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Commencement 2023: A look at some of this spring’s notable graduates

May 8, 2023 By Doug Erickson

One graduate turned her viral dance videos into a career opportunity. Another co-founded a tech startup that helps Fido and Tabby get better vet care. A third conquered her doubts to forge a path in higher education for herself and her siblings.

The UW–Madison Class of 2023 has hundreds of outstanding students. In anticipation of commencement May 12-13, here’s a look at how a few of these notable graduates made their mark on campus — and beyond.

Dancer’s viral TikTok videos lead to dream job

Mary Papageorge

Mary Papageorge put a modern-day twist on a centuries-old dance form. It turned into a massive viral sensation. One TikTok video of Papageorge Irish dancing to hip-hop music has been viewed 35 million times. Celebrity fans include Jennifer Lopez, Jason Derulo, Missy Elliot and the Jonas Brothers. “What I really love about all this is how much attention Irish dance is getting,” she says. “It’s so fun to see Irish dance blow up.” She’s even been featured in a TikTok commercial. Papageorge, of Mequon, Wisconsin, has competed three times in the world championships, considered the “Olympics of Irish Dance.” At UW, she majored in consumer behavior and marketplace studies. Her post-graduation plans include working for Under Armour on the company’s consumer intelligence and social strategy teams. She’s already started the job — a position she got due to skills developed while cracking the TikTok algorithm. Watch her dance in front of the state Capitol.

After uncertain future, she’s now a three-time Badger

Yasmeena Ougayour Photo: Bryce Richter

A decade ago, Yasmeena Ougayour was a high school senior very unsure of her future. She wanted to attend UW–Madison but didn’t think she’d get in. To better her chances, she took the ACT four times. “I always like to mention that, because I think it shows my determination,” says Ougayour, of Marshfield, Wisconsin. Today, Ougayour is a three-time Badger. At spring commencement, she’ll earn a clinical doctorate in occupational therapy. She hopes her story inspires others who might not initially envision themselves on a college campus. “I’m proud to represent a group of low-income, multi-ethnic and first-generation college students,” she says. Read more about her path to higher education.

Truman Scholar will pursue career in youth arts field

Dawry Ruiz

Dawry Ruiz hopes to educate and empower diverse youth and underrepresented communities through art. His career and academic goals got a big boost last year when he was awarded a Truman Scholarship, a prestigious national honor that comes with $30,000 for graduate school. Ruiz is earning a bachelor’s degree in community and nonprofit leadership. The First Wave scholar intends to work in the nonprofit youth arts field. “To even imagine a future where I’d work in public service is unbelievable to my 14-year-old self,” he says. “I desire to be an example to youth who look like me, showing there is a pathway to being successful within the arts.”

Vet Med student co-founds tech startup

Annie Pankowski

Veterinary medicine student Annie Pankowski never expected to add co-founder of a tech startup to her list of accomplishments. However, during the pandemic, veterinarians noticed a sharp increase in demand for their services and strained to find ways to maximize the efficiency of their staff and referral management systems. So, Annie and her sister Ali founded Transfur, Inc., a platform that allows veterinarians to request, send and review the medical records of animals that have received care from other clinics through a business-to-business software model. Read more about the tech startup here. Post-graduation, Pankowski, of Laguna Hills, California, will be interning at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.


Superfan loves the Packers; the NFL noticed

Anna Linberg

Anna Linberg’s final semester at UW–Madison included a trip to the Super Bowl, where she was recognized from the field during the pre-game festivities. It was all part of being one of 32 finalists for “NFL Fan of the Year” — one for each NFL team. Linberg, who was born and raised in San Diego but has deep Wisconsin roots, represented the Green Bay Packers. (The first thing she learned as a baby was to shoot both arms straight up in the air when she heard “Touchdown, Packers!”) Alas, she did not win the ultimate title — curses, Seattle Seahawks! — but she had a great time during the year, especially meeting other finalists at the Super Bowl. “Being able to build that community with like-minded individuals was such an honor,” says Linberg, who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in personal finance.

His effort aids formerly incarcerated individuals

Robert Hall

During his time at UW–Madison, Robert Hall co-founded “Liberated Intellects,” a project that promotes higher education as a deterrent to recidivism among formerly incarcerated individuals. “Starting Liberated Intellects allowed me to learn how to speak about things that were important to me, including how to practice honesty about my own life,” says Hall, a nontraditional student who years ago was incarcerated for nonviolent offenses related to drug possession and distribution. A double-major in history and genetics and genomics, Hall has been the recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a Caltech Amgen Fellowship. He is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, a Promega DOORS Scholar, and a Nelson Institute Community Environmental Scholar. Hall will intern this summer at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, then begin a doctoral program this fall at Stanford University. Learn more about Hall in this Q&A.

She’s helping to create a bee-friendly campus

Lilly Parla

Lilly Parla’s passion is educating people about the critical importance of bees and the need for a local infrastructure that allows them to thrive. As a junior, she founded “Bees Please UW,” a student organization that strives to create safe, bee-friendly spaces both on and off campus, including pollinator gardens. The group’s work led this spring to the first campus bee hotel at Allen Centennial Gardens. Parla, of Rosemount, Minnesota, is earning a bachelor’s degree in international studies and global economics. This fall, she plans to attend the Universidade Católica in Lisbon, Portugal, to pursue a master’s degree in business management and marketing strategy.

He once struggled with words. Now he’ll address thousands.

Liam McLean Photo: Bryce Richter

Liam McLean did not have it easy as a kid. Due to a severe delay in his speech and language development, he found it difficult to enunciate words or even compose sentences. He spent years in speech therapy and endured withering mockery from classmates. “I was bullied relentlessly,” says McLean, a UW–Madison senior. Now, as president of UW–Madison’s senior class, he will address tens of thousands of people at Camp Randall as the student speaker for spring commencement. “It’s a complete 180, to be sure,” he says. “To be on the other side of the rainbow now is beyond belief.” Read more about McLean.

Business student sparks wellness revolution for Black women

Jayla Thompson

In 2020, after feeling her health decline in college, Jayla Thompson got serious about getting healthy and realized she could invite others to join her on the journey. She earned certifications in personal training and nutrition and drew upon skills acquired as a marketing major at the School of Business. Today, she runs an on-campus wellness brand called Shape with Jay. Through one-on-one training, healthy meal ideas, partnerships with student organizations, and social media, she encourages other students — especially Black women — to pursue a healthier lifestyle. “I’m providing a platform and a voice for women who look like me, and other women who may not look like me, and helping them realize what they’re capable of with just a little support,” says Thompson, of Milwaukee. After graduation, she’ll join the Rotation Development Program at American Family Insurance — a two-year program that will allow her to explore her interests in business while enhancing her leadership skills.

Their project reduces food insecurity in Madison

Samantha Angelina and Akshay Kalra

Recently, the River Food Pantry in Madison faced a challenge: It needed an efficient, sustainable way to get food to people who couldn’t access the pantry during regular business hours or needed food in an after-hours emergency. Enter UW–Madison students Samantha Angelina and Akshay Kalra. They partnered with pantry staff to install 10 outdoor food lockers, with funding provided through a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship grant. “The system allows a user to independently fill out an online form and get access to a limited-time locker code, reducing the workload of the River staff, increasing the independence of the users, and creating an environment of support with dignity,” Kalra says. The result: less food insecurity in Madison. Both Kalra and Angelina are earning bachelor’s degrees in community and nonprofit leadership. Each also has a second major — Kalra in political science, Angelina in sociology.

She seized opportunities and ended up a Rhodes finalist

Sarah Almutawa

As a middle school student in her native Saudi Arabia, Sarah Almutawa found herself competing in the International Chemistry Olympiad, even though she had yet to take a single chemistry course. “My parents used to throw me into these kinds of opportunities all the time,” says Almutawa, who finished in the top five nationally for females in one Olympiad. “Now I throw myself into them.” It’s an approach that has worked well for Almutawa, who last fall was a finalist for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Read more about the biology major’s research interests.

Miss America trades sash and crown for cap and gown

Grace Stanke Photo by Tianna Marie Media

Grace Stanke was on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering this spring, but then a little something called the Miss America competition intervened. Stanke, of Wausau, Wisconsin, was crowned the winner in December, necessitating a pause in her UW–Madison studies. She’ll complete her degree this fall but plans to participate in spring commencement on May 13. “After spending the past three years with these classmates and friends, it didn’t seem right to go through the experience of graduating without them,” she says.

He went from Navy musician to law student

Brian Tuczynski

Brian Tuczynski earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from West Virginia University and a master’s degree in music from Florida State University. Then, in 2007, he decided to share his love of music with his country through military service. During his 13 years serving in the U.S. Navy, he performed with military bands in 22 states and ten countries and was deployed on multiple humanitarian missions to Southeast Asia. He even performed honors for President Obama. This May, he’s graduating from UW Law School. Learn more about Tuczynski’s career path.

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