Head of the Class

Alumni from UNT's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences use their degrees to rise to the top of their fields -- and change the world for the better.
Written by: 
Erin Cristales, Brittney Dear and Danielle Zachariah
Photography by: 
Ahna Hubnik
Brenda Barajas-Koc
Brenda Barajas-Koch ('10, '20 M.A.)

Brenda Barajas-Koch ('10, '20 M.A.)
Spanish, women's and gender studies

Job title: Prevention education specialist for Latinx populations with the Violence Prevention and Education team under the Rape Crisis and Victim Services Department at The Women's Center of Tarrant County; previously worked as a Spanish teacher and as a liaison between UNT's Outreach office and the Consulate General of Mexico in Dallas to create educational opportunities for Mexican nationals

Major requirements/skills of current job: We talk about such personal issues that you have to learn how to navigate different audiences and to talk about these issues in a sensitive and culturally competent way. We're trying to prevent violent crime and sexual violence before it ever occurs. We're talking to people about healthy relationships, online safety, consent, the dynamics of sexual assault, and how to better serve different groups of survivors in a culturally resonant or culturally competent way, whether that be working with LGBTQ+ survivors, non-English speaking survivors, or immigrant and refugee populations.

Career highlight(s): When I was a liaison for UNT and the Mexican Consulate, so many families and students saw themselves in me because I was a first-generation student. It was really cool to be able to let them know about my journey and help them realize that this university is for them -- higher education is for them. With my current role, I'm so fortunate to do something that I am passionate about and that is very personal to me. It's an immense responsibility to carry, but it's also just such a privilege.

How your degrees helped you get to where you are today: The soft skills you learn -- empathy, communication -- are applicable in so many different jobs and just help you be a better person. They've helped me to really connect and build relationships in every role that I've had.

Best advice you ever received: Earning a degree requires you to devote so much time and energy and money -- do something that you're passionate about instead of just doing something that you're "supposed" to do.

Scott Montgomery
Scott Montgomery ('10)

Scott Montgomery ('10)
B.A. theatre arts

Job title: COVID safety manager for the Broadway production/revival of Take Me Out

Major requirements/skills of current job: Dealing with customers and customer service. I have developed a lot of people skills; knowing how people tick and function and being able to communicate effectively, and then to a point where it's not going to be concerning for the people that you work for. These are all brand-new people that I just met, and I'm learning names and how people operate and chime. You have to learn how to think ahead of how they're going to operate. It's a lot of intuition; you've got to be a good people person and play along.

Career highlight(s): I've done a lot of background work on TV and movies. I did a scene with Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman. He was actually the one who reached out and saw me in the scene. He asked what my name was and said, 'Let's work something out.' I've been on flights where someone was watching the movie, and they'd be like, 'Did I just see you in The Greatest Showman?' and I'd say, 'Yep! You did!' That's one of my favorite things I've done. I also went to China three separate times for some singing gigs I did with a group from New York. It was pretty incredible to get to travel and perform internationally and meet people from all over the world.

How your degree helped you get to where you are today: With a B.A. in theatre arts, you still have to do everything you have to do. Stagecraft, wardrobe, makeup, build and break down sets; you have to do a little bit of everything, which felt annoying at the time. Now looking back on it, and this career shift, a lot of these things I did have become very beneficial in how the show runs and the lingo that some actors don't pay attention to. It's like wearing multiple hats at different times.

Best advice you ever received: Don't wait for an opportunity to strike while the iron is hot. Go for it!

 

Carl Whitaker
Carl Whitaker ('15 M.A.)

Carl Whitaker ('15 M.A.)
Geography

Job title: Director of research and analysis at RealPage; previously served as RealPage's manager of market analytics and market analyst

Major requirements/skills of current job: My team in particular works more on the market research and the investment side of the equation. A perfect example of this is, this morning, I had someone call me and say they were looking at buying an apartment property in Savannah, Georgia. We forecast for the next five years what the expected occupancy is going to be, what the expected rent would be and how a local economy is going to drive apartment demand. A lot of my current job ties back to geography because it's understanding what it is about this place that makes it different. Like, what makes Denton different than Austin, and vice versa? These are differences our team helps explain.

