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Emily Nettesheim at the Capitol Building
UnleashedAcademics

Why We Dance: Butler Student Researcher Refutes Her Generation’s Reputation

BY Marc D. Allan MFA ’18

PUBLISHED ON May 10 2019

Emily Nettesheim '19 has heard her generation called lazy, entitled, and selfish. Her research—which she presented in Washington, DC, in late April to an audience that included both of Indiana's Senators—suggests that those labels are misguided.

Since sophomore year, Nettesheim has been examining why so many students participate in Dance Marathon, the annual fundraiser benefiting Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, a non-profit organization that raises funds and awareness for more than 170 pediatric hospitals across North America. This year at Butler University alone, more than 500 participants raised over $365,000.

"Especially in light of how millennials have been portrayed negatively in the media, I knew the passion, drive, and sacrifice I was seeing in Dance Marathon was counter-cultural and special," says Nettesheim, a Health Sciences and Spanish double major from Lafayette, Indiana.

In a survey of Butler, Ball State, and IUPUI students, she found that an overwhelming majority participated in Dance Marathon because they were acting on their values—and because participants have the opportunity to meet families affected by the hospital, and visit the hospitals for tours to see first-hand where the money is going.

"Millennials tend to be motivated if they can see the impact of the cause," she says.

More than 85 percent also said they benefited from participating by developing maturity and specific skills, such as communication and empathy, that they can use later in life, according to Nettesheim’s research.

 

*

Nettesheim's story starts not with Dance Marathon—her high school didn't participate—but with her interest in Indianapolis-based Riley Hospital for Children, the beneficiary of Indiana Dance Marathon events. When her parents' friends asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, she said she wanted to be in the medical field and work with kids.

In 2015, when she arrived on campus, she heard about Dance Marathon almost immediately at an event about campus organizations.

"It sounded like a great opportunity to get my foot in the door somewhere I wanted to work," she says.

She joined the Riley Relations Committee as a first-year student—the committee works directly with Riley families—and fell in love with the people, and what Dance Marathon stood for. Sophomore and junior years, she served as the director of Riley Relations, and senior year became president.

In fall of her sophomore year, she started thinking about a subject for her honors thesis. She met with Pharmacy Professor Chad Knoderer.Knoderer had never taught Nettesheim, but after talking to her and hearing about her interest in Dance Marathon, he suggested that it could be her focus.

"As I researched more," Nettesheim says, "I realized that nonprofits across the country are experiencing issues trying to recruit donors and volunteers, and that the Dance Marathon movement is the No. 14 fastest growing peer-to-peer campaign in the nation. It became really evident that something different and unique is happening. So I wanted to see if I could figure out why—or at least quantify it a little bit."

She and Knoderer worked together on how to design the thesis, roll it out, and make it realistic to be completed. With help from Butler's Center for High Achievement and Scholarly Engagement (CHASE), everything came into focus.

Normally, the final step in the work Nettesheim was doing would be to write and turn in her honors thesis. And she did that—a 35-page paper.

But she wanted to do more. So early this year, she submitted an abstract to present at Posters on the Hill, the Council on Undergraduate Research's annual undergraduate poster session on Capitol Hill.  Members of Congress and their staff gather at the presentations to learn about the importance of undergraduate research through talking directly with the student researchers themselves.

The selection process is extremely competitive, but Nettesheim beat the odds—becoming the first Butler student in memory to be invited to participate.

"I can’t say definitively that she’s the first," says Rusty Jones, the CHASE Faculty Director, "but she’s certainly the first that I know of. What’s especially great about the Posters on the Hill event is that they are highlighting the importance of undergraduate research to our lawmakers in DC."

 

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Part of Nettesheim's goal was to detail her findings, but she was also in Washington to share the value of undergraduate research with members of the Senate and Congress, and their staffs.

Nettesheim's father worked at Purdue University, and being around research there got her interested in it from a young age. She chose Butler precisely because she wanted the opportunity to do her own projects.

"It's so cool that even at a small university, there have been so many opportunities for me to get involved in research," she says.

In addition to delving into students' motivations to participate in Dance Marathon, Nettesheim also has worked in the Neurobiology Lab at Butler with Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Kowalski. She's studying microscopic roundworms known as C. elegans, which have nervous systems similar to humans.

"It’s exciting to share the impact of research in my life and be the face behind the cause of research," Nettesheim says. "I've had much more of an opportunity to get involved and have my research be my own here than I would have had the opportunity to do elsewhere."

And that, says Knoderer, is the takeaway: Butler encourages and supports undergraduate research.

"If you've got an idea, go for it," he says. "The sky's the limit. I knew what Dance Marathon was from working at Riley Hospital for a number of years, so I knew the organization and what it was, but I didn't necessarily know how to approach her question. But there are enough people to help support a student and see their project through."

Emily Nettesheim at the Capitol Building
UnleashedAcademics

Why We Dance: Butler Student Researcher Refutes Her Generation’s Reputation

Millennials tend to be motivated if they can see the impact of the cause.

May 10 2019 Read more
Mother with children
UnleashedAcademics

The Precarious Position of Muslim Orphans to Be Focus of Butler Professor's Research

BY Marc Allan MFA `18

PUBLISHED ON May 01 2019

Nermeen Mouftah, Butler University Assistant Professor of Religion, was in Egypt for her first project. She was studying the ways Islamic reformers have turned to literacy to improve conditions in their countries.

But, while doing that research, she noticed that nearly every nonprofit organization not only had some kind of literacy project, but they also did work with orphans. That got her thinking about Muslim orphans, their care, and their place in Islamic society. She wondered: How does Islam shape the legal, biological, and affective negotiations involved in the care and abandonment of vulnerable children?

This year, thanks to a $12,000 grant from the University of Notre Dame’s Global Religions Research Initiative, Mouftah will do four months of fieldwork to investigate what she calls the Muslim orphan paradox: the precarious condition faced by millions of Muslim orphans that makes them at once major recipients of charity, yet ostracized for their rootlessness.

The world has approximately 140 million orphans today, but military conflicts in countries from Burma to Yemen to Syria have left Muslim children disproportionately affected, Mouftah says. As a result, many Muslim-majority countries face high numbers of child abandonment. The level of care these orphans receive is largely contingent on how people view family, childhood, and community.

Giving to orphans is seen, by in large, as a laudable form of giving in these societies, she says. However, what the care of orphans should look like is highly contested, as a consensus among Islamic legal schools is that adoption is prohibited, Mouftah explains. As a result, there is much debate about whether, and how, to raise a non-biological child in Muslim society.

So, as part of her research, Mouftah will be going to Morocco and Lebanon over the summer, and Pakistan in December. Morocco and Pakistan because they’re Muslim-majority countries that have some of the largest numbers of orphans and strong ties to the inter-country adoption market. Lebanon, on the other hand, takes in a large number of Syrian refugees.

