commencement commencement

Graduate Spotlight

UAlbany’s 2023 graduates embody the brilliance, resilience and creativity that define what it means to be a Great Dane

At UAlbany, our students author their own success – success that comes in different shapes and forms but that is invariably propelled by an insatiable curiosity about the world around them and a desire to make it a better place. These are some of their stories.

Bridget Nandawula

Bridget Nandawula

Master of Public Health

Hometown: Masaka, Uganda

Global health worldview: Exploring ways to care for patients upstream

“It’s a crazy life when you live in two parts of the world. But wherever I end up, I will always work with (rural community health clinic) Engeye in some capacity because a huge part of who I am today is because of them. Plus, this world is a global village, so I can work anywhere and help people wherever they are, even if we are apart.”

Read Bridget's Story

Growing up in Uganda, Bridget Nandawula knew that she wanted to enter a medical profession. 

After graduating from Kampala International University of Science and Technology with a diploma in clinical medicine and community health in 2009, Nandawula joined Engeye, a rural community health clinic that also serves as an internship site for graduate students at the University at Albany’s School of Public Health. 

Bridget Nandawula standing with a research poster presentation

As clinical officer-in-charge, Nandawula provided full-spectrum primary care for both adults and children, including health screenings, maternal health services, family planning, vaccinations and HIV patient care. She also provided patient and community health education and performed a variety of administrative responsibilities, including coordinating visiting international medical teams and educating them on illnesses common in Uganda. She also served as the onsite supervisor for UAlbany Master of Public Health students. 

“As a clinician at Engeye, I quickly realized that there was more to clinical care than what happened in the treatment room,” Nandawula said. “Working alongside several physicians who had a public health background, as well as the MPH students, I was able to learn about their research in public health and I became interested in developing a skillset that would help me care for my patients at a more upstream level.”

This interest grew, and after nine years of clinical experience at Engeye, Nandawula enrolled in UAlbany’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program and began classes in August 2021. The transition came with a host of challenges including adjusting to a different culture, climate and a new education system. The move has also meant being away from her two daughters in Uganda, which she called the toughest decision she ever made. 

Public Health Beyond the Clinic

As part of the MPH program, Nandawula worked for the New York State Department of Health, supporting the newborn screening program. The program conducts mandatory blood screenings for all newborns in the state to identify certain disorders, the majority of which are genetic and without intervention, could permanently impact newborns and their families. Early recognition and treatment of most of these disorders leads to better health outcomes for the newborns.

“I care deeply about maternal health, so I’ll be graduating with an additional certificate in this area, as well as a Global Health Studies certificate, because the world is a global village. Treating and educating patients about women’s and maternal health issues, as well as family planning, accounted for a large portion of my work at Engeye. There’s a great need for more of this sort of education and patient resources in Uganda.” 

This year, Nandawula was selected to join the Center for Women in Government’s Fellowship for Women and Public Policy program. In addition to intensive coursework in policy and legislation, as part of this fellowship, Nandawula undertook an internship with the New York State Office of Mental Health, working in the division of managed care within the policy bureau. 

“Policy affects everything that happens in healthcare, including what the physicians themselves do. In this role, I support the policy team in implementing, monitoring and evaluating mental health programs throughout the state. The job is different every day, which makes it exciting.” 

Research Focus: Mosquitoes and Malaria

Beyond coursework and internships, Nandawula is a decorated grad. She received the P.E.O International Peace Scholarship in 2021 and 2022, the Gail and Garland Keithly Educational Scholarship in 2020 and 2021, and UAlbany’s Initiatives for Women Award and UAlbany’s Carol Whittaker Travel Award. 

This final award contributed towards her travel back to Engeye in 2022 to follow up on a malaria study in which the clinic analyzed 500 malaria-positive blood samples to assess the diversity of malaria species that patients present at the clinic.

“Malaria is caused by different species of Plasmodium parasites (falciparum being the most common). Knowing the species, the disease stage and the number of parasites infecting a patient is vital for decision making regarding what antimalarial drug to give and the best route of administration on the part of the prescribing clinician to ensure proper patient care. More research is needed in this field and, also, better surveillance for non-falciparum species is needed to know where different species are more common to inform treatment.”

Improving Health Globally 

While managing a full courseload, multiple internships and working part time jobs, Nandawula has continued working for Engeye from afar, serving as vice president of the center’s LTD board throughout her entire time at UAlbany. 

“It’s a crazy life when you live in two parts of the world. But wherever I end up, I will always work with Engeye in some capacity because a huge part of who I am today is because of them. Plus, this world is a global village, so I can work anywhere and help people wherever they are, even if we are apart.”

Nandawula’s next steps could take any number of forms. 

“I’m open to different sorts of opportunities as long as there is a health or social determinants of health element to it and an opportunity to grow professionally. I would enjoy working within the healthcare system, departments of health or non-governmental organizations internationally or locally. If I ended up with organizations working on communicable or non-communicable disease projects, HIV, malaria and the likes, I would have fun doing that. Or maternal-child health, mental health, health equity work, I'll be happy doing that too. I love the fact that I can use my degree for lots of different things. I love the clinical room, but the public health approach gives you a different feeling, knowing that you're working on something that will help many people at the same time.” 

