Student success stories

UNT graduates, with hard work and inspiration from mentors, make education dreams realities
While commencement is an occasion filled with joyful celebrations, it’s also a chance for students to reflect on where they have come from, who has helped them reach their goals and where their new educations will take them. And beyond the pomp and circumstance, each UNT degree represents a personal dream — a triumphant accomplishment that required sacrifice and perseverance.
At this spring’s ceremony, more than 3,600 undergraduate and graduate students received their diplomas. With their UNT educations, they join a network of alumni who enrich and improve local communities, expand industry and make contributions throughout the world.
“These are challenging times for both our nation and the world, but we hear regularly of UNT alumni who are helping solve problems around the globe,” says Derrick P. Morgan, the UNT Alumni Association’s executive director. “I have no doubt that our Class of 2010 will deliver stories of many significant contributions.”
Here’s a sampling of success stories from some of UNT’s newest alumni:
Overcoming challenges
When Melissa Mullins (’05, ’10 M.S.) was 9 years old, her once-perfect handwriting suddenly became illegible. Her worried parents, Anita and Joe, took Melissa to a pediatric neurologist who discovered that she was suffering from dystonia, a rare movement disorder that causes severe muscle spasms. Among other things, the spasms resulted in Melissa losing the use of her left hand and most of her ability to speak.
But Melissa didn’t let her physical disorder limit her potential. She graduated from Trinity High School in Euless in 1997. Then she went on and earned a bachelor’s degree in development and family studies at UNT, and a master’s degree this spring.
Anita, a reading specialist in the Grapevine ISD, says that at times the obstacles Melissa faced while earning her graduate degree seemed insurmountable, but she knew her daughter could do it. Melissa’s family was crucial to her success. They helped keep her on track while she recovered from two brain stimulation surgeries and also helped her with more mundane activities, such as transcribing papers and getting to class.
“My family has been really supportive. Because of my dystonia I can’t drive,” Melissa says. “My mom or dad would drive me to school and wait for me in the car until class was over.”
Melissa and her family also say that she was encouraged by the acceptance she received from other students and from the faculty and staff. Anita says Melissa always felt nurtured and supported, and lists Arminta Jacobson, professor of educational psychology, as one of her mentors.
“I had Melissa as a student since she was an undergraduate, and what always stood out to me was that she never made excuses. She just always did her work as well as she could,” says Jacobson. “She would even give oral presentations despite the fact that it was very difficult and left her exhausted. She has been very persistent and I take great pleasure in seeing her succeed.”
Melissa hopes that she will be able to use her UNT degrees to help other individuals with disabilities. She says her dream job would be to work at a nonprofit organization with children who have disabilities or to do research on children with disabilities.
Not only did Melissa have to overcome the physical limitations of her disorder to pursue a graduate degree, but she also had to struggle with the demands of being a single parent to a child with special needs. Melissa’s now 6-year-old son Christian was born prematurely because of Melissa’s dystonia. He spent eight weeks in the NICU as a newborn and still requires physical, occupational and speech therapy to help him keep up with other children his age. Melissa says she hopes her experiences will help empower her son.
“I will be an advocate for him until he reaches an age where he can be an advocate for himself,” she says. “I want him to know that even when you are faced with difficult situations, you can be successful, if you are motivated to work hard.”
Like mother, like daughter
Sandra Benavides (’10) and her daughter Veronica (’10) gave each other homework tips, studied together at night instead of watching TV, carpooled to class and, in May, walked across the graduation stage in the UNT Coliseum. They accepted their bachelor’s degrees together as their family cheered them on.
Sandra earned her bachelor’s degree in political science, while Veronica, 22, accepted a bachelor’s degree in interior design. Earning a college diploma is a lifelong dream for Sandra and her parents — and it provided inspiration for Veronica as she pursued her own degree.
“I was born in Guatemala, and my parents came to the States with the dream that we would have a better opportunity here,” Sandra says. “I knew from the beginning that I had to finish and this was a goal I would be working toward. I have fulfilled my father’s dream and in that, too, my dream.”
Sandra graduated in 1992 with an associate degree from Brigham Young University in Hawaii and postponed the rest of her studies while her husband, Abraham Benavides, completed his degree. Abraham is now an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration at UNT.
With her first bachelor’s degree in hand, Sandra plans to return to UNT to complete a second bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in hospitality management. Veronica hopes to work in commercial interior design. Veronica said she was inspired by watching her mom expertly juggle classes while taking care of four daughters — now ages 16 to 22.