“One of the things I'm interested in is trying to question some kind of universal idea of what the ideal way to care for orphans is,” says Mouftah, who’s finishing her first year at Butler. “I’ll be doing that by looking at multiple forms of care across different countries and institutions who have distinct views on, and methods of, orphan care.”

Mouftah will be listening in on the debate and discussions people are having first hand about the best way to do things when it comes to caring for orphans, she says. She will be observing different practices, watching who people are influenced by when it comes to orphan care, and what they are aspiring toward, as well as what the problems people run into when trying to care for orphans.

One of the major issues she’ll be looking at is the Islamic taboo against fictive kinship—taking in a child and raising that child as if he or she were one’s biological child. Some of her research is looking at how some Muslim families are using the approach of non-fictive kinship, meaning the child knows that he or she is not the biological child of the parents.

That, Mouftah says, is parallel with trends of adoption in the United States, where people have moved toward open adoptions that let the child know who their biological parent is/was.

“Many times in the Koran, it says to help the widows, and the orphans, and the vulnerable,” she says. “So they're elevated figures to care for. But because of various laws, and the stigmatization of orphans, and especially abandoned children, adoption is widely looked at with skepticism.”

Rather than adoption, one of the ways some Muslim organizations care for orphans is through sponsorships similar to the child sponsorship commercials seen on American television.

“We clearly don't have this worked out,” she says. “When you look at the historical story, we're clearly feeling our way through the dark. We don't know what to do. It's not until the Victorian age that there is the institution of the orphanage. But institutions are not the best places for children to flourish. I won't be shy to lay out some practical plans based on the research.”  

Mother with children
UnleashedAcademics

The Precarious Position of Muslim Orphans to Be Focus of Butler Professor's Research

Nermeen Mouftah, Professor of Religion, will do fieldwork to investigate the Muslim orphan paradox.

May 01 2019 Read more
Brooke Kandel-Cisco
UnleashedPeople

Brooke Kandel-Cisco, Determined to Make An Impact, Will Now Lead the COE

BY Rachel Stern

PUBLISHED ON Apr 26 2019

INDIANAPOLIS—Brooke Kandel-Cisco was first drawn to the field of education as a 22-year-old immigration advocate, working on behalf of undocumented women who were abused by their husbands, but threatened by those same men with their status if they took action against the abuse.

Working alongside an immigration attorney, she didn’t get a lot of cases approved by the courts. She saw firsthand the complexities of the system and how things were far from fair. She wanted to help illuminate the glaring systemic issues, and then somehow work toward creating more just and equitable systems.

All of that sounded familiar to Kandel-Cisco—it sounded like the work of an educator. The Illinois native comes from a long line of teachers—both her grandmothers, aunts, uncles—but her 18-year-old self wanted to go against the family grain. So, she majored in Psychology and minored in Spanish at Goshen College. After she graduated, Kandel-Cisco joined AmeriCorps and headed to the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, where she battled the courts to try and help women who came to the United States and were abused by their husbands, but struggled to get justice.

“Advocating for women and seeing these huge systemic issues every day really piqued my interest in education and in working with immigrant and refugee students,” Kandel-Cisco says. “I was always told I should be a teacher, and I think my work after college showed me how important it is to try and work to address systemic issues. I saw education as one way of doing just that.”

Kandel-Cisco has been doing that ever since. She will start as the Interim Dean of Butler University’s College of Education on May 1 replacing Ena Shelley, who will retire after 15 years as Dean of the College, and 37 years at the University.

Kandel-Cisco started at Butler in 2009 as a faculty member, and throughout her decade on campus has served as Director of the Master of Science in Effective Teaching and Learning Program, Chair of the COE Graduate Programs, and Program Coordinator for COE Graduate Programs.

She teaches courses in English as a second language (ESL) within the COE, works closely with teachers in Washington Township schools’ ESL and Newcomer Programs, which works with students who have recently arrived in the country and are learning English, and is the President of the Indiana Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

When Shelley announced her retirement, Kandel-Cisco’s name was put forward by colleagues in the COE as a potential Interim Dean.

Her first reaction upon hearing that Shelley was retiring?

“Oh I pity the person who follows Ena,” Kandel-Cisco says. “But now that it’s me, I will do my best.”

Shelley, on the other hand, says this was a long time coming.

For years, Shelley says, she has been presenting Kandel-Cisco with “opportunities.” There was the time she called Kandel-Cisco in to tell her she had an “opportunity” for her to work on an International Baccalaureate certification process.

“Brooke’s reaction was ‘OK, my child goes to an IB school, but I don’t really know much about IB’,” Shelley says, laughing. “But, in typical Brooke fashion, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work like crazy to get this in place. She always gives it her best shot, and her best shot is always wonderful.”

Shelley would continue over the years to use that phrase on Kandel-Cisco. Finally, she explained that early on in her career she was offered “opportunities” constantly by her Dean at the time. It was clear these “opportunities” were just challenging projects. Her Dean explained she was giving them to Shelley to prepare her to be a Dean one day.

It turns out, that is exactly what Shelley was doing with Kandel-Cisco.

“I know a lot of people use these words a lot, but Brooke is really a visionary, and extremely wise,” Shelley says. “She is very inclusive of people and ideas, a keen listener, which is key as an educator and leader. Someone asked me if this is bittersweet, and I can honestly say no. My heart is happy knowing I am leaving the College in great shape with a strong leader and strong staff.”

It is that great staff that Kandel-Cisco says she will rely on to help move the College forward as Interim Dean. She is looking forward to thinking through how the College fits into Butler’s strategic plan, as well as focusing on a number of new initiatives: a new major, global opportunities for students and faculty, partnerships in the community.

“This is all about making yourself vulnerable and trying new things, which might not be comfortable,” she says. “It is much easier to do because I have amazing colleagues who are supportive and will help move our College forward.”

When Kandel-Cisco was back in Texas working as an immigrant advocate, she realized she wanted to be a teacher. After obtaining her ESL and bilingual education teaching license, she went on to teach ESL students in Houston. After several years of teaching, she applied to doctoral programs.

She transitioned to a full-time doctoral student at Texas A&M, and later became a senior research associate, studying state education data on things like teacher attrition and achievement scores. All of this highlighted more systemic issues in education. And, it became clear again, she wanted to be in a classroom.

On another whim, she applied to several faculty positions, including one at Butler. On campus, she interviewed with Ena Shelley.

“For me, it was about the people,” she says. “Ena, just the way she looks in your eyes, it just felt authentic, and the College was doing educator preparation in a high-quality way. That’s not to say there is one right way to do it, because I don’t believe there is, but the COE approach was in line with my values. And that’s what brought me to Butler.”

