Ten Outstanding Graduating Seniors to be Honored as 21st Century Leaders at UMass Amherst Commencement Ceremonies

Two graduates recognized as Jack Welch Scholars
UMass Amherst wordmark

AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst will honor the exemplary achievement, initiative and leadership of some of its most talented and accomplished graduating seniors during Undergraduate Commencement ceremonies taking place Friday, May 14 at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. Four smaller, socially distanced ceremonies will take place at 9 a.m., 12 p.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

Ten members of the graduating class will be honored as 21st Century Leaders at Undergraduate Commencement:

Jason Biundo of Burlington, Mass., is a Commonwealth Honors College student who is graduating with degrees in biology and neuroscience. He was named Residential Life Peer Mentor of the Year. In his sophomore year, he joined the Moorman Lab, a neuroscience lab that studies motivation and addiction, and propelled that experience into being accepted into an immersive summer program in computational neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University. In the fall of his junior year, while serving as a resident assistant, active in two science clubs and logging many hours in labs, Biundo suffered a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed below the waist. After a year of intensive therapy, during which he continued his coursework, he returned to campus. He resumed his research, worked as a teaching assistant, completed his honors thesis, revitalized the BioSci club and served as a resident assistant. After graduation, Biundo will do spinal cord research at Boston Children’s Hospital in the lab of Zhigang He of Harvard Medical School. He eventually wants to obtain his Ph.D. and become a professor.

Joanna Buoniconti of West Springfield, Mass., is a Commonwealth Honors College student who earned dual degrees in English, with a specialization in creative writing, and in journalism. While excelling at numerous challenging projects for her two writing-intense majors, including completing a book-length memoir, Buoniconti also made substantial contributions to student and local media. She joined the Amherst Wire, the journalism department’s online magazine, during her junior year and became managing editor. While in that role, she honed her voice in book reviews, reported on the pandemic and advised others how to navigate online learning. She achieved all of this, as she says, “without setting a wheel” on campus. With fragile health due to spinal muscular atrophy, Buoniconti attended all her classes via Zoom. She found ways to be a key contributor to class discussions and garnered respect from her professors for her hard work, talent and sensitive critiques of her classmates’ work. Off-campus, she interned at the Daily Hampshire Gazette and went on to write a monthly op-ed column there on disability advocacy issues. She plans to pursue work in book publishing or journalism.

James Andrew Cordero of Woburn, Mass., is graduating with degrees in English and in social thought and political economy, with a minor in education. A leader in multiple organizations, Cordero launched campaigns and built coalitions to make UMass more accessible and affordable to marginalized students. As co-chair of the Residential Assistant/Peer Mentor Union, he advocated for strong COVID-19 safety measures, secure student jobs and anti-racism training for all RAs and PMs. He fought alongside students at the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy for more equitable funding for public schools in Massachusetts, resulting in the passage of the 2019 Student Opportunity Act, and later lobbied for state funding for UMass throughout the pandemic. During two summers with Upward Bound, Cordero mentored college-bound students from Springfield’s High School of Commerce. He plans to teach full time, incorporating his philosophy of universal human dignity into his work, while he pursues a master’s degree in education through the UMass Amherst 180 Days in Springfield program.

Hannah Guard of Marion, Mass., a Commonwealth Honors College student, completed a double major in biochemistry and molecular biology, and in public health sciences, with a minor in psychology. Motivated by her grandmother’s dementia, Guard became involved in Students to End Alzheimer’s Disease. As an executive board member, she led successful fundraising and outreach efforts. Following her passion to be a scientist who works to prevent dementia and other diseases, Guard immersed herself in epidemiology to learn concepts that could connect her knowledge of biochemistry to helping people. She spent five semesters as a research assistant for the UMass Breast Health Study, exploring breast cancer risk factors. For her honors thesis, Guard explored the relationship between bisphenol A (BPA), an environmental chemical, and inflammatory makers in breast milk of nursing mothers. This research could further the understanding of breast cancer risk. To further her career dedicated to preventing neurodegenerative conditions, Guard will begin the master’s program in epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health next fall.

Rania Marie Henriquez of Methuen, Mass., is a Commonwealth Honors College student who has earned dual degrees in women, gender and sexuality studies and political science. Henriquez came to UMass with the belief that art and community building can change the world. She became immediately active in Students of Caribbean Ancestry and the Black Student Union. She then extended her community activism, working in Springfield to support Hurricane Maria relief efforts and to help organize a youth-led rally advocating for gun control. In her sophomore year, her father, her most ardent supporter, died unexpectedly. Henriquez finished the semester strong and went on to a summer service learning program in Cape Town, South Africa, in his honor. She was a research assistant in political science, investigating indigenous communities’ resistance to natural resource extraction. She was an academic diversity fellow for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, supporting first-generation students and students of color. She is also a prolific poet. After graduation, Henriquez will merge her passion for social justice and her love of art as the first-ever community resource coordinator at Elevated Thought, a youth organization in Lawrence, that develops spaces for BIPOC youth and communities to engage and understand art.

