On Saturday, 28 University of Washington students will carry their school or college’s banner, or gonfalon, during commencement. It is an honor that recognizes some of this year’s highest-achieving graduates.
But each graduate has a story about arriving at the university, balancing challenging academics and activities and looking forward to life after graduation. UW Today offers these profiles as a sample.
Bioengineering graduate worked on HIV vaccine, now headed to NIH
Hunter Bennett’s high school diploma was only several months old when he walked into the University of Washington bioengineering lab of Kim Woodrow nearly four years ago, looking for research opportunities. The new freshman was eager to work in a bioengineering lab, and he wasted little time in carving out a spot with the research team that’s creating biomaterials to fight infections and build immunity.
Now a graduating senior, Bennett was chosen to carry a College of Engineering banner at Commencement. He also received the college’s 2014 Dean’s Medal for Academic Excellence. The Bellingham, Washington, native will begin a post-baccalaureate training program after graduation with the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Institutes of Health.
Bennett’s four years of coursework at the UW was coupled with extensive work in Woodrow’s lab, often 20 hours each week. He said this experience allowed him to work closely with faculty members and complement what he was learning in the classroom. In the lab he examined bio-polymer methods for delivering genetically modified cells that could stimulate a protective immune response to HIV.
“Faculty members want to see undergraduate students succeed,” Bennett said. “If you’re motivated, you can go out and find research opportunities here. So I went for it.”
While at the UW, Bennett earned the Levinson Emerging Scholars Program award and served in the Amgen Scholars Program in a University of California, Los Angeles, bioengineering lab for a summer. He also received the Washington Scholars award, the Bioengineering Department Scholar award and a Washington Research Foundation Fellowship award, among other honors. He served as vice president of Bioengineers Without Borders where he helped to design a smartphone-compatible diagnostic test.
Bennett plans to attend medical school and complete his doctorate in a dual-degree program. He’s interested in how patients relate to medicine, and he hopes to change perceptions of the field and make it more relatable for people.
School of Law graduate moves from war zone to courtroom
A good litigator, like a good soldier, tries to be prepared for what lies ahead. Lance Pelletier knows this, and credits his military experience with helping to clarify for him that the law would be his chosen profession.
Pelletier, 30, is graduating from the UW School of Law with a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree. A decorated veteran, he served the United States Army with distinction in the Joint Border Coordination Center in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Initially commissioned as a lieutenant, Pelletier exited the military with the rank of captain.
He said his service showed him the value of understanding a situation from the details to the larger, often dangerous realities: “One of the things I learned as an officer was the importance of procedure and how that enables effective decision making.”
He said, “We were trying to build things that had never been built before — trying to freely share intelligence and information, to build a network of trust and a functional border infrastructure for two countries that never really had one before.”
Pelletier graduated from DePaul University in 2006 with a bachelor of arts in English and high honors and was named Most Outstanding ROTC Cadet one year as well as president of DePaul’s Honors Program.
He graduated from the U.S. Army Field Artillery School the following year and was assigned to Fort Lewis, Washington. In 2011, after completing his tour of duty, Pelletier returned to DePaul for law school.
He transferred to the UW in 2012. He participated in mock trial competitions and was invited into the Order of the Barristers, the law school’s highest award for mock trial and moot court participation. Pelletier also reinstated the UW chapter of Phi Alpha Delta, the nation’s largest legal fraternity.
He plans to study for the bar next, after which he will work as a clerk for Washington state Supreme Court Justice Charles Wiggins.
With five and a half years of active duty following four years of college ROTC training, Pelletier said, he is at home with moving around frequently and taking opportunities as they come up.
“It gives you flexibility to seek new challenges,” he said. “I am not intimidated by moving, or starting over.”
English graduate aims to make literary canon more diverse
Shangé Purnell always wanted to go to college. She had many reasons, but one in particular stood out.
“When I was little my mom used to tell the story that if she and my dad had graduated from college we would have lived in a house with a swimming pool. So that was always in the back of my mind, that someday I wanted to have a swimming pool,” Purnell said.
The English major will be the first in her family to graduate from college and was chosen to carry a College of Arts & Sciences banner at Commencement.
Purnell, who grew up in Everett and Mukilteo, Washington, hopes to eventually obtain a doctorate in English literature and theory and teach at the college level, with the goal of helping to increase diversity of the traditional body of literary works.
“The highbrow elite have set what is highbrow literature – Shakespeare and other mostly white European authors,” Purnell said. “We’re starting to get more diversity, but it’s still very narrow, it’s still a Eurocentric perspective. I realize that being a U.S. citizen I have been conditioned to have a Eurocentric view, but I’d like to give view to the people of color in this world.”
Purnell has spent much of her college career pushing for more diversity at the UW, as an officer in the Black Student Union during her sophomore year, and a member of the Students for Diversity Coalition, which successfully convinced the university to implement a diversity credit requirement.
Last year she spent one quarter studying in London, then a month studying and working in Ghana, where she taught English and math to 9- to 13-year-olds. She tried to see that world with fresh eyes.
“It was like what you see on the Save the Children commercials, but with a different narrative,” she explained. “They were living their lives; they weren’t just slaves to the past, or slaves to their poverty. We tried to look at it from not just a Western perspective.”
MEDEX Northwest graduate inspired by Army medic duties, childhood difficulties
Dustin Golding and his Kennewick, Washington, family had a hardscrabble life. Dustin’s construction-worker father would suture his own job-site wounds with household needle and thread. Mindful of such rudimentary medicine and lacking money for college, Dustin joined the U.S. Army and became a medic.
In eight years of service, he was deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq, increasingly in a lead position. As a medical platoon sergeant, Golding commanded more than 20 medics and multiple aid stations. His final mission also enabled him to interact closely with civilians at a free clinic set up by the post, an experience he relished.
He left the military with medical skills and a desire, after three deployments, to be on a relatively shorter timeline to a civilian career and family life. So he pursued physician-assistant training in the UW’s MEDEX Northwest two-year program, which he graduates from this month.
Now 29, Golding has resettled in Kennewick with his wife and two young sons.
“Commitment to service – to the nation, to the community – has continued to build for me,” he said. “I like my community and I want to see its healthcare improve. I help at a free clinic here, Grace Clinic, where there’s a need for providers. I’m young and learning and growing, and I’d like to develop my skills and leadership to become an advocate for people and providers here.”