UC President Neville Pinto honored the 2018 Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence winners from left, Ryan Makinson and Sheva Guy, President Pinto and Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence winners Madelyn Leembruggen, Alesha Hamilton, Liberty Shockley, Mitchell Phelps and Laura Mendez Ortiz. Photo/Lisa Britton/UC Creative Services



President honors top leaders, scholars  


Top graduates honored with Presidential Medals of Excellence awards at the All University Recognition Ceremony




by Melanie Schefft

Photos by: Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

April 16, 2018


What does it take to stand out in a graduating class of thousands? A lot when the competition is so stiff.

The University of Cincinnati selected seven of the institution’s graduating students who exemplify the ideals of the university for scholarship, leadership, character and service –– ideals upheld in UC's new Strategic Direction.

President Neville Pinto honored five undergraduates with Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence awards and two graduate Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence winners at UC’s All University Recognition Ceremony in TUC’s Great Hall on Sunday, April 15. Each awardee received a special bronze medal featuring the university's crest on the front and the honored graduate's name on the back.

The winners will also receive special acknowlegement at the spring commencement ceremonies on April 28.

Since 2002, UC’s president has bestowed the Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence award (PLME) to exceptional graduating students earning a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree. For those who most highly exemplify ‘scholarship, leadership, character and service,’ the 2018 awardees are Alesha Hamilton, Madelyn Leembruggen, Mitchell Phelps, Laura Mendez Ortiz and Liberty Shockley.

For the second year, the Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence (PMGSE) award has been conferred by the university president to extraordinary graduate students who have completed their master’s or doctoral program. The winners for 2018 who best demonstrate the "ideals of the University of Cincinnati"are Ryan Makinson and Sheva Guy.

UC undergraduate PLME awardees are:


Mitchell Phelps

As one of the only African-American students in a white suburban community in Ontario, Ohio, Mitchell Phelps graduated from Ontario High School described as a natural-born leader. This spring Phelps graduates from UC with two Bachelor of Business Administration degrees in both marketing and international business.

Within his first few weeks as a student in UC’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business, Phelps took the lead as a business fellow in the college Leadership Circle helping to shape that organizations’ strategic direction. In addition to his leadership within the college he also took part as a campus residence hall advisor where he helped manage and guide a number of first-year students.

Throughout his college career at UC, Phelps continually impressed his instructors and fellow students with his unique altruistic nature. From earning the Mr. Kuamka 2015 honor by the African American Cultural Resource Center and becoming a TEDxUCincinnati student speaker finalist in his second year, Phelps earned acceptance into both the University Honors and Lindner Honors Plus programs. 

Mitchell Phelps, UC 2018 PLME winner stands inside UC Pavilion. photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Mitchell Phelps

Through these opportunities, Phelps took his education global through UC International by building homes in Guatemala and learning the importance of communication in civility and peace in Israel. During study abroad trips to Chile, Argentina and Brazil, Phelps learned about harsh economic disparity in Latin America and ended his travels with a close look at Middle Eastern entrepreneurship while in Dubai.

As student body president in his third year, Phelps fought for campus justice in a number of ways including supporting the Irate 8, Students for Survivors and rallying against campus carry laws.

“While serving as student body president, Mitchell was selected, along with eight other student body presidents across the country, to testify at the White House Summit on Advancing Postsecondary Diversity and Inclusion,” says Nicole Mayo, assistant vice president of UC Student Affairs. “Mitchell’s leadership skills also took him to Columbus to present at the Ohio Title IX Summit on how to create effective campus change related to preventing and responding to gender-based violence.”

Among his many student honors, including the African American Alumni Affiliate Student Trailblazer Award, 2017 Homecoming King, numerous honorary organizations and an influential member of Kappa Alpha Psi, Phelps enjoyed a variety of professional internships, which included a year with Procter & Gamble and the Morgan Stanley Wealth Management Company.

Described by his peers and professors as a “thoughtful, collaborative servant leader who has led our campus through challenging times,” Phelps will utilize his leadership skills as a business leadership program associate for LinkedIn in Chicago after graduation.


