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Meet some of the notable UW–Madison graduates of spring 2021

May 3, 2021 By Doug Erickson

The pandemic couldn’t hold them back — they’ve won major national academic honors, appeared on network TV shows, helped classmates avoid COVID-19, improved the campus, and even won a Grammy.

Here’s a look at just a few of the students who will be graduating from UW–Madison May 8. Consider them a small subset of the excellence of the Class of 2021.

Her campus legacy? The first South Asian a cappella singing group

Mahima Bhattar

As a freshman, Mahima Bhattar noticed there was no a cappella singing team among the South Asian performing arts student organizations. She soon rectified that, founding Wisconsin Waale (Vaa-lay) as a sophomore. The name means “Wisconsin people” in Hindi. “We wanted to make sure that our team was inclusive and represented various experiences on our campus, and so this name signifies that we are all Wisconsin people,” says Bhattar, a sociology and economics major from Naperville, Illinois. Bhattar served as co-director of the India Student Association her junior year and has been a part of Sex Out Loud, a peer-to-peer sexual health resource. Being part of the South Asian community and working in sexual health education has inspired her to go into public health and work on health equity across cultural groups. Listen to the group.

The ‘Wisco Twinjas’ double down on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Photo: Marquez holding Nathan

Marquez (standing) and Nathan Green Submitted photo

Identical twins Marquez and Nathan Green do almost everything together — including compete on “American Ninja Warrior.” The Madison natives appeared on the 2019 season of the NBC show and did so well they were invited back for the upcoming season, which premieres May 31. Each is earning a degree in community and nonprofit leadership, with a certificate in entrepreneurship. Read more about the “Wisco Twinjas.”


She brought the latest science to the Capitol

Catherine Steffel

With her efforts to bring scientific research to the public, doctoral student Catherine Steffel exemplifies the Wisconsin Idea. In 2019, she founded and organized the first Research Showcase at the Wisconsin State Capitol. The now-annual event allows graduate and postdoctoral students to influence public policy and address real-world problems by talking directly with legislators, legislative staff, and the public about their research. Steffel grew up in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and now lives in Madison. She is graduating with a doctorate in medical physics and is continuing at UW–Madison as a postdoctoral fellow while working as a freelance science writer and editor.

As president of SIC, she leads with passion

Kingsley-Reigne Pissang

At the heart of Kingsley-Reigne Pissang’s scholarship, leadership, and activism are her concerns about achievement gaps among African-American males, issues of racism and exclusion at UW–Madison, and equity and inclusion in higher education generally, for which she has emerged as a spokesperson on campus and beyond. In addition to working toward a double major in Afro-American studies and journalism, Pissang has served as president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and the Wisconsin Black Student Union, co-chaired UW’s Black History Month committee, and contributed frequently to The Black Voice . Originally from Detroit, Pissang is a co-founder and the current president of the Student Inclusion Coalition. “UW-Madison gave me a platform to develop in ways that I don’t even think my ancestors dreamt of,” she says. “It’s truly been a ride but I’m thankful.” Watch Pissang’s advice to undergraduates.

Seeing need, student proposes Health & Wellbeing Summit

Eli Tsarovsky

During the pandemic, Eli Tsarovsky began paying more attention to his physical and emotional wellbeing after learning about the roots of the self-care movement. He came to understand that it’s not self-indulgence to take good care of yourself, it’s self-preservation. He was drawn to the community health aspect of mental health and wellbeing and wanted to help other students during the pandemic. The result: the inaugural Health & Wellbeing Summit that took place March 11-12 and is expected to become an annual campus event. Says Dean of Students Christina Olstad: “It’s an example of a student sharing a need and idea, then working with us to see the vision through.” Tsarovsky, of Madison, is earning a degree in biochemistry, with certificates in public policy, global health, and Biocore. Watch Tsarovsky’s advice to undergraduates.

Atypical path leads to academic pinnacle

Tina Marshalek

Tina Marshalek’s first day of community college in 2016 was a momentous one: “I was 20 years old and had never taken an in-person class.” Marshalek, a first-generation college student, had been homeschooled through high school. She then worked for a couple of years before deciding, somewhat apprehensively, to try college. She transferred to UW–Madison two years ago, excelling to the point where, last year, she won a Truman Scholarship, one of the most prestigious undergraduate honors in the country. Marshalek, of Ashland, Wisconsin, is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in community and non-profit leadership and political science, with a certificate in educational policy studies. This summer, she will intern with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. Read more about Marshalek’s atypical academic journey.

