Every year, it sneaks up on us—that moment when we have to say a fond farewell to our graduates as they begin the next chapter in their lives. So many will have achieved so much even before they set foot in Yankee Stadium on Commencement Day, and we look forward to seeing how they carry their NYU education with them into a world we know they will change for the better. Members of this year's extraordinary graduating class have designed spacecrafts for NASA, worked at the White House, won Marshall Scholarships, and found their authentic voices on stage, just to mention a few accomplishments—and we can't wait to find out what they'll do next. A few of their stories appear below. Please join us in offering our warmest congratulations to the Class of 2016.
For Robert Clinton, the value of cooking goes beyond the printed page and the kitchen.
“Food is innately personal and also unifying,” he explains. “Everyone has to eat, and everyone can have a voice through food.”
He points to Robert Roberts—a 19th-century domestic worker who became the first black American to be published commercially with his 1827 book The House Servant’s Directory—and to The Woman Suffrage Cookbook, an 1886 volume that contained right-to-vote notes between passages on soups and stews while also providing women with funds, skills, and networking opportunities to further their movement.
Taking a cue from the past, Clinton has created a cookbook that he says “tells the stories of the people who have become my de facto family at New York University.”
This senior project involved interviewing professors, dining hall workers, administrators, and friends, turning the favorite recipes of their ancestors into an ethnographic study.
“I’ve learned to see those I’ve known the past four years in a different light,” Clinton says. “There are often a lot of barriers in higher education—at least what we see on the surface. But when you interact with people in the kitchen, you see more of who people are and where they come from.”
Clinton’s concentration at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, the sociology and politics of urban agriculture, has taken him from an indigenous farm in Ghana to Germany, where, as a Gallatin Global Fellow in Urban Practice, he conducted independent research on the relationship between religion, environmentalism, and national identity as expressed in the sustainability practices of ethnic Germans and Muslim Turkish immigrants.
Clinton was selected as a 2016 Marshall Scholar, and over the next two years, he will pursue two master’s degrees at University College London. He then plans to return to the United States to attend law school—and, undoubtedly, for some home cooking.
Of all the Sherlock Holmes stories told through the books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the most intriguing takes place beyond their pages: the way that fans have formed a vibrant and creative culture around the tales.
“Fan fiction, which is a form of writing that builds on characters and settings from a source text, is one of the most popular ways for fans to engage with the stories they love,” observes Alexandra Braverman, who graduates this year from the College of Arts and Science.
For her English thesis project, Braverman—a double major in history and English—studied the way that Sherlock Holmes fan fiction establishes its own generic conventions and satisfies readers’ desires.
As her history thesis project, Braverman explored female involvement in Sherlock Holmes fan culture and how this exemplified shifting gender roles in 20th-century America.
“Holmes is the most adapted character of all time,” Braverman notes. “He became a way for certain subcultures to express them-selves outside of mainstream popular culture. By studying fan fiction, we can see how a story can be lifted from its original intentions and used in a transformative way by others.”
Braverman’s theses are two of many undertakings that involve the construction, processing, understanding, and teaching of language.
As the daughter of a now-former Treasury Department official, she’s lived in Jordan, Ukraine, and the Netherlands. At NYU, she studied at the Prague global site and, last summer, served as an intern at the US Embassy in Berlin, writing and editing speeches for Ambassador John Emerson.
On campus, Braverman, whose family hails from Iowa, served as a tutor at NYU’s Learning Center, tutoring non-native English speakers in the written and spoken word.
“I think of language as a means for listeners and readers to create their own narratives,” she says.
Mónika Guzmán Estrada came of age in a legal twilight in Los Angeles, living with her mother and grandfather as an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala.
But Guzmán Estrada’s life is coming full circle as she graduates with a Master of Social Work, poised to begin a career as a clinical social worker focusing on immigrant youth and families.
As she recounts her journey to—and through—the Silver School of Social Work, tears stream down her cheeks, testifying to her appreciation of how far she has traveled to reach this milestone.
In 2014, shortly after finally gaining legal residency in the United States, Guzmán Estrada stood in Washington Square Park with her mother, a nanny whose own schooling had ended after high school but who always placed a premium on higher education for her daughter.
“She said, ‘I really can see you here. This is the school for you,’ ” Guzmán Estrada recalls.
