Alumni Association names 2021 Domer Dozen, who speak of life after Notre Dame
Adriana Perez | Monday, September 13, 2021
The Alumni Association and YoungND board named the 2021 Domer Dozen on Thursday, as part of an initiative meant to celebrate the accomplishments of young Notre Dame alumni. These 12 former students were selected out of 88 nominees and were celebrated Friday in Geddes Hall ahead of the Notre Dame vs. Toledo game.
“Those chosen represent a truly outstanding group of young Notre Dame graduates who continue to make a difference in their faith, service, learning and work, serving as inspiring role models to a rising generation of soon-to-be Notre Dame graduates,” the Domer Dozen website states.
The honorees included Sarah Mervosh, Tia Paulette, Zoe Kourajian Rote, Qing Zhu, Jessica Pedroza, Marissa Koscielski, Claire Conley, Rene Bermea, Kiersten DeHaven, Matt Conaghan, Austin Hickman and Michael Hillmer.
The nine alumni who were able to make it to campus gave short “TEDx-style” talks on Friday. They shared their post-graduation and life experiences in fields that range from education, health care, peace-building, law, engineering, entrepreneurship and journalism.
A former managing editor at The Observer and a current national correspondent at the New York Times since 2018, Sarah Mervosh ’12 graduated from Notre Dame with majors in psychology and Arabic and a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. After working at the Dallas Morning News, she joined the Times — but by the time the pandemic started in 2020, she said she had begun to debate whether to change profession.
However as Mervosh began to cover the coronavirus, she said, she realized her talents in writing, interviewing and synthesizing information; her joy in meeting new people; and the world’s need for facts, compassion and connection all coalesced into her own personal mission in journalism.
“The best of journalism is about service, it is about other people. It’s not about an ego or a byline …” she said. “This something that I first learned at Notre Dame, which is sort of the Notre Dame way — what I consider to be the Notre Dame way: Bringing your own sense of social justice to the world, wherever you are, wherever you live, whatever job you’re in, basically wherever you happen to be.”
Tia Paulette ’18 J.D. has dedicated her career to securing justice for those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes. She was the founding president of the Notre Dame Law School’s Exoneration Project, and she currently serves as an Assistant Attorney General and seeks to address inequalities in access to legal services.
Zoe Kourajian Rote ’16 is a middle school social studies teacher at a public school in Twin Cities, Minnesota, which has the largest urban population of Hmong people in the U.S. Her classroom mirrors that, but so does her curriculum, which she has built to reflect the life experiences and cultural backgrounds of her students.
For instance, Kourajian began to teach about the Secret War — which was fought in Laos during the final years of the Vietnam War and after which communists drove many Hmong out of the country — after one of her students inquired about it. This student, Kourajian said, more broadly helped shape her two-pronged approach to education.
“The first prong of that is that I truly believe it is the duty of every single teacher to ensure that their students are present and seen and heard in the classroom and in the curriculum,” she said. Her second prong, she added, is a focus on prioritizing critical thinking skills over memorization.
A short introduction of Qing Zhu ’19 MGA included details of his passion for positive peace and sustainable development, which began even before pursuing a master’s degree in global affairs and peace studies at Notre Dame. In 2013, he managed over 50 municipal projects in Tianjin, China, in order to improve water quality, reduce pollution and conserve wetlands. He is the co-founder of China’s first environmental social innovation consultancy, Pumbaa Eco.
Jessica Pedroza ’17, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was a first-generation college student at Notre Dame, where she majored in political science. She now advocates for educational equity in Congress. She has won an Educational Graduate Fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, and has worked alongside Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-N.M, and currently with Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.
On the other end of the spectrum, Marissa Koscielski ’17, ’18 M.S. has dedicated her life to pursuing improvement in mobility care after she was given a prognostic she’d never regain her ability to walk after a mass was removed from her spine in 2013. At Notre Dame, she received her bachelor’s degree for mathematics and graduated from the Engineering, Science, and Technology Entrepreneurship Excellence Master’s (ESTEEM) program. Other accomplishments include being able to walk again and founding Enlighten Mobility to offer patient-driven early intervention solutions in mobility care.
“While Notre Dame provided me the acumen to combine science with business to have a tangible impact in medicine, some of the most fundamental principles of my work actually were learned in this very building at the Center for Social Concerns,” Koscielski reflected. “When we acknowledge and take a vested interest in our shared humanity and then accompany our fellow human beings, especially the most vulnerable, we are able to participate in mutually transformative relationships. When we apply that philosophy to science or to innovation, we are able to create solutions that have never existed before.”
Claire Conley ’12 currently serves as assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown University. She has combined her interests in clinical psychology — which she obtained a master’s and doctoral degree for at the Ohio State University — and her personal experience with cancer — her mother, aunt and grandmother had breast cancer and survived — into a career in clinical psychology focused on supporting others through their diagnosis and fight against this disease.
Family history played a similar role in Rene Bermea’s career choice. After his sister was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor at only 6 years old, he said, he became motivated to pursue a career in medicine and biomedical research. Bermea graduated from Notre Dame in 2012 with degrees in biochemistry and philosophy and attended medical school at the University of Chicago. He is currently a fellow in the Harvard Medical School Pulmonary & Critical Care Medicine Fellowship Program. During the past year, he has taken care of scores of COVID-19 patients in critical condition and conducted research on lung transplantation and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).
Kiersten DeHaven ’14 said her journey to where she is now also started with one of her siblings — though halfway across the world in Istanbul, on their way to adopt her little brother in Kazakhstan. She became fascinated with how people experience faith, community and family. After she graduated from Notre Dame with a major in political science and a minor in Spanish, she joined the PeaceCorps in Western Samoa, became a rowing coach in New Zealand, earned a master’s degree in global human development from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and is now living in Ethiopia. There, she works as senior project manager at Kidame Mart — the country’s largest distribution network of high-impact products which seeks to empower over 3,000 rural female micro-entrepreneurs.
“So basically, we’re the Avon ladies minus the pink catalogs of Ethiopia,” DeHaven said.
Since the Tigray War broke out in Ethiopia in 2020, six Kidame Mart employees and a hundred of their women have disappeared, she said. DeHaven’s boyfriend, a photojournalist, had to flee to Turkey. On her way back to Notre Dame for the weekend, DeHaven once found herself once again in Istanbul, reflecting on the “twists and turns of life” and how faith and community have carried her through.
Matt Conaghan ’15 studied marketing at Notre Dame. After a post-graduation copywriting job at Ogilvy & Mather, he went to Dublin, Ireland, to work on a fundraising nonprofit called Change Donations, which allows users to round up the total of their purchases to the nearest dollar in order to donate the difference to a cause of their choice — which range from big nonprofits like Red Cross and UNICEF to an animal shelter in Galway and Flossie and the Beach Cleaners, a beach cleanup project. He also earned a master’s degree in digital marketing and strategy from Trinity College Dublin, where he is now an adjunct teaching fellow.
After graduating with an electrical engineering degree from Notre Dame, Justin Hickman ’16 obtained a doctoral degree from Cornell University. He has focused on the “development of aluminum nitride (AIN)-based power amplifiers, which have yielded a breakthrough in the ability to produce high-power millimeter-wave frequency signals,” according to his Domer Dozen biography. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Soctera, Inc.
Also an engineer, Captain Michael Hillmer ’17 graduated from Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. He serves in Hawaii as a commissioned cyber operations officer in the United States Air Force and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech.