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Celebrating Our Spring 2018 Graduates

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image of graduation
They worked hard and they prevailed. Meet several outstanding spring 2018 graduates who overcame a number of challenges to achieve their dreams. Read on to learn how these newly minted alums made the most out of their undergraduate experiences—and how they plan to make the world a better, more equitable place.

Jennifer Eze
Psychology, College of Liberal Arts

Image of Jennifer Eze
Fearless Leadership Institute, Front and Center, Black Student Alliance, Umoja

Pushing through…During her undergraduate years, Eze faced a number of challenges that have tested her limits. No matter what life throws her way, she calls upon a mantra to keep a level head.  “I went through—and am still going through—many areas of growth including finances, spiritual growth and tests and mental challenges. However, one quote that has got me through is, ‘In the end it will all be okay, and if it’s not okay it’s not the end.’ This quote has seen me through so many challenges that I never thought I could overcome. One thing I learned through all my adversities is that I am able. I’m able to overcome. I’m able to get through. And I’m able to conquer anything.”

Lessons in leadership…Of all her memories on campus, Eze is especially fond of the times she spent with her community in the Fearless Leadership Institute, a program within the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence that prepares young women of color for academic and personal success. “My greatest accomplishment has been all the connections and relationships I’ve made and fostered. I truly believe that God brought me here to teach me lessons about myself and about life. I’ve met, learned from, loved and received love from so many pivotal people I’m blessed to have met. Both my mentors and my friends have poured so much into me that I would not be who I am without them.”

Living a life of no regrets…As for the distant future, Eze isn’t quite sure where she’ll end up. However she does know that she’ll be pursuing a fulfilling career in the realm of helping others. “I hope to see myself happy. I hope that I have a career that includes everything that I love: social justice, art and theatre, children, ministry and mentoring. Though I don’t have the most clear picture of my future, I hope that in ten years I have no regrets in my life.”

Advice for future Longhorns… “One: Find a good mentor who can support you throughout your academic journey. Two: Have fun with college! Take on new experiences and push yourself out of your comfort zone (while being safe and responsible). Study abroad, explore Austin, try new food and live every day like it’s your last because tomorrow is never promised. And last but not least: It’s OK to not be OK sometimes. You will have hard moments and negative times, but you can overcome anything. Let yourself be sad because if you try to dismiss your emotions, they will come back to bite you. It’s okay to be down, but it is never okay to stay down. Pick yourself back up, or if you can’t, find someone to help you get back on your feet. And don’t ever give up, even when you’re ready to.”

Looking to a higher power…”For those who identify as Christian, or who simply know or want to know God: it’s almost impossible to do college without Him. There will be times when you have no one else but Him, but I promise, He’ll be all you need. Pray. Pray harder because college will test and try you. You can’t do it on your own, but you can do everything and anything through God who gives you strength. (Philippians 4:13).”

Irene Gomez
Sociology, College of Liberal Arts

Image of Irene Gomez
Austin City Hall Fellows, Liberal Arts Honors, Larry Temple Scholars, Bridging Disciplines, University Writing Center

Changing lanes…Early into her academic journey on the Forty Acres, Irene Gomez was on the fence about pursuing a writing career. After some thorough research, she found her path in education policy. “I looked into different avenues and found that I have a specific interest in advancing curriculums that are more diverse and culturally relevant to students.”

Stronger together…She was soon nominated to the Austin City Hall Fellows, a student-facilitated program within the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement that works to bridge the resource gap in historically underserved Austin neighborhoods.  “I like the idea that it’s very student-led and that we’re collaborating with these communities to learn how to build upon the strengths they already have.”

Community connections…Throughout the year-long program, Gomez worked with her team of fellows to connect Rundberg residents with food, clothing and public transportation through the local nonprofit Austin Voices for Education and Youth. “There are a lot of good programs within the community. People really put their heart and soul into their work, but they’re also stretched really thin.”

