The Northern Illinois University (NIU) Board of Trustees unanimously voted Dec. 7 to extend the…
Every commencement ceremony at NIU is filled with students who have amazing stories to tell. Stories of academic excellence, of service to the campus and community and of obstacles overcome and dreams attained.
Unfortunately, we cannot tell you the story behind every Huskie who successfully makes it to graduation, but the examples below will give you an idea of how outstanding NIU graduates are and help you understand why we are so proud of them.
Leena Ghrayeb – College of Engineering and Engineering Technology
Despite taking only three years to earn her degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering Leena Ghrayeb, of DeKalb, leaves behind a record of exceptional academic performance and campus participation.
She was president of Alpha Pi Mu, the honor society for industrial engineers; worked with the Society of Women Engineers to promote STEM fields to young girls; was part of the college’s Mars Rover Team and also helped develop a promising form of cancer therapy as a Research Rookie. In addition, Leena was a Presidential Scholar and she even found time to travel to Nepal as part of her work as a McKearn Fellow.
That trip to Nepal, and trips she has made to the Middle East with her father, Dr. Omar Ghrayeb, NIU’s vice provost for undergraduate studies, have humbled her. They have also inspired her to pursue her Ph.D. and to dedicate herself to helping those with limited access to healthcare.
Unique Grissom –College of Health and Human Sciences
Unique Grissom, of Elgin, had a difficult path to graduation but embraced the challenges she faced and emerged stronger.
When Unique was 17, in foster care and pregnant, a judge gave her an ultimatum: a new foster home or juvenile detention. She chose the foster home and thrived. After she graduated high school, her foster mom gave her another choice: college or the military. She chose college and ultimately NIU.
Unique entered NIU through our CHANCE Program, which provides resources and mentoring to students who do not meet traditional entrance requirements. She made the most of the opportunity, pursuing a spectacular college career that included a full-ride scholarship through the Department of Children and Family Services. Outside of the classroom, she became vice president of the College Parents Group, supporting and mentoring other students juggling parenting and classwork as they navigated higher education.
She also excelled in class, earning a 3.763 GPA while securing her B.S. in Human Development and Family Sciences with an emphasis in family social services, a minor in sociology and a criminology certificate. She hopes to work in the juvenile court system while also pursuing her graduate degree in sociology here at NIU.
Aaron Goodin – College of Education
People always told Aaron Goodin he should teach, and it made sense because he loved to learn. However, he also loved music, so he briefly pursued a career as a performer in rock bands around Rockford. After a while, he tried college but eventually took a job at a print shop.
During those years, he married Haylie, and they became parents of a daughter, Natalie, and a son, Ben. Sadly, Haylie died in 2014 after a courageous battle against cancer.
Finding himself a single parent, working in a profession for which he lacked passion, Aaron determined a reboot was needed. At age 36, he returned to Rock Valley and began pursuing an associate’s degree. He had thoughts of designing instructional technology but ultimately settled on teaching as his path and came to NIU to pursue his goal.
Balancing single-parenthood and commuting with classwork, he maintained a 4.0 GPA, and will soon be in front of a classroom inspiring rooms filled with young learners and helping them find their own path.
Cassandra Hightower – College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Cassandra Hightower is living proof that grit, determination and hard work can lead you to a bright future. She earned her associate’s degree at Kishwaukee College solely because of financial aid grants. During her time at NIU, she worked full time as a third shift certified nursing assistant the Oak Crest Retirement Center and used several scholarships, including a sizable award from her employer, to pay her way.
Despite those demands, she excelled in the classroom. She became an active member of the Mortar Board National Honor Society and helped organize the first-ever honor society fair and to fundraise for the Forward Together Forward scholarship fund. Cassandra discovered a passion for public relations and writing and learned that she is a strong leader with good ideas and determination. She developed those skills at NIU’s Leadership Academy and through the university’s LEAD Summit.
Her experiences at NIU will serve Cassandra well as she pursues a career in a communications-related field and graduate school.
Marilyn Chakkalamuri – College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Marilyn Chakkalamuri, of Woodstock, excelled in and out of the classroom. From being active in a number of honor societies and the Honors program, serving as an academic tutor to student-athletes to conducting research she found success as she pursued her degree in Biological Science and a minor in Chemistry.
A Lincoln Laureate finalist, her sustained commitment to research is impressive. She was an NSF PROMISE Scholar, and engaged in research projects in biological sciences, engineering and psychology. Marilyn generated six first-author presentations and garnered research grants to support her work. Her research topics ranged from T-cell cancer biology to microfluidics to neuroscience. She also did an internship with Congressman Bill Foster in Washington D.C. in the summer of 2018 to familiarize herself with developing scientific policy which added another layer to the depth and breadth of Marilyn’s career as a Huskie.
In her “spare time”, Marilyn earned her EMT license, volunteered at Kishwaukee Hospital and became certified in Mental Health First Aid. This service, together with her stellar academic and research activities will serve her well as she aspires to become a physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.
Margaret Hitchcock – College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Margaret Hitchcock, of Glenwood, not only excelled in the classroom but she also found her voice and a calling to activism.
A double major in philosophy and English, her leadership was felt in the classroom and throughout campus. She served as a community advisor and an orientation leader, tutored at the Writing Center and was active in Prism, an organization dedicated to supporting the LGBTQ community on campus.
When tension rocked the campus following the 2016 election, she helped organize a “Love Trumps Hate” rally. With approximately 300 people in attendance, it helped the community channel their anxiety and figure out how to move forward in a positive and empowered manner.
Her work earned her numerous award. She was a finalist for the Lincoln Laureate award (given each year to the outstanding senior on campus) and twice received the Ally Award from the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center. She also was named the National Residence Hall Honorary Member of the Year by the Illinois Residence Hall Association and a 2018 Forward Together Forward scholarship recipient.
She aspires to a career in student affairs and higher education and wants to improve the campus experience for students. She eventually hopes to go to law school and then come back to a university to work in student legal assistance.
Eduardo Rodriguez – College of Business
At age 16, Eduardo Rodriguez, of Elgin, watched as his parents (who came to America from Mexico 30 years ago) lost their home. He vowed then to attend college so he could better provide for his family and himself.
To help pay for that education, he enlisted in the Army National Guard, which not only provided college benefits but also appealed to his sense of patriotism. The experience also taught him about discipline and leadership. When he transferred to NIU, he put those skills to work as president of the Association of Information Technology Professionals where he increased membership tenfold and helped create professional development events which drew up to 100 students.
He had similar energy for his studies. He served on a team that provided consulting services to Caterpillar; worked an internship; and participated in an international business seminar that took him to England and France. He graduated with a degree in Operations Management and Information Systems and a minor in business analytics and expects to earn a graduate degree in accountancy from NIU in December 2020. He hopes his NIU education will help him rise to the rank of captain within the National Guard and one day allow him to lead his own business and to care for his family.
Samantha Jones – College of Visual and Performing Arts
Samantha Jones came to NIU from Champaign-Urbana drawn by the impressive Art program and the pull of being an artist with easy access to Chicago.
Samantha was convinced that she wanted to study visual communication and graphic design, until the first time she took a 3D foundations course and immediately began pursing 3D fabrication and metal working. Eventually, she added sculpture to the mix. Along the way, her award-winning art became an unanticipated guide to learning more about herself.
Samantha used her art to explore African-American identity, which opened a new world to her. She says, “As a bi-racial, multi-ethnic individual, I was exploring my cultural identity and the art was my first step to figuring out who I was as a person,” she says. “For me, it’s not just an exploration of who I am, but also a way to let the world see that it’s OK. We aren’t alone. We all have questions about who we are.”
