The Top Ten Seniors Awards are presented annually by the UTEP Alumni Association to UTEP’s most promising future alumni. Graduating or recently-graduated seniors are evaluated on a combination of academic achievement, involvement, leadership, and service both in the community and on-campus, as well as the impression they have made on others during their time at UTEP.  This award reflects the true spirit of what it means to be both an outstanding student and a proud Miner.

2020 Top Ten Seniors Award Recipients

Ruben Aguirre
Major: Political Science | College of Liberal Arts

Finding a pathway to college isn’t easy for many students. For some, like Ruben Aguirre, the path may be shrouded in darkness, seemingly impossible to find because of financial hardship and extenuating family circumstances.


For Ruben, however, Fate was there to illuminate the way. In high school, Ruben needed to find a job to help his family pay the bills. College was the last thing on his mind as he umpired for little league baseball in El Paso. And that was where Fate stepped in.


Among the teams he umpired was the team that then-Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s kids played on. Ruben befriended the Congressman and one thing led to another. Ruben enrolled at UTEP, interned with the Congressman, and found a job on campus in the President’s office.


It was through his work with then-President Diana Natalicio that Ruben became familiar with the University’s Law School Preparation Institute and discovered his true passion – all supported by doors of opportunity that opened to help him achieve his goals.


“My four years of hard work was reciprocated with amazing experiences that UTEP provided to me,” Ruben said.  “Whether it was interning for Judge Philip Martinez at the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, or participating in the Bill Archer Fellowship in Washington D.C., I have been blessed to have participated in these amazing experiences. Combined with an excellent academic instruction, the University has given me all the tools I need to achieve my dream of attending law school next fall.”


Ruben’s experiences are at the root of his passion about being a Miner Alumnus. He eagerly shares with friends, family and even prospective students UTEP’s mission to help students succeed, no matter their background or “projection for success.”


Ruben, who graduates a semester after his mother, is not bothered by the set back that the current pandemic has forced into his graduation plans. Rather, he sees it as an opportunity to sharpen his skills.


“I am now more grateful than ever to be graduating from an institution that gave me all the opportunities to position myself as a qualified candidate for law school,” he said. “This pandemic serves as reminder to not take life for granted and to be thankful for all that we have. I feel prepared to handle the challenges that society will face now and in the immediate future, and I look forward to giving back to the University and to its future students because I would not be in the position that I am today were it not for the amazing professors, donors, and alumni that I have encountered along the way.”

Bryn Ireland Birdwell
Major: Applied Learning and Development |
College of Education

When two roads diverged in a wood, Bryn Birdwell long stood, looking down one that led to a childhood dream while others urged her to take that path most traveled.

At an early age, Bryn knew she wanted to teach, and despite the urging of friends, family and even high school counselors to pursue degrees in medicine, she enrolled as an education major at UTEP. The next four years would solidify her commitment to pursuing her dream in ways she never imagined possible.

From her mentors in the College of Education, to opportunities afforded her as a Terry Scholar, to her leadership and volunteer roles with professional and academic organizations on- and off-campus, Bryn has taken advantage of all that UTEP has to offer. And, she recommends the same for all students.

“The biggest piece of advice I can give is to GET INVOLVED,” Bryn advised. “It wasn’t until I joined more groups, took on leadership positions in my organizations, and took advantage of all the opportunities UTEP offered that I got the most of my college experience. I have made many amazing friends and unforgettable memories. Whether it is getting an on-campus job/internship, participating in a workout class at the Rec, joining a Sorority/Fraternity, or just choosing to study with friends in the library versus alone in your room, you will see a huge difference in your perception of college life.”

Just days away of achieving status as a Miner Alumna, Bryn is ready to share her experiences with her youngest of learners.

“Now, after all the trials and tribulations, I am about to achieve something I have always dreamed of — getting my college degree,” Bryn said. “As a Miner Alum and an elementary educator, I will strive to give as many students as possible the same opportunity by introducing them to college life early, taking them on field trips to UTEP, promoting the scholarship process, and holding FAFSA and scholarship nights for my ex-students.”