Helene Haegerstrand

Helene Haegerstrand

Business Administration

Hometown: Stockholm, Sweden

International scholar-athlete: Patience the key to success

“The language will be hard, new relationships will be hard, and managing time for totally new habits will be hard but be patient and do not be too hard on yourself. Be patient and it will be great!”

Read Helene's Story

When Helene Haegerstrand first arrived on the UAlbany campus in 2019 she was faced with more adjustments that most first-year students face. 

Growing up in Sweden meant that Haegerstrand needed to take courses taught in a different language while adapting to a time zone six hours behind her home in Stockholm. She also needed to learn the social mores, habits and peculiarities of her fellow Great Danes while adjusting to an entirely new array of food options available to her in New York.

“It’s very different and hard to adjust to another culture, but it’s also the most rewarding thing I have ever exposed myself to,” said Haegerstrand, who also managed the added pressure of being a student-athlete as a member of the women’s basketball team.

Now, as she prepares to earn her bachelor’s degree in business administration on Saturday during the undergraduate commencement ceremony at UAlbany, Haegerstrand has learned to rely on patience and hard work to accomplish her goals. 

Her efforts have paid off.

After four years of success on the court and in the classroom, she was recently honored as the 2023 America East Women’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

A member of the 2019-20 America East All-Rookie team and a two-time First Team All-America East honoree, Haegerstrand finished eight semesters at UAlbany with a stellar 3.6 GPA, also completing a minor in sociology. 

In addition, she helped guide her team in 2022 to the America East Championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, all while dealing with the challenges of being unable to travel home during the school year. The college basketball season barely slows down during December and January when many students are enjoying a winter break. Taking an 8,000-mile roundtrip flight to and from Stockholm just isn’t an option.

“Due to our season, we international students do not have the possibility to go home during the year but I have been lucky that my family has been able to come visit me,” said Haegerstrand. “It’s hard to be so far away and deal with the time difference, but it is something you can handle. Facetime helps a lot and knowing that my family fully supports my choices and that we still are just as close as we were before I moved is the best feeling.”

Haegerstrand adds that her parents, Anders and Caroline, and her sister Anna love to follow her games from Sweden and do their best to be a part of her life in Albany. She is grateful for their love and support.

And Haegerstrand will continue to rely on her family’s guidance as she contemplates a career in consulting, recruiting or another similar field.

“I have many role models and people I look up to such as my mom, my close friends and my sister,” said Haegerstrand. “I always want to make my sister proud but when it comes to bigger things, I picture myself in 10 years and try to think of how I want that version of me to be. That has always been a big motivating factor for me throughout my life.”

She also has advice for the next crop of students who arrive at UAlbany in the fall of 2023.

“I would try to say that it is just as important to enjoy the hard times as it is to enjoy the good times,” Haegerstrand said. “There will always be hard things coming at you, but it is all about how you choose to approach them, so enjoy everything and take advantage of being in a position where you can meet new people and learn new things.”

Haegerstrand also has sage words for those students who like her must deal with the added challenge of adjusting to life in a new country.

“My biggest advice for international students coming in, I would say is to have patience,” she said. “The language will be hard, new relationships will be hard, and managing time for totally new habits will be hard but be patient and do not be too hard on yourself. Be patient and it will be great!”

Vivvianna Murphy

Vivianna Murphy

Environmental and Sustainable Engineering

Hometown: Colonie, NY

Next Step: Naval Nuclear Lab

“Environmental and sustainable engineering can help mitigate the difficulties facing low-income families and children by providing clean water, clean air and a healthier environment.”

Read Vivianna's Story

Vivianna Murphy’s road to UAlbany was among the longest in terms of miles traveled, yet smoothest when it came to pursuing her dreams.

Adopted as an 18-month-old from China, Murphy was raised by a single mother in Colonie who worked at Head Start, helping children from low-income families to achieve success in school through early learning interventions.

A senior majoring in Environmental and Sustainable Engineering (ESE) at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS), Murphy cites her mother as a continuing influence on her choice of major and her desired career.

“My mom worked with children at Head Start for 30 years, so I was aware of how minorities and the poor are disadvantaged from the beginning,” said Murphy. “Environmental and sustainable engineering can help mitigate the difficulties facing low-income families and children by providing clean water, clean air and a healthier environment.”

Murphy’s mother also encouraged her to pursue a major that would challenge her but provide a rewarding experience along the way.

For Murphy, that pathway started at Hudson Valley Community College, where she spent two years earning an associate of science (AS) degree in engineering science, which provided a smooth transition into UAlbany’s ESE program. 

“I have always enjoyed science and had an interest in how things work,” continued Murphy. “I focused on environmental and sustainable engineering due to my own rising concern involving climate change and my interest in renewable energy options.”

