Seven WWU Graduates Receive Presidential Scholar Honors

Western Washington University President Sabah Randhawa will honor seven graduates as Presidential Scholars during Commencement on Saturday, June 15.

Presidential Scholar awards honor top students in six colleges for their exceptional scholarship and service to the university and community.

Randhawa will present each of the following Presidential Scholars with a medallion:


Jona Paulreti Akelipa

College of Business and Economics

Jona Akelipa is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in accounting and finance, along with a minor in political science. The Accounting Department faculty recognizes Akelipa as one of the top students in class as well as a valuable source of help to his fellow students. Akelipa has also served in several student leadership capacities. Within the CBE, he was elected as a college representative to the first Associated Students Senate, was one of two students invited to sit on the CBE Policy Council, and was president of the Financial Management Association, leading professional readiness workshops and bringing speakers to campus. At the wider university level, Akelipa has remained an active member of both the Filipino-American Student Association and the Vietnamese Student Association, and previously was an officer for the South Asian Student Association. Akelipa’s dedication to inclusion and equity for underrepresented groups is evident by his leadership and advocacy. He worked with other students of color to successfully lobby for the new Multicultural Center on campus and met with state legislators in Olympia to discuss issues affecting students and the community. Akelipa, of Edmonds, attended Edmonds-Woodway High School and is the son of Lisa Parsons and Iona Akelipa. After graduation, he’s moving to San Francisco to work for Ersnt & Young and earn his certified public accountant license. Akelipa also hopes to go back to school one day in order to explore systemic problems of financial insecurity and access to education.


Kylee Jo Butler

Huxley College of the Environment

Kylee Butler is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Policy from Huxley College on the Peninsulas. A talented, zealous scholar, Butler’s passion and dedication to advancing both environmental policies and social justice for indigenous people was always apparent. Huxley faculty members say Butler demonstrated a unique combination of humility, intellectual curiosity, and respect for all cultures that set her apart from her peers. Butler also stood out with her thoughtful effort in her study of the connections between indigenous food sovereignty and justice, environmental policies and tribal governance. She applied what she learned in class to the inner workings of tribal politics to further understand the disconnects between tribes and other governmental agencies. Butler has a special interest in tribal natural resource management and serves as an intern with the Fisheries Habitat Division of the Makah Tribe. A member of the Makah Tribe, Butler has developed a strong connection to her ancestral lands. She wants to work in the environmental field so that the next generation can also experience that connection to their ancestral lands. Butler, the daughter of Vicki Pilatti and Micah Vogel and a graduate of Neah Bay High School and Peninsula College, will continue her education at Western and will be pursuing a Master of Arts degree in environmental studies.


Grace Anne Dunbar-Miller

College of Humanities and Social Sciences – Humanities Division

Grace Dunbar-Miller will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Before coming to Western, she took six years off school, moving around the country by herself and working full time in management. At Western, Dunbar-Miller says she gained confidence in her own academic journey and her future career as a scholar. She served as the editor-in-chief of Occam’s Razor, Western’s student academic journal, received the Bonnie J. Barthold Scholarship Award, and had the opportunity to study abroad in Senegal with the English Department. “My time there was significant for me as a Black American of the diaspora who hadn’t traveled outside North America before,” Dunbar-Miller says. “It had a significant impact on my literary interests as well.” After graduation, she will move to San Diego to earn a doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, focusing on 19th through 21st century literatures, as well as diasporic, African-American, Chicanx, post-colonial and transnational narratives and theory. In the community, Dunbar-Miller was a steering committee member for the Birchwood Food Desert Fighters, a local grassroots organization dedicated to improving access to food in the Birchwood neighborhood. She also volunteered with the Whatcom Community College ESL program and helped organize community events, such as Stand & Resist: Artists Protect the Salish Sea in 2017. Dunbar-Miller attended Everett Community College and is the daughter of Christine and George Miller.


Natasha Pearl Hessami

College of Science & Engineering

Natasha Hessami, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry and a minor in mathematics, is known as a remarkable student with outstanding potential to effectively address many of the social issues we face in the U.S. and throughout the world. For three years, she was a student researcher for Associate Chemistry Professor John Antos. She also participated in the National Science Foundation’s highly competitive Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program, with an internship at University of California, San Francisco, presenting her work at national conferences and winning awards for outstanding presentations. She completed another internship at the Center for Infectious Disease Research. Her Honors Program senior project focused on utilizing student experiences to improve equity and inclusion in STEM. She received grant funding to compensate a student from each CSE department to serve on committees and work with administrators on equity and inclusion issues. A donor recently funded the project for three years. Throughout the work, Hessami impressed her peers, faculty and administration with her ability to effectively engage in respectful discourse over potentially polarizing issues with unwavering resolve. Hessami also served as the WWU Associated Students Vice President for Governmental Affairs, representing student interests at the local, state and federal levels, and was co-president of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. Earlier, she worked as a tutor at the Tutoring Center and Student Outreach Services, and helped support homeless youth through Northwest Youth Services. Next, Hessami will attend graduate school in Scotland to earn a master’s degree in social policy thanks to a prestigious Fulbright award. Hessami is the daughter of Amy Conrad and Farshid Hessami and a graduate of Mt. Spokane High School.


