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‘The Very Best of What It Means to Be a Terp’

5 Graduating Seniors Honored as Medalist, Finalists Recognized for Stellar Academics, Service, Character

By Karen Shih ’09

Camila Soler portrait

Camila Soler '24, a criminology and criminal justice and psychology double major, is the 2024 recipient of UMD's University Medal.

Photo by Riley Sims Ph.D. ’23

After Camila Soler’s grandfather was forced to flee armed conflict in Peru in the 1990s, the once-successful metallurgical engineer found few options to provide for his family upon arriving in California. He became a gardener, a grueling job made even tougher by the discrimination he endured—including assault and the burning of his work truck—and the fear of police that kept him from reporting the crimes.

“My passion for immigration law stems from hearing that story,” said Soler ’24, who is heading to law school in the fall to pursue her dream of providing free and affordable representation for immigrants, and to research and reform policies. “I want to help families in similar situations, who have very valid fears, who don’t know their rights.”

Her dedication to public service is one reason Soler will receive the 2024 University Medal, the highest honor bestowed on a graduating senior. The award recognizes academic achievement, service to the community and exceptional character. Finalists (profiled below) earned at least a 3.96 GPA and 60 or more credits during their undergraduate career at UMD.

A criminology and criminal justice (CCJS) and psychology double major, Soler earned a 4.0 GPA while joining the pre-law fraternity Phi Alpha Delta; getting selected for the CCJS Honors Program, where she conducted original research; and interning at the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program and an immigration law firm in Houston.

In addition, she helped found the student group Latina Pathways, now a registered nonprofit. Through education, advocacy and fundraising, it supports Latine immigrants on the path to college, including donating classroom supplies to high school ESOL classes and creating a scholarship for undocumented Terps.

“Higher education opens so many doors,” said Soler, who is Peruvian and Colombian. “I want the Latine community—and other underserved or marginalized communities—to have equal opportunities.”

Growing up in six countries due to her father’s engineering job gives Soler a unique perspective on being an outsider. She’s directed the empathy and appreciation for different cultures she gained to making others feel welcome at UMD, including serving as a Maryland Images tour guide for the university and sharing openly about a visual disability to reduce stigma and encourage others to get the accommodations they need.

“Her ability to organically incorporate these parts of her identity … helped to create a more inclusive and welcoming classroom environment,” said English Lecturer John Kim, who invited Soler to be a teaching assistant after she took his legal writing class. “She represents the very best of what it means to be a Terp.”

Finalists

Giuse T. Pham
Fleeing postwar Vietnam, Giuse Pham’s mother dreamed of a better future for her children.

Today, mechanical engineering major Pham ’24 is proud to say that a spacecraft he worked on for Northrop Grumman as an intern will be blasting off to resupply the International Space Station.

“Without my mother’s support and sacrifices, I would not be who I am today,” said Pham, who earned a 4.0 GPA. As he pursues mechatronics systems research in graduate school, he hopes to “continue leveraging engineering for discovery and societal advancement.”

He’s already on his way. As a member of the Clark Scholars Program, he designed a micro-bioretention garden to manage water runoff from a university parking lot. Through the College Park Scholars program, he taught Lego Mindstorms robotics to students at College Park Academy. And among his peers, Pham has become a respected leader in classes and in the engineering honor society Tau Beta Phi.

“He is truly outstanding … (in) his ability to solve technical problems, learn new things, communicate, manage projects and work with others,” said engineering Keystone Professor Christopher Cadou.

Njikem Jayda Fomengia
As a Black student in predominantly white K-12 schools, Jayda Fomengia ’24 often felt invisible and voiceless.

That’s why throughout her time at the University of Maryland, she dedicated herself to uplifting those in marginalized communities—something she aims to continue as she pursues her dream of becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon.

“My passion for fighting for those who are unable to fight for themselves finds its purpose in the field of pediatrics,” said Fomengia, a Banneker/Key Scholar who earned a 4.0 GPA majoring in neuroscience. “I find it remarkable how healing a child can heal a whole family.”

As a member of the Gemstone Program in the Honors College, she investigated ways to improve AI models for detecting and diagnosing non-small cell lung cancer. In addition, she is a member of the Johns Hopkins Neuroscience Scholars Program, where she is a research intern for its Brain Health Program. Outside of class, she worked as a medical assistant at a local pediatric urgent care center, served in leadership roles for the Charles R. Drew Pre-Health Society and supported fellow UMD students through Lean on Me College Park, a peer-to-peer text line for those struggling with their mental health.

“Jayda is by far one of the most impressive students I have encountered in terms of both academic brilliance and commitment to public service,” said psychology Lecturer Amanda Chicoli, who serves as research coordinator and course director for the neuroscience major.

Kentiera Wood
Kentiera Wood ’24 entered college unsure of her career path. But thanks to a bevy of mentors at UMD and beyond, the psychology major is now on the path to becoming a counseling psychologist. She hopes to work with marginalized community members, especially African Americans, who are at higher risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system.

“Kentiera’s passion and vigor for effecting change” is evident, said Nicole Gray-Moultrie, program coordinator for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where Wood served both juvenile and adult clients during a six-month internship. “She always shared that she never felt like she was doing a ‘job’ because she was truly passionate about this work.”

Wood credits psychology Professor Karen O’Brien and Assistant Professor Terrill O. Taylor for introducing her to the intersection of the discipline and law and social justice. That led Wood to volunteer with Court Watch Montgomery and the Children’s Playtime Project, supporting children experiencing homelessness or domestic violence. She also co-authored a presentation for the American Psychology Association and is working in Taylor’s Restoring H.O.P.E. Research Lab to investigate and improve outcomes for formerly incarcerated Black men.

“I have gained experience, met amazing people and discovered a desire to explore the unknown,” said Wood, who plans to pursue her doctorate at UMD.

Jack Yang
Senior year of high school for Jack Yang ’24 was a tough one. After feeling pain in his leg on a ski trip, he discovered he had a benign tumor that required surgery. It took him months to be able to walk again, but the experience left more than a “gnarly scar” on his body—it sparked a desire to become a physician.

“I want to fight alongside patients, conduct medical research and induce systemic change, allowing all of us to live better, healthier lives,” said Yang, a biochemistry and economics double major and Banneker/Key scholarship recipient.

At UMD, he became the co-director of Kesem, which supports children who have a parent with cancer. He led the organization to win the 2023 Do Good Challenge, and has now joined the Do Good Campus Fund’s student committee to empower others across campus to make a positive impact on the world.

In addition, he conducted research on heart muscle cell growth and blood cell production at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) and the National Institutes of Health, respectively, which could lead to better understanding of and treatments for heart and blood diseases.

“Jack reminds me of some of the best colleagues that I have had the privilege of working with,” said Michigan State Chair of Medicine Charles Hong, who oversaw Yang’s internship at the UMSOM, “someone whom I would want to have around when situation gets tough, and to whom I would not hesitate to refer my own family members to get the best medical care.”

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