Meet the Class of 2018

Saturday, May 5, 2018
Municipal Auditorium

Among the graduates who will walk across the stage in Saturday’s commencement ceremony, there are countless stories, dreams and motivations. Here are just a few:


Ben Franco

A conversation with Ben Franco can be dizzying.

One minute, the medical physics major with minors in English and applied mathematics could be talking about medical research that fascinated him. The next, he’ll shift to jazz, or the screenplay he’s writing.

Those things are not in conflict, Franco said. He has an infectious love of learning owing to his parents, both of whom are teachers.

“As a kid, I was always maxing out my library card,” he laughed.

Franco said his experience as a young student in the Kansas City Saturday Academy, an educational program based in Kansas City, Kansas, that offers students an enriched curriculum in everything from poetry to medical science, was also pivotal. As was growing up in an immigrant family — his parents moved from the Phillipines to the United States in 2007. Franco, who has also been a voice on campus for diversity and inclusion, has been a volunteer teacher at Saturday Academy for the last four years. Aspiring to become a neurosurgeon (and an artist), he said he hopes now and, in the future, to be an example for younger students from similar backgrounds.

“If you succeed for yourself, that’s fine,” he said. “If you succeed for others, that can be so powerful.”



Virginia Vanegas

Going to college wasn’t a given for Virginia Vanegas.

Growing up as part of a working-class immigrant family — she said her parents moved everyone from El Salvador to the U.S. about when she was young, eventually settling in Sedalia, Missouri — it didn’t seem feasible or possible.

But Vanegas said she has found a welcome home at Rockhurst. She’s jumped at chances to get involved, something she said she inherits from her father. At Rockhurst she’s served as part of Student Senate, Student Activities Board, and as an ambassador, among many others.

It’s been challenging to balance academic work, a social life, working as many as 50 hours a week to pay for school, and the final steps of becoming a U.S. citizen, a part of her identity that for a long time, she said she was reluctant to share.

Through her own hard work and discovering that she could ask for help if she needed it, Vanegas said she’s ready to graduate with degrees in communication, psychology and Spanish.

She also discovered a community of other students, faculty and staff who were genuinely interested in learning more about her immigration journey — a number of them attended her naturalization ceremony last year, and she even received a card and letter from the University’s President, the Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J. The experience has given her a new way to use her voice, she said.

“I thought I wanted to hold that immigrant identity back in the beginning,” she said. “But I think talking about it ends up doing more good — it’s more than just about me, at this point.”



Lieu Nguyen

Lieu Nguyen said she embraces the term “sandwich generation.”

She comes from a family that remains close across generations. Growing up in Kansas City’s Historic Northeast, she said she they didn’t have everything.

“But we were always happy,” she said.

Nguyen, a biology major and psychology minor, said a career in health care was always part of her plan. It just wasn’t always clear what field. Whether as a social services intern at the University of Kansas JayDoc free clinic, a volunteer at an Olathe, Kansas, hospice facility, or a sixth-grade teacher at her Vietnamese language church, Nguyen said she tries to help connect people to ways they can get better, especially in communities where people have little resources or language barriers. Having experienced mental illness throughout her own life, she said she sees biology and psychology as inextricably linked and wants to be able to treat others in that holistic manner.

“I was always drawn to biology because it’s everywhere, it’s all of that,” Nguyen said. “Everything has a part in life — biology is life, and I want to study life.”



Jedidiah Surdyke

Jedidiah Surdyke remembers taking piano lessons when he was young, and how the notes slowly faded from his view.

Early in his life, Surdyke was diagnosed with cone rod dystrophy, a genetic disorder that caused him to slowly gradually lose his eyesight.

But that never stopped him — he continued music lessons, played soccer and ran cross country in high school for as long as he could.

“I think I have a scar for each year that I ran,” he laughs.

The experience, though, made Surdyke determined and independent early on, learning that he sometimes had to be his own advocate and take responsibility for himself.

Graduating with English, philosophy and theology degrees, the Festus, Missouri, native has been a staple of campus ministry programs, hoping to channel his passion into working with others in a pastoral or ministerial environment.

“Faith is something that has been really important to me,” he said. “It was really important to me before I came here and I think staying rooted in and building that sense of faith has really been one of my favorite parts of my experience here.”



