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At 2022 winter commencement, an impressive array of notable graduates

December 12, 2022 By Doug Erickson

They’ve excelled in student leadership positions, overcome difficult personal obstacles, launched international charity efforts, and even been elected to public office. Our 2022 winter commencement graduates are an impressive group — no surprise at a world-class institution like UW–Madison. Here are just a few of the amazing students earning degrees this December.

She juggled coursework with elected public office

Juliana Bennett

Just a few weeks ago, Juliana Bennett finished a midterm exam at 5 p.m., only to rush to a six-hour Madison City Council budget hearing that lasted past midnight. It’s all part of the impressive juggling act Bennett has maintained as both a full-time college student and a city alder. “I could complain about how long the meetings are or how hard it is to balance the two, but at the end of the day, I find joy in being able to apply what I’m learning in class in practice,” says Bennett, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in real estate and urban economics. More importantly, she says, it is incredibly rewarding to give back to the city. Bennett represents a campus-area district and has made affordable housing one of her key issues. A graduate of Madison West High School, Bennett has been heavily involved in campus and community activism and is a founder of the UW–Madison BIPOC Coalition. “I am really proud of the community we built and how we were able to elevate the concerns of the UW BIPOC community to administration,” she says.

He survived a heart transplant as a sophomore

Anthony Genac

Anthony Genac is earning his undergraduate degree in personal finance at winter commencement — less than two years after receiving a new heart. He was just 20 and a sophomore at UW–Madison when he underwent transplant surgery. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe what I went through,” says Genac, of Racine, Wisconsin. “I really try not to think about it too much.” Remarkably, Genac is graduating a semester early, in 3.5 years. Read more about how he came back from a health crisis.

His effort led to a more diverse Interfraternity board

Josh Steckler

As president this past year of the 28-chapter Interfraternity Council, Josh Steckler left his mark by leading an effort to rewrite the organization’s bylaws and social policies. One new requirement in the bylaws resulted in a more competitive elections process this past year and a more diverse board. Steckler also served on the Cabinet of Student Leaders, which meets monthly to discuss issues with the vice chancellor of student affairs. A supply chain management major from Seattle, Steckler already is putting his business degree to use. He and three friends founded Genesis Rum, an American-made rum distilled in Maine.

Her research aids individuals with disabilities

Brittany St. John

Brittany St. John, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, was awarded a Fulbright Future Postdoctoral Scholarship earlier this year by the Australian-American Fulbright Commission. Her research interests focus broadly on supporting the health and wellbeing of individuals with disabilities and their families. The scholarship will support St. John’s work in partnership with the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre in Victoria, Australia, to disseminate the Engaged Eaters Program, an effective feeding intervention for autistic children and their families that can be delivered via telehealth. She will undertake her work in Australia beginning in January. St. John is originally from Scio, Oregon, and now resides in Madison with her partner Russell and their two children, both of whom she had while completing her PhD.

With app, she helped repair torn connections

Atulya Reddy

Computer science major Atulya Reddy and some of her fellow students felt that one of the side effects of remote classes during the pandemic was the absence of vital social learning that happens in person. “We were really worried about going through these classes alone, because in our experience knowing other people in our classes has made all the difference,” says Reddy, of Eagan, Minnesota. From there, Demic was born. The app facilitates academic support and social connection among UW–Madison students. Hundreds of students joined, and the app is still being used today to connect UW–Madison students, says Reddy, its lead founder. Read more about the app.

His creative efforts benefit refugee children

Anson Liow

Anson Liow and fellow UW–Madison graduate student Joel Baraka are driven to improve educational access for refugee children in Uganda. The two longtime friends first collaborated on the 5 STA-Z board game, which they designed for elementary students in Ugandan refugee settlements. They’ve now created Your African Quest, a fast-paced educational card game focused on the African continent’s nature, people, countries, culture and food. “It’s a game that we want diverse groups of people to be able to play,” says Liow, of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who is earning a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering. Read more about their good works. 

On many fronts, she improved the community

Olivia Johnson

Olivia Johnson will be the flag bearer for the School of Human Ecology at winter commencement, an honor reserved for an impressive graduate. Johnson excelled in not just one area but in her overarching commitment to the campus and the community on many fronts. She uplifted single and teen moms through her volunteer work at The Elizabeth House, helped make the Madison area safer as a member of the university’s COVID testing services team, and assisted with childcare and research at the campus Child Development Lab. A PEOPLE scholar, she gave back to the community as a coach with the Madison Starlings youth volleyball club. Originally from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, Johnson is earning a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies. She plans to become a physician assistant, with hopes of researching efforts to close the Black infant mortality gap.

She traveled unlikely path from dropout to PhD

Kirstan Gimse Photo: Althea Dotzour

Kirstan Gimse knows about second chances. The UW–Madison graduate student describes her road to higher education as long, winding and not at all typical. As the student speaker at winter commencement, she will share her journey and some of the wisdom she has acquired along the way. “I hope my story can help other people who struggle with feelings of self-doubt and encourage them to keep reaching towards their dreams,” says Gimse, who is earning a PhD in cellular and molecular pathology. Read more about Gimse in this profile.

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