Brooke Kandel-Cisco
UnleashedPeople

Brooke Kandel-Cisco, Determined to Make An Impact, Will Now Lead the COE

Kandel-Cisco will start as the Interim Dean of the College of Education on May 1.

Apr 26 2019 Read more

Fait Muedini: Helping Half a World Away

by Sarah Bahr

For LGBTI individuals in Turkey, days revolve around these thoughts: How can I get food on the table? How can I walk down the street without being attacked? Where can I get medical treatment from a doctor who won’t discriminate against me?

It’d be easy for Americans to dismiss human-rights violations committed against citizens of a country 6,000 miles away. But Butler University Director of International Studies Fait Muedini, who published a book in December about LGBTI rights in Turkey, believes Americans must care about Turkish atrocities the same way they would if they’d occurred in the United States.

“If Americans were told we couldn’t live freely, we’d be furious,” he says. “We need to fight for the freedom of everyone.”

Muedini traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, in Summer 2015 to talk to LGBTI leaders and human rights activists first-hand about the issues he’d devote the next several years of his life to studying. It wasn’t enough to read about the taunts, slurs, and threats directed at LGBTI individuals half a world away. He wanted to know what he could do to help. Muedini’s passionate activism generated his critical work on the subject, and in December 2018, Cambridge University Press published LGBTI Rights in Turkey: Sexuality and the State in the Middle East. Muedini’s scholarship underscores the importance of research in generating new knowledge and shaping conversations that can have an important effect on people’s lives.

Born in America, with a Heart in the Middle East

Though Muedini grew up in Michigan, just outside Detroit, his parents are ethnic Albanians from southwest Macedonia, a southern European country with a history of ethnic tensions between Albanians and Macedonians over rights for the minority ethnic Albanians.

“My parents were progressive; many Muslim societies are not,” he says. “They stressed the importance of the American Dream and focused on the freedoms of being in the U.S.”

Just as in Turkey, homosexuality is not illegal in Macedonia. But, Muedini says, that doesn’t mean LGBTI individuals don’t face daily discrimination and other forms of retribution.

Even as a child, Muedini knew he wanted to make social justice his life’s work. Human-rights violations and social inequality tore at him.

“College only fortified that position,” he says.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, but was conflicted between a career in policy or academia. It was the Iraq War and conversations with a political science professor that made the now-37-year-old Muedini realize he wanted to be a professor himself.

“I started getting involved in protests [at Wayne State University],” he says. “I enjoyed having conversations about contemporary international issues in my classes, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to have these sorts of conversations with students and colleagues throughout my life?’”

After earning a master’s degree in International Affairs from the American University School of International Service in Washington, D.C., and a doctorate in Political Science from the University at Buffalo in New York, he headed to Butler in 2014.

“Butler students are just absolutely fantastic,” he says. “They’re passionate about social justice, prepared, and want to keep learning.”

Lynn Alsatie, a senior International Studies and French major, who’s worked with Muedini on research about the politics of Ramadan, says Muedini’s discussion-based teaching format is key to his effectiveness as an educator.

“You know he isn’t going to judge you if you make a mistake,” she says. “He’s there only to teach you and encourage, not to put you down if you don’t know the answer.”

Katie Morford, a 2016 Butler graduate who worked with Muedini on his LGBTI Rights in Turkey book during her senior year, says Muedini was her favorite professor.

“He’s so nice, and so freaking smart,” she says.

Putting Pen to Paper

Before focusing on LGBTI rights in the Islamic community for the past few years, Muedini published a book in 2015 entitled Human Rights and Universal Child Primary Education.

“Millions of children don’t have access to basic elementary education, and I wanted to understand why,” he says.

His attraction to investigating the treatment of LGBTI individuals in Turkey was similar: If homosexuality isn’t illegal, why are LGBTI individuals treated so poorly?

He examined Turkey’s hate-crimes penalties, interrogated human-rights abuses against LGBTI individuals, and investigated the Islamist AKP party’s approach to LGBTI rights in the country. He focused on Turkey specifically, rather than Islamic countries more broadly, after noting a surprising statistic.

Less than 10 percent of the majority-Muslim country’s population found the idea of LGBTI equality permissible.

The other 90 percent believed homosexuality was a sin. Something didn’t square with Turkey’s otherwise liberal image among Middle East countries.

“Turkey is a very liberal society,” Muedini says. “But on the other hand, you have significant ignorance of the repression of LGBTI equality. You have a country that claims to be one thing, but isn’t providing rights for sexual minorities and making it more difficult to live faithfully and freely.”

Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, as it is in many other countries (though same-sex marriage is). But the image of a progressive state is a sham, Muedini says.

“There’s no criminal penalty for identifying as LGBTI, but the constitution doesn’t specify LGBTI as a protected group,” Muedini says. “There’s no hate-crimes law [that specifically protects those targeted for their sexual orientation], and when an LGBTI individual is attacked in Turkey, they can be hurt severely or killed.”

There are also no laws in housing, health care, education, or employment that protect LGBTI individuals from discriminatory treatment.

Turkey currently ranks 47 among 49 European countries in the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association’s human-rights ranking for LGBTI individuals. The countries are ranked on a scale ranging from 0 to 100 percent, with 100 percent indicating full equality and respect for human rights, and 0 percent “gross violations of human rights and discrimination.” Turkey scored a dismal 8.6 percent.

Morford, the research assistant on the book project who often transcribed interviews for Muedini, says she’s inspired by the impact of Muedini’s work.

“It’s important that [his research] is on the international stage because of the perspective it gives,” she says. “LGBTQ individuals are still fighting for rights, so it’s important that there is research like Muedini’s out there so people can learn about it.”

Boots on the Ground

The statistics painted a depressing picture of life under an increasingly authoritarian regime. In 2015, Muedini traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, for a week-and-a-half to meet with human-rights activists and draw his own conclusions.

Was he concerned for his safety?

No, he says, though his hope had been to make a return visit to conduct follow-up interviews with the LGBTI leaders and activists. But the political situation in Turkey grew more challenging, and the vitriol directed at academics and journalists more toxic. He elected to conduct follow-up interviews over Skype instead.

Despite only spending nine days in the country, Muedini was struck by the resilience of the activists. Facing threats from ISIS and government crackdowns on ‘Pride’ parades, the Turks refused to hide. After all, what was safety if they couldn’t be themselves?

“Nothing stopped them from risking their lives for human rights,” he says. “That stayed with me.”

Sufism and Tupac Shakur

After more than two years of writing and revising, Cambridge University Press published Muedini’s book LGBTI Rights in Turkey: Sexuality and the State in the Middle East in December 2018.

“It’s the first of its kind,” Muedini says. “There’s literally nothing else like it.”