Alisha Hamilton, UC 2018 PLME winner stands on balcony overlooking TUC. photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Alesha Hamilton


Alesha Hamilton is from West Chester, Ohio, and graduated from Lakota East High School. As a UC honors student and a winner of the Darwin T. Turner and Cincinnatus Scholarships, Hamilton is especially proud to be graduating this spring with a 4.0 GPA earning dual Bachelor of Science degrees in psychology and in criminal justice, with a certificate in forensic populations.

As an undergraduate on a pre-law track, Hamilton’s passion for law developed through several legal internships that included the highly acclaimed Ohio Justice & Policy Center and the UC-based Ohio Innocence Project. There she gained firsthand experience advocating for clients and witnessing injustices in the legal system.

“Alesha has woven together her interests in the law and justice with her background in psychology and neuroscience –– giving her a point of view more nuanced than many others,” says Kenneth King, UC associate professor of psychology. “As a result, she has the ability to organize, explain, dramatize and grab the attention of her audience.”

As the first woman of color to be president of UC’s ROAR Tour Guides, Hamilton took her leadership skills one step further organizing the first off-campus, overnight retreat to increase camaraderie and to improve aligning the mission and vision goals among the guides. Under her leadership, ROAR focused on recruitment efforts that were more representative of all students at UC contributing to the diversity of race, major, college, sexual preference and other identities in the organization.

While serving as the welcome retreat leader for the University Honors program, Hamilton developed her passion for mentoring and developing first-year students. As she continued as an honors program ambassador for three years, she also co-directed the Emerging Campus Leaders program and served as a mentor and ambassador for the Turner Scholars program.

Hamilton’s energy and passion didn’t stop there. Her various study abroad experiences through UC International reinforced her advocacy for human rights. Her academic travels took her to Ecuador to teach English in indigenous communities and to Belgium, Scotland and the Netherlands visiting prisons, courts and legal institutions.

After graduating, Hamilton will continue on as a Bearcat while attending UC's College of Law with the goal of devoting her future career to improving human rights and civil liberties.


Madelyn Leembruggen, UC 2018 PLME winner stands inside UC's physics building. photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Madelyn Leembruggen

Madelyn Leembruggen grew up in Troy, Ohio, and graduated from Troy Christian High School. As a university honors student maintaining a consistent 4.0 GPA, Leembruggen will graduate this spring earning a Bachelor of Science degree in both astrophysics and physics, as well as a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics.

After her first summer as a student in the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation summer bridge program, Leembruggen hit the ground running her freshman year by combining her leadership skills and academic talents that earned her the Cincinnatus academic scholarship and later the Violet M. Diller scholarship.

Throughout her college experience, Leembruggen sharpened her academic prowess to understand the nature of dark matter through several physics research internships in UC’s Women in Science and Engineering program and at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory –– better known as SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory –– where she worked with graduate students and faculty from Stanford University. 

After conducting independent research creating a curriculum for Level III certification through the College Reading & Learning Association (CRLA), 

she was selected as UC’s Peer Educator of the Month as recognition for improving support for underserved student populations.

Along the way, Leembruggen earned her place in scientific research honor societies such as Sigma Xi, Sigma Pi Sigma and Phi Beta Kappa. In her third year, Leembruggen became UC’s first student to earn a Goldwater scholarship from the College of Arts & Sciences. Other honors include the CRLA Outstanding Tutor Award and several first-place poster awards from UC and other university physical societies. And most recently she was named as a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow and National Science Foundation Grant Fellow.

Her first published paper in a peer-reviewed journal was based on her work titled “Collapse of Axion Stars”  and has been praised by her mentors as exceptional work in her field.

Maintaining a 4.0, even while studying abroad, Leembruggen demonstrated a strong commitment to academic excellence and community engagement in Cork, Ireland. While there she took classes with physics and math majors and volunteered weekly as a tutor in a boys elementary school. She extended her global academics in Great Britain and Europe where she says she received an authentic immersion experience that further expanded her perspective as a global citizen scholar learning what diversity means to the rest of the world.

