Celebrating the Class of 2019

May 13, 2019 | University Relations staff

DUBUQUE, Iowa – Nearly 400 University of Dubuque undergraduate, graduate, and seminary students will enter the next chapter of their lives on Saturday, May 18, as they walk across the commencement stage. UD is honored to celebrate its 167th commencement ceremonies – college and seminary.

This week, we honor our graduates and share their stories. A new story will be added each day.

|| Amanda Magana || Konstantine Batonisashvili || Marissa Joers || Jay Gonzales Sr. || Vicky Kulig ||
|| Dasia and Jasia Powell || Richard Watson ||

Amanda Magana (C’19) wanted to attend a university where the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research was not only available but also valued. She found that at University of Dubuque.

In summer 2018, Magana was named a fellow in the Joseph and Linda Chlapaty Summer Fellowship. The chemistry major received a stipend of $4,500 and an additional $500 for research supplies or travel costs associated with her project – Little Things, Big Problems: Micro-plastics in Fresh Water.

“My research focused on the presence of micro-plastics in the Chicago and Mississippi rivers as well as micro-plastics’ ability to bind to Phosphorus,” Magana said. “I wanted to see what was going on in our freshwater systems since most of the studies on this issue have been focused on the ocean.”

Her advisor, Adam Hoffman, PhD, associate professor of environmental chemistry, helped guide Magana throughout the research process by providing feedback and helping her create her own procedures.

Magana, president of UD’s Chemistry Club, has presented her research at multiple conferences including the American Chemical Society Great Lakes Regional Meeting earlier this month.

“Being able to present my research at conferences was such a good learning experience. It was nice to be amongst other individuals who are just as excited to be there presenting. It makes all the work you did come together very nicely,” Magana said.

It was while she was at the American Chemical Society Great Lakes Regional Meeting when Magana learned she received the Award for Excellence in Student Chemistry Research from UD. The award, sponsored by the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, is presented annually to a junior or senior student who has demonstrated excellence in designing and analyzing his or her senior research project in chemistry.

“I was super excited, and I felt a big sense of accomplishment in knowing that all of my hard work was noticed and that it was all paying off,” Magana said.

After commencement, Magana, who volunteered and job shadowed doctors as well as specialists at UnityPoint Finely-Health Hospital, plans to take the Medical College Admission Test and apply to medical school. She hopes to start medical school in fall 2020.

Konstantine Batonisashvili (C'19) traveled from Tbilisi, Georgia, to attend University of Dubuque.

 “Walking to class, you recognize almost everybody on your way and there is never a moment when you feel like you are alone. The University of Dubuque makes you feel like you have a larger family away from home, from the friendly students all the way to the caring professors,” he said.

Batonisashvili double majored in computer information technology and mathematics. He also joined the Computer Club and Wendt Character Initiative as well as participated in work-study on campus.

In summer 2018, he was named a fellow in the Joseph and Linda Chlapaty Summer Fellowship. He received a stipend of $4,500 and an additional $500 for research supplies or travel costs with his project – Examining and Analyzing the Ability of a Computer to Learn and Improve its Code.

“What the Chlapaty Fellowship gave me was a guarantee that regardless of how many hours I spent researching the incredible intricacies of Artificial Intelligence, I would not be punished for not working a job all of those hours. The main thing I learned from the fellowship was that Artificial Intelligence is on the rise, and if a regular college student can create his own ‘mini-AI,’ there will be an abundance of them in the future,” Batonisashvili said.

Throughout his fellowship, classes, and involvement on campus, Batonisashvili built relationships and gained invaluable knowledge for life after college.

“Not only has the University of Dubuque taught me the technical knowledge of my degree, but it also gave me the invaluable experience of making new relationships, meeting new people, and forming my own small community away from home,” he said.

Batonisashvili plans to find a job for a few years to gain experience in the Information Technology industry. Then he would like to return to school in pursuit of a master’s degree in astrophysics.

Marissa Joers (C'19) has always loved the University of Dubuque. While she enjoys the location of campus and its buildings, Joers said what makes UD unique is the bonds that can be formed among students and professors.