Next up for Samantha is grad school, another step on her journey to her dream of becoming a creative director.
Michael Potoniec– College of Health and Human Sciences
One reason Michael chose NIU was our long list of student organizations and ways to get involved.
From his first day at NIU as a freshman Public Health major from Minooka, Illinois, he felt at home and began taking advantage of all that NIU has to offer.
He joined the Student Health Organization, beginning as a volunteer, then worked his way up to president. By helping to organize blood drives, STEM Fest, and other events on campus, he learned how much an organization can do for a community.
He lived in the Health Professions House all of his four years at NIU, and became a Health House ambassador and then a team leader, helping incoming freshmen with their college transition and creating events aimed at helping residents to help them grow into the persons they wanted to be while at NIU.
Michael hopes his future includes A Center for Disease Control public associate program, and research, specifically on how the ocean effects climate change and how that effects human health.
Students earning degrees from our graduate programs had some outstanding stories of their own.
Mar Louie Mayubay – College of Business
Mar Louie Mayubay first visited NIU in 2012 as a teenager. He was part of a program to teach students from Southeast Asia about diversity, cultural appreciation, community action and activism. He vowed someday he would return.
Four years later he did indeed return as a graduate student and in December of 2017 he earned his first NIU master’s degree, in accountancy. This spring he earned a second master’s this one in management informational systems. He credits his success to the help he’s received along the way from fellow students, area families and professors — at times they provided him with a place to live, food, even money for books and his CPA exams. They treated him like family, he says.
With two impressive NIU degrees, Louie plans to stay in the U.S. and work. His drive to succeed, though, is not just for him. It is for his family. And, in many ways, his country. He plans to help his family make ends meet back home, and also hopes to help other Filipino students who dream of opportunity through education.
“I was so privileged,” Louie says. “It’s also right for me to give back.”
Lyndsay Rankin – College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Lyndsay Rankin definitely made the most of her NIU career. She conducted international research . . . attracted about $25,000 in funding for her scholarship, including from the National Geographic Society . . . became a certified scientific scuba diver . . . and has proven herself as an innovative scientist.
A first-generation college student, this Michigan native earned her Ph.D. in biological sciences.
Lyndsay came to NIU to work with Holly Jones, a professor in biological sciences and environmental studies.
Dr. Jones was looking for a graduate student to conduct research on the removal of invasive mammals, and subsequent recovery of seabird populations, in the island nation of New Zealand. Lyndsay literally dove into the project, learning to scuba dive to collect samples of kelp, algae blooms and other seafloor plant-life.
With our planet facing an extinction crisis, documenting best practices for recovery of endangered species, and the effect on their environments, it is vital work. Her soon-to-be published research shows these benefits to near-shore aquatic environments in detail.
Jing Xu – College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Jing Xu, who graduated with his Ph.D. in condensed matter physics, came a long way to study at NIU—more than 7,000 miles, in fact. His hometown is Hangzhou, China.
It’s never easy to leave home and study in a distant land, but with constant support from his advisor, Professor Zhili Xiao (JEE-LEE SCHOW) and our physics department, Jing has truly thrived at NIU.
Jing chose to study at NIU because of our collaborative work with Argonne National Laboratory, well known as a world-class research center. Argonne has the high-tech equipment that facilitates Jing’s research in nanoscience. The field aims to understand the laws of nature at the near-atomic scale and develop new materials, electronics and machines so small they can’t be seen.
Working with professor Xiao and other scientists at Argonne—Jing has helped shed new light on how the universe operates at this most fundamental level. His contributions include being a co-author on three groundbreaking research papers published in prestigious journals and a co-developer of a material known as “rewritable magnetic charge ice,” which could pave the way for new computing technologies.
The people at Argonne also know a top-notch scientist when they see one. Jing is now working there full-time as a postdoctoral researcher. He has an exciting career ahead of him, exploring a new frontier in science.