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Meet some of the exceptional graduates of winter 2021

December 13, 2021 By Doug Erickson

This year’s winter graduates are an accomplished bunch — they’ve created new student organizations, toured the world on music stages, undertaken important research, and won major awards. Here’s a look at just a few of the students who will be graduating from UW–Madison Dec. 19. Consider them a small subset of the excellence of the Class of Winter 2021.

His campus legacy includes new student organization

Albert Elston

Albert Elston, a personal finance major, has a goal: keep more venture capital in the Midwest instead of sending it to wealthy coastal economies. To that end, he co-founded ImpactVC, UW–Madison’s Venture Capital Club. The registered student organization exposes students to the fields of early-stage investing and venture capital. It also facilitates networking opportunities with experienced investors and venture capitalists. Since its inception last fall, ImpactVC has connected with over 200 undergraduate and graduate students. “Something I’m particularly proud of is how we’ve been able to reach students across more than 20 academic majors,” Elston says. A Posse Scholar from Los Angeles, Elston spent the past two years as a teaching assistant in the personal finance program and has conducted research for UW’s Entrepreneurship Science Lab.

First a student, now a faculty member

Yirong Wang

Yirong Wang always wanted to be a teacher. When she was young, she would pretend to teach her stuffed animals, mimicking her mother, a well-respected local K-12 teacher in Hangzhou, China. Those childhood dreams are now being realized — at the college level. Wang, who is receiving her Ph.D. in nutritional sciences, has been hired by UW–Madison as an assistant faculty associate. She already has a strong student following as the instructor of Nutritional Science 132: Nutrition Today, an introductory nutrition course for non-nutrition majors. Her approach includes new elements like “Mindfulness Mondays,” where she spends 5-10 minutes talking about issues that her students might be struggling with. She provides tips that help them reduce stress, practice self-care, find their identities and navigate the college experience. At the end of the semester, she allows students to choose between a final exam or a project of their choice. “My teaching is always student-centered,” Wang says. “I want to motivate my students to dig deeper into nutrition topics that they care about most.”

Football player takes “Scholar-Athlete” label to new heights

Matt Henningsen Photo by David Stluka/Wisconsin Athletic Communications

Badger defensive end Matt Henningsen has played the demanding sport of football while excelling academically — first as an undergraduate with a perfect 4.0 GPA and now as a graduate student completing a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering. His exceptional skills have not gone unnoticed. Henningsen, of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, was named one of 13 National Scholar-Athletes this fall by the National Football Foundation, an honor that comes with an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship. All 13 elite recipients became finalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy, awarded Dec. 7 and considered college football’s premier academic award — dubbed the “Academic Heisman.” Learn more about Henningsen’s accomplishments here and here.

She taps her background to inform her research

Ronni Brent

As a child, Ronni Brent witnessed many of her peers and family members suffer from malnutrition, unhealthy habits, and various chronic diseases. Those formative experiences drive her interest in cancer epidemiology and her efforts to improve nutrition at a community level. On campus, she has been the recipient of many honors for her leadership and academic success, including the Promega Diversification of Our Research Scientist Award and an Outstanding Sophomore Award from the Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association. Brent is a McNair Scholar and a Community Environmental Scholar and has participated in research led by Dr. Shaneda Warren Andersen studying the association between colorectal cancer risk and obesity in African American and low-socioeconomic status individuals. A Posse Scholar from Chicago, Brent is earning a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, with certificates in global health and environmental studies.

She’s been a star in foreign language skills

Kristine Nguyen

Kristine Nguyen received a Foreign Language & Area Studies Fellowship her sophomore year, an honor funded by the U.S. Department of Education to assist students in sharpening their foreign language skills. The fellowship allowed Nguyen to study Chinese abroad at National Taiwan University in Taipei. Nguyen, of Madison, Wisconsin, is a PEOPLE Scholar dual-majoring in Chinese & international studies, with certificates in business and East Asian studies. She was an undergraduate research assistant intern at the State Department and won a top award at a Midwest Chinese speech competition.

He’s passionate about food justice

Connor Raboine

Connor Raboine grew up cherishing family mealtimes and admiring his mom’s ability to put food on the table during lean years. Those memories infuse his advocacy around food justice, a passion he’s pursued with energy and creativity on campus. Raboine, of Burlington, Wisconsin, recently completed more than a year as co-executive director of Slow Food UW, a student-run nonprofit organization. Last spring, he co-founded the UW Food Justice Collective, bringing together the leaders of eight food-related campus organizations. This fall, he co-led the first Swipe Out Hunger drive, which raised more than $8,000 to help ensure that all students have access to healthy and nutritious meals. “Food is so much more than calories and nutrients,” Raboine says. “It’s a way to break down barriers and connect people.”  Raboine is earning a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies and communication arts, with certificates in global health, sustainability and food systems. Read more about his campus efforts here and here.

Nontraditional student hopes to inspire others 

Kassandra Gossens

Kassandra Gossens focused her undergraduate research on the experiences of nontraditional students who transfer to flagship universities to complete their undergraduate degrees. It’s a topic she knows well. After earning academic honors and a leadership award at Madison College (and serving as its commencement speaker), Gossens transferred to UW–Madison to study psychology. She is a McNair Scholar and hopes to pursue advanced degrees. “As a returning adult student, it is important for me to pave a path for other nontraditional learners by turning my GED into a Ph.D.,” she says. “It is never too late, and you are never too far behind to get a quality education.” Gossens was raised in Portage, Wisconsin, and now resides in Madison.

Pandemic offered life lessons for commencement speaker

Jai Khanna Photo: Bryce Richter

When the pandemic hit last year, international student Jai Khanna was unable to immediately return to his native India. As he negotiated difficult times, Khanna was tapped to serve on the COVID-19 Student Advisory Board, where his experiences provided invaluable insights to campus leaders as they charted a path forward for campus. The senior class officers have now selected him to give remarks on behalf of the class of 2021 at Sunday’s winter commencement ceremony. Khanna is earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Read more about his time on campus here.

Spoken word artist is also a mental health advocate 

Nashalee Rodriguez

As a human development and family studies major, with a certificate in Chicano/a and Latino/a studies, Nashalee Rodriguez has utilized what she has learned in the classroom to promote community awareness surrounding mental health. In her leadership role as risk manager of Kappa Delta Chi Sorority, Inc., she organized a stress management and relaxation event open to students on campus. Through an internship, Rodriguez, of Milwaukee, helped young adolescents with their social emotional development as a counselor with Camp Whitcomb/Mason, part of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee. Rodriguez is a spoken word artist and part of the 11th cohort of UW­–Madison’s First Wave Scholarship Program. After graduation, she plans to travel the world while growing her Tapas Ricas MKE Charcuterie Board business on Instagram.

‘Unofficial Madison ambassador’ excels at music 

Jeffrey James Hickel Photo by Travis Ziegler

Before becoming a Badger, Jeffrey James Hickel enjoyed a music career that took him to 15 countries for hundreds of performances. The venues ranged from street busking to a huge stage with a band in Madrid, Spain. In 2019, Hickel returned to his hometown of Madison to pursue a bachelor’s degree in communication arts through Badger Ready, a transitional program for adults with prior credits who’ve been out of school for a while. Hickel has continued his artistic pursuits while a UW student. Performing as the Jeffrey James Show, he’s won numerous awards from the Madison Area Music Association, including “Video of the Year” last year and “Alternative Album of the Year” this fall. His video for “Home Again,” shot locally, “is as perfect as a night on the Union Terrace,” said Isthmus newspaper, which dubbed him “an unofficial ambassador for Madison.”