UArizona will recognize seven outstanding graduating seniors at Commencement
The University of Arizona's top undergraduate awards recognize students' commitment to their studies, their service to the community, their leadership and more.
Seven graduating University of Arizona seniors will be honored during Commencement for their extraordinary accomplishments in the classroom and beyond.
The university's 159th Commencement ceremony will be held at Arizona Stadium on Friday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. A full schedule and more information about this year's ceremony are available on the Commencement website.
Nominated by faculty and peers, this year's seven student award winners were selected based on their determination, notable achievements and positive contributions to their families and communities.
The Provost Award goes to an outstanding graduating student who transferred to the university from an Arizona community college. Criteria for the award include perseverance and commitment to academic studies, contributions to the university community, and above-average scholastic ability, citizenship and leadership.
Ryan Ellsworth is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in communication, with a minor in criminology. Originally from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, Ellsworth received an associate degree in liberal arts from Pima Community College before attending UArizona.
Raised among military veterans, Ellsworth said he has always wanted to serve his country for a purpose greater than himself. He is deeply involved in the Air Force ROTC program, which helps students earn a degree and commission as officers in the Air Force. He also works full time for Campus Recreation. Thanks to his busy schedule, Ellsworth often wakes up at 4 a.m. for ROTC events, to complete schoolwork throughout the day, and go to work.
Ellsworth is a recipient of the Air Force In-College Scholarship and received Air Force ROTC honor and warrior awards. He also was named Cadet of the Semester in fall 2019.
Following graduation, Ellsworth will attend combat systems officer training in Pensacola, Florida, and intends to pursue a master's degree.
Robie Gold Medal
The Robie Gold Medal honors those who demonstrate personal integrity, initiative, cooperation, enthusiasm, willingness to give more than required, and a love of God and country.
Jessica Plaza Rodríguez is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in family studies and human development and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish with an emphasis in Hispanic literature. Originally from Mexico City, Plaza Rodríguez moved to Tucson five years ago to reunite with her family and find better opportunities.
As a first-generation student and immigrant, Plaza Rodríguez had to learn a new language and understand a new culture, and she faced other barriers when she arrived at the university. During her time at UArizona, she worked for the Immigrant Student Resource Center, helping fellow students with immigrant backgrounds navigate the university and developing communication strategies to ensure those who needed the center's services could find and access them. Plaza Rodríguez has interned for the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, supporting a campaign called "¿Cuántos Más?" that raised funds for DNA kits to help identify and honor those who have died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
Plaza Rodríguez now works at the YWCA as a program coordinator, helping facilitate programs and provide resources for people of Latin American descent. She is also a research assistant and translator for a project called AZHEALTHTXT, a bilingual health information-sharing platform led by the UArizona Center for Rural Health.
Plaza Rodríguez has been honored with several scholarships and awards, including a Wildcat Distinction Award and the Ruth Reed Cowden Scholarship. She was also named to the Dean's List with Distinction. After graduation, Plaza Rodríguez is interested in attending law school and becoming an immigration attorney.
Mikah Wesley Rosanova is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in law, with minors in music and gender and women's studies. Rosanova, who uses the pronoun they, is from Flagstaff.
During their time at the University of Arizona, Rosanova has focused on helping and finding opportunities for students with marginalized backgrounds and identities. As a lead resident assistant, Rosanova encouraged first-year students to become engaged and invested in their well-being and advocated for LGBTQ+ residents, working with the UArizona LGBTQ+ Resource Center and Housing and Residential Life to improve programming, resources and education. As a PATH mentor, Rosanova supported first-year students in the W.A. Franke Honors College and contributed to the college's equity initiatives.
Rosanova completed several creative writing independent studies, as well as a first-year project focused on lived experience with hormone replacement therapy. Rosanova participated in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium's Summer Research Institute, working with Suzanne Dovi, a professor in the School of Government and Public Policy, to investigate the effects of transphobia and misogyny on research practices. Rosanova's honors thesis focuses on gender non-conforming communities and trans-competent research practices.
Rosanova was named to the Dean's List with Distinction and has received several awards, including the David G. Hastings B.A. in Law Scholarship, the Wildcat Distinction Award and Returning Resident Assistant of the Year. Following graduation, Rosanova plans to pursue a doctorate in political theory and gender studies, with plans to work with nonprofit organizations that support marginalized communities.
Robert Logan Nugent Award
The Robert Logan Nugent Award goes to students who display a record of accomplishments that exemplifies the high ideals of Robert Logan Nugent, a former University of Arizona executive vice president.
Kristijan Barnjak is graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, politics, economics and law, a Bachelor of Arts in economics, and a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy with an emphasis in ethics. Barnjak was raised in Seaford, New York.
