Meet the CALS Graduating Seniors Who Already Are Making a Difference
If there’s one thing that connects the latest group of top graduates in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, it’s a drive to go way beyond what’s merely expected.
Meet the 15 undergraduate students and one graduate student who earned CALS 2022 Fall Outstanding Senior and Graduate Meritorious Teaching awards. These students, who will be honored at the CALS Graduation Convocation on December 16, were selected by the college and their various schools and departments as exemplifying the qualities that make CALS special.
During their time in school, they served as mentors to their peers, contributed to the community and, of course, excelled academically. In the very near future, they'll be doing everything from conducting high-level research to attending graduate school to making an immediate impact in the workplace.
CALS Outstanding Senior
When Natalie Jimenez began her virtual journey at the University of Arizona, she didn’t want to just get her degree in nutritional sciences, she wanted to help people in her hometown of San Jose, California.
And she has and intends to continue to do so. Jimenez, a first-generation online student, is the outstanding senior in CALS overall and in nutritional sciences. She has pursued numerous volunteer roles in her community, including helping food-insecure families at a local food drive, serving in AmeriCorps, and assisting teen mental health organizations.
After graduation, Jimenez will be attending a dietetic internship in California to complete 1,200 hours of supervised practice, while concentrating in mental health nutrition. Her plans are to become a registered dietitian nutritionist and ultimately to get a master’s degree in public health, so she “can further help and serve the community through my nutritional and mental health knowledge.”
At Arizona, Jimenez was part of the Wildcat Nutrition Online Club and a peer mentor through MentorCats. She also was a preceptor and crafted an eight-page resource guide for students in a high-level medical nutritional therapy course.
“Natalie went above and beyond to create a comprehensive list of medical terminology and abbreviations for the course,” said Katelyn Barker, assistant professor of practice in the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness. “She used her past experience to create a project that would improve future students’ experience. This was invaluable, and Natalie made an impactful difference.”
Jimenez said: “I am happy that the University of Arizona provides many opportunities and resources to us global learners in a way that makes us feel just as important as in-person students. Thank you for allowing me to thrive!”
CALS Outstanding Senior – UArizona Yuma
Exceptional Academic Performance and Service to the University
Agricultural Systems Management
Ana Castellon says her academic journey has been one about breaking through barriers. The daughter of field workers, Castellon came to the United States at age 12, with English as her second language. She is a mother who began college at age 30.
And now Castellon is the CALS outstanding senior at UArizona Yuma, as well as the outstanding senior in Agricultural Systems Management and winner of the award for Exceptional Academic Performance and Service to the University.
“I want to be an example for my children and community to see what having an education can do for them,” she said.
Castellon is currently doing an internship as an agricultural lender officer with Farm Credit West. She says she would like to serve as a median between farmers and institutions that make agriculture economically viable, and eventually earn a master’s degree. She also has been active in the Yuma Community Food Bank and Crossroad Mission, among other service opportunities.
Baleshka Brenes, director of agricultural programs at the UArizona-Yuma Academic Center, calls Castellon an inspiration. “Ana has a bright future ahead, and she will be giving back in so many ways,” she said. “I know she will accomplish anything she sets her mind to and will serve as a mentor and a role model for future generations.”
Exceptional Academic Performance and Service to the University
Evy Nguyen’s dream has been to do research – and lots of it – in biology and related areas. In CALS, she got her wish and has thrived.
Nguyen is the outstanding senior in microbiology and winner of the award for Exceptional Academic Performance and Service to the University. Her academic work has included everything from comparative genomics in bacterial pathogens to computational biology. She hopes to pursue a Ph.D. through the university’s Arizona Biological and Biomedical Sciences program.
“My goal is to become a professor with my own research laboratory,” Nguyen said. “I’m eternally grateful for the members of the CALS family who believed in me.”
Gayatri Vedantam, a professor in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences, said Nguyen is among best students she has had.
“Evy is curious, very diligent, responsible and has an impeccable work ethic – qualities that will hold her in good stead no matter what career she pursues,” Vedantam said.
Exceptional Academic Performance and Perseverance
Family Studies and Human Development
Ashley Gonzalez was hoping to merely do an internship at a Yuma middle school this year. She impressed them so much, she was offered – and accepted – a full-time job as a sixth grade English language arts teacher.
Gonzalez, a family studies and human development major at UArizona-Yuma, is winner of the CALS award for Exceptional Academic Performance and Perseverance. She said she plans to pursue a master’s degree in English education and to keep working as a teacher.
Gonzalez has been a student ambassador and president of both the Wildcats for the Community Club and for MANRRS, a club that promotes diversity in agriculture, natural resources, and related sciences.
Dubia Zaragoza, her professor and club advisor, said Gonzalez has displayed grit and compassion in everything she does, including overcoming a setback that forced her to withdraw from school earlier in her academic journey. “She got back on her feet and returned … with the motivation not only to finish her education but to take on leadership roles inside and outside the classroom,” Zaragoza said.
