NKU recognizes six graduating seniors for their commitments to their classwork and the University. 

By Jayna Barker
NKU Marketing + Communications

More than 1,600 graduates will receive a diploma this year, but there are a handful of outstanding graduating seniors who Northern Kentucky University would like to recognize.

These graduates have distinguished themselves with personal commitments to their classwork, the University, and the surrounding communities. Their accomplishments reflect positively on their own abilities as well as NKU. 

NKU Foundation Student Leadership Award—Natalia Weekly

NataliaWeekly Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

The NKU Foundation Student Leadership Award is given to a student leader who has provided outstanding service to the University through student government or other significant student leadership role. Although a specific grade point average is not required, the individual should be strong academically, as their academic record will be considered. This award was established by the NKU Foundation to honor the leadership excellence of its founding members. The NKU Foundation sponsors this award.

It’s safe to say that Natalia Weekly has made an impact during her time here at NKU. Natalia took on many leadership roles on campus—as a University 101 teaching assistant, a Presidential Ambassador, a residential assistant, an orientation leader, a co-director of Northern Kentucky Leadership Institute, a R.O.C.K.S. co-lead mentor, and president of the Activities Programming Board.

But that didn’t stop the counseling and human services major from volunteering her time to organizations on campus, such as the FUEL NKU food pantry, and to many in the community, such as Holmes High School, the Brighton Center, Ronald McDonald House, and Stepping Stones.

“I have had the opportunity to know and work with Natalia for the past three years,” says Sarah Aikman, director of Student Union and Programming. “She is an outstanding leader who has left NKU a better place than when she started. She is someone who is proud of her affiliation with NKU and will continue to share her undergraduate experiences in her professional life.”

Two days after graduation, Natalia will be packed up and heading to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to pursue a master’s degree in college counseling and student development in higher education, with plans to work in student affairs.

Although she’s a little nervous to leave campus, Natalia is excited to embark on her new journey.

“NKU is home to me,” Natalia says. “I just can’t thank NKU enough for helping me grow as a leader, student, and person. I’m definitely not the same person I was in high school.”

Faculty Senate Award—Travis “TJ” Schuyler

TJSchuyler Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

The Faculty Senate Award is given to a senior student who has demonstrated exceptional skills and productivity in an independent study project. An independent study project is defined as a faculty-supervised research or scholarly work, which has as its goal the publication, presentation and/or exhibition of the results. The project should be conducted outside of a formal classroom and last at least one semester, preferably longer. This award will be presented upon completion of degree requirements. This award does not have to be given if the committee determines there are no suitable nominees during a particular year. The Faculty Senate sponsors this award.

If there’s one thing Travis “TJ” Schuyler loves, it’s science. TJ started out at NKU as a biology student on the pre-med track but ended up switching to chemistry. As if chemistry wasn’t hard enough, he added a physics minor to his curriculum during his junior year.

While TJ has involved himself on campus—as co-founder of the Peace Club, a member of Phi Beta Delta, a member of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, and a Presidential Ambassador—his biggest focus has been undergraduate research. TJ was the first NKU chemistry major to conduct research abroad at the Universitaire de Technologie in Lannion, France, and pioneered the expansion of an international research program to become a true exchange program.

“[TJ] has earned the recognition of his peers as a true leader, and many of his fellow students have looked up to him as an example of success,” says Dr. Isabelle Lagadic, associate professor of chemistry at NKU. “Yet, he has always remained humble and eager to help others and to contribute to the community. I consider myself very fortunate to have known and mentored him the last four years. His level of involvement whether it is in his coursework, research projects, or community engagement has been remarkable and rarely seen in an undergraduate student.”

TJ’s research has led him to multiple presentations at national chemistry conferences—something not too many undergraduates get to experience. On campus, he has also worked as a chemistry and physics tutor and teaching assistant. And he’s managed to maintain a 3.6 GPA.

After graduation, he’ll be headed to the University of Kentucky to study astrobiology and hopes to one day become a college professor.

“I’m way beyond where I thought I would be,” TJ says. “You’d be amazed what you can accomplish if you believe in yourself. I wouldn’t have any of this if it wasn’t for Dr. Lagadic. She really invested a lot of time in me. It’s nice to have a faculty member who believes in you.”