In that moment, Guzmán Estrada, a graduate of California State University, Los Angeles, decided to leap into the Silver School’s rigorous classroom offerings and fieldwork opportunities, concentrating in clinical social work and studying, in part, in Puebla, Mexico, and Buenos Aires. There, she was part of a pioneering group of students studying abroad for a full semester and cocreated a student group called Breathing Room.
She also served in a Lower East Side high school, assisting Latino immigrants needing concrete services and social, emotional, and mental health support.
In her fieldwork, Guzmán Estrada quickly earned the respect of teenagers supremely challenged—as she once was—by the circumstances of the new immigrant.
“You shouldn’t let it define you or limit you,” she says. “It actually fueled me—to work harder and dream big.”
Disillusioned by the vagaries of the entertainment-production industry in which he was working, Keith Gildea contemplated entering a field that would provide stability while allowing him to indulge his interest in creating things with his hands.
Having always been good at science and math, Gildea realized that mechanical engineering might be the right career for him.
A month after that epiphany, Gildea was accepted to the Tandon School of Engineering. He approached his studies with intense focus—and with the added burden of needing to work to support himself. He soon found a job at Portent Technologies helping to design drones, and when not working or studying, he could be found in the school’s mechatronics lab, where he helped build CAESAR—the Cellularly-Accessible, Expressive, Semi-Autonomous Robot.
Gildea earned a 4.0 GPA his first year and decided to aim for what he considered a pinnacle of his field: working at NASA. “I had always been interested in space exploration,” he says, “and particularly after the Mars rover Curiosity landed on Gale Crater in late 2012, I began to think about being affiliated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”
No one familiar with his tenacity was surprised when Gildea won a NASA internship after his junior year. He was there—working on a proof-of-concept model of a craft that might one day enable the direct photography of exoplanets—when he received an email from Tan-don. They were seeking students to join a team to compete in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Challenge, which entailed building a pod meant to speed freight and passengers at more than 700 miles an hour through a futuristic transportation system.
Gildea spent much of his senior year helping design and build a modular pod that caught the eye of Musk’s judges, but he will be at-tending the finals only as a spectator. He has accepted a full-time job at the Jet Propulsion Lab and will be working on Mars 2020, a rover aimed at preparing for future human expeditions.
For Teon Brooks, who graduates this year from the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the laboratory and the classroom form a powerful alliance to address a universal need: raising reading performance.
“We don’t have a clear understanding of what’s going on in the brains of those suffering from dyslexia or who have below-grade reading comprehension levels,” says Brooks, whose research has been backed by the National Science Foundation.
Working with Alec Marantz, a professor of linguistics and psychology, Brooks has focused on the period from seeing a text to how it is subsequently processed in the brain.
“I’m trying to understand where it is breaking down in this pathway for those who struggle with reading,” he explains. “As this be-comes clearer, we can then figure out how to try to correct it.”
While in Paris on a research fellowship awarded by the French Embassy in Washington, DC, Brooks developed key skills in machine learning and signal processing to bring to the neuroscience of reading.
But Brooks doesn’t view his approach as unidirectional.
“We need to understand from educators how people learn in the classroom,” he says. “Conversely, we can take what neuroscience tells us in order to better inform teachers.”
Brooks’s appreciation for the value of education is not surprising. The youngest of seven, he’s the first in his family to go to college, graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2009.
While at NYU, he volunteered as an SAT prep tutor for high school students, a neuroscience instructor for middle schoolers, and a math games playmate for elementary school students.
“I realized very early on that education is the best mobility device in the United States,” Brooks recounts. “And my family was there to help and encourage me. I want to do the same for others.”
Growing up with a mother who worked as a police officer, Emily New got a kind of homeschooling in the criminal justice system. Her sympathies, though, lay with criminal defendants, and a desire to advocate for their rights led New to law school. This fall she will join the Orleans Public Defenders in New Orleans as a staff attorney.
“I want to do public defense to fight for the victims of society, the people who we label as criminals and write off without a second thought,” New explains.
A Florida native, New supported herself during college by working full-time jobs at grocery stores, summer camps, and a factory. After three years teaching English and working on community development in the Peace Corps in the country of Georgia, she returned to the United States to pursue a law degree. At the School of Law, New combined her course work with out-of-the-classroom activities, such as representing students in New York City public high schools who had been suspended, teaching legal writing in a women’s prison, and advocating for individuals serving long prison sentences who had been denied parole.
