New UW-Madison graduates have compelling stories

May 15, 2012

by Käri Knutson

Every UW-Madison graduate has a story. Here are eight stories of students who will receive their degrees at commencement ceremonies May 18-20 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: 


Inspired by her grandmother

Amelia Van Handel's grandmother was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2007 at the age of 74 and received aggressive cancer treatment. Van Handel saw firsthand how important identity and body issues are for those affected by cancer treatment.

This moved the Little Chute, Wis., native to start volunteering in the UW Hospital Wig Salon. She also started working with cancer patients on dress and makeup so they could feel more confident in their changing bodies. Her grandmother will be attending commencement where Van Handel will receive her bachelor's degree in science, majoring in the neurology option in biology. Van Handel is a future medical student who will attend Mayo Medical School in the fall.

"My grandmother's presence at my graduation is such a gift," Van Handel says. "The optimism she maintained throughout her cancer treatment inspires me to work with other cancer patients to give them the same confidence and positivity that helped my grandmother recover. My family is an immeasurably important part of my life, and I am so fortunate to have them with me as I finish this chapter of my life and get ready to start the next one at Mayo."

Back to school — 40 years later

Dennis Bahr is earning his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering 40 years after he earned his master's degree in electrical engineering.

"It's never too late," Bahr says.

He also has a bachelor of science degree from 1968. Bahr, from Athens, Wis., is a local entrepreneur and has started several companies. His wife, Corrine, was the biomedical engineering administrator for several years before she died of breast cancer five years ago. His high school science teacher inspired him to attend college, and Bahr has invited that teacher to attend graduation.

Studying abroad leads to business abroad

Julian Moncada has studied in London, started his own business and led the Multicultural Business Student Association. This semester he participated in a class trip to Vietnam through the Wisconsin School of Business and will receive a bachelor's degree in business administration. Moncada, from Lauderdale, Minn., is also a member of the UW Guitar Ensemble through the Wisconsin School of Music. He participated in an internship with General Mills as a financial analyst intern last summer and will be joining Prudential Capital Group in Chicago full-time this summer.

In 2008, he started Mara Accessories, his company where he's partnered with craftsman in Colombia and imports their jewelry to the United States. More than $2,000 in proceeds from his company has been donated to San Rafael's orphanage in Bogota, Colombia.

"My experience at Wisconsin has led me to pursue every endeavor that sparks my interest," Moncada says. "These pursuits have led me to start my own business, travel the world, explore the arts, and develop as a professional in finance. I'm looking forward to my future as a Wisconsin alum where I will be able to continue pursuing the legacy that I will leave."

From Virginia to France

Amy Musser's passion for food and French has taken her to Paris for an internship at food magazine Omnivore. The Oakton, Va., native now works for La Chène Bleu, an organic winery in Provence, and has begun work on a book of short essays about her experiences in food and France. She will graduate with a master's of French studies.

Her journey to France came after time in New York. Musser has helped organize garden projects in low-income communities to teach kids about local food, volunteered at Badger Rock Elementary School, a charter school with a functioning garden, and has served as editor of a UW Slow Food cookbook-handbook.

"My experiences at UW were truly groundbreaking for me on a number of levels (and did include breaking ground on a literal level when it came time to do some planting at the Boys and Girls Club in South Madison)," Musser says. "Madison is such a culturally rich place and full of people that are not only passionate and knowledgeable about food issues, but also doing really innovate things. The UW Madison Slow Food chapter is a prime example. I'm really glad that I was able to be a part of their cause; it was a tremendous learning experience."

Triple major is a human rights and environmental advocate

Elizabeth Elzan Godlewski is a triple major, graduating with bachelors of science in music performance, zoology and geology. After graduation, Godlewski, from Neenah, Wis., and several friends are starting a Christian community house in Madison. Part of the purpose is to be a training center for young adults interested in getting involved with the sex-slave trade abolition movement, both in Madison and around the world. Beyond involvement in this community house, Godlewski plans to begin graduate studies at UW-Madison in a year with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, focusing specifically on energy resources and policy.

"I'm excited to work on big, interdisciplinary problems that face our society; that's what attracted me to energy resources," Godlewski says. "Environmental concerns, to my generation, often seem like insurmountable issues — an inheritance we never would have chosen. However, I'm looking forward to pursuing solutions to the problems that face us with hope that there are solutions. I have to believe that we who have the most hope have the most influence; if we want to change the world we first must dream that it can be changed, no matter what experiences tell us otherwise."

Work at Innocence Project leads to career as public defender

Jamie Yoon has already had numerous experiences in the field of law, but it was her work with the Wisconsin Innocence Project that paved the way for a career as a public defender.

"I decided to go to law school to learn about the mechanics of criminal procedure and the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, and I also wanted to acquire legal analysis and statutory interpretation skills," Yoon says. "When I began working with clients at the Wisconsin Innocence Project clinical program, my career plans really came into focus and I knew I wanted to provide direct representation to indigent defendants and become a public defender."

Yoon, from St. Louis, will graduate with a law degree, criminal law concentration. She received her undergraduate degree from Columbia University, then worked as a policy analyst for three years at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, focusing on prisoner re-entry issues. She received the first Joseph P. Mettner Foundation Scholarship, which was established last year to honor Joe Mettner, a career public servant and former chairman of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. Yoon also received the 2011 Public Interest Law Foundation Scholar Award, and the 2011 Melvin J. Friedman Award for distinguished performance in the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

Last summer she interned at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, and in spring 2012 interned at the Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office in Milwaukee. During the past two years, Yoon assisted professor Frank Tuerkheimer in litigating an Alabama death penalty case on collateral appeal. In fall 2011, she served as judicial intern for Justice N. Patrick Crooks at the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Yoon also served as president of the student chapter of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, advocacy chair and later the president of the UW Public Interest Law Foundation. She will work as a public defender in Massachusetts after graduation.

"After working at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, I knew I wanted to continue my career in the criminal justice field to improve what I believe is a broken system that represents the convergence of social, economic, and racial disparities in this country, which drive higher incarceration rates for racial minority groups and people with low incomes," Yoon says.

Improving communities through health education

Shaima Kamal has seen firsthand the difference health education can make. From Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, Kamal received a bachelor's of dental surgery degree in India in 2009. She will receive her master's of public health from UW-Madison.

"I first became interested in public health when I participated in various oral health education programs conducted in rural areas in and around the city of Lucknow, India, by the Department of Preventive and Community dentistry of my dental school," Kamal says. "The success of these health education programs made me realize that when correct information is disseminated in the right manner, it had the potential to tremendously improve the quality of lives of communities.

Her previous work experience in India includes voluntary service in non-government organizations promoting maternal and child healthcare in rural areas in India and active participation in various dental and oral health programs in India.

"It was through these experiences I realized that I would like to work in public health and make health care services accessible to those sections of the society that need it the most," Kamal says.

Her areas of interest in the field of public health are international health, maternal and child health, health education and behavior.

Kamal was awarded the Watumull Scholarship this year which provides technical assistance and promotes achievement by Indians in various fields. Since 2011, she has been the program assistant for the India Initiative and the Center for South Asia.

Graduating as a 16-year-old

While other 16-year-olds are still in high school, Serra Crawford is about to graduate college.

She completed high school at age 10, attended a two-year college, and then became a student at UW-Madison. She will graduate with a bachelor of arts, majoring in international studies with a certificate in global health.

In the fall, the Madison native will work on a research project in Zambia and then return to UW in spring to get her master's degree in nutrition. Her goal is to become a trauma surgeon.