But even with his third book under his belt, Muedini isn’t resting on his laurels. His next project?

“I’m thinking about the idea of freedom in art,” he says. “The notion of oneness and the beauty of the divine in Islam, and the commonalities with Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.”

Now seems like a good time to mention one of his other research interests: mystic Sufi poetry. And a better time to mention one of his personal interests: hip hop.

Muedini pens Sufi poetry (he published his second book on Sufism and politics). He is also a big fan of artists like Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z, and Kendrick Lamar.

“I try to find conscious rap whenever possible,” he says

But ask him what his favorite thing to do in his free time is, and after offering an immediate ‘spend time with my family’ response — he has two children, Edon, 8, and Dua, 4, whom he plays with “for hours” after work — his close second is:

Researching...for fun.

“I feel very privileged to go to work every morning,” he says. “I always tell my students I’m thankful for their conversation, and for the opportunity to learn from them.”

And they him.

Unleashed

Fait Muedini: Helping Half a World Away

Even as a child, Muedini knew he wanted to make social justice his life’s work.

Ryan Tsai: An Unstoppable Problem Solver

by Sarah Bahr

The security alert scrolled across Butler senior Ryan Tsai’s computer screen on the first day of his summer internship as an actuary at Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance (IFBI):

“Error: User is not authorized to access database.”

The company’s system was disabled. Any time an IFBI employee tried to log in, they’d be met with an error message.

Oh, no, he panicked. They’re going to fire me.

Intern mishaps are typical on the first day. Some forget the creamer in the coffee; some jam the copier.

Tsai accidentally caused an all-day security shutdown.

“I was playing around in the security system, trying to figure out what data was stored in it,” the 22-year-old Actuarial Science major says. “I ran a command to return the names of everything in the system, and the system flagged it as risky. It was definitely my fault.” 

The puzzling part? Tsai’s supervisor had given him read-only access to the system, so he theoretically shouldn't have been able to mess anything up.

He outsmarted the security system.

Oops.

The company was able to fix his mistake—several hours later, at the end of the day.

It was a harmless error, Eric Skirvin, Tsai’s supervisor, says, but it clued IFBI staff in that Tsai knew more than the average intern.

“After that we knew that he was definitely savvy around a computer,” he says.

 

An Unstoppable Problem Solver

Long division was a Stonehenge-level enigma, the numbers swirling around in Tsai’s brain like a puzzle missing a crucial piece.

He came home from kindergarten in tears because he couldn’t intuit the second-grade math his two-years-older sister, Heather, was doing.

“I was crying because I couldn’t figure out long division,” he says. “I thought it was the hardest thing in the world.”

But he was hooked. Math became his addiction, life a series of problems to be solved.

When Tsai took Butler’s Introduction to Computer Science course his freshman year, he came across a challenge that both confused and consumed him: artificial intelligence (AI). He thought his final AI project needed to be perfect.

Just one problem: That isn’t currently possible.

He stayed up night after night trying to perfect his work. And his professor told him he came close.

“But I didn’t need to work that hard,” he says. “I got the assignment wrong—successful AI just means it’s able to work and make any move. But I interpreted that as perfect.”

 

Coding for Fun

Tsai settled on his major, Actuarial Science, because he found it challenging. No kidding: Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once called actuarial exams “just the hardest examinations in the world.”

Actuaries, who work in the insurance industry, perform statistical evaluations of the risks involved in hypothetical scenarios and then advise clients how to reduce financial losses.

Tsai wades through mountains of probabilities amid tight deadlines. But he thrives on pressure, which is more coffee than Kryptonite.

The same goes for coding—he took Butler’s “extremely difficult” Computer Science capstone course for fun, putting himself through long nights of frustration and failure.

He credits Butler professor Dr. Chris Wilson’s Actuarial Mathematics and Financial Derivatives courses and the Actuarial Science department for preparing him with the lingo, Excel and Access training, and programming experience he needed to blow the IFBI folks out of the water last summer.

But he’s made an equally strong impression on them. Actuarial Science professor Dr. Mary Krohn, who met Tsai as a junior, lauds both his work ethic—and his selflessness.

“He made an amazing computer program that would randomize the questions [from my Financial Mathematics for Actuarial Science class] and correlate the solutions,” she says. “Then he selflessly made these files available to students in the class.”

But Tsai isn’t just an IT whiz—Krohn says he also has the baking skills of Bobby Flay.

He whipped up homemade macaroons one holiday to share with the Actuarial Science department. After the department administrator raved about their tastiness, he made a second batch just for her—and now brings them in regularly, Krohn says.

But his cookie baking wasn’t going to give him the edge in the biggest coding competition of his life.

 

The Big Test

Tsai had always been a shy person, more inclined to absorb knowledge like a sponge than expel it like a T-shirt cannon.

So when he signed up for IFBI’s 24-hour Hackathon last summer—the only one of 25 interns to do so—he was decidedly out of his element.

“I was really worried I was going to be useless, because I didn’t know too much about Computer Science,” he says.

The goal of the Hackathon was for teams of five coders to devise an IT solution to a problem a business was having as quickly, efficiently, and ingeniously as possible.

Their first task? Tsai’s team was trying to program a smart outlet to determine the wattage used by a washing machine, but something was out of whack. The machine was drawing more power than it was supposed to, and was shaking and vibrating like the Gravitron. They had to find a way to shut it off.

Then a house burned down, and Tsai’s team had to determine what caused the fire.

‘Basically, something awful happens, and you have to figure out how to stop it—and maybe even prevent it,” Tsai says.

The challenges continued for 24 hours, stretching from Friday into Saturday, one problem after another.

“It was both the best and worst time of my life,” Tsai says. “I was miserable in the moment, but in hindsight, I realized how much I learned.”

At the end of the event, each team presented their ideas to a panel of judges, attempting to convince them that their “hacks” were the best solutions. Ingenuity, Tsai says, won the day—using drones to provide an aerial view of fires, for instance.

“But it’s also like gymnastics, so you earn more points if you solve a more difficult problem,” he says.

Tsai’s team didn’t win, but Skirvin, his supervisor, has no doubt Tsai held his own.

Tsai’s assessment is more humble.

“I’m just proud I wasn’t useless,” he says.

Far from it.

“He has very strong programming skills,” Skirvin says. “[During his internship], he took full control and gave us a very impressive set of outputs.”

Skrivin says Tsai was invaluable to the IFBI team. He reviewed the insurance coverage policies of companies, looking for potential issues, and overhauled IFBI’s Reinsurance Billing Process using Excel, Access, Java, and SQL.

Tsai couldn’t believe his luck: He’d scored his perfect internship on the first try.

“It wasn’t a set ‘Here’s what we want you to do; can you do it for us?’” Tsai says. “I had a lot of freedom to find problems and attack them using solutions I came up with on my own.”