As a law clerk at Orleans Public Defenders after her first year of law school, New worked on a number of cases in which defendants faced life sentences. She saw firsthand the consequences of limited public defender resources for those facing serious charges. “At times the Constitution seems like it’s suspended there,” she says.
New remains positive in the face of immense challenges, however. “I don’t think I’ve ever sat down at a table with a person and not seen hope and light inside them,” she says. “That’s what I’m fighting for—to bring that light and hope to other people’s attention.”
Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “An army marches on its stomach.” Nina Vizcarrondo, a veteran with a passion for all things food, knows how true this is.
Born in Puerto Rico, Vizcarrondo spent three years in the US Coast Guard, which took her to California and Alaska as well as Central and South America. As a food service specialist, she cooked three meals a day for soldiers and officers, often while at sea for months at a time.
“Food is morale,” Vizcarrondo says. “When you’re deployed, food is what keeps a soldier happy.”
She graduates this year with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and food studies from the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
“I learned how to cook in the military, but I wanted to look at food analytically,” she says.
In addition to 18-credit semesters, she’s juggled internships, leadership activities, and life as a wife and mom to her 3-year-old son. On weekends, Vizcarrondo can be found at a GrowNYC market cooking tasty dishes using fresh produce. She also serves as the president of the NYU Military Alliance, working to create a community for the more than 400 soldiers and veterans on campus.
“When you’re in the military, you build a family. That’s why I’m so passionate about the NYU Military Alliance. We need to centralize our community and show support for one another because transitioning into civilian life is hard,” she says.
This year, Vizcarrondo spearheaded two inaugural events: the NYU Military and Veterans Appreciation Week and the NYU Military Alliance Veterans Ball.
Vizcarrondo also successfully advocated for the creation of veteran liaisons—positions through the Student Resource Center that match veterans enrolling at NYU with student-veterans who can provide resources and help them navigate veteran-specific issues.
After graduating, Vizcarrondo hopes to continue her work in food studies and pursue a master’s degree. She can see herself teaching or even starting her own company, having recently completed the School of Engineering’s Veteran Entrepreneur Training Program.
Joseph Plaksin was born with tracheoesophageal fistula, an abnormal connection between the esophagus and trachea. It required several corrective surgeries during his upbringing—and it was during these often challenging times that Plaksin knew medicine was in his future. Now he is graduating with a degree in medicine and a Master of Science in clinical investigation (MSCI).
While at NYU, Plaksin has continually demonstrated his leadership skills. At the New York City Free Clinic, a partnership between the NYU School of Medicine and the Institute for Family Health, he served as executive clinic coordinator, leading workshops for fellow medical student volunteers in basic physical exam skills and clinic operations. He also helped create and implement systems for structure and continuity that will allow a smoother transition for future medical school volunteers.
Plaksin has been actively involved in helping the School of Medicine establish its new Violet Society Program by spearheading the peer mentorship component of this advisory system. He also serves as a teaching assistant at the School for the Practice of Medicine component of the curriculum.
Plaksin dedicated his MSCI research year to helping advance patient advocacy and education. During this time, he developed and piloted a class that helps patients more effectively communicate with their doctors. As he embarks on his residency in internal medicine at Duke University, he looks forward to continuing his service to his peers and his community.
“NYU helped me discover what really motivates me as a physician—helping underserved communities find the medical care they need,” he says.
Luke Zimmerman, who graduates this year from the Tisch School of the Arts, always knew there were things he wanted that didn’t align with how others saw him—and gradually came to realize that the major challenge he faced in his acting craft was that his authentic self identified as male. “In my freshman year, I would always get the same criticism: ‘You’re not in your body,’ ” he recalls.
The New Studio’s focus on musical theater—a highly gendered genre—meant he often didn’t fit the type or vocal range for the roles he most coveted. The lack of representation of transgender people in popular culture, principally trans male, made it a struggle to see where he could fit in.
His path to coming out was a gradual one, but a breakthrough occurred when he landed the role of Petruchio in an all-female cast production of The Taming of the Shrew, which earned him rave reviews.
Soon after, Tisch professor Kent Gash recommended Zimmerman for a job as directing observer for the Public Theater’s production of Southern Comfort, a musical about transgender friends in rural Georgia. Zimmerman says his experience working directly with successful transgender artists was when he “realized it was going to be okay.”