How your degree helped you get to where you are today: My thesis advisor, Dr. Murray Rice, had a background in academia, which is very applied. The geography analysis used was less theoretical and more about how to use it in a business setting, especially through an analytics framework. Working with him was very beneficial in helping me figure out applied perspectives, which is sometimes a little tougher to explain, but I thought he did a great job with that.

Best advice you ever received: The advice that I would give to anybody is always seek balance. I think balance is the most important thing in life, whether it's a work-life balance or school-social balance. Be prudent with money but don't be so prudent that you don't enjoy yourself. There's always that sweet spot.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you? I really like music -- all kinds of music from all kinds of genres, and I love finding new music. In my office, there are like 20 albums behind me, and each album is from a part of my past that really resonates with me. Like, I can point back to one and be like, "Oh yeah, that's when I was doing this." I also love going to music festivals; before COVID, I had been to Bonnaroo five years in a row, and I attended Burning Man this year. I think that surprises people.

Raney LaSusa
Raney LaSusa

Raney LaSusa ('15 M.A.)
French

Job title: Immigration attorney and partner at LaSusa & Deb PLLC, a full-service law firm in Dallas representing criminal defense clients with an emphasis on how criminal law relates to federal immigration law as well as a wide range of immigration issues including employment and family-based matters

Any college orgs you were involved in/professional orgs you are currently involved in: I am involved in the Dallas County Defense Attorney Association (DCDLA) and American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

Advice for student majoring in world languages, literatures and cultures: Take advantage of study abroad. It's a great opportunity to see different parts of the world and practice learning another language. Also, it's another thing to add to your resume so you can show potential employers that you were able to travel across the world while completing your education.

Best advice you ever received: Don't put all your eggs in one basket -- don't invest all of your time and effort into one thing or else you might lose everything.

What people would be most surprised to learn about you: I am obsessed with reading about infectious diseases, especially the Black Death.

 

Stacy Rhone
Stacy Rhone ('88)

Stacy Rhone ('88)
Economics; also earned M.S. in civil engineering from UT Austin in 1993

Job title: CEO of BiGAUSTIN (focused on business investment growth to empower underserved Texans to excel and prosper through education, counseling and capital)

Career highlight(s): When I was hired as a program specialist at TxDOT in 1989, I was the first African American female in highway design construction. They told me, "It's great to hire you because we're killing two birds with one stone." However, by the time I left there, the highlight for me was that they understood that it wasn't about hiring someone because they were Black or because they were female. They knew that I was totally capable of doing my job. And then today, having been one of the only Black female developers in Austin to come in and purchase and develop 38 acres of land when everybody said, "You're not going to be able to get that done at a nonprofit organization." Well, we got it done, and we're building one of the most fabulous resource centers that will perhaps ever impact Central Texas. The project is going to impact so many lives by creating small businesses, jobs and affordable housing.

How your degree helped you get to where you are today: As an African American, understanding the importance of building generational wealth, understanding the market and investing -- that deep understanding of how the economy works has played into everything that I've ever done. My economics degree has been extremely important in helping me to establish a baseline for every step I've taken in my career.

Advice for students majoring in economics: Be very serious about your studies. Economics is not the type of degree where you get any playtime. Every course is a challenge, and you have to be very focused.

Best advice you ever received: Stay agile. Stay encouraged. Keep working hard, applying for jobs and reaching out to alumni. Life is all about the opportunities, and there are a lot of opportunities to be found with UNT alumni. There are many alums I have created great partnerships with.

What people would be most surprised to learn about you: Community service is more important to me than money. Most people think that when you're in economics, your focus is money. But community service is at the heart of what I do and that is why I stay at the company I'm at. I focus on community service and public service more than anything because I believe the financial part of it will come to you over time.

