Photos by Sarah Frankie Linder Videos by Corey Gray

Breaking the cycle. Thriving in tragedy. Shifting paradigms. Changing the world. This is the University of Texas at Austin’s Class of 2017

Cecilia Lopez

School of Nursing • The Woodlands, Texas

“Texas 4000 is an organization that brings together some sad stories. There’s a path that was kind of tragic for each person. I don’t think you would do it unless you knew someone [with cancer] or you had some sort of fire in you.”

Jusuf Presheva

McCombs School of Business • Houston, Texas

Jusuf “JP” Presheva, 23, has always had a mind for business. When he was just 16 years old, he took out a loan from his dad, bought a truck, fixed it up, and sold it for a profit. Nearly two years and many cars later, Presheva had a business license and a DBA, and was a regular at car auctions, where he was often the youngest person there.

With a burgeoning and successful company, Presheva says he knows it was a bit of a non-traditional choice to adamantly pursue a college degree. He says he had heard of stories of people dropping out of school and becoming filthy rich, but, he says, that was never a risk he was willing to take.

Presheva’s persistence in earning his degree derives from his childhood. When he was six years old, Presheva and his family fled from their war-stricken, native Albania to Houston, forcing his father to give up his carpet factory. “He left everything behind,” Presheva says.

“We started fresh,” he says, “because [my dad] had no degree.”

That stuck with Presheva. And so after two years of continuing to run his business while attending classes at Lone Star Community College in Houston, he transferred to the McCombs School of Business in the fall of 2014, continuing to travel back and forth to Houston on the weekends while earning his degree in consulting and change management, with a minor in sociology.

“You have reason to overcome those points when it feels like you can’t continue. For me, those reasons were mostly for my dad, and how things didn’t work out for him when he transitioned to the states because he didn't have a degree.”

Presheva says his minor helped him become a better salesperson by helping him understand how people work. And he found a community at McCombs. “It’s this open, very caring environment,” he says. “Sometimes people don’t say that about McCombs, but I think it’s the material that’s strict—if you ask for help, you have that.”

Of course, there were points, Presheva admits, when simultaneously running a full-time business and earning his degree felt nearly impossible. “But you have reason to overcome those points when it feels like you can’t continue,” he says. “For me, those reasons were mostly for my dad, and how things didn’t work out for him when he transitioned to the states because he didn't have a degree.”

After graduation he’ll stay plenty busy: In addition to his used car dealership, which has grown from three cars to 25, he’s launching an athletic apparel business. His longterm future though, he says, is wide open. “I want to get to know the corporate world,” Presheva muses. “If business stays good, though, I won’t have time for that.” —Sofia Sokolove

Jade Jackson

Cockrell School of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences • Pearland, Texas

“I started Black Women in Engineering (BWiSE) to create a network for black women in STEM. When you’re a black woman in STEM, you’re kind of like a unicorn. I wanted to make it seem more like it was normal.”

Justin Atkinson

College of Liberal Arts • Sherman, Texas

Growing up in Sherman, Justin Atkinson visited UT every year with his school band. But even though most people from his high school attended nearby Grayson Community College or Austin College, he says, he always felt more comfortable in a large crowd.

“My parents warned me that it would be different, and to not let UT change me,” Atkinson says. “I think UT has changed me in a lot of ways, but for the better.”

As a junior, the dual government and gender studies major applied to the Texas Blazers, a proposition that made him a bit uneasy at first. Self-described as “not the most masculine guy,” Atkinson, a natural extrovert, forced himself to join the all-male service organization.

“I was a little—OK a lot—scared of going into a group of only men. I hadn’t done that since Little League,” Atkinson says. “ But I liked that they were so upfront about helping people and not bragging about it.”

All Blazers members pitch a service project upon acceptance, and so Atkinson proposed a collaboration with campus violence prevention and response program Voices Against Violence. As a result, the Blazers became visible male allies for VAV, and raised $5,000 for the Survivors’ Fund and supported the group at events like Take Back the Night. “It’s been really fulfilling, really hard work,” Atkinson says.

Just before joining the Blazers, Atkinson was accepted into the Archer Fellowship Program, which allows UT students to internship in Washington, D.C. for a semester while continuing their education. Atkinson took classes and worked at the international law firm Akin Gump, where he got to do pro bono work.

“My parents warned me that it would be different, and to not let UT change me. UT has changed me in a lot of ways, but for the better.”

“There was one man who had been diagnosed with AIDS and was re-appealing to get social security. For a month, every other day, I called this office to get his medical records for our case,” he says. “I didn’t get to meet with him personally but it reassured me that there is a good side to law and to big business in D.C. It humanized it for me.”

Atkinson took the LSAT in December, and plans to eventually attend law school. But first, he’ll take a gap year and either go to D.C. to do advocacy work or head back to Sherman to volunteer at the local crisis center for domestic violence survivors. Outgoing since childhood, Atkinson says that branching out in college helped him hone his personable nature into something that will help him make a difference.

“UT helped me channel my extroversion into being productive,” he says. “And to not just be sociable, but to use that passion to help people.” —Chris O'Connell

Jorge Silva

College of Natural Sciences • Laredo, Texas

“One of my biggest motivations was knowing that not everybody gets the opportunity I earned. I know a lot of people back home were counting on me. They knew where I was and they knew what I was doing, and they were kind of saying ‘well OK if he can do it, then there may be a chance for me.’”

Rachel Real

Moody College of Communication • St. Hedwig, Texas

Courtesy Rachel Real

Sitting at a picnic table between the buildings where she’s spent most of her college career, UT senior Rachel Real is talking about the wonders of language. “I believe it makes a person who they are,” she says.

The communication sciences and disorders major has spent the past four years studying problems in speech, language, and hearing at the Moody College of Communication, where she was recently named an Outstanding Spring 2017 Grad. She’s a student research clinician for the Michael and Tami Lang Stuttering Institute and a volunteer at Austin Speech Labs, which provides intensive speech, language, and cognitive therapy for stroke survivors. “They’ve made me who I am,” she says. “Stroke patients are used to talking and then one day they just … can’t. It’s all about regaining what you’ve lost.”

The first in her family to graduate from college, Real comes from St. Hedwig, a small town just outside San Antonio. She remembers feeling overwhelmed by the city when she first arrived on campus a few years back. She had just left her mother, father, and two older brothers. She wasn’t sure what to major in and started out studying chemistry, subsequently jumping from major to major trying to find the perfect fit.

But now, she says leaving UT will be a sad affair. “I’ve built myself this community here.I’m going to miss the school’s atmosphere—it’s so diverse and you meet someone new every day.”

“I believe [language] makes a person who they are.”

When she wasn’t in class or working with stroke patients, Real was in the stands at Texas men’s and women's basketball games, supporting the teams with her fellow Texas Darlins. She also found an outlet for creativity in modeling, striking high-fashion poses for the student-run magazine Spark. She says she’s going to miss her professors, football games, and tailgates. Come this fall, Real is headed to get her masters from Texas Woman’s University in Denton.

When asked what her ideal future looks like, Real looks off into the distance. She says she hopes to one day be in New York or New Jersey, where she can have a nice home, raise a family, and run her very own private practice. “But really, who knows,” she says. “My future’s changing every day.” —Danielle Lopez