Barnjak found community at St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center, on the university's campus, during his freshman year, and eventually became a student minister and served on the center's outreach committee. Barnjak joined the Daily Wildcat news desk in spring 2020 as a reporter covering the Associated Students of the University of Arizona and the university's efforts to mitigate COVID-19. He later served as news editor and copy editor and was appointed editor-in-chief during the fall 2022 semester. Barnjak, who is a student in the Honors College, has been a resident assistant at Árbol de la Vida dorm since fall 2021. He became a lead resident assistant his senior year and was inducted into Rho Alpha Sigma, a national honorary for resident assistants.
Barnjak's honors thesis focused on state anti-boycott laws passed in reaction to boycotts of the firearm and energy companies as part of corporate environmental, social and governance initiatives.
Barnjak was awarded the Gerald J. Swanson Endowed Scholarship for Undergraduate Excellence in Economics his junior and senior years. He received the Ancient Greek Language Summer Scholarship from the Department of Religious Studies and Classics to study ancient Greek during summer 2021. Barnjak will attend law school following graduation and hopes to work as an antitrust attorney for the Department of Justice.
Hillary Schiff is graduating summa cum laude with honors with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and a Bachelor of Arts in French. She was born in Australia and grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Interested in a career in science, Schiff began researching allergic asthma drug development in the lab of Scott Boitano, a professor in the College of Medicine – Tucson, in the spring of her first year. The work resulted in published research, on which Schiff was the lead author, and served as the basis of her honors thesis. Schiff also has a passion for mentorship and communication. During her sophomore year, she became a general chemistry preceptor as well as a Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry peer mentor. She also worked as a news reporter for the Daily Wildcat.
Schiff's decision to pursue medicine was shaped by her experiences volunteering in the Tucson community. Initially inspired by witnessing her grandmother's health struggles, she continues to see her grandmother in the patients she serves. Schiff spends her Sundays volunteering at the WORKship project at Z Mansion, an outreach program serving the local population experiencing homelessness. Through the Patient Experience Internship Program, part of the university's A Center, she also volunteered at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, working alongside health care professionals to ensure patient comfort.
Schiff, an Honors College student, is a recipient of the Galileo Circle Scholarship and was named to the Dean's List with Distinction. Following graduation, Schiff will pursue a medical degree at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.
Merrill P. Freeman Medal
The Merrill P. Freeman Medal is named in honor of Merrill Freeman, who served the University of Arizona as a regent and chancellor. Qualifications for the award include outstanding character.
Vanessa Addison is graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry. She is passionate about biomedical science and health education and wants to spend her career increasing health literacy and providing aid to medically underserved communities.
Driven by her love for science and service, Addison interned as a first-year student with the Fight4HER campaign to advocate on Capitol Hill for affordable health. She volunteers regularly at the Sister Jose Women's Homeless Shelter and started a social media campaign to raise awareness about the homeless crisis in Tucson. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Addison served as an EMT to help vaccinate students and Tucson residents. She also worked in an addiction rehabilitation clinic.
In 2021, Addison began researching in the lab of Ross Buchan, associate professor of molecular and cellular biology. Her efforts to understand the molecular mechanisms underpinning amyotrophic lateral sclerosis served as the basis of her Honors College thesis, several award-winning posters, two research grants and contributions to a scientific publication. She is committed to enhancing inclusivity in science, technology, engineering and math and has served as a preceptor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry ambassador, peer mentor, organic chemistry tutor and a tutor at the university's SALT Center.
Addison is the 2023 Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry Outstanding Senior and has been honored with the Ronald Gonzalez Wildcat Spirit Award, Michael A. Wells Scholarship, Arizona Distinction Award, Highest Academic Distinction, Warner Scholarship, Black and Kletz Scholarship, and a Franke Honors Research Endowment. She was crowned the 2022 Homecoming queen. Addison will attend medical school in the fall.
Elizabeth Grace Hala'ufia is graduating summa cum laude with honors with a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience and cognitive science and a minor in biochemistry. Born in Marana, Hala'ufia is a track and field student-athlete and an Honors College student.
Hala'ufia is a 2019 alumna of the UArizona BIO5 Institute KEYS Summer Research Program, which gives high school students opportunities to work in labs with university bioscience researchers. Working alongside Daniela Zarnescu, a former UArizona faculty member who studies neurodegeneration, Hala'ufia contributed to research on modeling dementia-relevant phenotypes in fruit flies. Hala'ufia also spent a summer at Johns Hopkins University testing several viruses' abilities to treat autism spectrum disorder. She now works in the lab of Arthur Riegel, an associate professor of pharmacology.
Hala'ufia has also worked as supplemental instruction leader in organic chemistry and physics as part of the THINK TANK's Supplemental Instruction program, which lets students help their peers in difficult courses. She has also offered been a preceptor for biochemistry and neurophysiology courses.
Hala'ufia has received the Marana Unified School District 2340 Scholarship, Wildcat Distinction Award, Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative Fellowship, Maximizing Access to Research Careers Training Award and Pac-12 All-Academic Honors. Hala'ufia will pursue a doctorate in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, with the goal of conducting neurological disease research that leads to life-saving therapies.
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