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Commencement 2024: Meet some of this spring’s notable graduates 

May 6, 2024 By Doug Erickson

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has no shortage of amazing students. Some have changed lives with their research or improved communities through their public service. Others have scaled the academic heights, made an impressive mid-life career change, or overcome daunting odds to finish a degree. In advance of spring commencement May 10-11, here’s a look at how just a few of these notable graduates made their mark. 

High school didn’t take; now he’s got a PhD

Tim Fish

Tim Fish, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, looks back on his higher education journey with both gratitude and disbelief. He grew up in poverty on the Osage reservation in Pawhuska, Oklahoma; education was not emphasized, he says. “I didn’t have a connection to school or any sense of its value.” He dropped out of high school his junior year and moved to Madison to live with relatives and work factory jobs. “I also knew that wasn’t the life I wanted to live,” Fish says. He got his high school equivalency diploma, earned a two-year degree at Madison College, and transferred to UW–Madison. This May, at age 51, he will become a four-time Badger. He already has a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees from UW–Madison. Now, he’s earning a doctorate in civil society and community research through the School of Human Ecology. “Education changed my life,” he says. “Actually, I think it saved my life. It showed me a different way.” This fall, Fish will be teaching at the UW School of Education. “I’ve become really passionate about education,” he says. “It’s been transformative for me, and I want others to experience that.” 

She’s improved campus accessibility, climate

A woman smiles at the camera.

Brelynn Bille

Brelynn Bille describes herself as “a feisty girl who doesn’t back down.” She’s employed that approach on campus as a passionate advocate for disability rights, often tapping personal frustrations to fuel broader change. Bille was among the leaders of the student coalition that successfully advocated for a Disability Cultural Center on campus, and she was the driving force behind Gov. Tony Evers proclaiming July as Disability Pride Month in Wisconsin. Bille, of Waupun, Wisconsin, is earning a bachelor’s degree in community and nonprofit leadership. Read more about her advocacy work on campus. 


They rose to the top nationally as scholars 

Lucy Steffes

Carl Shirley Photo: Taylor Wolfram

Paul Chung Photo: Taylor Wolfram

Lucy Steffes, Carl Shirley and Yi Won (Paul) Chung received Goldwater Scholarships, the premier undergraduate award in mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering in the United States. Steffes, of Milwaukee, won the award in 2022 as a sophomore. She is earning a bachelor’s degree with a double major in astronomy-physics (with honors) and physics. She will begin pursuing a doctorate in astrophysics this fall at the University of Arizona, supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Shirley and Chung won the scholarships last year as juniors. Shirley, of Bristol, New Hampshire, is earning a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cell biology with comprehensive honors. He plans to pursue a doctorate in immunology and undertake research aimed at enhancing the success of immunotherapies for cancer treatment. Chung, a native of South Korea, is earning a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences and data science with comprehensive honors. He will begin pursuing a doctorate in computer science and engineering at UC San Diego this fall.

Their voices reach a national media audience

Anika Horowitz

Jane Houseal

Many UW–Madison students become part of the national conversation through their special skills and their viewpoints. Anika Horowitz, an economics major from Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, has been published eight times (and counting) by the Wall Street Journal in a weekly feature titled “Future View,” which compiles the perspectives of college students on a variety of social and political issues. Post-graduation, Horowitz will be applying to law school and working as an analyst at Patomak Global Partners, a regulatory consultancy for the financial market in Washington, D.C. Jane Houseal, a journalism major from River Forest, Illinois, serves as the Wisconsin 2024 Election Correspondent for Teen Vogue and a podcast editorial partner at Spotify. She covers youth-led movements and captures what students are saying about national issues and elections. Post-commencement, she plans to stay in the Midwest and continue her writing career. 

Her work has mobilized hundreds at the polls 

Chandra Chouhan

Chandra Chouhan, the daughter of immigrants from India, was dismayed several years ago to learn that the South Asian vote in the U.S. is historically lower than many other demographic groups. From that, she developed a vision: a nonpartisan organization dedicated to mobilizing South Asian voters. During the summer of 2022, Chouhan brought together four other UW–Madison students and founded “Chup! Go Vote.” The organization has now mobilized hundreds of South Asian voters on campus and nationally. Chouhan, who serves as executive director, is from Brookfield, Wisconsin, and is earning a bachelor’s degree in global health and international studies. Read more about her work to amplify the voices of South Asians across America. 

And speaking of stellar voting advocates . . .

Laine Bottemiller

Rosalie Powell

Rosalie Powell and Laine Bottemiller have done exceptional work in educating and assisting voters. Powell, a double major in environmental sciences and life sciences communication, began working at the polls at 16 and became a chief election inspector for the city of Madison at age 18 — a rare feat. On campus, she has helped to staff early voting stations, recruited UW students to work at the polls, and served as the chief election inspector at the Lowell Center polling site. A Madison native, she aspires to a career in climate change communication. Bottemiller, a double major in journalism and political science, also has served as an election official on campus. She has been a part of the BadgersVote Coalition since her sophomore year and produced a variety of nonpartisan voter content for the Morgridge Center for Public Service and as an Andrew Goodman Vote Ambassador. In a lengthy piece for Forbes magazine, Bottemiller recapped strategies to engage students on college campuses, including having groups canvass students as they wait in line to enter bars. A native of Prior Lake, Minnesota, Bottemiller plans to stay in Madison and work in political communications. 