Zaragoza continued: “Whether it was collecting gifts for foster care children or giving the homeless women in our community a facial or manicure, Ashley was always ready to serve others with love and compassion.”
Graduate Meritorious Teaching
Bahar Bakhshi is on track to earn her master’s degree in nutritional sciences next spring and eventually hopes to pursue a doctorate in the field. Her teaching skills already have earned her distinction.
Bakhshi is winner of the award for Graduate Meritorious Teaching. Now in her second year as a teaching assistant, she has taught more than 300 students in the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness. She said her core values are growth, grit, contribution, and success and that her teaching philosophy reflects a commitment to those values.
“As a TA, I have the vision of collective success in mind, and through every communication with each student, I ask myself: How can I contribute to their success in a particular course?” Bakhshi said. “I try my best to be resourceful, have interpersonal skills, including patience, listening, empathy, (and) communication skills. I sincerely hope I have been making a small impact on students’ academic lives.”
Peggy Rupert, the graduate programs coordinator in the school, said Bakhshi’s faculty supervisors describe her as conscientious, knowledgeable, and supportive. “She often goes above and beyond in making sure students’ questions are answered,” Rupert said.
Agribusiness Economics and Management
Emerald Solis has a goal of creating innovations that will increase the efficiency of agriculture and agricultural products. But it’s not for her benefit; Solis wants her efforts to help underdeveloped countries and to stimulate their economies.
Her academic and community work has earned her the distinction as outstanding senior in agribusiness economics and management.
“She is the rare person who envisions agriculture as the motor for driving economic prosperity and social justice in her community,” said Gary Thompson, head of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
Despite working off campus up to 30 hours per week, Solis found opportunities to do volunteer work, join leadership groups to hone her skills, and serve as a teaching assistant – all while excelling academically. Her post-graduation plan is to work for a business that conducts research on an economy-level, while ultimately working with a non-profit or governmental organization that can help people get food and increase their well-being through improvements to agriculture.
Agricultural Technology Management and Education
Arielle O’Connor has always had a passion for agriculture and, during her time at CALS, she says she also found a love of education, marketing, and sales. That has translated into accolades as the outstanding senior in agricultural technology management and education.
O’Connor does sales work at Hays Trailer Sales and wants to continue in that line of work, eventually with an animal pharmaceutical company or feed company in Arizona.
“Outsides of my professional career, I want to continue to assist with agricultural programs, such as 4-H and FFA, to inspire future agriculturists,” she said.
Breanna Watkins, her academic advisor, praised O’Connor for her academic performance and professional rigor, including the perspective and insights she brings to class. “She also demonstrates leadership and integrity through her full-time job,” Watkins said.
Victoria Ramos’ research has covered everything from evaluating the effects of heat stress on pregnant ewes to microbial analysis of meat samples. All the work, she said, fuels her love of animals and humans’ connection and duty to care for animals.
The work and her academic success earned Ramos the honor of being the outstanding student in animal sciences.
“The best times in CALS were spent with my friends, mentors, and colleagues,” she said. “Everyone motivates each other in our community, and we all strive for a better and healthy future in our careers. We all shared our love to animals and our environment.”
Ramos will be pursuing a master’s degree in animal sciences.
Duane Wulf, who was Ramos’ professor and research supervisor, praises her as a great team player and a standout student. “She has an inquisitive mind and sought to understand the mechanisms behind our research hypothesis, rather than simply going through the motions of data collection,” he said.
After switching majors, Kelsey Graves says she found her spark in environmental science. Others in the field are glad she did, as her laboratory skills have made her the go-to person for undergraduate and graduate students alike when dealing with “surfactants,” green materials being investigated for their use in environmental remediation applications such as metal contamination.
Her research, academic and communications skills have earned Graves the honor of outstanding senior in environmental science.
David Hogan and Raina Maier of the Department of Environmental Science said of Graves: “Intellectual capacity is one element of a successful scientist. Laboratory technique is another. Kelsey is one of those rare individuals with an abundance of both, combined with a passion for research and an ambitious outlook for her future.”
Graves, who is preparing for graduate school, says she hopes to protect the resources and beauty of the world “through commitment to the principles of social justice, a drive for innovation and sustainability, and communicating the importance of environmental protection.”
Environmental and Water Resource Economics
Madeline Hawley initially wanted to major in molecular and cellular biology, then switched to environmental and water resource economics, where she has been chosen as the outstanding senior. Nonetheless, she still completed a minor in molecular and cellular biology – just to prove she could.
“That drive and discipline is reflected in everything Maddie does,” said Gary Thompson, head of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
Hawley has worked as a research assistant and lab technician, taken leadership roles in her sorority and the Greek Honors Society, and completed an internship at a biopharma firm. She said her goals are to work for a Phoenix firm that specializes in environmental and water testing, earn her master’s degree, and eventually to become a lawyer specializing in environmental law.
