Great Grads: Six CLASS Students Honored as Great Grads | College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences
May 24, 2022

Great Grads: Six CLASS Students Honored as Great Grads

Joi Benton, Advertising

Even though Joi Benton has changed her major two times, with the patient guidance of her advisors, she leaned into her interest in advertising and never looked back.

She came on a college visit to UNT in the 8th grade and fell in love with the campus. She liked that she would be far enough from her family in Houston to spread her wings, but still close enough if she needed her mom.

Joi originally came to UNT for business, then switched to education and down the line, she confirmed her true passion for advertising during her sophomore year.

"Out of nowhere, I was like 'I could write commercials," she says.

As an advertising student, Joi took courses like copywriting and art direction and was taken under the wing of Principal Lecturer Bill Ford.

"He's been a very great mentor, advertising wise, because if someone has a question about the industry he can answer it," she says. "It's bittersweet knowing he's retiring this semester because I'm one of his last students and no one else is going to see what a great professor he is."

And she jumped into extracurricular activities as a member of AdClub and participated in GRAVITAS, which is the national student advertising competition. Most recently, the team competed in Houston and won the award for "Best Concept." She also was selected to be a part of the student-run advertising agency SWOOP, where she currently serves as vice president. Additionally, Joi is an active member of the Professional Women's Council and took part in the UNT Green Lite Step Team.

As her time at UNT is coming to an end, Joi will be the first person in her family to graduate from college - making her a first-generation college student, an achievement she hopes will make her a role model for her younger cousins.

"I see my older cousins and they did have the opportunity to go to college, but they chose not to because of external factors," she says. "I wanted to be someone that my little cousins could look up to - I wanted to change this trend."

Joi has come through many hardships in her early life and while in college. Her parents divorced when she was very young and she attended seven different schools up until the 3rd grade due to family financial troubles. She also struggled financially while in college but has since learned to be responsible with money through making deadlines.

"When somebody tells you that you owe something, you need to pay them," she says. "Deadlines are a thing; that made me a more financially savvy person and I'm more appreciative of the blessings that I have."

Now she is about to graduate from UNT with a 3.5 GPA and is hoping to complete a 10-week internship during the summer. Then she'll further her education at UNT in the Toulouse Graduate School next fall, where she will work toward her master's om digital communication analytics.

Professionally, Joi hopes to work within strategy and research to create the next big advertising mascot like Flo from Progressive Insurance.

"You don't always have to have it figured out or be the smartest person in the room and know everything," Joi says. "It's about the process of learning."

Madison Card, Psychology

Madison "Sonny" Card is a master of the pivot. She's bounced back from a life-changing injury, traveled across Europe, and built a professional dance career through performance and choreography. Five years ago, her journey brought her back to Texas soil, where she was born and raised, and to UNT, where she'll earn her bachelor's degree in Psychology.

Sonny moved to Santa Clarita, California, after high school to study dance at the California Institute of the Arts. She'd been dancing professionally for years by then and cherished the opportunity to immerse herself in the thing she loved most.

Unfortunately, her health has always been one of her greatest struggles and it wasn't long before her drive outpaced her body. After spending months in and out of the hospital due to complications from Crohn's disease, she took a medical leave of absence, which turned into a year of working, traveling, and figuring out where her compass pointed without dancing on the stage.

"I think that's one of the biggest lessons I've learned," she says. "It's OK to be good at something and not do it for a living. You can just do it because you enjoy it."

She transferred to UNT, where she found her home in the Honors College and the Department of Psychology.

"The Honors College was very helpful, especially coming from an arts background," she says. "Having that foundation and structure provided me a much-needed support to overcome intimidating tasks like writing a thesis."

In 2020, Sonny became a McNair Scholar and started working with her mentor Anthony Ryals, assistant professor of psychology and principal investigator in UNT's Neurocognitive Laboratory.

As an Undergraduate Research Fellow, she combined her passion for dance and love of neuroscience by studying the mind-body relationship of informally trained dancers. Just as her research began to take off, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

"Narrowing down my interests was hard because I saw so many opportunities when designing my study. Needing to pivot from a largely in-person, hands-on design, I had to consider what was necessary versus interesting to fulfill the purpose of my study with limited resources and personnel."

She transitioned in-person components into tasks that could be virtually delivered and secured additional funding to create a portable version of her experiment that could be set up off-site at dance studios or any available space that permitted social distancing. She tapped into her dance networks from Calarts and around Dallas to find participants.