With three peer-reviewed journal publications and several prestigious conference presentations already under her belt, Leembruggen is looking forward to studying theoretical physics in Harvard’s doctoral program this fall.

She hopes to become an astrophysics academic, while continuing the positive change she implemented at UC through a future in science, teaching and mentoring.


Liberty Shokley, UC 2018 PLME winner stands in UC's College of Engineering. photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Liberty Shockley

Liberty Shockley grew up all over the world as an Air Force brat and graduated from Beavercreek High School in Ohio. As a university honors student, Cincinnatus scholar, three-time Mary Rowe Moore honors recipient and a high school scholarship recipient for participation in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC), Shockley will graduate in the spring with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering.

As an ambitious scholar and AFROTC cadet, Shockley’s propensity for community outreach often took her out of her comfort zone and on to a global stage. After teaching English to young Buddhist monks in Nepal, Shockley was one of 10 top Army and Air Force cadets selected nationally for the Project Global Officer scholarship, an opportunity that allowed her to study the Hindi language in Varanasi, India. These efforts furthered her devotion to learning languages critical to the security of the United States. 

Shockley combined her leadership and organizational muscle to lead excursions for several other students to the South Asian cities Kathmandu, Jaipur and to the Taj Mahal in Agra. Instead of time off during spring breaks Shockley volunteered for Give Kids the World, an honors mission in Florida for helping children with life-threatening illnesses.

As a co-op student on a national stage, Shockley’s scholarships include a National Science Foundation research experience, two Ohio Space Grant Consortiums and two NASA Goddard Space Flight Center internships where she helped design and build a telescope called PIPER that flew in space on a scientific balloon.

To further her goals toward space exploration, Shockley will commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force and will attend the Air Force Institute of Technology for her Master's degree in Astronautical Engineering.

“Shockley extends the vision of the University Honors Program to develop students into global citizens,” says Jason Autry, assistant director and academic advisor for the UC Honors program. “She’s hoping to be an interstellar citizen, a diplomat for Earth, someone for whom the word ‘groundbreaking’ is just the norm, and she promises to do it with the aim to serve humanity.”


Laura Mendez Ortiz – As an undocumented, first-generation Latina from Colombia, Mendez Ortiz did not realize how timeless and significant the words from her UC admissions application would become when she said, “I broke the barrier of judgment within myself, freed myself from the labels others had placed on me and broke my silence for good.” 

Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and graduating from Sycamore High School, Mendez Ortiz was not only grateful for her opportunities, but also the obstacles she learned to overcome.

She earned her place as a UC honors student graduating this spring with a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in International Affairs and a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Studies with a minor in Spanish.

As a Darwin T. Turner scholar, and recipient of several community scholarships, Mendez Ortiz broke the barriers of exclusion achieving UC’s Ethnic Programs and Services James Rankin Award, becoming a member of CWEST, UC’s oldest women’s honorary and the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa.

Laura Mendez Ortiz, UC 2018 PLME winner stands in front of UC's Mick & Mack lions. photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Laura Mendez Ortiz

Mendez Ortiz is consistently commended by her mentors for her collaborative style of mentorship. While dovetailing her academic leadership skills with her community outreach as the President of Latinos en Acción, she led the development of the Rafael Rennella Leadership program and brought 30 members to the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute Conference in Chicago. She also participated in the planning committees for both Hispanic Heritage Month and the Ohio Latino Student Summit.

A common thread that runs through Mendez Ortiz’s background and experiences is both a global worldview and an engagement with the community. As a summer intern with the City of Cincinnati Mendez Ortiz spearheaded several projects including the preparation of a comprehensive resource guide for local businesses –– surprising responsibilities that her mentors were ‘not surprised’ she handled well.

While her immigration status has prevented her from studying abroad, she has focused that interest on significant engagement with the local Latino community. Specifically, she advocates for Spanish-speaking families within some of the Cincinnati schools by facilitating communication between the parents, administration and teachers, and she coordinates an after-school tutoring program.