 

“I’d Return in a Heartbeat”

While he says he’d be honored to be back at IFBI, it turns out Tsai may be strolling the Butler halls a little while longer.

“I’m thinking about coming back to Butler for my MBA [Master’s of Business Administration],” he says. “But I’m not sure my mom’s too happy about that—she wants me to have a job.”

But if IFBI comes calling, Tsai says he’d return in a heartbeat.

“The best compliment my boss gave me last summer was that he’d hire me if he had the space,” he says.

Unleashed

Ryan Tsai: An Unstoppable Problem Solver

The Computer Science major made a huge difference while only an intern at Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance. 

Butler Blue III: A Dog with a Nose for Service

By Sarah Bahr

Hoops

Butler Blue III’s best moment was also his worst.

When Butler University’s then 3-year-old bulldog mascot threw up on the court at Madison Square Garden before a 2015 Big East men’s basketball tournament loss to Xavier, it brought him national notoriety. 

Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and The Washington Post all poked fun at the pint-sized puker, but Blue III, also known as Trip, took to Twitter to rally the troops.

“Puke and rally. Give me some water. I’ve got a #BIGEASTTourney game to win. #GoDawgs,” Michael Kaltenmark, Trip’s caretaker and Butler’s Director of External Relations, tweeted on his behalf.

Kaltenmark says the 65-pound bulldog, who typically paces the Butler sidelines during most men’s football and basketball games, lapping up popcorn, head pats, and praise, was overwhelmed by the moment.

“He goes hard,” Kaltenmark says, “which sometimes equates to him getting overheated and overexcited.”

But, tongue lolling and tail wagging, Trip quickly recovered—and shot Butler into the national spotlight.

“Vomiting on the court at Madison Square Garden might be the best thing he ever did publicity-wise,” Kaltenmark said. “He has so much heart.”

On and off the court.

 

Hospital

It isn’t hard to imagine the utility of a floppy-eared, doe-eyed, Pikachu costume-clad bulldog skidding down a hospital hallway for cheering up a patient.

As a member of the Eskenazi Hospital pet therapy team, Trip visits patients at the downtown Indianapolis campus once a month.

“He’s gentle and patient,” Kaltenmark says. “He acts like he was raised as a therapy dog.”

In addition to raising the spirits of hospital residents, Kaltenmark says Trip receives numerous requests for charity event appearances at schools and businesses — “none of which we really turn down,” he says.

Kaltenmark and Trip head to elementary school classrooms to read Blue's children’s book, Good Boy, Blue!, and stop by Gleaners Food Bank, where they help sort donations.

But Trip—and Kaltenmark’s—favorite community initiative might be the Butler acceptance letters the duo deliver to admitted students’ doors.

The two cruise the city in Trip’s “Blue Mobile,” a white Ford Transit covered in decals of Trip’s face that sports a “Blue 3” license plate. Kaltenmark and Trip have taken the van all over the country, from Butler men’s basketball games in Florida to frozen custard runs at Kopp’s Frozen Custard in Milwaukee.

They’ve been making the doorstep visits to admitted students since 2014, logging about 100 visits annually, October through March, Kaltenmark says.

Most of the visits happen in greater Indianapolis, including one earlier this fall to a senior from North Central High School, Tatum Parker, who beat cancer—twice—and then started a foundation that has delivered more than 3,500 game-and-goodie-stuffed backpacks to kids with cancer.

Special visits to students like Parker stand out, Kaltenmark says. 

“Any time you can make a kid cry, those are good,” he says. “When he or she is so excited about getting in to Butler that they’re moved to tears.”

 

Hashtags

In addition to his charity and community work, Trip has a loyal following of virtual fans who track his every bark on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

Kaltenmark posts daily updates on Twitter, where Trip’s more than 31,000 followers like and laugh about photos, videos, and GIFs of the bulldog lapping up ice cream, wading through a ball pit, and posing with Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

Unlike in real life, in which Kaltenmark says Trip is “sort of a diva” who’s a bit select about who he’ll associate with, he has legions of canine friends on social media, including the governor’s dog, Henry Holcomb, and fellow mascots like Yale’s Handsome Dan and the University of Redlands’ first female bulldog mascot, Addie, who Kaltenmark says is Trip’s “girlfriend.”

But Trip doesn’t just lap up the likes: Kaltenmark uses social media as a force for good.

When Trip celebrated his seventh birthday December 23, a Twitter campaign encouraging people to donate non-perishable food items to Gleaners Food Pantry at the December 21 men’s basketball game netted six full bins of donations and $200 in cash.

And Trip’s Twitter updates allow followers a glimpse of his home life when he isn’t pounding the paint, from bathtime to balloon-popping to standing guard over one of Kaltenmark’s sick sons, asleep on the couch under a Star Wars blanket with a bulldog atop his back.

 

Home

Kaltenmark began caring for Butler’s second live mascot of the modern era, Blue II, in 2004. After donning the Butler mascot suit as an undergraduate, the Butler alum (‘02) knew he was ready for the real thing.

“My wife and I knew when we got married that we wanted to get a bulldog,” Kaltenmark says. “I just didn’t know we would get THE bulldog.”

After the 9-year-old Blue II, whom ESPN called the “undisputed star” of Butler basketball, died of congestive heart failure in 2013, Trip stepped into the role and became Blue III.

Kaltenmark says he wouldn’t be surprised if, between Butler basketball and football games, hospital visits, doorstep deliveries, charity events, and award dinners, Trip clocked 365 appearances per year.

“You name it, he goes to it,” Kaltenmark says. “And he has an outfit for everything.”

Blue III’s wardrobe is comprised of tuxedos, jerseys, white coats, and two overflowing tubs of Halloween costumes, including sushi roll and hot-dog getups (“I wish Halloween was more than one day a year,” Kaltenmark says).

Being the personal assistant for a bulldog takes more time than you’d think.

“It’s a lot to juggle,” Kaltenmark says. “I wish there were three of me. But it doesn’t feel like work because I love all the things I do.”

Trip has had the chance to meet T-Pain, Kesha, John Green, and Jay Leno, and has traveled to New York City, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and a bevy of other Midwest cities. He counts Hogsett, Andrew Luck, and Gordon Hayward as fans. 

But humble? That’s one word Kaltenmark wouldn’t use to describe his diva dog.

“He thinks it’s all for him,” Kaltenmark says. “The plane he sometimes travels with the basketball team on, the applause [at games] … ”

Of course, it doesn’t help that Trip has a personal van with his face plastered on it, or that the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame sells a $650 life-size bobblehead of the bulldog, or that he’s been featured on NBC Nightly News, or that he’s photographed more often than a fashion model.

“It is exhausting being this beautiful,” the caption on a Twitter photo of him lying on his back in his bed reads.

