The Path to Graduation: Six Student Success Stories

Top, from left: Brooke Clanton, Malik Dedner, Iliana Hernandez; botton: Caine McLeod, Justin Miles, Peyton Smith.
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Top, from left: Brooke Clanton, Malik Dedner, Iliana Hernandez; botton: Caine McLeod, Justin Miles, Peyton Smith.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – It takes hard work, sacrifice, talent and a great deal of support for any University of Arkansas student to earn his or her degree. These are just six of the thousands of success stories this year.

Brooke Clanton

Not every U of A graduate starts out here.

Brooke Clanton, from Hermitage, in Bradley County, graduated from a high school senior class of 32 students. She wanted to go to college close to home and her family, so she enrolled at the University of Arkansas, Monticello. She enjoyed three semesters there – but came to realize she wanted a career in agriculture communications, and for that degree she needed to transfer to Bumpers College on the Fayetteville campus. Fortunately, her time at Monticello taught her independence and gave her the confidence to make the change. She arrived at the U of A in 2016, the spring of her sophomore year, and blossomed in her new setting. 

Academically, she’s been on the dean’s list or chancellor’s list every semester since coming to the U of A. Outside of the classroom she got involved in campus groups like the Volunteer Action Center, the Student Alumni Association and the campus chapter of Tau Sigma, the national honor society for transfer students. Beyond campus joined groups connected with her chosen career, like the Collegiate Farm Bureau, the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow, and Sigma Alpha, the professional agricultural sorority.

Brooke also actively pursued internships to get professional experience, working a summer at Monsanto in St. Louis and three semesters at Tyson Foods, where she got hands on experience in public and media relations, digital communications and executive communications. With that experience, and her degree, it’s no surprise she has a job lined up after graduation with the Arkansas Agriculture Department, in Little Rock, where she will be managing the marketing and communications efforts for several programs in the department.  

“My passion is telling the story of American agriculture,” said Brooke. “This job gives me a platform to share that story. I ultimately see myself staying in Arkansas because it has always been where I call home.”

Malik Dedner

Malik Dedner is a busy man – a full-time accounting student at the U of A, he also works nearly full-time at a local restaurant and juggles a few other part-time jobs on the side.

But he’s not hard to find: just look for his channel on YouTube.

He set up the channel to encourage students like himself to work hard for their dreams. He tells them what he’s learned in four years: help is on the way – if you work for it.

Malik grew up in Little Rock. He said he was always good with numbers, but never thought about going to college until one of his teachers suggested that the University of Arkansas might be a good fit for him.

He stepped on campus for the first time at orientation, and it took time to adjust.

“At home I was part of the majority – here, for the first time I was a minority,” he said. “I’ve always been able to adapt – but it did take a little time.”

For Malik joining the Sam M. Walton College of Business was the easy part.

Paying for his education was harder – the reason for all those jobs.

“There were times I was more worried about paying for college instead of my school work, because I knew bills were about to be due,” he said. “It’s been a challenge, but I’m almost at the finish line.”

Scholarships helped him along the way – including the Advance Arkansas scholarship he received last fall.

“When I received the Advance Arkansas scholarship, I was ecstatic,” he said.  “The first person I called was my mom. It was an amazing feeling. She’s very proud of me. I’m getting close to meeting my goal, so I’m grateful.”

That scholarship, and others, helped inspire Malik to start his YouTube channel and keep his messages coming.

 “I started my channel because I felt like I wasn’t the average college student,” he said. “Regardless of where you come from, it’s not about how you start – it’s about how you finish.”

Malik will finish his senior year with his bachelor’s degree, followed by a professional internship this summer. Then he’ll have one more year to earn his MBA in accounting.

Iliana Hernandez

Iliana Hernandez understands sacrifice and hard work. When she was 5 years old her parents gave up promising careers in El Salvador for the sake of their children. At the time, El Salvador was emerging from civil war, its economy was in turmoil, its capital was dangerous – and then an earthquake hit, damaging their home.

“For my parents that was the last straw,” Iliana said. The family qualified for refugee status in the U.S. and moved with Iliana and her brother, eventually settling in Siloam Springs. Iliana went to school and her parents went to work supporting their children.

“They couldn’t find anything like their office jobs in El Salvador,” Iliana said. “But they told us they had no regrets.”

While her parents worked, they also pursued the ultimate security for their children citizenship. It was a long, slow process, but finally, two years ago, Iliana and her family became U.S. citizens.

Long before that happened Iliana mastered English but found that her real passion was in numbers. She wanted a career that used her talent for math. Then she heard about ECAP -- the Engineering Career Awareness Program at the University of Arkansas, which recruits students from underrepresented populations and prepares them to meet the demands of the College of Engineering. Career problem solved. Well almost.

“I didn’t even know there were different kinds of engineering,” she said. A three- week summer Bridge program introduced her to chemical engineering, and the idea of working with the processes of manufacturing appealed to her.

Meanwhile, Iliana was also being recruited by the Honors College Path program, which, like ECAP, provides peer and professional mentors to help students adjust and succeed at the university. She became both a chemical engineering major and a member of the Honors College.

“Path really pushes you to do things you didn’t think you needed that turn out to be exactly what you do need,” she said.

Like a pair of internships, first at the L’Oreal plant in Little Rock, the next at Frito-Lay in Jonesboro. Both went well – so well that after she graduates Iliana will start a job as a process engineer at Frito-Lay.

When she graduates Iliana will wear a cap she decorated with a message in Spanish for her parents. Roughly translated it means “They gave up their dreams so I could have mine.”