“In our small campus environment, I was able to be involved and learn so much about so many different things because I was able to form personal relationships with other students and professors. I have had several great mentors and peers throughout my undergraduate career, and they helped form who I am today,” she said.

An English major, Joers immersed herself into life at UD. She was involved in the Student Government Association, Wendt Character Initiative, Scholar-Leader Honors Program, The Belltower, Pre-Law Program, Phi Theta Psi, Joseph and Linda Chlapaty Summer Research Fellowship, TRIO, and women’s tennis. She also worked/interned at Prudential Retirement, NextGen Iowa, University of Dubuque Office of Admission, and Sparty’s Convenience Store.

“I hope that my impact on campus will last well beyond my graduation. My goal has always been to help this campus and community evolve and grow in order to leave it in a better place than I found it. I have loved this university from the moment I stepped on campus, but I know for other students they may need more involvement and interaction in order to fully enjoy their college experience here,” Joers said.

Last month, Joers received the University Leadership Award at Honors Convocation. It is the highest leadership honor awarded by UD, given annually to a senior who has shown commitment beyond personal gain, served fellow students, encouraged and promoted positive actions in others, and demonstrated in his or her personal life the true spirit of the Mission of the University. Joers also earned the Student of the Year Award and Pre-Law Award of Excellence. It was the second time Joers received the Student of the Year Award, an award she first earned in 2017.

“I truly wanted to speak for all students through my roles with SGA and The Belltower, and I tried to encourage and inspire change and lively debate on campus about how best to serve the student body. I want to inspire those around me so they can also make the changes they want, if they work hard enough,” Joers said.

Through the Pre-Law Program, led by Ben Bartels, assistant professor of criminal justice, Joers learned the intricacies of the study of law and found a new calling in life.

“Without that program, I have no idea what my career interest would be. I have only wanted to be an attorney for four years now,” Joers said.

After commencement, Joers plans to take a year off before entering law school in fall 2020. She will use that gap year to work at a local law firm, finish law school applications, and possibly take the LSAT again.

Jay Gonzales Sr. (C’17, MBA’19) wanted to finish what he started prior to his time in the Marine Corps, so he enrolled in the University of Dubuque Learning Institute for Fulfillment and Engagement (LIFE) program to complete his undergraduate degree. His wife, Kim (C’99, MBA’17), was also enrolled in the program. The couple walked at commencement together in May 2017 – a cherished memory.

“It was an awesome experience to be able to celebrate together in our academic achievements that both of us had always dreamed of and worked hard to achieve,” he said. “It was another experience that we were able to complete and support one another.”

Once he earned a bachelor of business administration, Gonzales said he thought he was too close to not pursue a master of business administration and he continued his studies in LIFE.

“The LIFE program was a great experience. The adjunct professors that I had brought a great wealth of knowledge from their respective fields,” Gonzales said.

Commencement will once again be a family affair. While Gonzales attended classes in LIFE, a program designed specifically for adult learners, his oldest son, Jay Gonzales Jr. (C’19), attended classes in the traditional undergraduate program to earn a bachelor of science.

“I was very proud of his accomplishments prior to him attending UD, and now I get to celebrate it with him as well,” Gonzales said, adding. “It is an amazing experience to have family attend UD, and I am hoping that our other three children will become alumni as well.”

After graduation, Gonzales hopes to advance in his career with the City of Dubuque. His main priority, though, is to enjoy life and spend time with his newborn, first grandchild.

Vicky Kulig (C'19) knew there was something special about University of Dubuque the moment she stepped foot on campus. It had a certain charm she hadn’t felt at the other universities she visited.

“UD accepted me with open arms,” she said. “I was the only one from Grayslake North High School to come to UD, so no one really knew who I was or about my past. People actually took the time to get to know me as I presented myself, not what a file said about me.”

Kulig shared her story with the world when she and her mother, Natalie Kulig, co-wrote The Other Side of Autism: A Journey of Mother and Daughter. The book tells their story of life on the autism spectrum. It was published in 2016 – when Kulig was in classes at UD.

