she makes a difference through her efforts.
Crisafulli credits the many activities she was involved in at UNC for helping her stay motivated. They included, to name a few, singing in the Women's Glee Club and playing intermural soccer.
She received the International Affairs Department's Certificate of Excellence award for her outstanding academic performance and was one of a few students selected to present in the Catalyst: Social Justice Retreat, where she discussed modern day social issues with other UNC students.
One of her favorite memories of UNC is the School of Music's annual holiday concert, where different groups in the school's performance program come together to share in the spirit of the season while creating top-notch music.
"The entire program comes out to play, and it just makes for a mind-blowing experience," Crisafulli said. "I'm so lucky to be part of it."
Crisafulli, from Longmont, Colo., wants to use her degree to get involved with large communities as well as aid people on an individual scale. After she has some experience under her belt, she eventually wants to work in public affairs.
She urges students following in her footsteps to study their passions.
"The college experience is a lot more than the academic side of things, but if you like the things you are learning, it's easier to get through the more difficult parts of the experience," she said.
Slide Show: New Grads Celebrate Their Achievement