Like the traveler from the poem by Robert Frost, Bryn took the road least traveled, and that has made all the difference. “I wouldn’t be where I am without the love and support of many amazing teachers along my educational journey,” she added. “And I hope to now take on that role for many students to come.

Isaac Noel Gándara

Major: Biological Sciences | College of Science

As a Top Ten Senior, Isaac Gandara believes himself to be in excellent company. He is friends with not only many of his cohorts but also with Top Ten Seniors of years past. The recognition, he believes, motivates students to strive to be the best versions of themselves. Isaac knew early in his studies at UTEP that he would spend the next four years becoming the very best he could be.

And he began that journey in earnest. Isaac is a four-year Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity Scholar (BUILDing Scholar), for which he has participated in as an undergraduate researcher, peer mentor, and as a senior cohort representative on the Internal Advisory Committee. He has served the University as an active member of the Medical Professionals Organization and as a prolific undergraduate researcher, lecturer and senior lab member.

Outside of campus, Isaac has volunteered in his community as a coach and chaperone for Special Olympics of Texas, as a judge for K-12 Destination Imagination and as a member volunteer for Collegiate Double T. He’s also served as a retreat counselor for Queen of Peace.

But, of all the lessons he’s learned at UTEP, none are as important to him as believing in himself and his background. “I am a Hispanic individual whose familial roots stem from Mexico,” Isaac said. “I intend to enter the field of medicine, a field that is infamously underrepresented by people of my background. My experiences at UTEP have both encouraged me and prepared me because this university bas inculcated values of tenacity and resilience.”

With a majority 83% Hispanic student population, Isaac has appreciated the opportunity to learn alongside peers who have gone on to prestigious medical programs across the country. Moreover, he sees his faculty and staff mentors as exceptional role models and examples of success. 

“I believe UTEP has gone above and beyond in facilitating the transition to my professional career,” Isaac said. “I take great pride in being a UTEP alum, and I don’t intend to just graduate and move on. My end goal is to practice medicine in El Paso and further develop its medical capabilities. I want to continue to pay it forward by remaining involved with the University and help it grow.”

Yeshey Lham

Major: Economics | College of Business Administration

Three years ago, when asked in one of her university core classes about her future aspirations, Yeshey Lham responded - without hesitation - that she wanted to graduate as a Top Ten Senior. Her selection she says “is one of the greatest achievements in my life thus far.” Even more significant for her is that Yeshey is the first Bhutanese student to hold the honor, establishing a significant milestone in UTEP’s relationship with Bhutan and motivating her fellow Bhutanese students to reach for the same goal.

Yeshey’s college education came by the hands of the Royal Government of Bhutan, who provided her with a full scholarship to study at UTEP and live on campus. Almost immediately after a nearly 29 hour flight from Bhutan to El Paso, UTEP became Yeshey’s home away from home.

“UTEP has been my safe ground to be vulnerable,” she said. “It is the first international campus on which I have lived. It has always been a home away from home, architecturally, and now it is literally my home away from home.  Throughout my undergraduate years, I have made connections, nurtured new friendships and connected with several mentors and advisors, who, in their best abilities, enabled me a successful and memorable journey.”

Born and raised in a small farming community in Bhutan, Yeshey is the first in her family to attend college. It took her a little while to adjust to her new environment, but once she did, she began her journey in earnest. She has worked as a tutor and student assistant, studied abroad and supported her fellow Bhutanese students as an active leader in the Bhutanese Students Association. And, she is proud to have worked long and hard enough to have earned and saved enough money to buy a car for her mother and provide her brother with some “pocket cash” for his own college pursuits in the United States.”

But, that is not all Yeshey is proud of. Over the past three years, she has also greatly enhanced her study of economics through research and volunteer opportunities that have solidified her passion for the subject.

Excited to dive further into economic analysis, Yeshey plans to pursue her Ph.D. to become an agricultural and social development Economist. She wants to focus her work on eradicating global poverty, lobbying for minority representation in decision-making processes and making the world economy more sustainable and environmentally friendly – a career that aligns with her personal morals.