Next up for Murphy is working at the Naval Nuclear Laboratory in Niskayuna as an entry level engineer. Among all of those who supported her in her journey, she cites Todd Schnitzer, senior academic advisor at CEAS for playing a vital role in her success.

“Mr. Schnitzer helped me pick electives that fit my interest, and advocated for me with the college as I pursued courses that might not have otherwise been seen as traditional options,” said Murphy.

““I have had the ultimate privilege of advising Vivianna over the last 2 years. She really is an outstanding student and person,” said Schnitzer. “I have no doubt that she has terrific things waiting for her in the years to come.”

Murphy also strongly encourages students to find a balance between the types of courses (lectures, core classes, labs) as well as planning for the eventual capstone projects.

“Find a study buddy to form a study group and just get the assignments over with,” said Murphy. “There’s no time for procrastination once you get to your core classes. But don’t be afraid to change if you think you might be a better fit doing something different. It’s important to find what interests you.” 

Emmanuel Berkoh

Emmanuel Berkoh


Hometown: South Bronx, NY

Next Step: American Express

“The University is a two-way street. You have to be a scholar and positively represent yourself, while also honing in all of the resources offered on campus. There are so many great people here that want to see you succeed.”

Read Emmanuel's Story

Growing up in the South Bronx, University at Albany senior Emmanuel Berkoh loved football and had dreams, like many of his friends, of making it to the National Football League.

Then, freshman year of high school, he tore his ACL, the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. That changed everything.

“I played football all of my life and loved the game,” said Berkoh. “When I tore my ACL, the recovery gave me a lot of time to think deeper about what I was doing with my life. I wanted to make a name for myself and my family, outside of football.”

Berkoh and his five siblings, three sisters and two older brothers, are children of first-wave Ghanaian immigrants. His parents moved to New York City as teenagers with one thing on their mind, for their children to be successful. The family lived in a two-bedroom apartment, which was also open to extended family members who needed a place to stay.

Following his football injury, Berkoh discovered “Futures and Options,” a non-for-profit and paid internship program on Wall Street that empowers New York City's youth, particularly youth of color and students from historically underrepresented communities, to acquire transferable professional skills, pursue higher education and successfully compete in a global 21st-century economy.

Emmanuel Berkoh (top right) recently celebrated his sister’s wedding with the entire family.
Emmanuel Berkoh (top right) recently celebrated his sister’s wedding with the entire family.

The program was Berkoh’s first exposure to corporate America.

“On my first day as a high school sophomore intern at Morgan Stanley, I noticed I was one of only two minority

individuals present. Sitting at the same table as senior executives and discussing new company initiatives was exhilarating,” Berkoh said. "At that moment, I realized that I had the potential to become a part of this world, but it was imperative that I not only work diligently to achieve my goal but also help others along the way.”

Passion for IT

For the next few years, Berkoh continued to shift his focus from the field to the classroom, initially enrolling at Farmingdale State College on Long Island to pursue a nursing degree, as his parents hoped he would join the medical field.

However, it did not feel the same as when he visited Morgan Stanley or similar large companies in high school. Instead, it was a work-study job that helped him discover his true passion—cybersecurity.

“At Farmingdale, I devoted much of my time working alongside the senior network administrator for the School of Business," Berkoh recalled. "I would often skip class just to learn everything from him, observing how he made alterations to the campus networks. 

“That’s when I realized it was time for a change and UAlbany was the perfect fit for me.”

Great Dane Transfer

Shortly after switching his major, Berkoh discovered UAlbany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC) and, as a sophomore, decided to transfer in pursuit of a degree in Informatics with a concentration in cybersecurity. 

At UAlbany, Berkoh has immersed himself into the campus community, serving as a resident assistant on Indigenous Quad, Student Association elections commissioner, Campus Center management student technical staff and an intern at CEHC’s Hack-IoT Lab.

"I recognized that I had to be the best version of myself at UAlbany," Berkoh said. "I concentrated on my academic objectives and ensured that I made the most of every resource accessible to me, both within and beyond the classroom setting.”

Among those resources was Noah Simon, director of Career Planning in UAlbany’s Career Services Office. Through Simon, Berkoh connected with Stefanos Marcopoulos '07, MS '08, vice president of Global Risk and Compliance at American Express (AMEX) and president of the UAlbany Alumni Association Board of Directors.

Marcopoulos was creating a new internship program for UAlbany students, and Berkoh, along with another student at CEHC and two at the School Business, were the first program interns to work with the AMEX Global Risk and Compliance Organization last summer.

"It was truly humbling to work at the World Trade Center daily, interacting with senior business leaders, stakeholders and colleagues. I soon recognized that I belonged in this environment and, more importantly, could help pave the way for other scholars that look like me and work just as hard as I do to sit at the same table.”

Next Stop, American Express
Berkoh starts as a full-time employee at American Express this fall.
Berkoh starts as a full-time employee at American Express this fall.

During Berkoh’s final week, he was offered a full-time position following graduation, working within AMEX’s Technology Risk and Information Security department as an Information Security Analyst. He’ll be back working at the World Trade Center this fall.