Carla Montilla Jaimes of Doral, Fla., is a Commonwealth Honors College student graduating with degrees in political science and history. Originally from Venezuela, Montilla Jaimes is the first in her family to earn a college degree in the U.S. She served in the Student Government Association, the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success, and other campus groups, where she amplified the voices of marginalized students. She researched policies to fight hunger and food insecurity as a Sophomore-Service Scholar. Following her sophomore year, she was selected to participate in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences summer program in Washington, D.C., where she worked in the office of U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern. She was selected as a UMass Women into Leadership Fellow her junior year. After a trip to Israel and the West Bank, she founded a student chapter of J Street, an organization that advocates for progressive American foreign policy in the Middle East. As a senior, Montilla Jaimes helped start the Period chapter at UMass and worked on a pilot program to make free menstrual products available across campus and to address period poverty in Massachusetts. Starting this fall, Montilla Jaimes will attend American University’s School of International Service to pursue a master’s degree in ethics, peace, and human rights.

AnnMarie Marquis, a Commonwealth Honors College student from Tewksbury, Mass., has completed two degrees: one in biochemistry and molecular biology, and a second Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration in immunology and immuno-engineering. A first-generation college student, Marquis served as a firefighter and EMT for the Amherst Fire Department’s Student Force, serving as captain. She volunteered 20 to 40 hours weekly, recruited and trained a new cohort of student firefighters, led the training of the Engine Company, and made changes to operations to ensure safety. In the early days of the pandemic, with the fire department understaffed, Marquis was one of five students hired full time and worked alongside paramedics while finishing her full-time course schedule. Using her knowledge of emergency preparedness and basic life support skills, Marquis volunteered with the Medical Reserve Corps to teach STOP the Bleed trainings and educate students on campus. She worked overnight shifts at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library to finance her education while excelling in her self-designed immunology and immuno-engineering studies, earning Phi Beta Kappa recognition. Her self-designed thesis research in immuno-engineering focuses on reprogramming immune cells to prevent tumor progression in cancer. She plans to continue her education in healthcare, science and engineering.

Babatunde Olatinwo of Monroe, Conn., earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing. He entered the accelerated nursing program at UMass Amherst after having served six years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force, where he received medals for outstanding achievement and meritorious service. As a reservist, he continues to work in support of missions with the 439th Airlift Wing. A standout student in a challenging 17-month nursing program, Olatinwo dedicated many hours during the pandemic caring for homeless individuals in Springfield who had either been exposed to or diagnosed with COVID-19. He then volunteered to help set up the UMass Public Health Promotion Center, facilitating campus and community testing and contact tracing efforts and recruiting workers. As a graduate, he continues to contribute to UMass, providing education and administering vaccines in the campus clinic. Even before completing his degree in February, Olatinwo began work as the first nurse resident in the perioperative care unit of Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. His next goal is to pursue an advanced degree at UMass Amherst.

Carolyn Parker-Fairbain of Boston, Mass., earned a degree in Afro-American Studies with minors in theater and history, and a certificate in multicultural theater. At UMass Amherst, Parker-Fairborn focused her talents on the intersections between Black studies and the arts. In her first Department of Theater production, she performed in Baltimore, a play by Kirsten Greenidge. As a junior, she conceived and produced an event as part of the revitalization of New Africa House called “The Cyph,” where creators from the African diasporic community shared their work. As a University Museum of Contemporary Art For Freedoms intern, Parker-Fairbain dedicated herself to expanding student engagement and building a more inclusive space for visitors. To this end, she performed extensive research, supported successful grant proposals, and co-hosted virtual events. She also co-founded The For Freedoms Student Organizing Committee to further encourage liberatory practices in the arts. Her UMass acting experience concluded with Visionary Futures: Science Fiction Theatre for Social Justice Movements. Following graduation, she plans to take some restorative time off.

Alannah Scardino of Rochester, N.Y., is a Commonwealth Honors College student double-majoring in sport management and social thought and political economy. A boundary breaker, while still a student, she combined the knowledge she gained in her dual majors to support women, girls and at-risk youth through sport. As an intern for Minor League Baseball’s Rochester Red Wings, Scardino originated and planned the team’s first-ever Women in Sports Night. Similarly, she structured an independent study to write a children’s book, All I Can Be from A to Z, which challenges gender stereotypes and encourages children to be their authentic selves. This year, Scardino conducted research on the juvenile justice system, violence against girls and women, and sport for development. She used her honors thesis as a springboard to launch a sport-for-development organization called Rising Phoenix Sports Program, with a mission to support the health and well-being of girls in the juvenile justice system through sport. Scardino remained in Amherst during the pandemic and served as deputy chief of Amherst Fire Department’s Student Force. After graduation, she will continue to develop Rising Phoenix and hopes to work for an organization dedicated to using sport to make a positive social impact.

Jack Welch Scholars

Two graduating seniors will be recognized during the commencement ceremony for their leadership and executive ability as Jack Welch Scholars. They are:

Jake LeBlanc, a Commonwealth Honors College student from Hopkinton, Mass., who is graduating with a degree in finance. LeBlanc believes his UMass work taught him to be independent and driven. Upon graduation, he will begin a rotational program for new finance employees at the Bose Corp. in Framingham, Mass., which will allow him to explore different aspects of the field.

Allison Lepine of Chicopee, Mass., majored in industrial engineering and minored in engineering management. Lepine put her skills in engineering and management to use this spring when she and a group of students observed the operation of a Massachusetts mass vaccination site, performing on-site studies and making recommendations for improving the site’s efficiency. After graduation, Lepine will join PepsiCo as a supply chain leader at the company’s Frito-Lay plant in Killingly, Conn.