“She showed me that education is very important,” Veronica says of her mom. “It was an example to me that she would continue to learn new things, so it helped me and encouraged me.”
Sandra is equally admiring of her daughter.
“It really has been wonderful,” she says of going to school with Veronica. “We have been there for moral support. I know what she has gone through with some of the classes, the homework and projects. She is the one who has taught me how to persevere.”
Life after injury
Staff Sgt. Mark H. Graunke Jr. (’10) has dedicated his life to serving the greater good of the country. After graduating from Lewisville High School in 1996, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and eventually served in a unit that defused explosive devices in Iraq.
On July 2, 2003, an explosive blew up in his hands. Graunke suffered devastating injuries from the blast, losing an eye, a leg, one hand and the thumb and index finger of the other hand. But he did not let his injuries slow him down. After recovering at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., the Marine returned to his life in Texas.
In 2005, Graunke enrolled at UNT to begin work on his business degree in decision sciences. He says that the first semester was challenging since he hadn’t been in a traditional school setting for more than nine years, but his drive to excel quickly took over.
“I’ve always been one who’s strived for excellence. I’ve always tried to be the best at what I do, and college wasn’t any different,” Graunke says. “I was competing with my peers to be the best, even if they didn’t know it.”
Graunke’s competitive spirit pushed him to pursue the highest honors designation for graduates — summa cum laude. He achieved his goal this spring, graduating with a perfect 4.0.
Now that he’s completed his degree, Graunke hopes to continue his service to the country by working for the government. He says that he’d like to work for the Secret Service or the FBI for the same reasons that he became a Marine — to keep people safe and contribute to the greater good.
He also plans to continue his volunteer efforts. Since retiring from the Marine Corps, he has coordinated fundraisers for veterans organizations, spoken at Veterans Day events and visited recently injured troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center. A week before his graduation, he was honored as the Military Appreciation Weekend 2010 Wounded Warrior in Ruidoso, N.M.
Graunke is able to inspire others not only with his words, but also with his perseverance.
“There is life after injury,” he says. “If you get injured or hurt, pick yourself up, get over it and move on to the next day. Everyone is going to fall down, but that isn’t what makes you who you are. It is how you get back up and keep going that makes you who you are.”
New beginnings in familiar places
Wayne Lee Gay (’07 M.A., ’10 Ph.D.) was the classical music critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and other newspapers for many years before going back to college for his second career — writing fiction and teaching creative writing at a college or university.
“The end of my old job was the beginning of something new,” he says, adding that he was exactly 50 years old on the first day of his first graduate class. “It’s never too late.”
Gay, 54, received his doctoral degree in English with a creative writing diploma at the May commencement ceremony with family members, friends and his life-long mentor, Jonetta Miller Hinkle (’55), looking on.
Hinkle was Gay’s piano teacher from his hometown and the person who helped launch his first career by inspiring his love of classical music.
After graduating from North Texas, Hinkle taught three generations of piano students in her studio in Lindsay, Okla. A pianist from a young age, she enrolled at North Texas specifically to study performance with Silvio Scionti, an internationally known Italian-born pianist who was artist-in-residence at the college for 11 years. As a freshman, Hinkle toured five states as part of a multi-piano ensemble that Scionti assembled, adapting standard symphony pieces and concertos into arrangements played by Hinkle and seven other students on eight grand pianos.
Gay credits Hinkle for teaching him the importance of “caring about what you do,” whether it’s playing each note of a piano piece with care, writing or doing something else, and says his love of classical music and his desire to write made him ideal for music critic jobs. Whether it was reviewing a performance at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition or a community band concert, Gay says with Hinkle’s training he listened for the expressiveness and care put into the playing of the music.
“She gave me an ethic of doing things well,” he says.
Gay has accepted an adjunct position in the UNT Department of English for this fall and will continue to seek publication for his writings.
“UNT is not just an academic community but an intellectual community,” he says. “I love teaching and being on this musical campus.”
Even though he has begun a new chapter in his life, Gay says he will continue to play piano, and will play for Hinkle whenever he returns to Lindsay.
“Experiences like this help you understand how everything is connected in ways you don’t realize. I studied 45 years ago with Jonetta and then I came to UNT where she studied,” he says. “There are places where good things happen.”

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