Rising to the top in poetry

Ajíbólá Tóláse

Alison Thumel

Alison Thumel and Ajíbólá Tóláse, MFA students in creative writing, have both been awarded the Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University, considered one of the most prestigious and competitive fellowships in creative writing. Only five poets and five fiction writers are selected each year from over 2,000 applicants. It is exceedingly rare for two fellows to be selected from the same university program in the same year. Thumel is from Chicago, Tóláse from Ibadan, Nigeria.

A voice for women of color in STEM

Dalila Ricci

Dalila Ricci, a civil engineering major from Maplewood, New Jersey, works to amplify and support the voices of women of color in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Her leadership led to an Alliant Energy Foundation Erroll B. Davis Jr. Academic Achievement Award last fall, given by UW System to graduating seniors. The goal of the award is to highlight students from underrepresented groups who are  dedicated to scholarship and community service. Ricci is active with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and is the events director for the senior class. Watch Ricci’s advice to undergraduates.

The pandemic hit, and he stepped up

Taylor Waddell

Taylor Waddell has been part of the community of designers and builders at UW Makerspace since its founding four years ago. During the pandemic, the Makerspace team stepped up to help produce the Badger Seal mask fitter and other personal protective equipment. Waddell assisted in making and improving manufacturing for the Badger Seal and, together with the rest of the team, made over 1,000 seals for the UW Community, an effort that was featured in the national news. “It was incredibly exciting to see a place I helped create make a huge impact during the pandemic,” says Waddell, of West Allis, Wisconsin, a double-major in mechanical engineering and computer sciences. He will be attending graduate school at UC Berkeley and working for NASA.

With museum exhibit, artist journeys beyond borders

Roberto Torres Mata

Through an examination of both human and animal migration, artist Roberto Torres Mata aims to promote compassion and humanity by removing divisive barriers. “Migration is about our fundamental right to move freely in search of our fullest and best selves,” says Mata, who is completing an MFA in printmaking. He is the winner of the Chazen Museum of Art 2021 Russell and Paula Panczenko Master of Fine Arts Prize, awarded to one graduating MFA student each year. An exhibit of his work is on display at the Chazen through May 14. Mata is from Huntington Beach, California, and Rockford Illinois. He has exhibited his work nationally and internationally.

She’s a UW soprano — and a Grammy winner

Sarah Brailey Photo by Miranda Loud

On the website for the Grammy Awards, these words appear next to Sarah Brailey’s name: “Nominations: 1; Wins: 1.” That’s right, the UW soprano is 1-for-1 for music’s biggest honor. Brailey, who is graduating with a doctorate in vocal performance, was awarded a Grammy March 14 for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. “Oh my God. Wow! This is unreal,” Brailey said while accepting the award virtually from her Madison apartment (in an evening gown, no less.) The New York Times has praised Brailey’s “radiant, liquid tone.” Her classmates will get to hear for themselves May 8 when Brailey performs the national anthem (with fellow graduate DaSean Stokes) at the commencement ceremony for graduate students.

Her goal: improving healthcare access for all

Shehrose Charania

Shehrose Charania combines her identity as a Pakistani Muslim American woman and her passion for health promotion to combat health inequities. “As the daughter of immigrants, a first-generation college student, and a proud Posse scholar from Chicago, I was provoked to think beyond my comfort zone and encouraged to embrace the value and validity of my voice during my time at UW–Madison,” she says. Her efforts led UW–Madison to name her its 2020 Newman Civic Fellow, a national honor. Charania has been a research fellow with the Undergraduate Research Scholars program, an intern for the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, and a house fellow through University Housing. She is earning a degree in health promotion & health equity, with certificates in public policy and global health. Charania will be pursuing a master’s degree in public health at the University of Minnesota on a merit scholarship, with the goal of helping to improve access to quality healthcare for everyone. Watch Charania’s advice to undergraduates.