Graduate students honored with Peer Mentor Awards

By Meghan Chua

2018 Peer Mentor Award Winners Liza Chang, Folagbayi Arowolo, and Amelia Cuarenta; and Dr. LaRuth McAfee, assistant dean in the Graduate School
2018 Peer Mentor Award Winners Liza Chang, Folagbayi Arowolo, and Amelia Cuarenta accept their awards from La Ruth McAfee, assistant dean of diversity, inclusion, and funding in the Graduate School. Not pictured: Sarah Stefanos, Maria Velazquez. (Photo courtesy of the Student Leadership Program)

Five UW–Madison graduate students were recognized for stellar mentorship qualities, receiving a Peer Mentor Award at the Bucky Awards Sunday.

Graduate Peer Mentor Awards, sponsored by the Graduate School Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding, recognize mentorship both on and off campus. This year’s award recognizes mentorship for students underrepresented populations.

“We decided this year to recognize graduate students who have used their mentoring activities to support students from underrepresented backgrounds. These students are taking the road less traveled in various ways, perhaps by being in college at all or being at a school like UW–Madison, and having mentors along the way can make a big difference to achieving their goals,” said LaRuth McAfee, assistant dean for diversity, inclusion, and funding in the Graduate School.

Five students also received recognition as honorable mentions for the award: Ancy Philip, a master’s student in Computer Sciences; Daniel Bradford, a doctoral student in Psychology; Kyle Wegner, a doctoral student in Molecular and Environmental Toxicology; Geckhong Yeo, a doctoral student in Educational Psychology; and, Vaishnavi Tripuraneni, a doctoral student in Environment and Resources.

The 2018 Peer Mentor Award recipients are:

  • Folagbayi Arowolo
  • Liza Chang
  • Amelia Cuarenta
  • Sarah Stefanos
  • Maria Velazquez
Folagbayi Arowolo

Folagbayi is a PhD candidate in Molecular and Environmental Toxicology, researching the impact of dietary oxidized lipids on gastrointestinal immunity and chronic disease risks. He serves as a mentor for first-year graduate students through the SciMed Graduate Research Scholars (GRS) Community. Folagbayi also mentors high school students through the Critical MASS (Multicultural Advanced Science Students) club, which encourages students to pursue STEM fields.

He helps promote diversity initiatives on campus as a member of the Black Graduate Professional Student Association (BGPSA) and Wisconsin Association for Black Men (WABM). Recalling coming to the university as a black man and not seeing many people who look like him, Folagbayi said he wants to set an example to others of exceeding expectations despite obstacles that are present.

He’s seen his efforts pay off in the growth of the students he has mentored. One student he mentored recently presented her research at a symposium.

“Just seeing her progression and her development showed me that it was a very fruitful experience,” Folagbayi said. “Seeing her curiosity and her thirst for knowledge really inspired me to continue pursuing mentoring efforts.”

Liza Chang

Liza is a PhD student in Psychology, studying behavioral neuroendocrinology. Her research in Anthony Auger’s lab focuses on the role of the endogenous opioid system in social behaviors and the development of juvenile psychiatric disorders.

In the Auger Lab, Liza has mentored 12 undergraduate students, many of whom have completed independent projects, earned co-authorship on research manuscripts, or continued on to graduate school or post-graduate research positions.

Liza is also a Mentoring Fellow with the Wisconsin Institute of Science Education and Community Engagement (WISCIENCE). She is passionate about advising students on how to find research opportunities on campus and enjoys talking with them about their diverse research experiences.

“Building a strong mentor-mentee relationship can be crucial to whether or not a student realizes their potential to succeed,” she said. “I am dedicated to helping students, particularly underrepresented students pursue undergraduate STEM research because I believe that creating diversity and inclusion in STEM (and other fields) can only be beneficial for everyone.”

Amelia Cuarenta

Amelia is a PhD student in Psychology. She has a passion for understanding how someone’s experiences can affect not themselves, but future generations. She studies epigenetic mechanisms, seeking to enhance understanding of how life events shape people’s futures.

She has trained a number of undergraduate students in several research areas in Anthony Auger’s lab.

Amelia’s mentoring philosophy is based on mutual respect, leading by example, and providing feedback, all with a supportive and encouraging attitude. She hopes to see more women, especially women of color, in STEM fields and works to bridge the gap of underrepresentation so that young people can start to see themselves in all fields.

“I want to do all I can to help support young adults to follow their dreams and create meaningful connections that will help them achieve their goals, educational and otherwise,” she said. “The power of a supportive mentor can drastically affect an individuals’ sense of confidence in themselves, and this is why I believe so much in the mentoring process.”

Sarah Stefanos

Sarah is a joint PhD candidate in Sociology and Environment and Resources, researching land deals in Ethiopia and biofuels in Uganda. In parallel to her academic interests, Sarah co-founded and has served as CFO of W2E Ltd, a waste-to-energy research company in Uganda that specializes in biogas systems and technological and business innovations at the intersection of energy and agriculture.

She has mentored undergraduate students at UW–Madison and Makerere University in Uganda, as well as a master’s student and a high school student. Sarah is also a member of the UW–Madison chapter of the Bouchet Graduate Honor Society.

Sarah said she has faced a number of challenges as an underrepresented student and is deeply committed to helping underrepresented students succeed in spite of the challenges they might face in their undergraduate or graduate careers.

“It’s exciting to see the diversity of goals, activities, careers, and activism that they want to pursue,” Sarah said. “If I can play any small role in helping the students achieve any of those things, then I think it’s one of the best ways I can spend my time.”

Maria Velazquez

Maria is a PhD student in Educational Policy Studies, researching educational environments that directly and successfully address opportunity gaps and create additive learning experiences for minoritized and low-income youth.

She is a graduate student advisor for the UW Posse Program, an Accessibility Assistant for the McBurney Center.

Maria said her experiences growing up as the only daughter of a Mexican immigrant family of six, compounded with the challenges of being a first-generation, low-income college student, cemented her commitment to supporting underrepresented youth as they work toward their educational goals.

“Mentorship is an extension of what I learned early on as a child, that the knowledge and skill sets I developed were intrinsically tied to the larger wellbeing of a larger group; particularly in navigating unknown systems and structures,” she said. “My mentorship seeks to pass down the tools that I have developed throughout my tertiary education, particularly those that helped me develop my critical voice and sustain me in academia as an underrepresented scholar.”