Although proud to appear before City Council to discuss Cincinnati and immigration, as well as serving as a panelist at the annual League of United Latin American Citizens Convention and Dreamers Summit, it was her performance advocating for the rights of immigrants on a national stage on Capitol Hill in Washington that ignited and excited her greater passion for political advocacy and policy.

Driven by a broad vision of inclusion, Mendez Ortiz hopes to continue engaging with politicians and the public on issues of global importance.

UC graduate PMGSE awardees are:


BatSehva Guy, UC 2018 PMGSE winner stands inside UC's Teacher's College. photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Sheva Guy


Sheva Guy is from Cincinnati and graduated with a dual Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and a Master of Science degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati. This spring, Guy successfully earned her PhD in education and community-based research from UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services (CECH).

Her research focused on the experiences of women and women of color who are conducting and/or seeking undergraduate research opportunities in STEM. In addition, she demonstrates the potential for sustainability in research programming by actively influencing program development. 

To facilitate these efforts, Guy began taking the lead as program coordinator for the Preparing Future Faculty Program, various graduate research assistantships and as primary investigator for UC’s Participatory Opportunity for Women Emerging Researchers (POWER) in STEM.

Throughout her graduate studies, Guy has made significant leadership contributions through her roles as the president of CECH Graduate Student Association, co-president of the Graduate Association for Teaching Enhancement and treasurer for the Student Organization for Action Research. As a result, Guy has helped develop novel programming that did not previously exist for graduate students including writing accountability groups, a new professional development fair and a faculty job search panel.

In addition to publishing two first-authored in-press journal articles and several conference presentations that include a UC Inclusive Excellence Workshop on social justice, Guy’s advocacy work has been featured in Rolling Stone Magazine.

With a leadership style described as “diplomatic and democratic,” Guy consistently seeks input from a diverse set of voices and attempts to coordinate these viewpoints to create sustainable goals and action plans.

These ambitions eventually led to her current full-time position coordinating the Biomedical Informatics PhD program through UC’s College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. In her new leadership role she manages, designs and develops educational programs for biomedical researchers, physicians, residents and medical students.

As she leaves her stamp on this 3-year-old program, her continual involvement and enthusiasm for promoting professional development of graduate students will leave a significant impact on UC’s campus.


Ryan Makinson of Greensboro, N.C., graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology from Emory University. Last fall, Makinson successfully earned his PhD in neuroscience from UC’s College of Medicine (COM) where his research focused on the interactions between the early-life development of the brain and the immune system, specifically on the adverse effects of immune activation in the brain on cognition later in life.

Throughout his doctoral studies, Makinson was consistently recognized for his high academic scholarship, leadership and service to UC. Since 2013, Makinson has served as the Neuroscience Graduate Program student ambassador and served as president and vice president of the Health Science Graduate Association within the COM.

Makinson’s leadership skills reached new heights when he was appointed by Ohio Governor John Kasich to serve on UC’s Board of Trustees as Graduate Student Trustee where he contributes to financial decisions, curriculum changes and state-level policies and initiatives that affect UC.

Ryan Makinson, UC 2018 PMGSE winner stands in front of UC's COM Care Crawley building. photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Ryan Makinson

Makinson has been supported and recognized for his academic service to UC, including securing funding as a recipient of the National Science foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, UC’s Research Council Graduate Research Fellowship, Sigma Xi Honorary Research Society Grant-in-Aid of Research Award, UC Graduate Student Government Association Research Fellowship, Society for Neuroscience Young Professional Development Award and a NSF fellowship to conduct postmortem brain research for three months in the Netherlands.

Currently Makinson has five peer-reviewed scientific publications, three of which are first authored.

As a robust advocate for the funding of science and a devoted practitioner of public science communication, Makinson was selected as an Early Career Policy Fellow for the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). As such, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for SfN’s Capitol Hill Day where he and other members met with senators and congressmen to advocate for enhanced legislative support and sustained funding for biomedical research. This advocacy is ongoing as he continues to meet regularly with federal and state elected officials to promote science and higher education.

Makinson is currently considering pursuing a career in either clinical research or science policy.



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