On top of his career, Berkoh also hopes to start his own internship program and scholarship foundation. He teamed up with several friends last summer to launch a new, annual mentorship event “TheGiftedMembers: Project Influence,” which is focused on mentoring and building networks for the teens in his neighborhood. 

“Something has to change,” Berkoh said. “The core concept of this event was to show the kids and teens that individuals from similar backgrounds have become successful professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and corporate executives. By witnessing these success stories, they will understand that they can accomplish anything if they are determined and focused."

His message to UAlbany students? Take advantage of your time here.

“The University is a two-way street. You have to be a scholar and positively represent yourself, while also honing in all of the resources offered on campus. There are so many great people here that want to see you succeed.”


Aaron Saia

Aaron Saia

Social Welfare

Hometown: Voorheesville, NY

The IT factor: Empowering seniors through tech literacy and connection

“So many of the factors that influence our life experience are things we are born with. Many things we can’t choose, but it's always a choice to seek help and to help others. That's what I think we should be doing more of, and what I hope to do throughout my career.” 

Read Aaron's Story

University at Albany senior Aaron Saia knew early in their college career that they wanted to enter a helping profession. 

After receiving an associate degree in human services from Hudson Valley Community College, Saia began exploring coursework in related areas including biology, psychology and sociology, transferring to UAlbany’s School of Social Welfare in 2021 as an Advanced Standing Master of Social Work (MSW) student. This means that after graduating with a BS in social welfare and minor in psychology later this month, Saia will continue directly into a second year of coursework and field experiences required to complete a Master of Social Work by May 2024.  

This academic year, Saia’s assigned field placement led them to the Mechanicville Senior Center, where they have worked as a Seniors Living Well intern for the past 10 months. Saia meets with clients at the center and at their homes, connecting them with essential services — such as helping them secure housing, pay medical bills and access Medicare and Medicaid resources. Saia also coordinates recreational programming, assists with the food pantry and, answering a call that emerged during meetings with clients, took on a role as an IT consultant. 

“In my interactions with clients, I found that many needed help solving tech problems. Sometimes it could be something relatively small, like locating volume switches or accessing the flashlight on their phone. But many clients also expressed concerns about cybersecurity and privacy after receiving emails from unknown senders or spam text messages,” said Saia, who is also the vice president of Tau Sigma, an honor society for university transfer students.

“Older adults are disproportionally targeted by scammers, and many of the clients I work with know this. They also recognize that scams are getting smarter and harder to discern.”

Hearing these concerns from numerous clients, Saia launched a program of one-on-one, semi-structured interview sessions to address clients’ tech questions and learn more about their needs. 

“At the end of each session, after resolving the tech questions at hand, I would ask my clients about their broader experiences with technology and any related concerns or interests. Many wanted to know more about scams and how to protect themselves against fraudulent activity online.”

To address this need, Saia partnered with the Saratoga County Sheriff's Office to produce a cyber safety seminar, offering information about scam prevention, what to look out for and what to do if you fall victim. The program sparked a lively discussion as participants swapped experiences about the many different ways they encounter scams. 

“As we think about the ways we can prepare seniors to live independently as they age, technology plays a large and growing role. Ensuring that older adults feel confident handling things like paying bills online and communicating with friends and family in digital formats is critical to independent living.”

Saia is also keenly attuned to the importance of empowering the clients they serve by taking their unique backgrounds and identities into account. 

“When we go to help clients, oftentimes they're dealing with challenges such as grief, or something to do with their identity. While our culture has in many ways become more open, it’s also become more closed. Validating clients’ experiences, especially when they relate to their identity, is so important to giving them the confidence to live independently. Helping them use technology and stay safe while doing so is part of that; so is understanding the rest of their story and knowing the root of their concerns or fears. This understanding is critical to helping us better serve our clients.”

With a deep interest in clinical and medical social work, Saia is excited to apply skills learned at the senior center in future roles. 

“During this internship, I was able to experience my first ‘real’ connection with a client, including setting a goal and helping them achieve it. I was able to put theory into practice and realize that this is what social work is. Plus, I’ll be able to transfer the skills I’m learning now to other settings. There will certainly be moments in my career when I come across something I haven’t encountered before, but with the toolkit I’m building now, I’ll be prepared to adapt and serve the client to the best of my ability.”

Moving into the second year of the MSW program, Saia would like to get involved in research. 

“I've always had an interest in working with people who are neurodivergent and the disabled population, plus looking at the intersection of race and sexuality as they relate to these identities. I would love to do the kind of research where you study something very niche and begin to pick it apart and find gaps that no one has studied before. While those gaps are concerning, they’re also exciting because they create new opportunities to explore, solve problems and help people.

“So many of the factors that influence our life experience are things we are born with. Many things we can’t choose, but it's always a choice to seek help and to help others. That's what I think we should be doing more of, and what I hope to do throughout my career.” 