The experience taught her another valuable lesson -- big ideas will get you started, but small steps will see you through.

"Simplicity, moderation, and consistency in your intentions and actions help you to achieve your goals," she says. "It's not necessary to do everything. Instead, keep an eye out for new opportunities and keep trying. Things will work themselves out."

Her hard work paid off when she won a prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which recognizes outstanding graduate students in STEM disciplines. The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution. The grant will allow her to pursue a Ph.D. at Northeastern University, where she will be affiliated with their Center for Cognitive and Brain Health.

Sonny attributes much of her success to the encouragement and guidance she received from her UNT professors. Ryals, who sponsored her undergraduate research through the McNair program, submitted a highly supportive letter of recommendation, as did Sharon Jenkins, professor in the Department of Psychology, and April Becker, assistant professor in Behavior Analysis.

The NSF grant wouldn't have been possible were it not for James Duban, associate dean for research and national scholarships in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, who approached Sonny after the 2021 McNair Scholars Fall Research Assembly and encouraged her to apply.

"Knowing I only had about three weeks until the deadline, I scoured the Internet and found a website where people post their submissions and results. I went through and read all the psych-related research proposals to get a sense of what distinguished a recipient from an honorable mention" One happened to be from Danica Slavish, an assistant professor of psychology at UNT.

Sonny sent her proposal to Slavish, Duban, Ryals, and Becker, all of whom generously devoted their time and expertise to guide her through the review process. Ultimately, she estimates pouring around 300 hours into her submission. UNT's wide range of academic resources was fundamental to her success.

"There are many wonderful opportunities and resources at UNT," she says. "Taking the time to find and use them will greatly benefit you. In the Honors College, I wasn't sure if Dr. Sean Ryan was my designated advisor all four years, but I kept meeting with him because I felt he understood me and my ambitions. Through McNair, I was able to attend workshops through the Library and Learning Center that helped me improve my writing and previous literature research for my study. There are many unique opportunities to learn across disciplines that help build a strong foundation -- the Professional Leadership Program and the Career Center in Sage Hall are great examples, to name a few."

"Everyone at UNT wants to help you, but you must show them that you want to be helped. I've experienced how frustrating at times it may seem. I know -- I'm stubborn, so it was hard for me. But it's not a bad sign if you need to go a step further to find something yourself. When you find it, you're going to set yourself up for a lot more opportunities in the future."

Devon Eskew, Journalism with a Concentration in Advertising

Devon Eskew is the first to tell you that nothing about his life has been a simple journey from point A to point B. His has been a winding road with obstacles and directional changes, but it's a journey he doesn't regret because every experience has brought him to where he is today, a soon-to-be UNT graduate.

Born in North Carolina to military parents, he moved to Okinawa, Japan when he was in preschool, then to Enid, Okla., where his parents went through a bitter divorce. By the third grade he was living in Plano, and in high school, he moved into the tri-lingual home of his maternal grandparents where Spanish, English, and Ukrainian were all spoken.

"My grandmother is my No. 1 fan," he says. "She's from Paraguay and spoke only Spanish to me growing up. She has a third-grade education and worked her whole life as a seamstress and she has an amazing eye for design," he says, adding that he loves showing his ad concepts to her to get her input.

After high school, Devon worked for a year, then enrolled at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he got involved in several activities, but changed his major five times before withdrawing.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do," he says. "I wanted to be a film director when I was 15, then later an art director. But I was young and didn't know myself."

Next, he enrolled at Collin College where he pursued an associate's degree and worked in food service to support himself. It was at Collin College that he finally settled on what he wanted to pursue as a career.

"My ultimate dream is to be a film producer," he says. "So, I chose to go to UNT for its film program, which is very hands-on. I got to go right into camera work. There are more opportunities at UNT and it's affordable."

Once at UNT, Devon continued to encounter bumps in the road.

"At one point in 2019, I thought I wasn't going to be able to stay in school," he says. "I was commuting to Denton and living with my dad. But within a three-month timeframe, my grandmother passed away, my relationship suffered a blow and my dad and I had problems so I had nowhere to live. I called a close friend who let me stay with him and only charged me a small amount a month for rent. I managed to keep taking classes but ended up with the worst GPA I'd ever had."

Determined to finish his degree, Devon pushed through the struggles of the pandemic and spent as much time as possible working and saving money. He took a job with a moving company and rose to the level of crew lead where he learned about leadership and valuing your team. He says the UNT programs he was involved in, like SWOOP (UNT's student-managed advertising agency) and Gravitas (UNT's competitive ad team) helped him to grow with real-world experiences. Several faculty members -- including Bill Ford, Nicole Sagullo, and Stephanie Oliver -- inspired and supported him -- they were the difference between his success and failure.