AlmaOnate Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

Regents AwardAlma Onate

The Regents Award is given to a senior student who has demonstrated professionalism and leadership within the University Community and who has an emphasis on continuation of graduate level work. A minimum grade point average of 3.3 is required. The student may show evidence of the intent to pursue further educational opportunities. This award will be presented upon completion of degree requirements. The award does not have to be given if the committee determines there are no suitable nominees during a particular year. The Northern Kentucky University Board of Regents sponsors this award.

If there’s anyone on campus who knows something about hard work, it’s Alma Onate.

Alma, a chemistry major who has minors in biology and honors, moved to the U.S. from Mexico when her younger sister, Sandra, was diagnosed with glaucoma at a young age. Sandra, who is now a freshman chemistry major at NKU, had multiple surgeries on both of her eyes over the years. Those surgeries led to a financial burden that caused Alma’s parents to lose their home last year—right in the middle of Alma’s toughest semester on campus.

But that didn’t stop Alma from pushing forward and finishing her classes with a 3.9 GPA. Not only that, but she’s headed to Harvard University to pursue medical school this fall.

“She is able to succeed under conditions that would crumble many students, and for this I am in awe of this young woman’s attitude and abilities,” says Dr. Diana McGill, professor of chemistry at NKU. “I cannot sing Alma’s praises high enough. What I find amazing is that she still makes time to give back to people in so many ways. There is no doubt Alma will someday excel in her medical school classes and become a great physician. While are are lucky enough to have her at NKU, she is having a huge impact on everyone she touches.”

Of the many programs Alma has become involved with on campus, there are a few that stand out. She volunteered at Crossroads Health Center in Over-the-Rhine and helped lead a tobacco treatment group; she’s tutored; and she has been a STEM ambassador who’s led large groups of students toward better study habits.

Alma’s future in medicine is still yet to be determined, but she currently has an interest in family medicine. Alma says the abstract idea of becoming a doctor was always in the back of her mind, but NKU solidified her interest in medical school.

“At NKU, it became more concrete,” Alma says. “Don’t underestimate the power of NKU and the opportunities it can provide for you. It’s is a smaller school, but it’s big enough that if you want to do something big, you can. I’m really glad this is where I ended up.”

AJRyan Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

Excelsior Award—Alexander “AJ” Ryan

The Excelsior Award is presented to an outstanding senior student who has overcome great obstacles to achieve his/her academic pursuits. These obstacles could be physical, emotional, financial, age, etc. A minimum grade point average of 3.0 is required. This award will be presented upon completion of degree requirements. The award does not have to be given if the committee determines there are no suitable nominees during a particular year. Student Services sponsors this award.

Alexander “AJ” Ryan is unable to use his hands or arms, but that doesn’t stop him from using his feet to get things done. He was born with arthrogryposis—a condition that confines him to a wheelchair.

AJ, a media informatics major, always knew he wanted to be a game developer. He didn’t start making his dreams a reality until his freshman year when he started working in the Center for Applied Informatics (CAI). He started developing games and learning how to code. Since then, he’s helped develop more than a dozen games, including a few that he created solo. He’s been a supervisor at CAI, vice president of MINjas, and president of the Pokémon Club on campus.

“For many people, the disability would be a difficult challenge to deal with on a daily basis,” says Chris Rider, director of CAI. “However, AJ is always a very positive person to work with. I have never heard him complain about his limitations. His fellow students will attest how inspiring it is to work with him.”

AJ has designed and developed numerous video games for clients of CAI. One of AJ’s apps “gamifies” the life of a person who has gone through the foster care system, and has been ranked by Google as a “Top 500” app. AJ also founded his own startup, Inclusive Games, that gives people with disabilities the opportunity to play games.

"NKU has provided me with the knowledge to create inclusive games and software to make a difference in the world,” AJ says.