Corey Nilon

Corey Nilon


Hometown: Binghamton, NY

Neuro state of mind: Studies brains and cares for them too

“Between my work in the lab and my work in the hospital, I’ve gotten to see the clinical side of neuroscience and also the research side. After working in the hospital for nearly three years, my experience there has confirmed that it is, indeed, what I want to do with my life.”

Read Corey's Story

Honors College senior and biology major Corey Nilon came to the University at Albany with a keen interest in science and a desire to study medicine. He also knew that gaining research experience would play an important role towards a career in the medical field. 

Initially unsure as to the shape this might take, Nilon responded to an email from the University about getting involved in research at the start of his sophomore year. The next day, he was introduced to a project that not only spanned the rest of his undergraduate career, but also culminated in a senior thesis, which he presented at the University’s inaugural Showcase Day on April 27. 

Studying ‘OCD’ in Mice 

Nilon has been working with Annalisa Scimemi, associate professor of biological sciences, to study the cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), focusing on the behavior of a particular gene in mice. The research ultimately could shed light on how to more effectively treat a broader range of neuropsychiatric disorders including Alzheimer’s disease and autism spectrum disorders. 

“Prior research comparing mouse genomes has found an association between mice exhibiting hyperactivity and mutations on the gene that we are targeting in the study,” Nilon said. “For three years, I have been training mice to see how mutations in this gene are reflected in their behavior.”

To train the mice, Nilon has used a reward system wherein he feeds them

Scan of a mouse brain

sips of normal drinking water, which is less acidic and far tastier than the sour water they are accustomed to drinking in their home cages.

“First, we observed baseline mouse behavior in a controlled environment. Then we added a lever that when pressed, dispenses a small amount of drinking water, which tastes good and incentivizes the mice to keep pressing.”

The team observed mice with and without the target gene mutation as they interacted with the lever press. They also added a timed component. 

“One of the more advanced tasks I run is timed. Within six seconds, the mice have to press the lever eight times, in sequence, to receive the water reward. We found that mice with the mutation on the target gene are much better at this task than mice without the mutation. This indicates that these mutant mice are more compulsive and more likely to engage in reward-based behaviors.

“When we think of clinical OCD, there is a wide spectrum of symptoms that people with the disorder can experience; however, a common trait is exhibiting increased anxiety and trying to compensate for it. We think that when you add a timed component — essentially telling these mice that they need to press the lever within a narrow timeframe to receive the reward — this causes an anxiety-like response which induces compulsivity and the action of continued pressing for relief.”

Seeing Two Sides 

Outside the lab, Nilon spends much of his time working in the neuroprogressive unit at Albany Medical Center. 

“I first started at Albany Med as a volunteer during my freshman year. I would go room to room across many departments in the hospital and would offer patients opportunities for enrichment during their stay like books, puzzles, a friendly visit from therapy dogs and, if desired, religious counsel.”

He now works as a patient care associate (PCA).

“Shift to shift, I work under the discretion of the nurse. My normal duties comprise helping patients who have neurological disorders in carrying out activities of daily life. But, I’ve also sat in on numerous neurosurgeries and have even assisted during the procedures. It’s crazy seeing doctors use big hammers and power drills to cut through skulls; sometimes the unit feels like a construction zone.”

Post-graduation, Nilon plans to go to school to become a physician’s assistant. 

“Between my work in the lab and my work in the hospital, I’ve gotten to see the clinical side of neuroscience and also the research side. After working in the hospital for nearly three years, my experience there has confirmed that it is, indeed, what I want to do with my life.”

Beyond the Books 

Nilon has been involved in the Special Olympics as a unified partner since before high school. He joined UAlbany’s Special Olympics Club as a freshman, and since taking the reins as president during his sophomore year, has grown the number of people involved in the club, as well as the variety of sports offered. 

“We recently bridged together Special Olympics NY and Disability Champions Mentoring Network, which is an NYC-based group focused on enhancing special education transition programming for underserved youth with disabilities, in addition to creating an authentic community of support. We did a collaboration with them recently held at a new sensory gym in Albany called ‘Bring on the Spectrum.’ I hope to see more collaborations like this one happen in the club’s future.

“The number one thing I’ve gained from being involved in Special Olympics is friendship. We’ve closely worked with the same individuals for over three years and when you see and compete in sports with someone every week for that length of time, you really get to know each other. It’s awesome that despite the differences present among us, in age, background and culture, we can come together and host a unified sports league—and it’s so much fun. The ease with which that comes is the best part for me.” 

Rosmery Reyes

Rosmery Reyes

Human biology, Spanish

Hometown: Bronx, NY

Next Step: Albany Medical College

"If you genuinely want to meet people and you want to be an active member, this huge campus becomes very small in the best way possible. And then it becomes way less intimidating. This school taught me that no matter how big the space is or new or strange — you have to believe in yourself, you have to get out there.”

Read Rosmery's Story
Rosmery Reyes

During the fall of 2021, when many UAlbany students were adjusting to life back on campus after the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rosmery Reyes was facing yet another obstacle. 