This month, Yeshey becomes a Miner alumna, a distinction she considers a great privilege and a huge inspiration - so much so that she intends to stay at her alma mater to pursue her graduate education.

Nohemi Lopez Valdez

Major: Biological Sciences | College of Science

For Noemi Lopez Valdez, being selected as 2020 Top Ten Senior is more than just a personal accomplishment, it is an opportunity for reflection.

“Oftentimes, when achieving great milestones, one can easily forget who helped along the way,” she said. “However, I want to make it clear that this award is not directed solely toward me, but toward everyone who has helped me move forward in my academic and personal development.”

With less than a month left of her senior year, Nohemi’s faculty and staff mentors would say that “actively engaged” seems somewhat of an understatement. As a student in Biological Sciences, Nohemi is highly motivated with a very serious dedication to learning. 

Outside the classroom, the qualities that earned her perfect marks in her biology classes have also earned her respect among her peers, who voted her president of the Terry Scholars Student Organization and as a UTEP Student Government Association Senator at Large. Both opportunities have given Nohemi insight into not only the logistics of leadership, they have also shown her the importance of accountability. 

And, she wants her fellow students to have a similar college experience. “My advice to all current UTEP students is to take advantage of all the opportunities and resources UTEP has for them,” Nohemi said.

“UTEP presented to me a myriad of opportunities for me to intellectually grow and develop in multiple subjects through mentors, professors, peers and various departments,” she added.

“I urge UTEP students to reach out to their professors, talk to them, let them know what you want to do. Professors want to see students succeed, and they are most likely involved in at least one student organization or campus activity that they can direct you to.”

Nohemi, like many of her 2020 classmates, was disheartened that Commencement and other end-of-semester celebratory events have been cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. But, she also understands the reason behind doing so, excited by the chance to still celebrate with family and friends in the fall and reflective about why she can celebrate at all.

“The greatest thing that I have gained from this honor is a profound feeling of gratitude,” Nohemi said. “Along with an even deeper appreciation for my UTEP community.”

Tania Pamela Mariscal Quintana
Major: Finance and Economics |
College of Business Administration

“By virtue of being a UTEP Miner, I have set no limits to my dreams and my aspirations,” said Tania Mariscal. “And as a Miner, I have learned the meaning of ‘paying it forward,’ which is something that has completely changed me as a person.”

Raised in a small town in Mexico, Tania set goals to build a future for herself and her single mother. She became fluent in English, applied to UTEP, and earned a Presidential Scholarship. And her ambition and achievements skyrocketed from that moment on.

Tania has embraced every opportunity for personal and academic growth that UTEP has presented to her. She has and volunteered for local and international charities and organizations and served in leadership roles for multiple student organizations on campus. She cofounded the Student2Leader organization, where she helps fellow students explore the multitude of internship opportunities available to them.

“As a UTEP Miner, I have been able to become the best version of myself thanks to the support of my family, mentors, friends, professors, and the community in general,” said Tania. “I would not be where I am today without the encouragement and guidance that I have received from UTEP.”

She wants her fellow UTEP students to understand that it is possible to purse each of your goals without “losing yourself in the process.”

“As college students, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to continue exciding expectations and become the most prepared individuals,” she said. “No matter what your goal is, do not let anyone tell you that you need to change who you are to fit in. We are here to break barriers, not to build them.”

Tania has indeed broken barriers. She has represented UTEP in exploratory programs with nine Fortune 500 firms, interned with Dell Technologies and provided assistance with the CEO’s company strategy and participated in programs with Harvard University and Forbes. More recently, completed her dream internship on Wall Street with BlackRock, for which she was selected out of a pool of 16,000 student nationally to become a BlackRock Founders Scholar. She is the first UTEP student to hold the honor.

And for Tania, selection as a 2020 Top Ten Senior is icing on the cake. “It is a tremendous honor to represent the Latinx community as a UTEP Top Ten Senior,” she added.  “I am a Mexican woman who has worked so hard to accomplish her goals, and today I achieved an extraordinary milestone. I am blessed to have had the privilege of being a UTEP Miner.”