"They affirmed me," he says. "They spent time with me to talk with me about the industry, about my abilities, and their experiences."

Today Devon has a plan to fund his own production company.

"I want a job as an agency-side producer," he says. "I want to experience the fast pace of that environment, that constant grind. Eventually, I want to invest what I earn into short films and find a script and a director, help them get funding, and run short films through the circuits. Then, I want to move into the independent film as a producer and distributor and run a production studio making good B movies, like Roger Corman's exploitation films."

He has big dreams and knows his struggles and challenges have prepared him for any obstacle ahead.

"I had to face adult problems as a child and as a young adult," he says. "They benefited me, forced me to grow. Now, I can have a conversation with a CEO and not be shaken. I know myself and I enjoy the person I've become. It's taken a lot of progress to get here and I don't know what's coming in the future. Life is a mystery but I'm ready."

Esmeralda Lopez, Political Science, and History

Esmeralda Lopez has always had a niche for studying the patterns of history. Since she was in high school, she had dreams of becoming a lawyer. However, her goals shifted during her freshman year in college when she got involved in undergraduate research with Professor Kimi King in the Department of Political Science.

"After our hour-long discussion, I realized, "OMG, I think this is what I want to do!" Esmeralda says.

In her undergraduate research program, she focused on conflict resolution and peace-building while using Colombia as a case study, and she continues an extended study of "how experiences with government trust and violence are related to support for the peace agreement" there.

Esmeralda admits the research on Colombia is complex, but she's interested in sharing and understanding through her studies.

A South Texas native, she had hardly visited the North Texas area until she came to UNT. She says the "intangible quality about Denton" that attracted her the most was its hospitality. "Everyone was incredibly kind."

As a double major in political science and history with a minor in Spanish, Esmeralda hopes to transform the historical landscape of Texas history. After graduation, she plans to attend the University of Michigan for its dual public policy and political science Ph.D. program and then return to Texas and work in academia at an R1 research institute in Texas.

"Texas has a lot to offer," she says, adding that if she were to leave permanently, she'd feel like she was "abandoning the opportunity to create change within Texas."

Esmeralda credits being a part of the UNT Moot Court and a McNair Scholar for helping her get into graduate school. As a member of the Moot Court executive council, she sharpened her leadership skills and rhetorical abilities, even making it to nationals her freshman year.

"What's been most incredible for me with the UNT Moot Court is the opportunity for travel," she says. "Before Moot Court, I had not been outside of the state or even on a plane, but I had the opportunity to go to New York and Louisiana."

Esmeralda's advice to incoming freshmen is to "take advantage of every minute that you are on campus, especially the first semester. Take advantage of every social and professional opportunity because you may not have another chance."

Shayna Russo, Public Relations

Shayna Russo fell in love with UNT before she ever stepped foot on campus. She knew this would be her forever home before even taking a tour. Born and raised in Massachusetts, life was everything she could ever want until her life ultimately flipped upside down. She was placed in foster care at 17 years old, which normally would be perceived as an unfortunate experience but for her, it felt liberating and exciting. She was placed in a group home in Fort Worth and lived there until she graduated high school while completing dual credit courses, which was a dream come true.

After graduating, Shayna was adopted by her foster parents and found her forever family. It also was during this period that she was accepted to UNT, her top choice for university. She received automatic acceptance due to her outstanding grades and SAT scores.

"Even though I didn't know what I wanted to do, I knew this was home," Shayna says. As she began her college journey, she plugged into Campus Outreach, where she has met forever friends and has made some of her best college memories, helping her grow, feel more loved and find her ideal path.

She transitioned from being a Communications Studies major to public relations in the Mayborn School of Journalism. The program helped her pursue her inner passion for advocacy, brand development, and communications. One of Shayna's favorite classes was the communications capstone course, where she not only finished strongly but found a lifelong mentor and friend in Rebecca Poynter, a senior lecturer who also runs Agenz, the student-led PR agency. To this day, Shayna often visits her. "She goes out of her way to help her students whether it's to find jobs, spread awareness regarding the importance of PR, or make class fun," she says.

Like many of her peers, Shayna was learning how to be independent as a college student, while also learning how to be a part of a new family. That combined with navigating pandemic life has been challenging. But it's important for her as a first-generation student from a foster care family to make a difference by showing other foster children that they also can go to college.