“Affecting environmental change is important to me, and I would like my professional goals to reflect this value,” Hawley said.
Family Studies and Human Development
Madison Goerlinger found success not just in the classroom but also on the playing field. She is the outstanding senior in family studies and human development and a two-year captain of the University of Arizona women’s soccer team.
“My time in CALS has been something I will never forget, full of memories, friendships, and the positive impact of the staff and faculty,” she said. “Family Studies and Human Development has encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone and transform my ways of thinking for the better.”
Timothy Ottusch, chair of the program, praised Goerlinger’s communication, thoughtfulness, and ability to succeed academically while also leading the soccer team. He quoted her coach as saying that “Madison is fair-minded and leads by example through her tremendous work rate, insatiable appetite to learn and high personal standard.”
Goerlinger said she would like to attend graduate school and to benefit children and families in any way she can.
Fashion Industry’s Science and Technology
Melanie Dalton has a dream to one day own her own clothing brand and company. She said she is open to wherever her career in fashion takes her.
Dalton has earned the honor of outstanding senior in fashion industry’s science and technology.
“I want to continue to learn and grow in my career as well as a person,” Dalton said. “I personally love being creative and going outside of my comfort zone to be able to try and learn new things. The love and passion I have for fashion and learning excite me for the future.”
Dalton said she plans to move to New York City, where she will be looking for a position in fashion public relations and will continue her studies.
Elizabeth Heuisler, one of Dalton’s professors, praised her positive attitude and work ethic. “Melanie is an eager learner, self-motivated, and understands what is needed for assignments,” Heuisler said.
Alejandrina (Alex) Keeney somehow found time to succeed in the classroom and in research work, all while engaging in a packed schedule of community activities.
For her efforts, she is the outstanding senior in natural resources.
“I had the opportunity to learn from incredibly bright and impressive mentors, participate in the Tucson community as a climate and social justice activist, and make connections with like-minded friends who I hope to work and learn from throughout my career,” Keeney said.
Keeney plans to continue working on a project, RainMan, that she worked on as an undergraduate, gain additional research experience, and eventually return to the University of Arizona for graduate school.
Leaders in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment said Keeney stood out among a very strong group of graduates. “She is intelligent, independent, resilient, and mature, has a strong work ethic and a high level of intellectual curiosity,” they said. “Alex exhibits the wonderfully balanced blend of excelling in her courses, maintaining a strong commitment to research that is focused on natural resource sustainability, and being an engaged and supportive community member and leader.”
Retailing and Consumer Science
Ironically, Jillian Ward says one of the best things to ever happen to her was to fail a class her first year. It caused her to sharpen her focus and find purpose in her studies. She has never looked back and even is graduating a semester early.
Ward has earned the honor of outstanding senior in retailing and consumer science.
Ward plans to get a real estate license after graduation, while continuing her job search. During her time at CALS, she did an internship with the Cleveland Guardians baseball team’s retail operations and was highly active in the National Retail Federation Student Association and her sorority.
“I love change and trying new things,” she said.
Lance Erickson, the program chair, called Ward an outstanding ambassador. “I am consistently impressed with her contributions to discussion and the thoughtful way she interacts with others,” he said. “She works easily with diverse teams and elevates the finished product through her contributions and leadership.”
Sustainable Plant Systems
Leobardo Moreno quips that his goal is “heading for greatness.” For the time-being, he has already earned the distinction of being the outstanding senior in sustainable plant systems.
“My time in CALS allowed me to meet, bond, and grow intellectually and morally alongside a great cohort,” Moreno said. “I also would like to thank the entire ASEMS team for their unconditional support through thick and think, light and darkness.”
Moreno also is majoring in biosystems engineering. Peter Waller, an associate professor in that field, recalls telling Plant Sciences Professor Dennis Ray that he has a great student (Moreno) for their collaborative field experiments on guar, a legume.
“Dennis told me that Leobardo was already working on our experiments,” Waller said. “Leobardo really distinguished himself in his thoroughness and dependability in field and greenhouse research.”
When it comes to the care of animals and their impact on humans, Payton Zarnik is already doing her part. Zarnik’s work inside and outside the classroom has earned her the honor of outstanding senior in veterinary science.
Zarnik has been a platinum member of the University of Arizona Pre-Vet Club, works as a veterinary technician at the VCA Northwest Animal Hospital, and serves as a volunteer and foster parent for the Humane Society of Southern Arizona.
“Every moment of my pre-veterinary journey has propelled me to develop a passion and drive to improve animal welfare and reunite beloved family members with their owners or allow a peaceful passing while witnessing the true bond between animals and humans,” she said.
Zarnik plans to attend veterinary school and to become a companion animal veterinarian.
Jasmine Acosta, her advisor, pointed to Zarnik’s work at the human society as emblematic of her drive and compassion. “Fostering animals shows commitment, dedication, and extreme care and is a different form of empathy compared to her other experiences with the horse rescue and therapeutic riding center,” Acosta said.