Abby Bergman

Abby Bergman has a very scientific answer for how important the Jesuit core values are to her.

In preparation for a speech, she sketched a graph on a napkin — her hypothesis being that as one continues to find God in all things, one’s leadership will also increase exponentially.

Maybe that’s why Bergman, a biology major with minors in Spanish and theology who said she hadn’t been as interested in service in high school, has spent much of her college career giving her time to her community. It started her freshman year, when she noticed how much food was thrown away as fellow students moved out of their residence halls. So she started a food drive that has to date collected and donated 80 boxes of food for those in need.

“I didn’t do a lot of service in high school,” she said. “But I got here, and it was just something I wanted to do.”

This year, Bergman amassed 250 hours of service for and with others, earning one of only two President’s Gold Medal for Service this year in the process. She’s volunteered at hospitals both here and at home in St. Louis. As she prepares to enter medical school at Saint Louis University next year, she said she looks at the volunteer work as more than an opportunity to build her resume.

“It’s something I see myself doing for the rest of my life,” she said. “It’s easy to get bogged down with class work, but to get to put that to work has been really rewarding.”



Zach Pohlman

Before he died, St. Thomas More said, “I was the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

This quote resonated with Zach Pohlman in seventh grade and now, especially as he makes his post-graduation plans to attend the Notre Dame Law School.

“This stuck with me — that I could be a civil servant for the government and work for justice there, but also serve God in that as well,” he said.

Coming to Rockhurst from La Vista, Nebraska, he knew the Jesuit culture would serve as a strong foundation for his future law career.

“I wanted to come to Rockhurst both for the faith-based environment and the opportunity to grow as a leader,” he said. “I’ve seen those come true in my time here.”

Freshman year, Pohlman found his place in the Student Senate, not knowing (but hopeful) he would become the Senate President two years later, and among like-minded friends.

“Some of my favorite nights were when my roommates and I would stay awake all hours of the night having deep conversations about free will, the universe, or religion,” he said. “I love doing that.”

Although Pohlman is leaving Rockhurst, he looks forward to his marriage to Julia Faltin, ’18, his high school sweetheart, next December and hopes to continue enacting positive change by working in the government some day.



Nicholas Bader

There’s no getting around it, according to Nick Bader’s thinking — medicine needs social justice.

That might be a byproduct of this St. Genevieve, Missouri, native tacking on a philosophy degree to his chemistry and physics of medicine majors. During his time at Rockhurst, Bader has been an active part of Voices for Justice and the campus Fair Trade Initiative, which in 2016 earned Rockhurst the state’s first Fair Trade Campus designation. He’s been to West Virginia and seen environmental and economic devastation and lobbied in Washington, D.C., as part of the Ignatian Family Teach-in for Justice.

“I always think of the bell tower and the inscription on it,” he said. “Learning, leadership and service — I think that Rockhurst hits all of those so well.”

As part of his pre-medical education, Bader said he saw similar opportunities to serve, even through simple acts such as talking to patients on rounds at North Kansas City Hospital. As he prepares to enter medical school, either at Georgetown or Washington University in St. Louis, he said he feels he’s found his purpose.

“That union of service and science is really what drew me to the medical field in the first place,” he said. “Once you find that, it’s hard to put into words.”



Sarah Pezold

From the first Thursday night of freshman year, Sarah Pezold knew she had found her home away from home in the VOICES for Justice community.

“I loved how it always challenged me to step outside my comfort zone, look at new justice issues, try new things, and help me to reevaluate my opinions or prejudices against something,” she said.

Pezold worked hard, striving to come a stronger woman for others, and found great comfort and motivation in the community she surrounded herself with.

“I really like the person I’ve become at Rockhurst, and my fear with graduating is that if I’m not in this environment working for justice, how do I stay that person?” she said.

Her worry subsided, though, when she decided to enter the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

“I wasn’t ready to let go of the Ignatian lifestyle just yet, either,” Pezold said. “I think my transition out of college would be a lot harder if all my favorite elements of Rockhurst weren’t going to continue into the next year.”

It is unlikely, though, that Pezold’s driven spirit will be cut after graduation with a short list of goals including international living, paralegal work, and law school.

“I hope to continue working with Spanish-speaking communities and building community with other people at home and abroad,” she said. “And, hopefully, I’ll find my way back to Kansas City someday.”