Pandemic spurred his college aspirations

Jim Spoden

Jim Spoden had a good career in U.S. trade compliance but during the pandemic reexamined his future and impact on the world. “I discovered I was doing something I did not want to keep doing for the rest of my life, and I felt that without a college degree, my options were limited,” he says. In 2022, he earned an associate degree from Madison College, then transferred to UW–Madison. Starting over in his late 30s was daunting, he says, but UW proved to be a welcoming place. A Milwaukee native, he is most proud of a final project in a cartography course. He created a map of “book deserts” in his hometown — think “food deserts,” but with libraries. Spoden is earning a bachelor’s degree this spring in environmental science and life science communications. His goal is to work as a geographic information systems analyst in the environmental protection or sustainability field — a career that would align with his interest in addressing climate change.

She’s dedicated to helping military veterans

Madeleine Allen

Madeleine “Maddie” Allen still thinks of herself as a “military kid” — her mom’s career in the Navy meant she moved 10 times before graduating high school. Allen’s desire to help veterans who suffer from psychological disorders has fueled her undergraduate research at UW. Working as an assistant in a research lab at the Madison VA Hospital, Allen has focused on how to effectively include family caregivers of veterans with dementia in a healthcare setting. She has presented her findings at several university and national conferences. A native of Imperial Beach, California, Allen is earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a certificate in Asian American Studies. A Posse scholar and a McNair scholar, Allen hopes to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology and work with veterans and military families. 

She’s a legal scholar, triathlete and Division I athlete

Danielle Orie

Professional triathlete Danielle Orie tackled two demanding activities simultaneously while on campus: attending UW Law School and competing on the women’s cross-country team. How did she juggle a rigorous law school curriculum with Division I athletics? “I had to remind myself to follow the voice that said, ‘Just do it. Stop complicating things,’” Orie says. “In the law, if your line of logical reasoning and analysis are messy, then you have a losing argument. And in athletics, if you’re in your head too much, you’re already putting yourself behind the competition.” Orie was a managing editor for the Wisconsin Law Review, a member of Wisconsin’s Moot Court, and a recipient of the Dean’s Academic Achievement Award. (And she was the top female finisher April 27 in the Crazylegs Classic.) She plans to work in the public-interest/nonprofit legal sector while pursuing her goal of qualifying for the triathlon at the 2028 Summer Olympics. 

Restaurateur adds ‘Badger alum’ to her resumé

Erin Vranas

For many UW–Madison students, eating at the iconic Parthenon Gyros on State Street is a rite of passage. Now the owner is a Badger, too. Erin Vranas is graduating with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in management after taking a long break to embark on her entrepreneurial journey. She started various businesses and eventually acquired the Madison restaurant before returning to UW–Madison to complete her degree. While balancing her studies with her responsibilities as a restaurateur, Vranas also launched a startup consumer packaged goods company, served as a director on the Wisconsin Restaurant Association Board, volunteered for multiple organizations, and even completed her yoga teacher training certification. She also has the distinction of being one of the first graduates of UW–Madison Online. 

His family and Tibetan community share in his success 

Tenzin Phuntsok

When the academic grind got especially tough at UW–Madison, Tenzin Phuntsok would call his mother in India for inspiration. As a young girl, his mother fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet with her family, trekking barefoot across the Himalayas. Later, as an eighth grader, she was forced to drop out of school to care for her parents, both bedridden. “She loved to learn, so it was a very, very difficult time for her,” Phuntsok says. “To this day, she is a strong advocate of education. She believes that if you are given the opportunity to study, you should do so without complaint.”  Phuntsok will be earning a master’s degree in biotechnology. Read more about how his success is a testament to his family’s sacrifices – and to the special efforts of the Master of Science in Biotechnology Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. 

She’s praised for academics, community service 

Naomi Lewis

Naomi Lewis, an industrial engineering major from Racine, Wisconsin, earned a 2023 Alliant Energy Erroll B. Davis, Jr. Achievement Award for outstanding academic achievement, leadership skills and community service. She served for two years as president and one year as co-president of the UW–Madison chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. She has served on the Inclusion, Equity, and Diversity in Engineering Student Advisory Council and worked with campus leadership to advocate for the needs of engineering students, helping develop outreach and recruitment programs that seek to broaden participation among students historically underrepresented in engineering. 

He’ll study international relations as a Truman Scholar 

Pranav Krishnan Photo: Jeff Miller

Pranav Krishnan has studied and researched some of the weightiest topics facing the world, from the rise of authoritarian regimes to the future of democratic institutions. Krishnan will be able to dig even deeper into these consequential issues as the recipient of a Truman Scholarship, one of higher education’s most prestigious awards. Krishnan, of Redwood City, California, will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science. This fall, he will begin a master’s program in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 


She turned numerous challenges into opportunities 

Pauline Ho

Pauline Ho had just $3,000 in her bank account when she started her graduate work at UW–Madison. English was her fourth language, and neither of her parents had finished elementary school. “Given my starting point, this journey has been undoubtedly challenging,” says Ho, who was born in Vietnam and settled in Los Angeles at age 12. Though Ho’s path has not been easy, she is earning a PhD in educational psychology. Read more about her journey. 



Financial advocate helps peers navigate money 

Pilot Lee

Pilot Lee majored in personal finance with the goal of empowering marginalized and underserved communities. On campus, that advocacy has taken many forms, often through Lee’s work as a programming intern at the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center. Lee led workshops on sustainability, food insecurity and financial literacy and spearheaded a community potluck that connected students to food resources near campus. Most recently, Lee hosted a financial literacy workshop called “Finance 4 Broke Gays.” Lee also helped organize a “Queer Archive Drive,” which “encouraged students to donate materials to the UW Archives in an era of queer censorship.”


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