But, at the end of the day, he’s all about simple pleasures. Give him a cardboard box to crawl into, a bag of popcorn to snarf, or a hospital patient to hug, and he’s a happy-go-lucky pooch.

“I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. #GoDawgs,” he tweeted Dec. 5.

If he hadn’t hit the character limit, he might still be writing.

  

Trip in a tux
Unleashed

Butler Blue III: A Dog with a Nose for Service

Butler's live mascot, a.k.a. Trip, spreads love (and drool) wherever he goes. 

Joey Brunk: A Big Man with a Big Heart

By Sarah Bahr

JO-EY! JO-EY!

Twenty-one-year-old Butler men’s basketball center Joey Brunk has just checked into the game, and the cheers from the 9,100 fans packing Hinkle Fieldhouse are thunderous.

"He’s so likeable that people cheer like crazy just when he enters the game,” Butler Associate Athletic Director John Dedman says. “Luckily Nate [Fowler] understands that fans aren’t cheering that he is going to the bench.”

Brunk pushes a soft, loose wave of what Twitter users have called the “golden mane” and “the best hair in college basketball” away from his face, a grin peeking through his Matthew McConaughey-inspired beard and mustache, and steps to the line. Swishes the free throw.

Tonight, he can’t miss.

An hour later, he walks off the court, through the locker room …

… and heads back to his dorm, where he’ll strip off his size-17 sneakers, maybe read some poetry or a JFK biography (“He’s my favorite president”) before curling his 6-11 frame into a bed not made for a man who could nearly stand head to head with a small adult elephant.

In the morning, it’ll be time to teach poetry to second-graders.

 

In a Class of His Own

Brunk, an Elementary Education major and aspiring teacher, spent last semester student teaching in a second-grade class at the Butler University Laboratory School on Wednesdays.

His first full-class lesson was an introduction to emotion poetry.

“I was a little worried they might come in with negative attitudes, but they enjoyed it,” Brunk says. “I had them read a poem and then act out different emotions—I was the photographer, and everyone else was an actor.”

“It got lots of laughs.”

Brunk says there aren’t a lot of men in elementary education—last semester, he was one of only two guys in his elementary-education class.

“The kids thought it was cool that I was a guy teaching them,” he says. “I tried to be cool, whether it was talking ESPN, last night’s NBA games, or SportsCenter highlights.”

But as he rests his fist on his chin in a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker sculpture, the mid-morning sunlight streaming into Hinkle Fieldhouse streaking his wavy hair, it isn’t hard to believe the hard-charging center whom Butler Director of Basketball Operations Brandon Crone calls a “gentle giant” is a poetry aficionado.

“He’s so patient,” Crone says. “He just has a presence. I have a 3-year-old son, and Joey’s always one of the first to give him high fives and hugs in the locker room.”

No one in Brunk’s immediate family is a teacher, but after volunteering in a fifth-grade class at Southport Elementary School a few days per week his senior year of high school, he was sold.

“I wanted the kids to be able to have a positive role model,” he says.

It’s a role Brunk also tries to play for his younger brother, Johnny, a sophomore guard at Roncalli High School, about 20 minutes south of Butler.

Being able to stay close to Johnny was one of the reasons Brunk, a four-star prospect out of Southport in 2016, chose Butler over offers from a bevy of Big Ten schools, including Indiana and Purdue.

“I went to Butler so I could see my brother play,” Brunk says. “I grew up in a family where everyone was at everyone else’s stuff.”

Which meant his Friday nights were never exactly, umm, wild.

“I was expected to be at every one of my brother’s Little League games and practices,” Brunk says. “And he attended all my practices and workouts.”

But supporting his younger brother has never been a chore for the Butler big man.

“He was there to support me, so I want to support him,” Brunk says.

Family first.

So it was never a question for Brunk to forego the remainder of his first-year season to spend time with his dad after Joe Brunk was diagnosed with brain cancer in November 2016.

 

His Biggest Fan

Brunk has been to the Indianapolis Zoo no fewer than 500 times.

He would go with his family once or twice a week from age 2 on, always wanting to look at the same things—the lions, tigers, and his current favorite animal, the red panda. And the animal-lover also says his parents enabled a fearsome Zoobooks addiction.

“They paid for a monthly subscription, and it went on so long that I’d have three copies of the exact same issue,” he says.

He honors his dad by visiting a local zoo with Butler play-by-play radio announcer Mark Minner whenever the team travels for a tournament. It’s a way for Brunk to keep his hero with him.

Brunk and his dad, a two-time NAIA All-American at Hanover College, bonded over basketball from the beginning. They attended games at Hinkle Fieldhouse together, and Joe Brunk was his son’s first AAU coach.

“He was my biggest critic—and my biggest fan,” Joey Brunk says.

His dad would pick him up from middle school every day and drive him to the gym for workouts, a dedication that paid off when Brunk was a Top 100 recruit and one of the three finalists for the statewide IndyStar Mr. Basketball award as a high school senior.

“There were lots of mornings when—God bless both my parents—they’d get up at 5:30 AM to drive me to the high school for a workout,” Joey Brunk says. “My dad would rebound for me, and my mom would pack me breakfast, lunch, and something for the way home from school so I could eat again before going to the gym.”

Joe Brunk was there to watch Joey’s Southport team beat Ben Davis 60-57 for the sectional championship during Brunk’s senior year—and Joey hoped he’d one day get to watch Butler win an NCAA Championship.

Then, in November 2016, his dad was hospitalized while visiting friends in Las Vegas.

“It was completely unexpected,” Joey Brunk says. “I flew to Nevada right away.”

The diagnosis? A brain tumor.

Brunk stayed at his dad’s side in Southport for the next six months, foregoing the remainder of his first-year season to spend the last moments of his dad’s life with his hero.

“We laughed; we cried; we told stories,” Joey Brunk says. “There was never any dead airspace.”

Joe Brunk died April 15, 2017, at age 56.

But, true to his dad’s mantra of living with passion, Brunk made a vow: He wouldn’t be depressed.

He’d be the Energizer Bunny.

 

Butler’s Energizer Bunny

Drop in on a Hinkle Fieldhouse practice, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a happier guy than Brunk. He wears his dad’s No. 50 jersey, another reminder of the man who helped him achieve his dream of playing Division I basketball.

Brunk doubled down on his dedication to the sport this summer, using the offseason to transform his body with as many as four workouts each day, ranging from hot yoga to shooting with his brother at Roncalli. He dropped 10 pounds, from 240 to 230, and increased his maximum bench press from 230 to 260 pounds.

And it’s paid off: He’s averaging 8.6 points per game this season, compared to last year’s 1.3. His average rebounds per game are up to 4.4 from 1.8. And his average minutes per game have quadrupled, from five to 20.

