Stephen Peck, who served with the Marines in Vietnam, is president and CEO of the Los Angeles–based United States Veterans Initiative (U.S.VETS). The nation’s largest veteran services nonprofit, U.S.VETS runs 20 residential sites and nine service centers across the country, offering counseling, job placement, case management, employment assistance, and drug- and alcohol-free housing.
DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT: MADELINE BAXTER
Madeline Baxter is not the kind of person to sit on the sidelines. When she learns about a problem, she throws herself into being part of the solution.
When a Program in Global Health Studies class discussed the persistently high maternal mortality rates among Black women, “I thought, ‘I can’t sit here and have this knowledge and not do something about it,’” she says. “So I reached out to the chief medical officer of the Chicago Department of Public Health on LinkedIn, and she set me up with one of their initiatives called the Best Baby Zone. It works across the Chicago community and partners with different organizations to positively impact the maternal mortality rate in the city’s East Garfield Park neighborhood.”
Baxter is a senior, pursuing a bachelor's degree in education and social policy with a concentration in learning and organizational change from the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP). In true Northwestern fashion, she is also pursuing a global health studies major from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, with minors in business institutions and legal studies. “I realized I only needed three more classes to add legal studies,” says Baxter, “so I went ahead and added it.”
Baxter is exactly the kind of person who just goes ahead and adds things. When she sees opportunities, she takes them. When she sees needs, she fills them.
When she visited Northwestern’s club fair during her first year, she discovered Camp Kesem, an organization that hosts camps for kids who have been affected by a parent’s cancer. “Both my parents had cancer in consecutive years while I was in high school, which was a mammoth experience,” says Baxter. “And I was a summer camp counselor for a lot of my life, so finding Camp Kesem was the best accident ever.”
Baxter was an in-person counselor for Camp Kesem the summer after her first year and then continued counseling virtually for two years during the pandemic. Then in fall 2021, the in-person camp experience returned, and she was able to reunite with many of her original campers. “It was really awesome to see that I mean as much to them as they mean to me,” she says.
When Baxter needed to complete her SESP practicum, she drew on her inspiration, the author and civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, and decided to work for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. “Wrongful conviction is an issue that I have been interested in for a long time, but again, it’s something that I need to do something about,” Baxter says. “The Center had become really backlogged with letters from inmates because of COVID-19. I was reading those letters and helping decide: Is this someone we can help? Is this someone we can refer?”
As for the future, Baxter’s focus has shifted away from global health. She plans to take a gap year or two and attend law school.
“I found my work in wrongful convictions fulfilling,” she says. “There are policy avenues for broad-scale change, and then you can also work on the individual level with different cases. … In an ideal world, 10 years down the road, I want to be doing something that’s positively informing the civil rights issues we’re working on right now. That’s my final goal.”
MEANING THROUGH MENTORSHIP: KEVIN MENDOZA TUDARES
“Meeting and working with so many talented individuals who really want to make a difference for minorities in engineering has been the most important part of my Northwestern experience,” says Kevin Mendoza Tudares.
Soon after his arrival at Northwestern, Tudares got involved with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). Eventually, he worked his way up to the executive boards of both groups.
As vice president of SHPE, Tudares worked to expand the group locally. “We had done a lot of work to collaborate with the local high schools — Evanston Township High School and Chicago Public Schools,” says Tudares, a computer science major in the McCormick School of Engineering. “We even saw a lot of benefits to our own chapter — many more people were joining in the past two years than before.”
Tudares also worked as precollege initiative chair for NSBE, helping support the group’s junior chapters for middle and high schools by “creating a supportive community for kids to actually pursue STEM in the future.”
“It’s fun going into schools, meeting the kids, working closely with the staff and making sure that these kids get the support they need,” Tudares says. “That was a really rewarding experience, seeing the joy on these kids’ faces as they learn.”
Supporting others has been central to Tudares’ time at the University. In addition to his work with SHPE and NSBE, Tudares served as a peer mentor in several computer science classes.
“It’s fun to work with other students and help them through all of those hard introductory courses,” Tudares says. “I’ve also really enjoyed teaching some of the higher-level courses. … I love the puzzles in those courses, and being able to help other people succeed in solving them gives me a lot of gratification.”
In recognition of his service, Tudares received a Student Hero Award from the computer science department.
Tudares also worked with learning sciences and computer science assistant professor Marcelo Worsley, which resulted in Tudares’ first published research paper on ways to enable better usability for more accessible gaming. That work, Tudares says, was a lesson in perseverance.
“There were times when I thought, ‘I don’t know if my research is going anywhere,’ but ultimately I felt like there was a lot of progress and I really enjoyed it.”
Tudares knows firsthand the power of peer guidance. “My freshman year in SHPE I had a mentor, Gabe Rojas-Westall ’19, who was a senior in computer science. He really supported me throughout my entire first year. … He gave me the confidence to apply to as many internships as I wanted, and that led me into doing research at Argonne National Laboratory, developing a machine learning-based solution to calibrate sensors that collect real-time weather data around Chicago. I don’t think I would be where I am like today if it wasn’t for him.”