Stepping onto the porch…In addition to connecting East Austin residents with local resource centers and nonprofits, Gomez also attended Front Porch Gatherings, a series of evening events hosted by the Community Engagement Center. Working alongside researchers and community members, Gomez brainstormed potential solutions for some of Austin’s burgeoning problem areas in housing and education. “It was such a cool experience meeting with parents and education researchers at these gatherings. I’m really interested in culturally relevant pedagogy so it was a great opportunity to hear these conversations.”

Filling the diversity gap…Looking back at her past accomplishments, Gomez is especially proud of the impact she and her fellow students made on the Liberal Arts Honors program. Frustrated by the lack of diverse course listings, they conducted focus group surveys and proposed a list of multicultural courses and programs. Their efforts were well received and now more multicultural courses have been added to the program.  “How are we able to go out into the real world and make a difference if we’re not getting enough diversity in our courses?  Also, we want more recruitment of students of color and adding more diverse classes could be the final push to bring them into the program.”

Lessons learned… During her three years of volunteer work with the Liberal Arts Refugee Alliance, Gomez gained a new perspective that has forever shaped her pursuits in social justice.  “Over time, I got to know people on a personal level and built friendships with them. I realized that I have to treat everyone with respect and as my equal in all of my endeavors.”

On the right path… After graduation, Gomez will serve as a 2018-19 fellow for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. She’ll then pursue graduate school to prepare for a fulfilling career in education. “After grad school, I plan to come back to Texas and work on making the education system more equitable and more empowering for students of color.”

Advise for new Longhorns…“While seeking internships, try to get course credit. And instead of focusing on what looks good on your resume, look for opportunities that you genuinely care about. I was involved in a lot—and at times stretched myself too thin—but that internal drive got me through the hard times.”

Matt Thibault
Sociology, College of Liberal Arts

Image of Matt
Association for Latino Business Students of America, UT Austin Chapter

The gift that keeps giving…When Thibault embarked on his first semester at UT Austin, his excitement was overshadowed by a relentless pang of guilt. “The first big challenge at UT that I had to overcome was the guilt of leaving my family behind. I had to realize that they were supporting me every step of the way. Even though I wasn’t with them, they were the ones who pushed me to get here. The success of earning a degree was not my own; it was also a gift to them.”

Long-term gains…A first-generation college graduate, Thibault is determined to make a better life for himself and his family who live in a small town just south of San Antonio. “My first motivating factor for going to college was seeing my parents struggle to take care of my sister who has disabilities. The one thing I could do to help them was school—and I could do it well. I want to be the kind of person who works hard to take care of others and stand up for those who can’t advocate for themselves.”

Entering the school of hard knocks… Thibault’s next big challenge was planning out the next four years of his life on a massive college campus. “I had no idea how to plan my degree, so I had to figure it out on my own. It ended up being the school of hard knocks. I made a lot of mistakes and had a lot of anxiety, but in the end it was something I had to teach myself. Now this is something I know how to do and can pass down to my brother and sister.”

Brotherly love…Looking back at his academic journey, Thibault is grateful for his big brother who also experienced a short stint of college life at UT Austin. Though he left school to work full time, he understood his little brother’s struggles and was determined to see him graduate. “Whenever I needed help, he’d be there. There was a point when I was burned out, discouraged and close to dropping out. But he would drive to campus and assure me that I could do this. If I had been on my own completely, I don’t think I’d still be here today.”

Finding a community…Thibault really hit his stride when he joined the UT Austin chapter of the Association of Latino Professionals for America. While serving as a member—and later a director—of the group, he found job opportunities, networked with business leaders and forged friendships with students from similar backgrounds. “The best choice I ever made was joining this organization. I found a connection with people who really helped me structure my goals at UT. Many of them were first-gen and they understood where I was coming from and helped me see that I wasn’t alone.”

Advice for future first-generation Longhorns…”It’s easy to feel that you don’t belong here. That’s why it’s so important to join a group and discovering that a lot of people have stories like yours. Just don’t isolate yourself and feel that you’re the only one dealing with these challenges. There’s plenty of students who share your story and your passion.”

Banner photo by Marsha Miller and Juan Figueroa, University Communications