The 2021 Class of Outstanding Young Texas Exes Define ‘Success’—And What It Means to Them

From left, Sujata Ajmera; Lauren Gardner; Virginia A. Cumberbatch; Brian Haley.

Olympic athletes Kevin Durant and Cat Osterman. New York Times magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein. Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Minister of Culture Matthew McConaughey and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. These extraordinary people aren’t just all Longhorns. Early in their careers, they all had the honor of being named an Outstanding Young Texas Ex. 

This year, four more University of Texas graduates join the impressive list of winners. From law to advocacy to public health, our 2021 class has already made huge strides in their fields—and they’re just getting started. We can’t wait to see where life takes them next, as they follow in the legacy of the honorees who came before them and continue changing the world. 


BA ’01, JD ’05 

A member at Clark Hill, Ajmera focuses her practice on securing lawful nonimmigrant, immigrant, and citizenship status for foreign nationals, including high-level executives and managers, researchers, engineers, and specialized knowledge workers. 

“I don’t really define success—I know it when I see it and feel it. I have always approached my career and community engagement as things that I wanted to do, things that fulfill me, or make me feel like I’m doing something positive and productive. I never had ‘success’ in mind. What makes me feel good professionally and personally may not at all be what motivates and fulfills another person—we each have to figure out what works for us. My best advice is to engage in things that you feel passionate about. Don’t do it because you think you need to in order to be ‘successful,’ do it because you want to do it, and that great feeling of accomplishment will inevitably follow. Authenticity is key.”  


MPAff ’16 

Storyteller, racial justice educator, organizer, and co-founder of the activism platform Rosa Rebellion, Cumberbatch’s work sits at the intersection of community advocacy and creative activism. In 2017, she co-authored (with Leslie Blair) the book, As We Saw It: The Story of Integration at The University of Texas at Austin, which tells the stories of the first Black undergraduate students to enroll at UT Austin in 1956. 

“There was much beauty in being part of telling the story of The Precursors for As We Saw It, but I think I also harbored some resentment, that I, at 26 years old in 2016, had to be a part of the process to document it. If we hadn’t told the story, would it have been written? It has been hard for me sometimes to be rah-rah burnt-orange because of having had a front-row seat to historical stories of racial injustice … and how they are so intricately part of the current reality for students of color. When I accepted my Outstanding Young Texas Ex Award, I truly felt the only satisfaction in accepting the recognition was in honoring The Precursors, the disruptors, and everyone who has taken on the task to create a more equitable experience at UT before me. James Baldwin said we criticize, we challenge those things that we love. And I think you challenge spaces and institutions out of love. Despite all the things I wish were better, I’m grateful for my growth as a student at UT and for the immense honor of working alongside others who have invested in telling siloed stories and building equitable futures.” 


BA ’04, JD ’09, Life Member  

The co-founder of CB Capital, an investment and real estate development firm, Haley previously served as an advisor to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. John McCain and was the first student regent for The University of Texas System. 

“I spent my 20s working in senior roles on several losing presidential campaigns. While these experiences ended differently than I had hoped, they provided an invaluable opportunity to learn early that success isn’t necessarily achieving a desired outcome. It can include being in a position—often unimaginable at the beginning of the journey—to begin life’s next chapter. The idea of building a company never crossed my mind when I graduated, but looking back, I couldn’t imagine a better foundation for what we’re doing. UT prepared me to be a critical thinker, it taught me the value of differing perspectives, the importance of servant leadership … and afforded me meaningful friendships that continue to this day.” 


BS ’06, MS ’08, PhD ’11 

An associate professor jointly appointed in the Department of Civil and Systems Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering and the Department of Epidemiology in the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, Gardner created the interactive web-based dashboard being used worldwide to track the outbreak of COVID-19, which has recorded over 200 billion feature requests since its launch. 

“When we started our dashboard in January 2020, we didn’t know the scale COVID-19 would evolve to. But even at that time, we understood the importance of science and data. In the current age of misinformation, democratized data and science communication is critical for two reasons: so the general public can make informed decisions regarding their personal health, and to enable evidence-based public health policy. I do think better days are ahead, but I hope that moving forward, politics will stay out of the policymaking and let the science, data, and the public health experts lead the decision-making. I have three generations of burnt-orange blood in me, as well as three degrees from UT, so this university has always played a huge role in my life—and no doubt provided me with the tools I needed to accomplish what I have today.”  

Credit: Matt Wright-Steel


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