The NCAA granted Brunk an additional season, awarding him a hardship waiver for his first year, as he only played in seven games before stepping away to be with his dad. That means he’s a redshirt sophomore this season, with two years of eligibility remaining.

Crone says that, despite his dad’s death, nothing about Brunk’s personality has changed.

“He’s the same Joey I’ve known for five years,” he says. “He’s the Energizer Bunny in the locker room.”

“Dad and I always talked about living your life in a way that you’re excited to wake up,” Joey Brunk says. “There are lots of people who would die to be in this position.”

Joey Brunk
UnleashedStudent Life

Joey Brunk: A Big Man with a Big Heart

The Butler Men's Basketball center is dedicated to achieving his dream and helping others do the same. 

Katie Pfaff: A Small-Town Success Story

By Sarah Bahr

They were beautiful, those tiaraed Indy 500 Festival princesses in black-and-white sashes, visiting a Lewisville elementary school in a small, rural Indiana farm community more than a decade ago. They inspired a mesmerized Katie Pfaff to dream of one day donning a crown herself.

Though the 21-year-old Butler University senior’s big dreams would take her 60 miles west of the farm where she grew up—more on that in a minute—she’s always had a soft spot for driving down a backroad with no destination in sight, or digging into a slice of the apple-crumb pie her grandma would make her each April 25 because she didn’t like birthday cake.

Small-town life was comforting. There were euchre games with dozens of cousins around the fire on Friday nights, tractor rides through the rustling corn under the fading pinks and purples of an August Indiana sunset. The breeze tickled her hair as she clutched her brother’s back, looking up at the stars in wide, open spaces with no skyscrapers to fill them.

Her graduating class had 60 people in it, in a town of 366.

When both grandparents died on the same day before Christmas one year, her family didn’t cook for a week—her neighbors kept ringing the doorbell with plates of chicken and spaghetti. Their driveway was cleared of snow by an unseen phantom, as though someone had poured hot lava on the white mass and left a sparkling drive.

But Pfaff wasn’t content to accept the charity of others—she was ready to repay it.

 

A Gathering Place

Pfaff, her parents, and her older twin brothers Tyler and Tom started their own business her sophomore year of high school; a Lewisville wedding and event venue known as The Gathering. They converted an old church into a place to celebrate marriages, birthdays, and Christmas—anything that would bring people together.

But when Pfaff went off to college at Butler, some in her hometown thought she’d never come back. She’d become a city girl, forsaking her farm roots. Her role in the family business would be toast.

At first, it looked like they were right.

The minute Pfaff stepped on the Butler campus, the senior Strategic Communication and Human Communication & Organizational Leadership double major was smitten with the big-city school’s small-town feel.

“I don’t know everyone on campus, but it takes no more than a five-second conversation while getting coffee for someone to not feel like a stranger anymore,” she says. 

But all the opportunities could be overwhelming for someone who’d always wanted to do everything.

Her Ethics professor noticed her stress and offered to buy her coffee at the campus Starbucks last spring. But when she walked into class, setting her cup on the table, someone bumped into it, and her drink hit the deck.

“I was paralyzed,” she says. “But Professor Norris waited until everyone had left, bought me another cup of coffee, and sat down for an hour to talk about what I was feeling. He just wanted to know how he could make my day better.”

It was that conversation with Norris, she says, that inspired her to take on a leadership role with Butler’s BUBeWell initiative last spring, a program designed to keep stressed-out students sane while cultivating their mental, physical, and social wellbeing.

Going to Butler was a big adjustment for a small-town girl. She’d come across more people in a single day of walking across campus than she’d meet in an entire year in Lewisville. She missed her mom’s bacon-wrapped water chestnuts; Friday nights around the fire with her parents and brothers, biting into slices of ooey, gooey cheese pizza.

Then she realized: She needed structure.

She set a “golden rule” for herself: She’d be in bed by midnight every evening, no matter whether it was Tuesday or Saturday.

She joined a sorority and found friends like her roommate of two years, 21-year-old Butler pharmacy student Chloe Sandman, who also grew up in a small town and shares Pfaff’s love of ice cream and Hallmark movies.

Now that she was secure in herself, it was time to begin giving back. To the parents who invested in her. To the school that sculpted her.

To the town that raised her.

 

A Royal Coronation

But first, let’s talk about the 178-page paper she just finished writing. Not by herself, of course. The assignment was an eight-person group project for her senior communication capstone class. But 25 pages of that behemoth were hers.

It was that commitment to academics that propelled her to princesshood.

She was chosen as one of 33 Indianapolis 500 Festival princesses in spring 2018 out of a field of more than 2,000 women—just over 33 times the size of her high school graduating class.

Her days sometimes started as early as 3 AM and ended as late as 1 AM (sorry, “golden rule”). She could work as many as three events in a day.

“I spent countless hours doing community outreach in nursing homes and elementary schools,” she says.

But Pfaff’s internship advisor, Butler Communication professor Scott Bridge, says Pfaff has never been one to court recognition for her accomplishments.

“She doesn’t try to draw attention to herself,” he says. “But she does things so well that she can’t help it.”   

Pfaff is still involved in The Gathering’s operations in her hometown, from running social media to answering calls between classes, and coming home on weekends and breaks to help out. She’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the college ambitions of children in her community through an internship with her hometown scholarship foundation.

And when Cindy Oler, a Lewisville dance instructor who taught Pfaff for 13 years, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, Pfaff choreographed a sign-language routine to the song “Blessings” by Laura Story and taught it to Oler’s dance troupe.

“The movements are simple, pure, and so beautiful,” Oler says. “We now teach it every year, invoking the name of the kind and loving heart that created the piece.”

But as soon as she got the call last February that she would be a 500 Festival princess, she knew there was one more thing she had to do.

 

Full Circle

The gleaming blue Chevy rolled up in front of the Lewisville school last May, dozens of eyeballs glued to the 2018 Indianapolis 500 pace car’s star-studded chrome wheels.

Pfaff and several other princesses brought the glitz and glamour of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” to Henry County, and Pfaff even got to wave the checkered flag at the end of the school’s tricycle race she’d pedaled in as a kid.

“It meant everything to me,” Pfaff says.

Being a princess comes with crazy hours—one 3 AM Mini Marathon wakeup call came after she’d stayed up past midnight the night before to finish a final paper—but she always keeps things in perspective.

“So many people would love to be where I am,” she says.

She’s one of Butler’s Top 100 students, a Chapman Champion Award recipient for her exemplary service to the University, and a soon-to-be intern with Indy Hub, an Indianapolis nonprofit designed to help the city attract and retain young professionals.

But most meaningful to her?

The smiles on those little Lewisville boys’ and girls’ faces.