The human biology major and aspiring doctor from the Bronx had to undergo stomach surgery after longtime issues with gastroesophageal reflux disease. She ended up losing a lot of weight and strength, and missed a month of school while she recovered. The experience impacted both her grades — she had to withdraw from a class — and her mental health.

“I felt so lost and very hopeless because I had just applied to med school and could barely keep up,” she said. “But being here on campus is what made me feel better. I was so hard on myself for so long, but the people around me tried to help me understand that I was sick, I couldn't control it, and that I'm human at the end of the day — and that helped me a lot.”

With the help of her friends and mentors in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at UAlbany, Reyes was able to recover and get her grades back up. The graduating senior was recently accepted into Albany Medical College and has plans to become a pediatric orthopedic or plastic surgeon. 

She credits the support of the EOP program, which provides personal, academic and financial support for students from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, as being crucial to her success and hopeful mindset during tough times. 

“EOP's my family,” she said. “It's just really homey. It feels like you have people backing you up. I will never forget what EOP has done for me. EOP is the reason I am me. I love the program.”

Born in the Dominican Republic, Reyes moved to the Bronx when she was 7 with her mother and siblings. She lived and attended elementary, middle and high school all within the same few blocks growing up, and remembers feeling eager to leave what felt like a small pond for someplace bigger. Her history teacher recommended UAlbany, and her first visit to campus had her hooked, she said.

“I fell in love with the school from literally that one encounter,” she said. “I was walking around campus like, I love the community, I love the fountain and the trees and just that feeling of being independent. I knew this was for me.”

As part of the EOP program, Reyes arrived on campus the summer before her freshman year for a five-week residential experience, small-class instruction and enrichment activities that helped her prepare for life in college.

Despite her health struggles, Reyes has flourished at UAlbany — building a solid friend group and volunteering with various campus activities, such as the Student Association and Building Ladies Up, and serving as a peer advisor, teaching assistant and tutor.

Last summer she interned for the biotechnology firm Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. And this summer, she plans to participate in a month-long EOP program for pre-med students in Brooklyn before heading off to Albany Med. Eventually, she’d like to work in pediatric surgery helping children with health and quality-of-life issues.

“People say it's better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond,” Reyes said. “You would think that would apply to UAlbany. But if you genuinely want to meet people and you want to be an active member, this huge campus becomes very small in the best way possible. And then it becomes way less intimidating. This school taught me that no matter how big the space is or new or strange — you have to believe in yourself, you have to get out there.”

Christina Cucinotta

Christina Cucinotta


Hometown: Niskayuna, NY

Challenge accepted: Making the most of a second chance

“I think my story holds an important message for those young and old – it’s never too late to start.”

Read Christina's Story

When Christina Cucinotta first enrolled at UAlbany, she envisioned pursuing a career as a biochemist, developing cosmetics derived from natural components rather than the mass-produced, potentially harmful products that dominated the market at the time. UAlbany offered an affordable education close to her home. Bolstered by the promise of a graduate scholarship upon completion of her bachelor’s degree, the decision was an easy one.

The year was 2006. Cucinotta was an excellent student at her high school in Niskayuna, earning Advance Placement  credits in chemistry to ease the transition into her first choice of major at UAlbany, biochemistry.

Unfortunately, Cucinotta’s first experience with college life was anything but smooth. Classwork piled high and she found herself unable to meet course expectations. She was at a complete loss as to what had changed to make her time in college so overwhelming and strenuous as learning had always come naturally to her.

The answer came by way of a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in 2010, a learning disability that affects executive functioning. Even though her question had been answered, the damage was done. Her GPA had tumbled and she was academically dismissed in 2011.

The road back to UAlbany started with getting a better sense of who she was. The diagnosis was the beginning of understanding what made her unique, starting with a new approach to the way she managed her world so that she could create her success. 

She credits her mother, an award-winning piano teacher who specializes in teaching students with disabilities. Cucinotta called her mom her cheerleader and biggest support as she learned to live alongside her disability. 

“She sent me articles, showed me tips and tricks, helped me build my skills and new behaviors and assisted me with building the structure I needed to succeed,” Cucinotta said. 

After leaving UAlbany, Cucinotta began working in the hospitality field and eventually enrolled at SUNY Schenectady in the hospitality program. Her efforts to understand how to turn her differences into strengths paid off when she graduated with an Associate of Applied Science in Hotel and Restaurant Management in 2017. 

Her next steps were less simple.  As she was preparing to open a small gelato business with her fiancé in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic brought their plans up short. It was the perfect opportunity to complete her bachelor’s degree, but she was faced with two options: apply to other schools and start her education from scratch, or finish what she started at UAlbany — which also meant rebuilding her GPA.

Her first choice was to enter UAlbany’s School of Business, an ambitious goal at her standing. 

“After speaking to the University, I was informed that the process would take at least five semesters,” Cucinotta recalled. “And if I had any hope of achieving my goals upon my return to school, I was going to have to work hard – I had to make up the ground lost with a 1.61 GPA on my return.” 