Paul J. Sipes Award—Kathryn Sills

KathrynSills Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

The Paul J. Sipes award is presented to an outstanding senior student who displays (through documentation provided by the nominator and nominee) the personal qualities of honesty, character, and industry and who has actively participated in community affairs. The person will also be strong academically, and, although a specific grade point average is not required, the individual’s academic record should be given equal weight along with the listed personal qualities and community involvement. This award will be presented upon completion of degree requirements. The award does not have to be given if the committee determines there are no suitable nominees during a particular year.  The Northern Kentucky University Alumni Association sponsors this award.

Kathryn Sills didn’t have a career path in mind when she first came to NKU, but she had her moment of clarity after taking an honors international politics course during the spring semester of her freshman year. The class, she says, changed her perspective on life and set everything in motion for the rest of her college career.

Fast forward four years later, and the international studies major has joined the Honors Program, traveled to Germany, worked with middle-school students in Newport, and founded her own organization, the Asexual Conversation Support Group, just a few weeks before she graduates.

When it comes to leadership, Kathryn has taken on many roles on campus. She’s been an NKU Community Ambassador, an International Student Connection mentor, an education ambassador for Common Ground, and a representative for the International Studies Program at local major and minor fairs. She’s also volunteered at her hometown food pantry and at the Brighton Center.

“Kathryn has immersed herself in both the University and local community through her extensive volunteer work in social affairs and community service,” says Dr. Kim Weir, associate professor of political science and international studies. “She is exactly the type of student the Paul J. Sipes Award was established to celebrate.”

When thinking about her future, Kathryn couldn’t decide between working for a nonprofit organization, a government agency, or possibly the Peace Corps. But then she realized she wasn’t ready to leave university life and wanted to be on the other side of higher education—helping students succeed.

Kathryn plans to pursue a master’s degree in higher education administration.

“I’m really glad that I spent my four years here,” Kathryn says. “I’m a better person, and I attribute that to NKU as a whole. I’ve never talked to a person on campus—staff member or faculty—who has not only wanted me to succeed, but who cared about what success is to me.”

University Service Award—Justin Wynne 

JustinWynne Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

The University Service Award is given to a senior student who has provided outstanding service to the University through: (1) student involvement in such areas as sports, fraternity/sorority affiliations, intramural, student government, student organizations, the Northerner, etc; (2) student involvement in civic organizations or agencies such as Easter Seals, Redwood, Boys Club, YMCA, Boy and Girl Scouts, Welcome House, etc.; and (3) academic achievement such as student publications, student presentations, grade point average, etc. While a minimum grade point average of 3.00 is required, the individual's academic record should be given equal weight with student involvement in both university and community activities. This award will be presented upon completion of degree requirements. The award does not have to be given if the committee determines there are no suitable nominees during a particular year.  The Northern Kentucky University Alumni Association sponsors this award.

There’s no doubt Justin Wynne has been busy during his four years at NKU. The journalism and international studies major has served in the NKU Student Government Association, was president of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, is a member of the Order of Omega, the National Greek Scholars Honor Society, was a Presidential Ambassador, and won our annual Victor’s Volunteer Service Award three times.

Justin also interned for NKU’s Office of Marketing + Communications on campus and wrote articles for for Inside NKU. And during the 2015 general assembly, he interned for Kentucky Sen. Will Schroder.  

On top of of all that, Justin is part of the Honors program and has been on the Dean’s list all four years here. He also participated in the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates in Fiji in 2014 and 2015.

“Throughout his time at NKU, Justin Wynne has proven to be a strong student and steward of our esteemed institution,” says Dr. Ryan Salzman, assistant professor of political science at NKU. “He represents NKU well to fellow students, the commonwealth, and the world. Justin exemplifies student involvement at the highest level and has a stellar academic record. Justin began serving this community soon upon his arrival here. He has shown leadership through the positions he has held as well as his disposition and effort once in those positions.”

Justin isn’t quite sure what is in his future, but knows that the possibilities are endless. He’ll be sure to carry his leadership experiences on campus with him wherever he goes.

“Being able to play a role in NKU itself just makes the things you read about in a book or hear about in a lecture much more real and gives you perspective,” Justin says. “I think what I’ll miss the most is having an open network of people to be around. Sometimes you run into someone, and it changes your path.”