 

 

UnleashedStudent Life

Katie Pfaff: A Small-Town Success Story

From rural Indiana to a princess, Katie's journey has always been focused on helping others. 

Maria De Leon: A Lifelong Activist

By Sarah Bahr

Twelve-year-old Maria De Leon was on the phone with a doctor 40 years her senior.

She was translating a pain-pill prescription from English for her Spanish-speaking parents—but struggling with unfamiliar words like ‘hydrocodone’ and ‘acetaminophen.’

The language is rife with false cognates; each an opportunity for disaster.

‘Intoxicado’ doesn’t mean intoxicated, but ingested. ‘Embarazada’ means not embarrassed, but pregnant.

“That was something my parents didn’t understand,” she says. “Even though I do know English, I don’t know all the words.”

She would translate insurance claims, doctor’s appointments, sometimes even conversations with lawyers.

It was challenging, she says—her parents, who moved to the United States from Guatemala before she was born and have the equivalent of elementary-school educations, don’t speak enough English “to survive,” in her words.

Which meant that in high school, she was on her own to navigate the FAFSA, scholarships, SAT, and college application process.

But she didn’t end up a dropout.

She graduated salutatorian.

And won a full-tuition scholarship to any college in Indiana.

 

“Will Getting Arrested Keep me From Attending Butler?”

Except she almost didn’t.

Butler admission counselor Whitney Ramsay’s phone buzzed one morning last winter.

Will getting arrested keep me from attending Butler?

De Leon, then a senior in high school, was planning to participate in a sit-in protest in Washington, D.C. in January to lobby senators to approve a “clean” Dream Act, or one that creates a pathway to citizenship for immigrants without adding additional stipulations.

Would being arrested for civil disobedience, she wanted to know, affect her eligibility to attend Butler—and her Lilly scholarship?

Ramsay talked to her supervisor: De Leon’s admission decision wouldn’t automatically be rescinded, but any disciplinary infraction would be reviewed by a committee. (Butler later issued a statement reading: “Applicants to Butler University who respectfully engage in meaningful and authentic discourse regarding important issues within our society will not be penalized in the admission process”).

“I told her to be safe, be smart, and listen to her gut,” Ramsay says.

De Leon ultimately decided to stop short of being arrested—though some of her fellow protesters were.

“I felt like me going and protesting was enough at that moment,” she says.

De Leon’s passion for civic engagement started at Crispus Attucks High School on the northwest side of Indianapolis. She was a community ambassador for the Central Indiana Community Foundation, researching Indianapolis’ Hispanic and Latino communities to discover their biggest challenges. She interviewed student DACA recipients, as well as police officers who worked in the Hispanic community.

She also volunteered with the Domestic Violence Youth Network and became a leader of Crispus Attucks’ NO MORE Club, which raises awareness of teen dating violence and sexual assault.

But De Leon wanted to do more than just join a club. Why, she wondered, did Indianapolis Public Schools not have a teen dating violence prevention and response policy?

According to a 2017 Indiana Youth Institute Report, one in eight high school students said they had been “forced to do sexual things they did not want to do by someone they were dating or going out with.” That’s higher than the one in 10 national average.

De Leon worked with Lindsay Stawick, the Youth Program Manager at the Domestic Violence Network, and three other students to draft a policy. It took eight months.

When the policy was enacted at IPS schools this fall, it was the first teen dating violence prevention and response policy in Indianapolis, Stawick says. It holds school staff accountable for preventing abusive behavior and punishes students who participate in it. It also mandates training for teachers and places a teen dating abuse advocate in every IPS school. 

That policy was possibly De Leon’s most significant achievement at Crispus Attucks, but she didn’t wait until her senior year to get involved with organizations she was passionate about.

She began volunteering at TeenWorks, an Indianapolis college-and-career readiness and youth employment nonprofit serving at-risk Marion County teens, her freshman year of high school.

TeenWorks President and CEO Tammie Barney says De Leon can reach the students in a way the adult volunteers can’t.

“It’s rare to see that level of boldness and leadership in such a young person,” Barney says. “She seizes the day to get the most out of every opportunity.”

Her go-getter attitude is one the reasons De Leon says Butler has been a perfect fit.

“I’ve learned that Indy is a city where if an opportunity isn’t there, you can create it,” she says.

 

A DIY Education

Just because her parents didn’t speak English doesn’t mean they weren’t her fiercest academic cheerleaders, De Leon says.

They accompanied her to the many college preparation programs she’d enrolled in as a show of support—even though they couldn’t understand what her instructors were saying.

When De Leon graduated from Crispus Attucks last spring—the first in her family to graduate high school—her parents, two younger brothers, and younger sister were all there to see her walk across the stage.

She gave the second half of her salutatorian speech in Spanish to honor her parents. She was proud to be a role model for her siblings, and the ear-to-ear smiles on her mom’s and dad’s faces said it all.

Her mom’s mantra growing up—and one that De Leon included in her personal statement for Butler—was that her daughter’s U.S. citizenship wouldn’t matter if she didn’t pursue an education.

So De Leon networked like her life depended on it in high school, printing professional business cards and job-shadowing mentors. She knocked out a semester’s worth of college credits from dual-credit courses before ever arriving on the Butler campus.

But sweetest of all?

A full-tuition, four-year Lilly Endowment Community Scholarship, which 143 Indiana students from the state’s 92 counties receive each year. Scholars must be leaders, civically engaged, and academic all-stars—all boxes De Leon checked.

But she didn’t think she had a chance at the scholarship after she found out the valedictorian had also applied.

“We thought only one of us was going to get it,” De Leon says. “But then we both got it, which is crazy!”

 

Look Out, Joe Hogsett

When former first lady Michelle Obama spoke in Indianapolis last February, De Leon was in the audience. The quote that stuck with her?

“If there’s not a chair at the table, bring your own.”

That’s what De Leon is trying to do at Butler; The Political Science and Critical Communication & Media Studies double major recently established a Latino chapter of Butler’s Leading Women of Tomorrow initiative, a group focused on empowering women to seek public service careers. She applied to be vice president or secretary.

She was asked to serve as president.

And De Leon continues to volunteer with the organizations that triggered her passion for activism four years ago.

She’s a mentor with the Domestic Violence Youth Network, where she volunteers twice per month and during breaks, and she plans to continue to help with TeenWorks events this summer, from conducting mock interviews to providing resume advice.

De Leon’s goal is to work in politics after she graduates in 2022. She’d love to be the president of a youth-focused nonprofit organization like TeenWorks, but she’s also considering a run for mayor of Indianapolis.

Look out, Joe Hogsett.

Maria De Leon
UnleashedStudent Life

Maria De Leon: A Lifelong Activist

As a daughter, student, and mentor, first-year Maria De Leon works hard for herself and others.