After consulting family and weighing her options, it was her father's remarks that untangled the decision. “As I was laying out my list of pros and cons, he said to me, very simply, ‘Tina, the three years will pass. You can be 35 with a degree, or 35 without a degree. Everything else is the same, no matter which direction you take.’ My decision became crystal clear.”

Cucinotta approaches her 35th birthday later this year. Supported in no small part by her fiancé, she will have earned a Bachelor of Science in Accounting to accompany her associate’s degree, and will be halfway through earning her Master of Science in Forensic Accounting in addition to working her way through the testing requirements for her CPA license. 

“Nick has been my steadfast rock as I’ve been hanging on through each whirlwind of a semester,” she said. “He made it so that I only had to worry about learning my material. I’m just beyond grateful.”

In addition to the support of her family, Cucinotta is grateful for the boost provided by taking Intermediate Accounting I with Associate Professor of Accounting William Riccardi. The course is regarded as among the most challenging and demanding courses in the accounting and finance curriculums.

“The class presents topics at a breakneck pace. I don’t think I walked out of a single lecture without my head spinning. But Dr. Riccardi really taught me what I needed to know,” she said. “He took the time and made the effort to build out the course in a way that made sense, presenting topics that progressed in difficulty and at the same pace that my understanding did.”

Cucinotta also credits Riccardi with having the flexibility to help her overcome some of the challenges her ADHD presents by allowing her to record his lectures to assist in her review.  

“I’ll admit that I still regularly review those lectures, if not to recall the topics of the course, then to re-create a space where I learned at the highest level I may ever have,” she said.

The Disability Access & Inclusion Student Services (DAISS) has also proved to be a valuable resource as Cucinotta worked to rebuild her academic standing and succeed where she had previously stumbled. 

Cucinotta also credits Senior Associate Director of Financial Aid Meryl Schwalb, who helped her find ways to overcome the financial challenges that came with being a full-time non-traditional student. With federal and state assistance exhausted and facing challenges to pay after losing one of her part-time jobs, Schwalb found a place for her in the federal work-study program. She also informed Cucinotta about the University at Albany Foundation scholarships application — a collection of more than 200 scholarship funds available to assist UAlbany students.

Schwalb and the Foundation identified Cucinotta as eligible for a scholarship through the Edna Craig Memorial Scholarship Fund. Established in 1980 through the will of Edna Craig ’21, the scholarship seeks to assist seniors in overcoming financial obstacles such as those Cucinotta faced. 

“Without being asked, she made it work,” Cucinotta said of Schwalb. “Without her, I wouldn’t be here.”

For Cucinotta, “here” is preparing for the 2023 undergraduate commencement ceremony, which takes place on May 13. 

And as she prepares for the next steps along her career path, Cucinotta offers advice for students who may one day follow in her footsteps across the graduation stage, especially anyone facing the challenges associated with ADHD or other disabilities.

“If you are finding yourself being challenged in a way that is insurmountable, no matter how hard you are trying, reach out to the resources the University has in place for you,” Cucinotta implored. 

When she returned to UAlbany in 2021, it was those resources that helped Cucinotta succeed in ways she once thought would be impossible.

“I think my story holds an important message for those young and old – it’s never too late to start.” 

Christina Rust

Christina Rust

Public Health

Hometown: New Paltz, NY

Preparing for impact: Embedding science in social justice

“My dream position would be if I could manage health policy and health legislation for the incarcerated population at the state level or federal level. I love how the legislative system works. Any job where I can combine that along with science and with helping people would be amazing.”

Read Christina's Story
Christina Rust

College is a time to meld passions and discover new interests. For Christina Rust, her dual interests in science and policy were being stoked at the same time she decided to run for student government. Now on the brink of graduating a year early from the University at Albany’s School of Public Health, a bill that she spearheaded and wrote as an intern for New York State Assemblymember and Chair of the Committee on Social Services Maritza Davila is in committee and will soon be brought to the floor for a vote. 

Christina’s journey within the state legislature began in 2021, interning for Senator and Chair of the Mental Health Committee Samra Brouk. 

“While interning in the senator’s office, I worked on a range of legislative tasks, including preliminary research and bill tracking, much of which focused on public health issues like K-12 health education reform and the 988 mental health hotline,” said Rust, who will graduate with a degree in public health with a minor in Spanish. 

“I started college thinking that I wanted to become a doctor and work in pediatrics, but this experience with health legislation and policy helped me realize that my passion for helping people and my passion for science can be combined in a different way that I hadn’t considered before. The public health major felt like the perfect way to combine these interests.” 

Social Justice Meets Public Health

Rust started at UAlbany on the premed track. During her freshman year, she got involved with the Student Association on campus, which led her to undertake an internship with Sen. Brouk. Rust explained that while interning in the Senate, she had the opportunity to pursue independent research, which sparked new interests at the intersection of justice and public health. 

“During this internship, I got really interested in incarcerated people’s health and mental health, which remains a prime focus for me. For example, during the pandemic, people in the state prison system pumped out 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per week — making only a few cents to a few dollars per hour — which was distributed to the people of New York free of charge. Meanwhile, incarcerated people were among the groups most severely affected by the pandemic. While they were working to protect others, no one was protecting them. This elevated my interest in public health, with a focus on health disparities and how they manifest among incarcerated populations.” 