“I still have insecurities about being on the spectrum, but my mom is very understanding. In the book, I wanted to tell the story not just from the point of view of somebody on the spectrum, but from a girl’s side. I was always put into a group of pretty much all boys, and I would stick by the female counselors because I wanted ‘girl time.’ I feel as though girls on the spectrum are overlooked and get grouped with the boys, and I hope in some way we can separate other girls from being compared to boys on the spectrum,” Kulig said.

She found support at UD through the Bridge Program, which helps students bridge gaps that may exist in their preparation for college, and TRIO-Student Support Services, which seeks to foster academic, personal, financial, and career success of participants by empowering them to take ownership of their future through holistic advising, professional tutoring, and peer mentoring.

“My Bridge experience has been a positive one; it laid down the foundation of how I should study for my classes and how to ask for help when I needed it,” Kulig said.

Through TRIO, she said she was able to transition into a major she loved – sociology.

“They helped me realize that I could make a career by helping others. They helped me channel my interest in law enforcement, justice, and equality to something positive, and I hope to bring that with me at my first job,” Kulig said.

After graduation, Kulig plans to gain real-world experience and eventually attend graduate school.

When Dasia Powell (C’19) transferred to University of Dubuque the second semester of her first year of college, she knew she made the right choice. Her twin sister, Jasia Powell (C’19), was already enrolled at UD and had talked about her experiences on campus.

“It’s been like a never ending party ever since I got here with my sister,” Dasia said. “It feels amazing having your favorite person around all the time to do fun stuff.”

Jasia added, “I enjoy being able to share a lot of good memories with my sister around campus and establish a home away from home.”

As student ambassadors in the Office of Admission, the siblings enjoyed sharing their experiences at UD with prospective students. They also volunteered at Heritage Center and were residence assistants.

“I really enjoyed giving tours and meeting all the families who came to visit our campus as well as making those bonds with patrons and other volunteer ushers,” Jasia said.

Some of Dasia and Jasia’s favorite memories are of the people who helped them feel welcomed and it was like they had a home away from their home in Georgia. For Thanksgiving, they were invited to the homes of Barbara Smeltzer, undergraduate student resources advisor and campus mom, and Ken Godwin, an assistant professor of aviation, among others.

“Every year, they always made sure we had somewhere to go when we couldn’t get home. Also, the Campus Mom would casually invite us over to eat during the summer and school year as well. Just being included and thought about meant the most to me,” Jasia said.

Dasia joked that she had a good five moms at minimum while attending UD, including the Campus Mom.

After commencement, Jasia and Dasia plan to attend graduate school for social work. Jasia will attend Florida State University and Dasia will attend Georgia State University.

Richard Watson (MDiv’19) described his decision to attend University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (UDTS) to obtain a master of divinity as “truly a God-directed decision.”

He had been searching for an accredited program that was conducted at least partially online because of his visual impairment and had been praying about it for around eight years. Then, something happened.

“On September 9, 2009, I woke up with www.udtslearning.net, the former website for UDTS’s online distance education program, in my head. I hadn’t heard about it before. I couldn’t believe that this was truly an answer to prayer. It took a while before I decided to embark on this journey, but I am so glad that I did,” Watson said.

At UDTS, he found more support than he ever imagined. Watson said there were numerous examples in which UDTS accommodated his needs and removed any barriers in his path towards a master’s degree.

“One example was their willingness to hire an adjunct professor, Dr. Ray McAllister. He holds a PhD in Old Testament languages and is visually impaired as well. I took the first semester of Hebrew with him so I would have the basic structures and vocabulary to participate and do well in the Hebrew Exegesis for the second half of my Hebrew studies,” Watson said.

Throughout his studies to ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a minister of word and sacrament, UDTS faculty and staff encouraged Watson. He said they were able to bridge the physical distances that separated the students and faculty in the online distance education program.

“Even though we are all over the place geographically, there is a unique sense of community and support which is only heightened during the August intensive s in Dubuque. That will be something that I will truly miss,” Watson said.

After graduation, Watson plans to focus on finishing the ordination process and looking for a call to a church as an ordained pastor. He is also considering work in a hospital as a pastoral care coordinator.