Starting Here: Meet the 2024 President’s Leadership Award Winners

The President’s Leadership Award began in 1985 with an endowment from Frank Denius, LLB ’49, Life Member, a past president of the Texas Exes and legendary Longhorn. This year, the Alcalde recognizes three seniors, two juniors, and a sophomore for demonstrating selflessness, excellence, and passion on campus—and inspiring these qualities in others.

Photographs by Matt Wright-Steel

Will Florer, BA, BS ’24, Life Member

Majors: Plan II Honors, Radio-Television-Film

Hometown: Dallas, Texas

Forty Acres Scholars Program, Delta Tau Delta fraternity, Delta Kappa Alpha cinematic society, Capernaum, Moody Honors Program

Catching Will Florer before graduation is like pinning down a shooting star. Between finishing two thesis projects, bringing the Texas Cowboys back to campus, and preparing for an unusual post-grad position, he handles it all with humility and grace.

“A lot of my motivation feels like it’s a response to all that’s been poured into me,” Florer says. “Whether it’s my family and friends, or the people who have trusted me [with leadership] or paid for my education, I always want to do right by them.”

After studying at UT Los Angeles and producing several short films as a student, he will soon get to leverage his passions for accessibility, production, and tradition as the third member of the nascent theme park company TexasLand, working to build a Texas-centric attraction in Houston.

“We just have this present moment to live genuinely and give it our all,” Florer says of lessons he’s learned at UT. “I never want to look back with regret or think I didn’t leave everything out there.”

Neha Yawalkar, Life Member

Majors: Biochemistry Honors, certificates in Evidence & Inquiry and pre-health, minor in Women’s & Gender Studies

Hometown: South Plainfield, New Jersey

Polymathic Scholars Program, DIY Diagnostics Lab, Students for Planned Parenthood, Project Advance Austin, Kappa Rho pre-medical honors society

Neha Yawalkar could talk your ear off, and most of it would go over your head. She’s currently developing a lateral flow assay for diagnosing Rh disease, cleaning data for the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Health and Rights Lab, and conducting independent research on the barriers preventing LGBTQ+ folks in India from accessing health care. And in her scant free time—when she’s not shadowing at local clinics or working her two campus jobs, of course—Yawalkar organizes events for her fellow Polymath students.

But she says her time at UT has changed her as much as she’s already impacted campus. “I’m most proud and also most appreciative of the opportunity to serve folks who are in my community,” Yawalkar says. “I’ve recognized in myself an expanded consideration of others from being at UT and being around other community leaders who are doing so many good things. Like, they believe in me, so I should believe in myself, you know?”

Scott Fonseka, BBA ’24, Life Member

Majors: Canfield Business Honors, Finance, certificate in Business Spanish, minor in Media & Entertainment Industries

Hometown: Houston, Texas

Silver Spurs, Honors Business Association, University Securities Investment Team, Wall Street for McCombs

Of all his accomplishments, the one Scott Fonseka says he’s most proud of isn’t serving as vice president of the Tejas Club or his post-grad job with Guggenheim Securities. No, Fonseka instead reflects with wisdom beyond his years on being proud to have made the very most of his college experience.

“UT is such a unique place [with] so many cool things going on that it’s easy to let it all pass by,” he says. “I made a point to go to a lot of Texas Athletics events and random speaker series and just see what was happening on campus.” He also tried to take at least one fun elective every year—including “Circuit Aerobics,” for example.

“I got a lot of great advice from older people when I was an underclassman,” Fonseka adds when asked about the meaning of this award, “so being able to pass on whatever learnings I have is something I will also be very proud of when I leave.”

Marley Gomez-Olivas, Life Member

Majors: Canfield Business Honors, Finance, minor in Management Information Systems

Hometown: Laredo, Texas

Texas Orange Jackets, Central Texas Model United Nations, Longhorn Center for Academic Equity, Canfield BHP peer mentor

For Marley Gomez-Olivas, leadership comes down to one action: paying attention. “I’m trying to constantly ask those around me, ‘How can I help you? How can I make your time here better?’” she says. “I’ve learned that if you stop paying attention [and] asking for feedback, that’s when things go south.”

Besides working to combine her interests in government and business, Gomez-Olivas has made it her mission on campus to be a resource for other first-generation college students. “I had to figure out a lot of the American school system on my own,” she says, “so coming into UT I understood the importance of mentorship and helping those behind you.”

Gomez-Olivas has already set her sights beyond UT, however, aspiring to work for the federal government brokering international trade deals. In the meantime, she’ll stick to living out her personal motto—“be the change”—in big and small ways.

Michael Lane, BBA ’24, Life Member

Majors: Canfield Business Honors, Finance, minor in Management Information Systems

Hometown: Franklin, New Jersey

PUSH Excel Scholar, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Discover Canfield BHP, University Finance Association

Michael Lane’s command of a room is subtle but striking. He’s clearly the kind of student one would want for a mentor—so it’s no coincidence that it’s a role he’s taken on in several organizations on campus, from Canfield Business Honors to the Heman Sweatt Center. His leadership at the latter earned him a $75,000 scholarship and a fully sponsored, 10-day trip to Ghana in 2022.

But Lane gives credit to his own mentor figures at UT: Ryan Sutton; Devin Walker, MA ’15, PhD ’18; and Darren Kelly, MA ’09, PhD ’12. “The end goal of leadership is to get to the point where people not only respect you and want to learn from you, but they can also do it on their own,” Lane says. “They can lead themselves and will lead other people.”

After graduation, he’s moving back to the Dallas area, where he went to high school, to work at the Toyota headquarters in the Lexus office on the managerial track.

Nolan Watson, Life Member

Majors: Canfield Business Honors, Accounting, minor in history

Hometown: Orchard Park, New York

Honors Business Association (HBA), Texas Tour Guide, intramural sports

In just two years on campus, Nolan Watson has already influenced the trajectory of hundreds of students. After serving as vice president of academics for the official student organization of Canfield BHP, he was elected as president for the 2023–24 school year.

“I’m most proud of revamping the Big-Little program in HBA,” Watson says. “During the pandemic it fell by the wayside, like a lot of other things, but this year we were able to get more than 100 freshmen signed up as Littles. I did most of the matching myself, so it was really rewarding.” He’s also organized social events for HBA, sharing his love of pickleball with his peers.

Watson is quick to emphasize the importance of delegating, however. “Leadership to me means learning what everyone’s strengths are … and empowering others. There’s just a sense of synergy and excitement when you know everyone is working on what they’re passionate about,” he adds.

Watson has long been interested in government, and he anticipates going to law school directly after college with hopes to work in corporate law.




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