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Nontraditional, international students earn UWS degrees

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Maryelle Nyeck Nyeck2 / 2

Saturday afternoon, 546 graduates walk the stage as the University of Wisconsin-Superior — the fourth largest class in 15 years — at 2 p.m. at Wessman arena. Among the graduates are a student from Macedonia with a penchant for math, a Vietnam War veteran and a Cameroon native whose adventure was sparked by relatives.

A ceremony and reception to honor graduates involved with First Nations, Lavender, Multicultural Affairs, and the Veteran and Nontraditional Student Center begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Thorpe Langley Auditorium in Old Main.

"This is such a special occasion, as many of these students have overcame many challenges and systemic barriers to get to this point of their lives, whether that is raising a family, integrating back into civilian life, or being the first person to navigate higher education," said Jerel Benton, director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UWS.

Drawn by science

Nikola Kuzmanovski discovered UWS while searching for universities online.

"I read about Professor Sergei Bezroukov and was impressed with his accomplishments in discrete mathematics," Kuzmanovski of Macedonia said. "I wanted a small university with an outstanding undergraduate mathematics program and I found that at UW-Superior."

He boarded a plane for a new land and dove into UWS's mathematics program. The Mathematics and Computer Science Department was prompted to serve up additional advanced courses after Kuzmanovski exhausted every math course in the academic catalog.

With Bezroukov as his mentor, Kuzmanovski published a paper on discrete edge-isoperimetric problems in a peer-reviewed professional journal and participated in the most difficult college-level math contest in the country, the national Putnam Math Competition. He also created a database for a "diagnosis wizard" software application that allows people to enter symptoms and receive a list of likely medical diagnoses.

Kuzmanovski graduates magna cum laude with a math and computer science major. He has been accepted to the doctorate mathematics program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and plans to become a professor.

"Nikola is one of few students in my 20 years at UW-Superior with whom I've done research three summers in a row and some extra-curricular studies every semester," said Bezroukov. "He has a natural talent for mathematics and related sciences, and great research potential. I look forward to reading his future work."

Taking a chance

Maryelle Nyeck Nyeck had never visited UWS; she didn't even speak English. Sparked by the accomplishments of her aunt and five cousins, all UWS alumni, she knew it was the place for her.

Nyeck Nyeck flew more than 6,600 miles from her native Cameroon to Minneapolis, where she enrolled in a five-month language immersion program before beginning her studies at UWS.

"It was really difficult because I had to translate everything in my head," said Nyeck Nyeck, a chemistry major. "Sometimes I got headaches from concentrating so hard, but I just kept going toward my goal of earning a degree."

Joining the track team her freshman year helped Nyeck Nyeck connect with teammates and feel more at home on campus. When she requested Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza as her adviser, that connection deepened.

"I had heard great things about Dr. Rios, so I requested her as my adviser," she said. "But, she became much more than that to me. She's like a second mom."

As a student researcher, Nyeck Nyeck helped Rios Mendoza with microplastics pollution research.

"The money I earned working for Dr. Rios helped me pay my tuition, but it did far more than that," Nyeck Nyeck said. "She taught me how to solve problems in the laboratory and in life, and helped me establish my next goal — to attend graduate school to become a forensic scientist."

The Cameroon native made a mark at UWS, serving as its Black Student Union President, completing an internship with the Superior Police Department and presenting her microplastics research at state and national levels.

"Someday, I hope to return to Cameroon to use my education and experience to benefit my native country," she said.

Never too late to learn

The Vietnam War interrupted Philip Benkert's college career for 50 years, but it was rekindled at his nephew's college graduation.

"They asked the youngest and oldest graduates to stand and be recognized," the 72-year-old Fitchburg, Wisconsin man said. "The oldest was 62 years old and I thought, 'If he can do it, why not me?'"

Benkert's student deferment expired during his senior year at UWS, where he was majoring in geology.

He entered military service, worked as a coder at Fort Polk, La. and spent about 10 months in Vietnam working with classified enemy intelligence.

"The same day my oldest daughter was born, I found out I was being deployed to Vietnam and was to report to Fort Lewis, Washington, just 21 days later," Benkert said. "It was quite a shock."

When he returned to the United States, he had a family to support. Benkert also found himself unable to focus on academics.

Retired after 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service, Benkert decided to get that degree.

With the help of Beth Christopherson, academic adviser, and Lynn Karna in the Veterans and Nontraditional Student Center, Benkert finished his final class, scoring an 'A' on a 20-plus page research paper. He will be among the graduates honored Saturday.

"I'm not done, though," Benkert said. "I plan to take some more classes. To acquire new knowledge and continue to learn is something that's very important to me."

Visit www.uwsuper.edu/news/index.cfm for complete biographies of students by university relations specialist Sarah Libbons.

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