“Luke has taught our entire studio that diversity and inclusion is far more than a black and white concern,” Gash says. “His presence has been a constant reminder that artistic excellence and compassionate work know no gender boundaries.”
Zimmerman says that coming out transformed his acting, and job opportunities have sprouted up, primarily to play trans masculine roles. And while he’s diverged from the roles he previously assumed he’d be playing when he started acting at age 6, the future now seems brighter.
“I’m a million times better at my job than I was six months ago,” he says. “And given the choice between being who I am authentically and having the career I originally envisioned, I choose being myself.”
Born in Lima, Peru, and having grown up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Lourdes Zapata was seeking a business school experience that would introduce her to a variety of people, ideas, and opportunities.
“As an immigrant and a woman in a competitive environment, diversity of thought is very important to me,” she says. “I wanted to be immersed in a learning environment that would encourage me to experiment with challenges and extract business solutions versus simply telling me what would be the best solutions.”
While working on her MBA at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, Zapata immersed herself in several global consulting projects—including one focused on urban expansion and citizen engagement in Mexico as well as a fellowship to further international business standards with Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights.
Zapata, who studied abroad in Argentina and Singapore while at Stern, has continued to expand her personal and professional perspective outside the classroom by developing a strong network of peers through her leadership roles in the Association of Hispanic and Black Business Students and the Entrepreneurs Exchange Club.
“Looking back on my time here at Stern, I realize the value of a deep dive into project-based learning as well as the personal network I have cultivated in two short years,” she says.
Zapata is looking forward to enhancing her network of diverse thinkers and implementing innovative business solutions in her next role as a consultant with Accenture Strategy.
—Niamh Slevin Roberts
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, Alex Sy majored in bioengineering. He loved science and research and knew that his path might eventually lead to dental school since he comes from a family of dentists. His father is an orthodontist and his older brother graduated last year from the College of Dentistry’s advanced education program in periodontics.
After graduating from UCLA and still undecided about pursuing a dental degree, Sy took a job as a research assistant at City of Hope’s renowned cancer treatment and research center. While there, he worked in a lab investigating oncogenesis (cancer formation) and coauthored a paper with the lab director, which was published in the journal Nature.
In 2012, Sy enrolled at the College of Dentistry (NYUCD), where his passion and drive led him to excel, including as a teaching assistant for first-year classes, a peer mentor in the Advanced Standing DDS Program, and a participant in the NYUCD/Colgate Palmolive Student Leadership Retreat, the Student Leadership Track Program, and the NYUCD/Henry Schein Cares Global Student Outreach Program, which gave him the opportunity to provide dental care to children and adults in the underserved Preciosita, Mexico.
Sy has further demonstrated his leadership abilities as an officer of the Chinese Student Dental Association, which organizes local outreaches as well as social events.
At NYUCD, Sy discovered that he had a passion for teaching. “I am not thinking about if I am going to teach but when I will start teaching,” he says.
Sy’s future plans also include private practice. But first he will be pursuing postdoctoral studies in orthodontics at the Saint Louis University Center for Advanced Dental Education.
Looking to the future, Sy plans to move back to Los Angeles and most likely join his father’s practice. His brother is planning to do the same. “My brother is a periodontist, and I’ll be an orthodontist—a good combination,” he says.
Quintin Haynes graduates from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service this year with an MPA, a better understanding of organizational behavior, and greater dedication to his unfolding career as a “public sector entrepreneur.”
Haynes completed his graduate degree in two years while working full-time as director of human resources and diversity/EEO officer for the NYC Office of the Mayor, a job he still holds. The feat was made possible in part by the school’s introduction of Saturday courses in the fall, coupled with its many evening classes.
“It’s been a godsend—it worked perfectly for me,” he says of the school.
While a student at Florida A&M University, Haynes set his eyes on Washington, DC, and applied four semesters in a row for a White House internship before he was finally accepted.
When the stint ended, he was elevated to the White House’s acting director for finance. He subsequently served as special assistant under two successive commerce secretaries, a role that found him traveling to more than 35 countries.
And to think he had anticipated returning to his hometown after completing his internship—and “maybe running for mayor,” he recalls.
As a Wagner student, he specialized in management for public and nonprofit organizations and was captivated by a course on poverty and another on managing public service organizations.