“My parents are proud and happy for me, but I could never have done this without their support and example,” she said. “They are my inspiration.”

Caine McLeod

The University of Arkansas changed Caine McLeod’s life – but the Marine Corps changed it first.

Caine, who grew up in Sillex, Missouri, will be the first to tell you he was a “horrible” student in high school. So he lived at home and worked in an aluminum casting plant for three years to save enough to go to the University of Central Missouri.

He found he wasn’t ready: his grades were low, he didn’t qualify for financial aid and he had to leave after a year.

That’s when he decided to join the Marine Corps, as a way to pay for another try at college. He picked what he considered the toughest branch of the military because he wanted to earn his G.I. benefits. He earned much more than that. 

“The Marines taught me discipline,” Caine said. “That’s what had always been missing when I was in school.”

He survived basic training and the Marines trained him to become an aircraft mechanic. The job is more involved than it sounds.

It includes maintaining helicopters, which he did for two years in Okinawa, Japan.

“I got to see what the engineers who designed the helicopters were doing, and the end result of their work.”

He also included two years as a production controller on an operation packing parachutes and life rafts for aircraft.

“In that job there was no margin for error. We had to make it perfect every time.”

Caine was a different person when he left the Marines. He had discipline and experience. He was ready for the University of Arkansas, and the College of Engineering.

When he studied abstract designs in class, he could see the practical results from experience.

When it came to school work, his goal was simple: to make it perfect every time.

Caine credits his teachers and the support network of fellow students for his success, but he is also considered a role model, a guy you want working on your team. He earned several scholarships, including the most prestigious one the department awards. He will graduate with a 3.9 average and a degree in industrial engineering.

He’ll stay in Arkansas, where he has a job lined up overseeing plants in three states.

All in all, an impressive change.

Justin Miles

Justin Miles finds ways to get things done.

When he was growing up in the small town of Gilmore, in Crittenden County, he and his five brothers played on the same city playground equipment his parents had used when they were children. Justin started going to city council meetings in Gilmore when he was 14, making a case for getting some new equipment. 

That didn’t work.

After high school he joined the Arkansas National Guard and spent nearly two years in training. He saved his money and in 2014 he bought land across the street from his parent’s house and turned it into a small park – with some new playground equipment.

But that’s just part of the story.

Justin had a much bigger goal when he joined the Guard: he wanted to be a doctor. The National Guard trained him to be a medical lab technician, in a program that earned him an associate’s degree from George Washington University.

That was step one.

“My family was very proud of me,” he said. “And while they couldn’t support me financially, they’ve provided tremendous support in other ways.”

Justin stayed in the Guard, training one weekend a month, three weeks in the summer, and enrolled in pre-med at the U of A. He took out loans his first two years to pay his bills, then began earning scholarships -- including one of the first from the Advance Arkansas initiative.

“Thanks to the scholarship support I’ve received over the last two years, I’ve been able to pay off my loans from the first two years,” he said. “When I graduate, I’ll be debt free.”

Justin also made good use of his Guard training while adding to his pre-med experience. He worked as a lab technician at the Pat Walker Health Center and made two trips to rural Nicaragua with the Global Dental Brigade, where he and other student volunteers essentially served as a walk-in clinic for thousands of people who normally never see a doctor.

Justin is set to begin medical school after graduation and ultimately hopes to practice in Arkansas, perhaps even back home in Gilmore.

It could happen.

Remember that playground – he recently delivered some new equipment that had been donated for it, finishing his personal project.

Justin Miles finds ways to get things done.

Peyton Smith

Peyton Smith chose Arkansas.

He grew up in Flower Mound, Texas, but his mom went to the U of A and so did his brother. His dad made a strong case for the Texas A & M, but a visit to Fayetteville was all Peyton needed.

He was equally impressed by the people and programs at Walton College. When he graduates he’ll get degrees in finance and management. But it was the spirit of entrepreneurship in Walton that really caught his imagination.

Peyton took a course his senior year called Social Innovation, that teaches students about social and environmental problems affecting the community, and ways to solve them. The course helped him hone an idea he’d had for a while. He and another student, Canon Reeves, co-founded a non-profit, ArkanCode, its mission to teach tech skills to marginalized people in Northwest Arkansas – refugees, low income people, abuse victims, the homeless.

“You don’t need a college degree to learn computer coding, for example” he said. “It’s not easy, but it can be learned. And once a person knows how, it opens up whole new opportunities.”

In the second semester he and Canon had another idea: to make STEM education accessible to all students, regardless of background or socioeconomic status. Using robots.

The concept won a local start-up contest and MORE Technologies was on its way.

MORE stands for Modular Open-Source Robotics Ecosystem, by the way. Canon is an engineering student and he and Peyton developed a simple robot. The company produces a kit, and as 8-12 year olds assemble the robot and learn to operate it they learn coding and other tech skills. While having fun.

Part of the business plan is to keep the kits are reasonably inexpensive.

“The non-electronic parts can be bought at Walmart,” Peyton said. “The rest of the kits are put together at our ‘3D printer farm’, which keeps costs low.”

The company has a staff of six, all U of A students or recent grads, everyone doing a little of everything. The kits are selling and eventually the company hopes to have products for people of all ages and all backgrounds.

Peyton chose Arkansas and plans to stay here. He has a job lined up with the Brewer Family Entrepreneurship Hub and the Office of Entrepreneurship. And, of course, his companies are here, too: he and Canon are hard at work preparing for the national launch of MORE Enterprises this summer.


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