University life this academic year is different, to say the least, for NIU graduate students…
Following the deaths of five students in a mass shooting on Feb. 14, 2008, Northern Illinois University worked to find ways to honor the fallen by promoting the best that the NIU campus has to offer.
From such efforts were born the Forward, Together Forward Scholarships. Funded by gifts from more than 1,700 individuals, the scholarships are awarded annually to students who not only excel in the classroom but who also are highly engaged and involved leaders who focus on serving others. The criteria reflect the characteristics of the students lost that day (Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Dan Parmenter), each of whom exhibited similar characteristics during their time on campus.
This year's recipients continue the university's tradition of finding and honoring students who reflect the best to be found in all NIU students.
Anticipated Graduation Date: May 2018
One of the most difficult things Juan Cibrian ever had to do was turn down the chance to attend Northern Illinois University.
He had to do so during the spring of 2014 when health issues forced him to put off his plans to enroll. For some students, such a setback could derail them permanently. But not Juan. He not only put his health issues behind him, he also overcame the self-doubt and fear of failure that setback created.
He enrolled a year later and has been a familiar face on campus almost since the day he arrived.
- During his first year on campus, he was a volunteer tour guide in New Residence Hall, showing off the facility and answering questions from future Huskies.
- The next summer, he worked as an Orientation Leader – part of the select group of students who help guide incoming students and their families through a daylong introduction to life at NIU.
- He currently serves as a community adviser in Neptune Hall, helping new and returning students adapt to life on campus. Much of his energy goes into creating programs for his residents that promote many of the finest traits the university tries to cultivate on campus – learning, inclusiveness and expression.
For him, all of that is just business as usual. “Being a part of the Huskie community means always supporting one another, and always motivating ourselves and others to become better individuals than we were the day before,” he says.
Despite all of that extra work, he has managed to maintain a grade point average of 3.58 while pursuing a challenging double major in psychology and Spanish Business and Translation. Somehow, he still finds time to complete in intramural leagues for football, basketball and soccer.
That seemingly bottomless pool of energy will serve him well as he pursues his dream of earning a doctorate in clinical psychology so that he can conduct research regarding mental illness, counsel students and teach. His goal, he says, is to have a positive impact on society by helping future generations of students who need mental health support to overcome their own setbacks so that they too can thrive, survive and positively contribute to the world.
Ask most college students today what their favorite movie was when they were 8, and they are likely to name “Finding Nemo” or some other Disney classic.
For Luis Flores, that movie was Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
Even at that young age, he was struck by the main character’s desire to always do what was right, even when doing so was difficult. For Luis, that has translated into a busy schedule since he arrived at NIU. He balances the intense demands of majoring in nursing with what he believes is an obligation to serve is fellow Huskies, especially the Latino community.
He does much of that work through the Latino Resource Center, which he discovered as a freshman. There he received mentoring from older students and took advantage of programs that taught him study skills. Today, he serves as a mentor himself and works at the center helping to plan, promote and execute events. He does more of the same at his fraternity, Sigma Lambda Beta, helping to bring cultural awareness to campus through events such as the Miss Latina Cultural Pageant. He also was recently elected to the senate of the NIU Student Association, where he works to improve the campus as a whole.
Those activities are his way of paying forward what others have done for him, he says. “The instructors and mentors who have guided me during my stay at NIU have given me the support and the push to be successful. Now I want to motivate the next generation of students to pursue their dreams.”
While working on behalf of the community, he has not neglected his studies. He has managed to maintain a 3.35 in a challenging program; has excelled as a member of the University Honors Program, and along the way, he has picked up honors including the Kevin D. Knight Sophomore Leadership Award and the Illinois Latino Legislative Caucus scholarship for academic excellence and leadership.
That record of achievement inside and outside of the classroom has people expecting big things of him after graduation.
“Luis Flores will be a difference-maker in health care in the future,” says Mary Rudnicki, a member of the faculty at the NIU School of Nursing. “He has the potential to be a catalyst in the promotion of inclusivity and culturally sensitive health care.”
Anticipated Graduation Date: May 2019
Mitchell Huftalin wanted to become an NIU Orientation Leader for one simple reason: to show others why they should love NIU as much as he does. However, he wasn’t always so sure that NIU was the place for him.
His high school graduating class had only 120 people, so the thought of coming to a campus with nearly 19,000 students was a bit intimidating. The reality was far more comforting.
“Everywhere I looked, I saw smiling faces and acts of kindness. I honestly thought to myself, ‘Why is everyone so kind here?’ Then it dawned on me that we are all working toward the goal of graduation. We all need support from our fellow students and faculty members to help us reach or goals,” Mitchell says.