Sandra Navarrete
Major: Accounting | College of Business Administration

Sandra Navarette grew up in a small community in the south of Mexico, one of the poorest in the country. Her parents told her often about the importance of a college education – how it could give her opportunities they never had - and from a young age, she dreamed of studying at a university in the United States.

The UTEP Student Assistance Program (PASE) program made Sandra’s a dream a reality. PASE, a financial aid program for Mexican students, grants a tuition discount to participants so they can pay the same tuition as residents of the state of Texas.

“From the beginning, UTEP Provided me with a community of students, faculty, and staff who were truly committed to helping me succeed,” Sandra said.

Sandra found her niche in the College of Business Administration, studying accounting as part of the first generation of students to take part in the Prudential Risk Management Academy. She developed networking skills, and when combined with her multiple leadership roles in organizations both on and off-campus, Sandra has made huge inroads advancing not only her career but also the career paths of the students she mentors.

“The personal and professional connections you develop in college will serve as a base for your professional career,” Sandra said. “Develop great relationships with your professor and look up to junior and senior students for advice. Take part in campus activities and student organizations. Interact with students from different colleges than your own because they will enrich your undergraduate experience.”

Sandra will begin her financial career in New York after graduation. She secured her new position through the many connections she’s made over the past four years. And, while she has big dreams for her own career, she wants fellow students to know that she plans to remain engaged with UTEP to help them find similar pathways to success.

“I want to serve as a guide to other students and as an example of the power of education for social mobility,” Sandra said. “I feel blessed that I can bring this honor to my family, especially to my parents, who sacrificed so much to provide me with an education in the United States. Being a Top Ten Senior is a great honor and responsibility, and I will continue conducting myself to the highest standards, holding high the name of my university.”

Marlon Andre Picado

Major: Economics | College of Business Administration

When Marlon Picado looks out over the western slopes the Franklins, he sees promise of a better future for residents on both sides of the border in the Paso del Norte region. “The promising Bhutanese buildings (of UTEP) area visual symbol of hope – for what a better future can hold,” he said. “UTEP has been that symbol of hope for me – a home away from home – at which I have been able to capitalize on my education as the most powerful asset that I possess.”

Marlon, who describes himself as a first-generation Cuban-Mexican American, capitalized on his college experience almost immediately after his first day on campus. He credits his head-start on self-discovery with the UTEP PREP program and the opportunity to take summer classes even before starting his freshman year. This foundation has been a “guiding force” for Marlon, enabling him to find the confidence he needed to participate student organizations, study aboard programs and as a student leader in many community organizations.

It didn’t take long for his faculty to recognize his potential either. They describe his academic record as a manifestation of not only Marlon’s “raw intellectual power” but also as a reflection of his relentless pursuit of excellence. What impresses them most, however, is Marlon’s efforts to make a difference in his community. He has worked tirelessly to develop a relationship with the Paso del Norte region through extensive volunteer efforts where he has endeavored to understand and develop ways to mitigate the costs of healthcare for refugees and asylum seekers.

With a firm understanding of the economy of healthcare for these populations, Marlon has now focused his efforts toward becoming a physician. Using the degree he will earn this May in Economics, Marlon plans to build on what he’s learned to not only care for people in a responsible way, but to also build a bigger pipeline of public health physicians and a stronger network within the public health care system.

Graduating during a global pandemic has only heightened his passion. “These are unprecedented times which call for our society to listen to our public health officials, stay home, and follow all measures prescribed to us,” he said. “Obviously, graduating during a pandemic is unique, but it has created a glimpse of possibilities of what we—as a society—can build on for a better future.”

Marlon’s selection as a 2020 Top Ten Senior comes as no surprise for one community member who referred to Marlon as “one of the best representatives of UTEP I’ve ever met and over these past four decades in El Paso, I’ve met just about all the great ones. Great success is inevitable for Marlon. He is a game-changer and ranks in the upper pantheon of all-time favorite people.