Rust’s growing interest in health policy led her to undertake another internship in 2022, this time with the New York State Assembly working for Assembly member Maritza Davila. In this role, Rust was inspired to write a bill, which has been introduced and is currently being reviewed by the NYS Assembly education committee. If passed, it would allow (but not mandate) Naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, to be kept on hand in K-12 schools.  

“I had seen a lot of news stories coming out of the area I was from about kids in K-12 schools overdosing in school or on school grounds. It’s not only happening with the students, but also with other people that come into the school buildings. This is a growing problem, but schools often aren’t equipped to handle it.  

“Schools have AEDs in case someone has a heart attack, but they are not adapting to patterns of changing and more dangerous drug use that’s happening in schools. It’s so exciting that this bill may become a law that could save lives.” 

As a sophomore, Rust was awarded a research fellowship through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), working in the HIV/AIDS bureau within the organization’s policy development branch. Much of this work has centered on revising federal policies about how funds can be used and what services are covered for people living with HIV/AIDS nationally.  

Bringing the focus to incarcerated populations, Rust has been examining a new California Medicaid waiver focused on ensuring continuity of care for people with HIV and AIDS while they are in prison as well as post-release. Rust is comparing the waiver to federal policies to make sure covered services align. 

Looking Forward

“We need to do a better job at creating a more compassionate prison system in general while working to establish resources for restorative care and restorative justice,” she said. “My dream position would be if I could manage health policy and health legislation for the incarcerated population at the state level or federal level. I love how the legislative system works. Any job where I can combine that along with science and with helping people would be amazing.”

Post-graduation, Rust plans to pursue a master’s in public health at UAlbany with a special focus on correctional health. She will be spending the summer completing an intensive bootcamp-style training program with the Westmere Fire Department, where she recently enlisted as a volunteer firefighter.  

“I wanted to join in high school, but my parents vetoed the idea. I love volunteering and being involved in the community, so I thought this would be a good way to utilize that interest and give back. Now that I’m starting to feel more settled with my balance of work and school, it’s time to give it a shot.” 

Shayla Farris

Shayla Farris

Human Development

Hometown: Kingston, NY

Next Step: Peace Corps

“It's really nice because sometimes in undergrad you look around and you're like, ‘Wow, where's the finish line? I don't see a finish line. This is very stressful.’ And then you see people who were literally in your shoes a year or two ago, and you're like, ‘OK, that’s the finish line.’”

Read Shayla's Story

When Shayla Farris transferred to UAlbany last year, she was feeling lost. Her college career to date had been anything but linear. 

The Kingston native had previously attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., first studying psychology before deciding to pursue a teaching career. But she never quite felt like she belonged there, she said, and then the campus closed indefinitely when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

“I ended up looking at Albany and I'm actually really happy I did,” she said. 

Farris was accepted into the Touhey Family Fellows Program, which provides financial support, mentorship and research opportunities to qualifying UAlbany juniors and seniors who plan to pursue a profession in education or mental health. The program is run by Tammy Ellis-Robinson, assistant professor of special education and educational psychology and methodology for the School of Education.

“The first time I met with Tammy I was distraught and just sat there for a good hour crying, I didn’t even know who she was,” Farris said, referring to how lost she felt at the time.

The program provided Farris with academic, professional and emotional support during a tough transition. She got to hear regularly from graduate students and alumni who had gone through the Touhey program and landed jobs in their chosen fields.

“It's really nice because sometimes in undergrad you look around and you're like, ‘Wow, where's the finish line? I don't see a finish line. This is very stressful.’ And then you see people who were literally in your shoes a year or two ago, and you're like, ‘OK, that’s the finish line.”

Through her involvement with the Student Association, where Farris served as director of disability services, she discovered a passion for policy and politics, and now hopes to pursue a career in educational policymaking. 

In March, Farris spent a week tabling and hosting disability awareness trainings with student leaders, including from Fraternity and Sorority Life. She realized the impact she could make through her advocacy after learning there had been an increase in registration for disability accommodations and services following her workshops.

“I really think that it starts from the ground level of creating the space where you feel welcomed enough to be vulnerable,” she said. “And I'm excited to see if what I've been able to do here, I can do at a greater level.”

Farris is also a member of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and works as an event coordinator for Eureka!, a program through Girls Inc. of the Greater Capital Region that provides girls with an introduction to STEM concepts, career exploration and mentorship. 

She was recently accepted into the Peace Corps and will spend 27 months providing educational assistance in schools internationally. Once she returns she hopes to pursue a PhD program in international educational policy, she said.

“College has been a really good experience for me,” she said. “At first, it's like fighting for your life. And you feel like you need to make a direct decision. But you don't. Everything that you gather, whether it's discussing random things with people you see in the hallway, or what you learn in your classes, everything kind of formulates and molds you into who you are, and all your skills and relationships will help you in the future in whatever you choose to do.”

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