Tudares will graduate with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and begin a new role at Tableau in the fall.
“I'm proud,” he says. “I really enjoyed my time in the computer science department. I've had the opportunity to explore everything.”
FINDING COMMUNITY: RWAN IBRAHIM
Rwan Ibrahim found her home away from home at Northwestern. From enrichment programs to student groups, Ibrahim immersed herself in University life — and found her passion along the way.
The summer before her first year, Ibrahim took part in Bio&ChemEXCEL, a five-week Arch Scholars program for students coming into the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “It was my introduction to Northwestern. The program highlights first-generation low-income students, and a lot of my best and most sincere friendships were formed through this community.”
She also participated in Weinberg’s Arch Scholars research training program NU Bioscientist, and “ever since then, I've wanted to give back to these programs through mentorship,” Rwan says. “I’ve been an Arch Scholar mentor, an NU Bioscientist mentor, and I’ll be a Bio&ChemEXCEL counselor for the third summer in a row.”
Ibrahim also found a sense of camaraderie in the Muslim-cultural Student Association. “It was such a welcoming community,” says Ibrahim, a neuroscience major. “I came from a high school that didn't have a large Muslim population, and here it was a breath of fresh air, because there were just so many beautiful people around me — different cultures, and different types of Muslims with a wide variety of backgrounds. We are just like a family — that’s how I describe it — coming together and keeping each other accountable through religion, helping each other through classes and giving advice. There’s always mentorship that’s happening in the Muslim community because everyone is just there for each other.”
Initially, Ibrahim planned to pursue medicine, but after taking courses in global health and getting involved in reproductive health research with global health studies associate professor of instruction Sarah Rodriguez, she took a new direction. “Slowly I felt more of a calling toward global health studies and the public health sphere. So now I’m pursuing my master’s in public health and will go on to become a public health official, in the hopes of tackling structural issues within our health care system.”
It was a fairly recent decision — Ibrahim switched her career plans late last year — but it’s one she feels confident about. “I gave myself winter break to take a step back and realize that I wanted to pursue the public health path,” she says. “When I think of impact, and I think of being a young professional, I feel like that is my purpose.”
And she’s already getting started. “I’m the advocacy and policy director for Menstrual Equity Activists, an organization on campus that tries to combat period poverty including inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education and advocate for menstrual equity throughout Illinois and within Northwestern,” Ibrahim says. “We worked with an Illinois legislator last year who was working on a bill to allow menstrual products to be on the SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). We helped her get the community to sign witness slips, and the bill passed. Now on campus this year, we’ve been spearheading a project to get free menstrual products in dorms.”
After graduation, Ibrahim will have a chance to see that project through — and continue to grow the community she’s cultivated here: She’s moving to Chicago and pursuing her master of public health at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
SINGING IN SAN SEBASTIAN: LEO DISCENZA
Leo Discenza is a composer, a singer and also … a Survivor.
Discenza, a self-described “choral music nerd” from Arlington, Va., was drawn to Northwestern by the promise of a liberal arts music degree and the possibility of working with high-profile instructors and practitioners like director of choral organizations Donald Nally and Institute for New Music director Hans Thomalla. Discenza is now a senior composition major in Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music and an active participant in multiple choral groups, including The Renaissance Singers and Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble (BCE), directed by Nally.
Getting an ocean away from Northwestern provided the most memorable “challenge” in Discenza’s college experience. Discenza and fellow first-year Kate Li were awarded a joint undergraduate research grant to travel to Spain to study Basque choral music for three weeks. “There were multiple music festivals going on in San Sebastian, so we got to see all these free concerts,” says Discenza. “As our wrap-up to the project we wrote a joint choral composition that was inspired by all our experiences there.”
While doing interviews for the project, Discenza interviewed local musicians and composers as well as a local poet who wrote a text for them to use in their composition. “We explained what we wanted to convey,” says Discenza, “which was the experience of seeing all these people gathering and singing together in the streets. She wrote us a short text in Basque that we repeat in our piece.”
The composition finally debuted at Discenza and Li’s joint senior recital in May. “All of our friends sing it, which is great because that was the vibe in San Sebastian too,” Discenza says. “All the composers were friends with each other, and they were hanging out and seeing each other’s music.”
In addition to Discenza’s opportunities to compose for, and work with, Grammy-winning contemporary music ensembles like the JACK Quartet and Third Coast Percussion, there’s also Survivor. Discenza competed in Season 4 of “Northwestern Survivor,” ultimately finishing in seventh place. “I became a big fan of Survivor over quarantine,” they say. “To be honest, it took over my life just a little bit, but it was fun.”
Unless Jeff Probst comes calling, after graduation Discenza will be participating in The Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, an annual summer gathering for composers at the Yale School of Music. They are also developing a “podcast opera,” as Discenza calls it. “I like making these pieces of music on [digital audio software] Logic where I record my voice and then put effects on it. My plan is to make this opera using only the voices of the performers.”
Reflecting back on their Northwestern experience, Discenza is grateful to have found a place that nurtured their passions.
