Meet six high-achieving students with ambition, grit, and more impressive résumés than most people twice their age. They are the winners of the Texas Exes President’s Leadership Award.
Senior, Business Administration and Business Honors
As Rachel Huynh sits outside her mother’s frozen yogurt shop in Laredo, she recalls days behind the counter, helping grow the business. In just six years, the business administration and Plan II senior helped her mother turn the small shop, called Sweet Spot, into a chain with five locations in the Rio Grande Valley. She admires her mother—who immigrated from Vietnam with little education, no money, and limited English—for having built her business from the ground up.
“I was just inspired watching my mom do what she could and raise a family with what she had, which was pretty much nothing,” she says.
Huynh says a semester at sea exploring locales as distinct as Japan and Namibia solidified her entrepreneurial spirit.
“It was the most transformative time of my life,” she says. “I’d seen poverty before but it was really emotional seeing it nonstop for four months. ”
In her four years at UT, she has become a member of Orange Jackets, was appointed a Business Honors Program peer mentor, and was an editorial columnist for the Daily Texan. Her favorite service has been for Plan II’s partnership with KIPP schools, mentoring a disadvantaged student.
“You don’t do [those things] because you’re looking for validation,” she says. “You do it because you’re learning and to give back because we have so much.” —Danielle Lopez
Sophomore, Business Honors and Finance
Congress could probably learn a thing or two from Jon Burstain. He was the only student at his high school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to sign up for both the Young Democrats and the Young Republicans. “I really enjoyed the meetings, and I thought that both groups had good ideas,” Burstain says. “Because the clubs were so polarized, nobody noticed that I was in both.” In a quirky twist worthy of a Wes Anderson film, Burstain ran for president of both clubs—and won. His next move was to merge the groups into one unified Politics Club. At first Burstain’s peers complained, but once he started moderating a new debate series, interest surged. “After each meeting, you’d start to see a little more compromise,” he remembers. “It was nice to see people open their minds.”
Burstain has continued opening minds at UT, working with Student Government to increase support services for out-of-state, transfer, and international students. An advocate for healthy eating, he wants nutrition and calorie information posted on all campus menus. “It’s hard, because healthier foods are higher-cost,” he says, “but we’re making progress.” Burstain is considering a career in health-care consulting and says he wants to ensure that everyone can afford healthy food. It’s an uphill battle, but if anyone is cut out for the challenge, it’s him. —Rose Cahalan
Senior, Neuroscience and Psychology
On his daily walks across campus, Kevin Helgren thinks of the Student Ambassadors he trains, the future Longhorns he welcomes at Camp Texas, and the Texas 4000 teammates with whom he biked to Alaska. “They inspire me to do my absolute best in everything that I do,” he says. “I love this school; I love its people.”
The Austin native says the key is his passion. “I’m not someone who seeks out an opportunity because I think it will look good on my résumé,” he says. “I throw myself behind causes that I truly believe in.”
He chose his majors, neuroscience and psychology, because of his personal stake in the subjects. When Helgren was in sixth grade, he was diagnosed with a mild case of Tourette syndrome, a neurological deficiency that causes repetitive and involuntary movements or vocalizations. In middle school, he says he let the disorder get the best of him, but he worked to overcome it as he got older, and for a time he wanted to be a pediatric neurologist.
Helgren says his goals have changed. Although med school is still a possibility, he hopes to follow what he calls his truest passion: teaching. He’s planning on an MBA, a PhD, and a career in academia. Helgren has also played the trumpet in Longhorn Band, conducted climate change research in Bostwana, and serves on the legislative branch of Student Government as a university-wide representative.
“I don’t know what my mom put in my food that made me want to do all these things,” he says. “But I’m sure happy I did.” —D.L.
The Big 12 Female Sportsperson of the Year for 2014-15, Imani Boyette spends 80 percent of her time practicing, traveling, or competing. She started playing basketball as a kid growing up in Los Angeles, following the footsteps of her father, who played in college; her Olympian mother; and her NBA player brother. She says she’ll likely join the WNBA next season.
When she’s not sprinting up and down the court, Boyette can often be found onstage delivering powerful, personal messages through poetry. Boyette is a survivor of childhood abuse, depression, and three suicide attempts. As a release from her past, school, and basketball, she joined a slam poetry group her freshman year. “I really like poetry because of its vulnerability,” she says, citing Langston Hughes and Rudy Francisco as inspirations. “People go up there and tell their stories; you don’t really get to see that side of people in real life.”
Last year was a whirlwind for Boyette, who won five different honors for her athletic and academic achievements. Still, she says winning the President’s Leadership Award caught her by surprise.
“None of the people who won probably set out to do what they’re doing for the award,” she says. “You just do your best and whatever your purpose is, you try to fulfill that.” —D.L.
Junior, Business Honors, Supply Chain Management, and Economics
A cursory glance at Bethany Rolan’s résumé is enough to make a lesser mortal feel a bit self-conscious. Rolan holds a nearly perfect GPA in three majors; gives her time to Orange Jackets, Best Buddies, and Campus Events and Entertainment; conducts undergraduate research in management; and serves on the Honors Business Association, just to scratch the surface. In her free time, she enjoys planning events. How does she do it? Rolan says that connecting with groups and activities and giving them her all is the highlight of her college experience. “I think it’s so important to find something that shrinks the campus for you,” she says. “For me, that’s been the Business Honors Program and Orange Jackets. The community and resources there are just amazing.”
Rolan loves connecting with people from diverse backgrounds. Through Best Buddies, a group that pairs UT students and adults with intellectual disabilities, she planned a film festival designed to spark conversation about disability and difference, and as new member director for Orange Jackets, she helps younger students find their way on the campus. She’s even taught business principles to second-graders. This summer, Rolan will intern with McKinsey and Company. “I think that like at UT, I’ll find a group of intelligent people focused on important problems,” she says. “I’m really excited about it!” —R.C.
Junior, Architecture and Architectural Engineering
When Robbey Orth was 6 years old, his parents added a room onto their house. The plan was for it to be a rec room, but that never happened. “I took it over and it became known as the LEGO room,” he says. “I’ve always liked building things.”
After a childhood spent creating miniature cities and skyscrapers, architecture and architectural engineering was a natural choice for Orth, who says he relishes the discipline’s balance between art and science. He wants to work at the intersection of design and technology, with a special interest in the cutting-edge field of digital fabrication. Orth is part of a student team that designed and created a 4,000-pound architectural installation to be displayed at SXSW this month. From fundraising to drafting to laser-cutting to welding, the project gave him invaluable hands-on experience: “It’s great to see your work become reality.”
Architecture students have a reputation for working long hours alone in the studio. Orth has pushed back against that by serving as a mentor with TEDx Youth Austin and revitalizing the Undergraduate Architecture Student Council. He started a series called Snacks With the Dean to encourage students, professors, and administrators to meet and make connections. The self-professed introvert says stepping up doesn’t always come naturally to him and that the book Quiet, about the power of introversion, inspired him to lead. “I was always the quiet one in the back, and I used to think that was a bad thing,” he says, “but I came to realize that I speak up when it matters.” —R.C.
Photos by Anna Donlan
Cary Michael Cox:
Can't wait to see this staff and team in action!
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Cary Michael Cox:
What a great story and a wonderful tribute to his mother.
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