The public sector is changing, and many up-and-coming professionals do not view a job in government as lifelong but as part of a rewarding and varied career that may lead into other sectors.
Haynes takes an entrepreneurial approach. As he sees it, creating organizations where professional growth is emphasized is more important than ever—and constitutes human resources at the cutting edge.
“I want to build an ethos of public service,” he explains.
Evelyn Cunningham was destined for nursing. The self-described observer says she found herself yearning to understand human nature. “I want to find out who we are on the most basic level and what it means for each of us to live our independent lives,” she says.
Cunningham credits her time with her local 4-H club raising sheep in Reno, Nevada, as the precursor to her career in healthcare. “Learning how to vaccinate and care for them prepared me for my transition to caring for people,” she explains.
Cunningham knew she wanted her studies to encompass both nursing and psychology while at NYU. “Since taking part in the nursing program, I have honed that desire,” she says. But during her tenure as an undergraduate, she realized more than just her academic undertakings and expanded her capacity for leadership.
During her senior year, Cunningham took on two leadership roles—simultaneously serving as president of the Undergraduate Nursing Student Organization and as the Rory Meyers College of Nursing’s sole representative on the NYU Student Senators Council.
Cunningham says her personal growth was spurred by her classmates and mentors, who inspire her to better herself and her work. “I could not be where I am today without my exposure to the strong faculty, administration, and peers one finds at NYU,” she says. “Daily, I find that I am pushed to be better, to work harder, to learn ways to improve my leadership skills, and to grow into my chosen professional role.”
Following graduation, Cunningham hopes to go straight on to graduate school, while practicing as a nurse. The nascent alumna hopes to earn a master’s degree in nursing as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.
For Ben Piemont, who graduates this year from the School of Professional Studies, acting has always been his love. In pursuit of this passion, he immersed himself in the theater program at Tulane University as an undergraduate. He did not earn a degree; instead he decided to enroll in the prestigious Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City. Later, he moved to Los Angeles to follow his dream of performing on the big screen.
After a year of auditioning, he came to a life-changing realization—while he enjoyed acting, he couldn’t embrace the self-promotion it required and the uncertainty of being able to find work. This led him to carefully reexamine his career choices.
Having served as a certified wilderness first responder as a youth, Piemont decided to change direction and begin training as an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Los Angeles. Piemont also became fascinated with the psychology behind this type of healthcare and made the decision to complete his undergraduate degree in this area of study.
Moving back to New York City, he enrolled in the SPS Paul McGhee Undergraduate Division, working toward earning a BA in social sciences with a concentration in psychology. Taking classes in developmental psychology, he conducted research on mother-infant interactions for infants with craniofacial anomalies as well as on the use of psychotropic medications for young children diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder.
Throughout his studies, he has maintained a 4.0 GPA while serving as treasurer of the SPS Psychology Club and working as an EMT. Upon graduation he plans to attend the post-baccalaureate premedical program at the University of Vermont and eventually hopes to use the skills and knowledge he has acquired to work for an international health organization, such as Doctors Without Borders.
Driven to learn how to be a social justice advocate by communicating the stories of those facing hardship and injustice, Julianne Guito receives a master’s degree in public health this year.
Through her study abroad classes in Buenos Aires and Geneva as well as her course work at the College of Global Public Health, Guito discovered a field that combines her interests in storytelling and international development—health communications. After meeting staff members from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—known internationally in English as Doctors Without Borders—during one of her courses, Guito felt that their advocacy for global health had a raw and honest approach that appealed to her.
After several applications to secure an internship at MSF, Guito joined their communications team to work on women’s health. She helped to plan public events and wrote for their women’s health blog, bringing awareness of injustices facing women and girls around the world. After a year on the team, her contributions landed her a full-time position at MSF.
Guito is now part of a small team developing a national campaign called Forced from Home to bring understanding of what it’s like to live in a refugee camp and the health barriers that migrants face every day. They are working to produce virtual reality documentary segments by filming refugee camps in Greece, Tanzania, Iraq, Lebanon, Mexico, and South Sudan to create a humanizing connection between viewers and those who have bravely shared their stories of fleeing violence and seeking safety for their families.
Over the next three years, Guito’s team will present the exhibit across the country, starting with Google’s annual I/O conference this month. She looks forward to developing this and future projects with MSF and exploring opportunities to further integrate health communications and technical innovations into the global health field.