“Honestly, I have really niche interests — in choral music especially — and so when I got here, I was pleasantly surprised. If you had told me when I was in high school that I was going to be in a renaissance a cappella group in college, I would have been beside myself,” says Discenza. “I've been so lucky with all the opportunities here, and the fact that there are always people around to sing with and to write for — I feel so lucky to have that.”
FULLY IMMERSED: STEPHEN COUNCIL
Stephen Council’s Northwestern journey began with fried chicken.
After a night of studying during his first year, Council was craving the fried food he ate back home in Williamsburg, Va., and lamenting a lack of late-night dining options. He and a friend, film major Erin Zhang, decided to take matters into their own hands, launching tendr. in the kitchen of their dorm.
“We bought a deep fryer for like 30 bucks. We’d buy chicken and marinate it the night before and sell it in cups,” Council says. “We did it all without even having a car, every other weekend, and we probably sold about $1,500 worth.”
That’s the kind of energy Council, a journalism and economics double major — and creative writing minor — has brought to all his Northwestern experiences. Since his second year on campus, Council has helped facilitate Wildcat Welcome, first as a peer adviser and most recently as a director, “which entailed being in charge of 22 peer advisers who had their own groups of 10 to 15 students. It was definitely the most intense leadership experience I've had,” he says.
Wildcat Welcome 2021 was especially meaningful for Council. “It was a glorious way to come back from everyone being at home because of the pandemic,” he says. “To come back and have those super intense, very Northwestern-y few weeks … to be there for new students … was a wonderful way to get back into the swing of things for senior year.”
Council has been similarly dedicated to the Daily Northwestern, where he covered sports, arts and entertainment, entrepreneurship, and more. He guided reporters on investigative stories for the paper and served as social media editor during the controversy around former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ visit to campus in 2019. “I remember my computer getting like 10,000 notifications a minute,” he says.
After participating in the Bay Area Immersion Experience through the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, he became interested in tech companies’ impact on society. Council went on to intern for CNBC’s investigations unit, The Wall Street Journal and the nonprofit newsroom CalMatters, where he pitched and helped publish a story about California’s unemployment debit card system.
“I just stumbled across this fact that California was one of only three states where you couldn't get your unemployment benefits direct-deposited to you, and that tiny fact ended up spiraling into a four-month investigative piece,” Council says. “It was huge for my career development and thinking about what I can accomplish in journalism. It also gave me confidence in the ability to of journalists to make change.”
After graduation, Council will move to New York City to begin working for The Information, where he’ll focus on the tech industry. “I'm hoping to do some reporting on tech policy in particular,” he says, “and how our government is going to be forced to reckon with tech companies as their power increases.”
Hopefully he’ll find some decent fried chicken in the Big Apple.
SPIRIT OF EXPLORATION: COCO HUANG
Wherever she is, Coco Huang is always exploring.
Huang grew up in Beijing and moved to California for high school. After her junior year of high school, she participated in Northwestern’s National High School Institute program — also known as the “Cherub” program — and felt at home right away. “It’s a summer program on campus, when everything is so pretty,” says Huang. “It's so perfect, and I fell in love with Northwestern.”
She also fell in love with the flexibility of Northwestern's liberal arts education. “The School of Communication's BA program attracted me because it's less limiting than a conservatory, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted,” Huang says. “As it turned out I switched majors at the end of my first year from theater to performance studies as a more liberating way for me to identify and position myself.”
That flexibility to explore twists and turns extended to her coursework as well, as Huang found herself in a place she never expected: a puppetry class with associate professor of theater Jessica Thebus ’91 MA ’97 PhD. “The quality of the performance dynamic at Northwestern is very genre-bending,” says Huang. “There’s just so much curiosity and courage to explore.”
Huang drew on her own courage when she decided to take a gap year during the pandemic. She returned home to China and spent the year doing independent work in addition to a seven-month internship at a local theater in Beijing. During that year Huang further explored the genre-bending, nontraditional style of performance that she was increasingly drawn to. She describes one of her projects as an “immersive outdoor soundscape” that explored “the architectural remains of Beijing as an imperial capital along the central road in the old city.”
In collaboration with a team of sound designers and dancers, Huang gave audience members headsets, so that as each participant walked down the road, they could hear what it was like in ancient Beijing while actors interacted with them. “It's very much creating a mirage of the old city,” she says. “We also talked about urban planning and what has changed and what has remained of the historical residuals in the city.”
When Huang returned to campus, she says she was nervous about applying her prior-year experiences in the Northwestern environment. “And what my professors told me was, maybe I can start new, not clinging to what I did in the past, but [instead] move forward holding the past in mind to create new work.”
And despite the many challenges of the pandemic, Huang’s willingness to explore may be well timed. She plans to attend grad school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and possibly consider applying some of the ideas from her Beijing soundscape to a new city.
“I also want to keep working with the theaters and the performance artists I got to know,” says Huang, who has assisted associate professor of theater Dassia Posner and performance studies professor Mary Zimmerman ’82, ’85 MA, ’94 PhD in their professional work at the Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters, respectively. “Especially as the whole industry reemerges — it’s almost like a rebirth after the pandemic. So many things have changed, and I'm very excited to see how it evolves.”