Krystin Rodriguez
Krystin Rodriguez ('17)

Krystin Rodriguez ('17)
B.A. international studies and French; also earned M.A. in international peace and conflict resolution from American University, 2020; winner of UNT's Presidential Excellence Award in 2018

Job title:

Foreign service officer, U.S. Department of State (currently stationed in Jerusalem)

Organizations:

I was in Model International Organization, which is essentially a combination of Model UN and Model Arab League -- and I was part of both of those teams. I was in the Intensive English Language Institute. They have a conversation partners program, and I mentored international students in the English language at least one hour a week every week of the school year. I helped with Lions International, I was in French Honor Society, and I also was involved with TRIO. Now, as part of the Rangel Fellowship and the Pickering Fellowship, I'm part of a cohort of people who mentor or get mentored by other diplomats.

Major requirements/skills of current job:

I would say No. 1 is mental resilience. It takes a lot of guts to go into a career where you're isolated from your family, and you're tested every single day because you're in another country dealing with very pressing issues. Also, you have to be able to articulate what the main point of a conversation is. I interact with people from different linguistic backgrounds every day, and they want to know what does this information mean for them in the end? Articulating that in a very calming way is what matters. And just a natural sense of curiosity and interpersonal skills -- being able to lift my team members up whenever they're having a hard time.

How your degree helped you get to where you are today:

My degree was really the gateway to interacting on foreign policy issues. I think about the international courts and tribunals class with Jim Meernik -- it challenged me to think about what would happen if I was interacting on policy issues involving genocide or war crimes. The program made me think about the world around me and this lingo that seems to exist in foreign policy institutions. It gives you the tools to make your mind more aware of how you can articulate what you're feeling about the world.

Advice for students majoring in international studies:

Remain open to future career possibilities. Sometimes students will say, 'I want to work for this one specific organization, and that's all I'm going to talk about for the next four years.' If you tie yourself to one set of ideas and don't remain open to the many classes that UNT has to offer that cover different regions and topics, you're going to really lose a lot of the value of what the international studies program has to offer. Be in the program to broaden your perspective and get a little bit out of your comfort zone.

Hobbies:

I taught myself to make okonomiyaki during the pandemic, which is basically a Japanese cabbage pancake. So I consider myself a part-time foodie. I'm also learning Arabic. I guess languages are just kind of my hobby because I studied Hebrew for eight months before coming here, and I speak Hebrew almost every day on the job. I know a little bit of Japanese and some Turkish and some French and some Spanish. I also like drawing and painting, and I run. They have a race here called Dead2Red, which starts on the shores of the Dead Sea and continues all the way up to the Red Sea.

Courtney Brazile
Courtney Brazile ('05, '09 M.A.)

Courtney Brazile ('05, '09 M.A.)
Communication studies

Job title: Professor of communication studies, Dallas College; part-time house manager at Dallas Summer Musicals

Organizations: Being involved at UNT helped shape where I am today. I previously participated in the Performance Interest Group; I also led as president my junior year. Serving as a student leader afforded an opportunity to meet other students with a passion for performance and communication. I was able to hone my leadership skills in a student-centered atmosphere while making authentic interpersonal connections.

Career highlight(s): One of the highlights of my career involves producing a documentary titled Director Your Future -- a short film about the obstacles and stereotypes facing minority males. The documentary was created as a promotional video for the Men's Empowerment Coalition, a retention program for male students of color at Eastfield College. The film features the powerful stories of three students who share their successes and challenges through their college journey. What started off as a two-minute promo video turned into a 26-minute documentary, and the premise is for young people to realize they're in the director's chair to write their script. The project was challenging; however, it was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. Another highlight was serving as the commencement speaker at my institution after being chosen by my peers as the 2018 Excellence in Teaching Award recipient at Eastfield College.