Aiyana Minee Ponce

Major: Cellular and Molecular Biochemistry |

College of Science

It didn’t take long for Aiyana Ponce to engage with the UTEP community when she began her undergraduate journey in 2016. In her very first semester on campus, she had assumed leadership roles for the student Medical Professions Organization, University Honors Council, and the University Scholars Society; was as a member of the Terry Scholars Student Organization; and she served as a Miner Ambassador. Her enthusiasm that year earned her a unique award through University Honors Council: Most Likely to Be a Top Ten Senior.

“I thought it was very silly for people to predict so far into the future,” Aiyana said. “Little did I know that people had started seeing my potential before I even realized it!”

“Potential” might be an understatement. Aiyana’s freshman year served as a springboard to even greater opportunities, and for her, greater successes. A BUILDing Scholar and a Terry Foundation Scholar, Aiyana has taken full advantage of her access to an excellent education. Her passion for research has taken her across the country and around the globe for study and presentation opportunities. And through these experiences, she has strengthened both her skills and her passion to not only pursue her dreams of becoming a physician but to also help fellow students discover their pathways to the same opportunities.

“My professional experiences were all made possible by a chain reaction of individuals who always pointed me in the right direction,” she said. “What simply began as in interest in one student engagement activity led to a field of open doors that have allowed me to grow as a leader, serve hundreds of hours in my surrounding communities, and ultimately become well-prepared to have a fruitful and successful career as a physician-scientist with plans to serve historically underrepresented groups. People don’t become successful on their own, and I attribute my involvement on - and off-campus to the UTEP community – inspirational students and caring faculty and staff who pushed me to have a higher standard of excellence.”

Now, with her freshman year prediction a reality, Aiyana looks back over the past four years with enormous pride and gratitude. “As a proud UTEP alumna, it is my hope to use what I have learned to continue being active in my community and give back to the University that has set up the foundation of what I need to be successful in my life! I want to emphasize how incredibly supportive so many students, faculty, and staff have been throughout my journey, and I cannot thank them enough for helping me achieve this honor!”

Jozelyn A. Rascon

Major: Rehabilitation Sciences |

College of Health Sciences

As a Hispanic woman with family both in El Paso and in Juarez, Jozelyn Rascon grew up thinking that her future would be bound by set limits that she believed society had in place for women, and especially women in her culture. It wasn’t until she began her studies at UTEP that she began to understand that careers she once believed to be gender- and cultural-specific are, in fact, open to anyone with determination, dreams, and passion.

And Jozelyn has an abundance of all three. She graduates this May as a Top-10 Senior with an impressive list of accomplishments and experiences that have become catalysts for her to break down perceived barriers and work toward a career that will enable her to build a stronger community.

She holds an impressive 4.0 grade point average, and she has maintained her high marks while broadening her academic portfolio with as many experiences as possible. Jozelyn was a Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity Scholar (BUILD Scholar) her freshman year and a prolific undergraduate researcher and presenter – both locally and nationally. She has volunteered as a reading and writing tutor for bilingual elementary students, worked for organizations both on- and off-campus, and she has served as a member of several civic and professional organizations.

Jozelyn credits her academic success to the support of her family and the close-knit binational culture in the UTEP and El Paso communities, and especially to the support of her faculty, who, she says, really want to see students succeed. “UTEP will give you all the necessary tools to succeed, from tutoring to just a friend to lean on,” Jozelyn added, “How you use those tools is up to you!”

As she approaches the end of her undergraduate studies, Jozelyn is especially grateful to have been selected as a Top Ten Senior. Her selection validates that her hard work has been recognized by the people she admires most on campus – her faculty. It also means that she can serve her younger sister and cousins as a positive role model. Most of all, she is grateful to be able to represent her family from Mexico who worked hard to give her the opportunity to receive an education and make an impact in the world.

“Success means nothing to me if the vulnerable people in my community are not benefitting from my work,” Jozelyn says. “Graduating from college during the COVID-19 pandemic has made me focus on the most important things in life: health and being united with my community and family. The most important thing to me is giving back and knowing that UTEP has given me the skills to make a significant impact on my community makes me proud to be a UTEP Miner.”

For more information, please contact:
Sandra Aguirre-Covarrubias, Ed.D.
Director of Communications and Alumni Partnerships
Office: (915) 747-5575