Iris Baijing Hubbard

Woodring College of Education

Iris Hubbard is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Education degree with a major in environmental studies. As a student in the Honors Program, Hubbard completed a research project with fellow Honors student Saige Wilde examining the experience of international adoptees in the U.S. Both adoptees from China, they developed a website with resources for adoptees and their families, along with a blog series sharing the experiences of international adoptees and links to research. Hubbard also published a children’s book on her experience as an international adoptee. She and Wilde launched the Adoptees Alliance student club on campus which now has linkages in the local community. Hubbard engaged in a wide range of cultural programs at Western, including the International Student Buddy Program, pairing with international students each quarter. As a Compass 2 Campus student employee, she worked to get Western’s student diversity clubs involved in the annual fifth-grade campus tour day. Hubbard also engaged in service for Western Preview and Honors Outreach. The daughter of Peter Hubbard and Sandy Smith, Hubbard is a graduate of Mount Vernon High School. After graduation, she will travel to Taiwan to teach English at an elementary school on a Fulbright Fellowship.


Breneya Marlene Johnson

College of Humanities and Social Sciences – Social Sciences Division

Breneya Johnson will graduate with two degrees, a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Bachelor of Arts in sociology, and as the Outstanding Graduate in Sociology. Johnson collaborated with Sociology Professor Glenn Tsunokai on a manuscript about President Obama’s presidency and trends in interracial dating. She also presented her work at the 2018 California Sociological Association on the prospect of cooperation among white and black nationalist groups and presented the findings of her senior thesis on implicit bias in interracial dating at the 2019 Pacific Sociological Association Annual Meetings. Johnson is known among faculty for her intelligence, eloquence and energy and as an engaged citizen and sociologist. She served as secretary of the Black Student Union, president of the Sociology/Demography Club, co-president of Western’s chapter of Psi-Chi, the international honor society of psychology, and was a member of AKD Sociology Honor Society. Off campus, she works as a behavior technician for children diagnosed with autism and similar developmental disorders, and she volunteers at Bellingham at Orchard, an assisted living community. Johnson, of Tacoma, graduated from Lincoln High School and is the daughter of Brenda, Jerald, and Marquita Johnson, and she is the first of her family to go to college. After graduation, Johnson hopes to work as a college and career coach for underserved and minority student populations before pursuing a joint doctoral degree in African diaspora studies and sociology.


Bradlee Thielen

College of Fine and Performing Arts

Bradlee Thielen is graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in design. As a nationally recognized, award winning designer Thielen has had a hand in many successful design projects during his time at Western. Last year his team project, an augmented reality coaching tool called Elevate, was one of 64 finalists out of 8,000 entries for the Adobe Design Achievement Awards. Over the summer, Thielen interned at Modern Species, a sustainable packaging design agency in Seattle, where he did design and illustration work for national brands. Thielen uses design to represent the perspectives of marginalized communities, specifically the queer community. He helped create promotional posters and illustrations for the Bellingham Pride Committee, designed a digital publication, “Almost Liberated,” about the thriving queer community of 1930s Berlin, and designed Over the Rainbow, a line of food products whose packaging highlights memorable moments in queer history, cinema, and popular culture. He spoke at Scholars Week about his most recent project, “The Gay-B-C’s of the LGBTQ+,” a web-based educational tool. Thielen has received several scholarships, including the Paul Arnold Memorial Scholarship from the Pride Foundation, the Settlemeyer CFPA Arts Scholarship, the Trunkey Alumni Leadership Scholarship and the Bowman Family Distinguished Scholars Award. Off campus, Thielen worked as the art coordinator for United for Change, a non-profit that teaches students about the powers of empathy and community. In addition Thielen worked as a counselor at a summer leadership camp for high school student leaders, where he learned importance of being a role model and leader for LGBTQ+ youth. Thielen is the son of Lance and Johnene Thielen and a graduate of R.A. Long High School. Next, he plans to work at a design firm in Seattle and develop a book and website from “The Gay-B-C’s of the LGBTQ+.”

Bradlee Thielen
Grace Dunbar-Miller
Iris Hubbard
Jona Akelipa
Kylee Jo Butler
Natasha Pearl Hessami