Less than three percent of foster children earn a college degree. Shayna is thankful for the opportunities and resources she found at UNT and she plans to work on a graduate degree in digital communication analytics after taking a gap year. With a positive attitude fostered by fond memories and her personal development and growth, she is excited to continue her UNT legacy.

"There simply is no better institution than UNT," she says.

Elisa Valentine, Psychology

Elisa Valentine has heart -- she's graduating at 19 years old, magna cum laude and she and her service dog, Crush, will cross the stage together.

Having faced adult-sized traumas at a young age, including the incarceration and death of her father, crippling anxiety and depression, and a health condition requiring constant monitoring by her medical mobility and psychiatric alert support dog, Elisa has demonstrated courage to others may never know.

Elisa's mom and dad met when her mom was just 14. Times were hard, but Elisa's mom was determined to make it work. She stayed with Elisa's father (Elisa refers to him as Eli) until one day he struck her while she was holding Elisa. That was the final straw -- they left and went to live with Elisa's grandparents and Eli went to jail. In and out of prison over the years, Elisa visited him at times (sometimes during supervised visits and eventually unsupervised). Ultimately, he again landed in jail during the Thanksgiving holiday. Distraught that he was unable to get someone to bail him out, he took his own life. She never had the chance to say goodbye.

As if things hadn't been traumatic enough, Elisa was diagnosed with the heart condition Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). POTS causes her heart rate to rise and her blood pressure to drop, a precursor to losing consciousness - this is where Crush comes in. He can sense when this is about to happen and alerts and stabilizes Elisa by crawling under her legs to increase the blood flow, alerting others nearby, or fetching water for her for when she awakens. Elisa began to suffer severe depression and anxiety and she leaned heavily on her mom and grandparents and therapy. She is a proud first-generation college student and credits her grandfather's work in corrections and her grandmother's position in social work for helping her understand the value of social services.

Her grandfather passed away in 2017, but Elisa says she's forever grateful to her grandparents,s her mom, and stepfather for giving her an amazing life and being her biggest supporters. She even wrote a letter thanking her grandmother for everything she has done to support Elisa and her mom.

And to her mom, "I will never be able to make up to my mom what she has given me. She made sure we had food on the table and a roof over our heads. She gave me my independence and taught me my worth. She always pushed me to take opportunities and get out of my comfort zone," she says. "She is my best friend (I even call her when I'm making mac and cheese), my savior, and always puts me first."

Elisa had earned enough dual credit in high school to begin college as a sophomore and she chose UNT because of the culture, diversity, and available scholarships and especially because it's a Tier One research university. Research is one of Elisa's passions, and as a McNair scholar, she spent a great deal of time conducting research (Elisa says UNT is one of THE best Psychology and Music schools in the country). She also says the university is just far enough away from home for her to feel independent, but close enough to drive home to Rio Vista on the weekends to spend time with her family.

"My mom was my best resource, making sure I was in Upward Bound in high school, and always working to make sure I had the experiences she wasn't able to have. I felt proud that UNT saw potential in me as a first-generation student and took me in," Elisa says.

All the issues Elisa has dealt with may seem daunting, and she admits that the journey hasn't been easy. But, it's because of her journey and those who came before her that she wants to destigmatize mental health issues. Depression and anxiety have been omnipresent things Elisa has struggled with her entire life. Her struggle fueled her desire to be an advocate for mental illness and the importance of overall wellbeing.

"Mental health professionals are angels," she says. "I'm not a stranger to mental illness and I want to help people the way they have helped me. Therapy is for everyone. You don't have to struggle alone and you shouldn't be afraid to ask for help. Tell someone. There is help for you."

Elisa has had lots of support throughout her educational journey, but the professor she credits as being her biggest cheerleader and mentor is Dr. Danica Slavish, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. She says she wouldn't be where she is today without Dr. Slavish, who has guided her both personally and academically.

After graduating, Elisa plans to take a year off to reflect and enjoy some downtime. She then wants to pursue a Registered Behavioral Technician certification. And she wants to continue learning. Elisa plans to get her master's degree after she has some experience under her belt.

"UNT was a home away from home for me. They always made me feel safe and included with events like Admitted Students Day," she says. "I also love walking to class with Crush. Seeing people throw frisbees and enjoying the campus life brings me joy."

Her advice for incoming freshmen? "It's really important to get involved in activities on campus. Don't take your time in college for granted -- it's one of the most important experiences of your life. Whatever you do, get involved."

UNT's Great Grads