Since that revelation, he has worked hard to provide that support to others. As a tour coordinator in Stevenson Tower, he worked to make sure every visiting student had a good experience. As a community advisor, he works hard to stay tuned into the lives of all who live on his floor. For instance, when the hallway garbage cans disappeared one day, he immediately took action to see they were returned – not because he feared an outbreak of littering, but because he knew a student who has a visual impairment depended upon the trashcans as important landmarks to help her navigate.
He applied that same attention to detail to his work as a public relations officer for the Stevenson Hall Residence Hall Association during his freshman year. His efforts earned him the honor of Public Relations Officer of the Year, and later earned him the distinction of winning the First Year Experience Award from the Illinois Residence Hall Association.
A communication major with a dual emphasis in organizational and corporate communications and Spanish business translation, Mitchell maintains a grade point average of 3.74. He hopes to someday become a bilingual public relations representative for a company that is dedicated to improving communication across cultures.
Some people are just born to teach. Zahra Mushin is one of those people.
She proved that when she accepted the challenge of leading a session of an advanced English class as part of an Honors project. “I have to admit, Zahra upstaged me in my own classroom,” says her adviser, Associate Professor Tim Ryan. “The session she covered was nothing less than a master class in teaching.”
Of course, to be fair, she had a lot of practice before stepping in front of that class. For the last couple of years it seems like she has always been teaching someone.
She serves as a volunteer for the Muslim Association of Greater Rockford, assisting refugees transitioning into the American educational system and providing them with community resources. Locally, she acts as a tutor for three children between the ages of 7 and 11 whose mother does not speak English. Last year, she also spent one day a week tutoring students (many of them recent immigrants) at a local elementary school, and worked for Upward Bound developing study strategies for minority and first-generation high school students.
On campus, she has worked as a coach at the NIU Writing Center, tutored student athletes and mentored the incoming class of Research Rookies.
When she isn’t teaching she can often be found working on award-winning research. At last year’s Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day, her project “Class Block to Cell Block” took first place among all Humanities entries and second place overall.
A 4.0 student majoring in English (with a goal of becoming a high school teacher) and minoring in psychology, Zahra is on track to graduate in December of 2017. Throughout her time on campus, she has won prestigious scholarships, participated in the Research Rookies program, become a fixture on the dean’s list and is on track to earn upper division honors.
Many teachers have those types of accolades on their resumes. What truly sets Zahra apart is that underlying all of those accolades is a great passion for improving the lives of others.
“My goal has always been to help the world in some way. That has driven me to do the most I can to help my family, friends and community,” Zahra says. “When I decided to study education, I felt like I finally found the perfect fit to reach all of my aspirations. I found my place is in a classroom where students and I can connect and challenge one another in order to increase understanding, competence, tolerance and hope for our world.”
Anticipated Graduation Date: December 2018
Tariana Sandkam says that being a rugby player keeps her sane. As crazy as that might sound, research the characteristics that make a good rugby player: Perseverance is often at the top of the list, and Tariana is nothing if not persistent.
For instance, from the time she was a child, she wanted to be a nurse. However, when she was accepted to NIU, she was told that getting into the program was a long shot. She would need to earn nearly perfect grades to earn her spot. Three semesters later, with a grade point average of 3.91, she was admitted to the NIU School of Nursing and hasn’t slowed down one bit.
That accomplishment would have been enough for many students, but Tariana felt compelled to share her story with other students, to prove to them that they too could achieve their dreams. So she set her sights on becoming a part of the select group of summer Orientation Leaders. Once again, her perseverance paid off. To further spread the word, she also jumped at the chance to become a Peer Educator for UNIV 101 and joined the student Nurses Organization as soon as she could. Of course, she also continues to find time for the NIU Women’s Rugby Club, which provides her with a social and physical outlet.
It makes for busy days, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Nothing is more important than giving back to a community that has the potential to give you so much, which is why I decided to gradually take on leadership roles,” Tariana says.
Her energy, enthusiasm and dedication earned her a new job this year. She is now the Student Orientation Coordinator. In that role, she will help prepare next summer’s crew of Orientation Leaders, and her supervisors can’t think of anyone better for the job.
“Tariana is one of the hardest working students I have ever supervised,” says Adam White, associate director of Orientation and Family Connections. “I am convinced that she does not know how to give anything less than 110 percent in all aspects of her work – both in and out of the classroom. I have no doubt that Tariana will be a fantastic role model to the new students on staff. She is the perfect symbol for what NIU and our campus community represents. She is determined, hard-working, kind, inclusive and possesses a strong set of morals and values.”