Assess your strengths and your talents. Be present and learn from all life's experiences. Be mindful and approach your courses with fresh curiosity.
Courtney Brazile

How your degree helped you get to where you are today: Courses such as interpersonal communication develop important skills for building and maintaining sustainable relationships. Public speaking is instrumental in my faculty role and when I present locally or at national conferences. Intercultural communication has been an integral component for delivering my own TEDx talk on diversity. Moreover, I want to empower my students to address the stereotypes and biases they experience to become change agents in their communities.

Advice for students majoring in communication studies: It's OK to shift gears. For instance, I started college with a desire to teach high school, and now I'm employed at the collegiate level. Assess your strengths and your talents. Be present and learn from all life's experiences. Be mindful and approach your courses with fresh curiosity. Get to know your instructors and get involved because extracurricular activities, internships and networking provide the path to where you ultimately want to be in your career.


Angela Ramer
Angela Ramer ('14 M.S.)

Angela Ramer ('14 M.S.)
Applied anthropology

Job title: Design anthropologist research analyst working in architecture and design for Harwood Knox Smith (HKS) since 2014; previously served at HKS as an intern.

Major requirements/skills of current job: HKS is focused on creating amazing architecture and interior design, and they recently expanded their service offerings toward research and strategy, and that's the group I work in now. As a research analyst, I support strategy and design projects, built and unbuilt. I've had the opportunity over the past several years to work on projects all over the world with all sorts of different individuals. I work with psychologists, data analysts, and I also work with nurses on health care projects. It's an increasingly blended field to work in, and the firm has really championed that through its research and strategy efforts.

How your degree helped you get to where you are today: I am very fortunate that I get to do anthropology every day. I do everything from creating plans for doing research projects at the front end of design and strategy work all the way through doing what I trained to do for undergrad and graduate: collecting, analyzing and synthesizing data into reports and recommendations and then presenting and sharing insights to my clients so they can make decisions for their projects based on their needs. I'm also using what they may call 'softer' skills, the interviewing and kind of conversational, interpersonal skills that anthropology is well known for -- building empathy and understanding without bias. And then you have some of the more technical skills, such as research methodology data collection analysis. In this field, I've even picked up some new skills such as data visualization.

Best advice you ever received: My former client had a short phrase and he told it to me when I was working with him. He said, 'We hired you as a researcher to come and help us understand this situation a little bit more. We already know 80% of it, we're not ignorant. We're hiring you because of the 20% we don't know. Don't tell me what I already know; tell me something I don't know.' So often, when I'm trying to synthesize things, I often frame it as, 'What's the story that this client doesn't know?' Repeating what they already know is not useful. Another piece of advice would be from my former boss. He said that bad news is not like fine wine. It does not get better with time.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

I like hiking and mountain biking and road biking. I also like landscaping and gardening. When I was younger, I used to do radio commercials for 15 years, and it's what paid for my graduate degree.

Kathy Toon
Kathy Toon ('02)

Kathy Toon ('02)
B.A. radio, television and film (now media arts)

Job title: Freelance editor/writer/home renovator; previously worked as an editor for Huhu Studios, Pixar Animation Studios and Blue Sky Studios where she assisted in the editing of numerous animated films including Toy Story 4, Finding Dory, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who.

Career highlight(s): I feel really fulfilled in a lot of the things I've done. I think one of the big ones was when I got to Pixar, I ran into some friends from Blue Sky Studios who were wanting to make a short film that I had known about, and I jumped in and raised my hand to edit. So we worked on a film called Borrowed Time for a couple of years together, and it ended up getting nominated for an Academy Award. Finishing that film and being happy with it felt like a giant accomplishment.

Advice for students majoring in media arts: Try new things and work hard at them. Make friends and try to be a good teammate -- there will be moments of competitiveness but ultimately you have to work as a team. Rely on each other to try things and be OK to fail. Don't shy away from things that you're not going to succeed at; keep working at it.

Hobbies: I used to run triathlons when I worked at Pixar. I also love hiking and swimming.