Top of a commencement cap that says "Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire"

What’s next? A few members of the Class of 2018 share their stories

With commencement just a few days away, many on campus are preparing to walk across the stage and start the next phase of their life after years of hard work. We talked with graduating students from each school to see how they got here, what their time was like on campus and where they’re heading next.

Justin Bibb

Weatherhead School of Management/School of Law

Photo of Justin BibbJustin Bibb returned to Cleveland after spending time in Washington, D.C., London and New York City to be part of his hometown’s growing renaissance. Not only did Case Western Reserve University allow him to live in the city he had called home, but it also provided him with the necessary business and law backgrounds to contribute to the city’s growth.

Bibb knew that combining the two fields would give him an ideal base knowledge for city management.

“From developing legislation for creating new economic development tax credits to negotiating with labor unions to implement pension reform, the intersection of law and business is at the center of city management and my desire to understand the relationship between these disciplines compelled me to pursue my JD/MBA,” he said.

In addition to the schools’ curricula, Bibb also had the opportunity to gain practical skills through student organizations. He was involved with the Corporate Finance and Law Alliance at the School of Law and the Innovation/Design/Entrepreneurial Association Club at the Weatherhead School of Management.

Meanwhile, he was making an impact on Cleveland, serving on the boards of institutions such as Destination Cleveland, Teach for America and LAND Studio. Additionally, he co-founded Hack Cleveland, “a community initiative focused on leveraging civic technology to address social justice issues throughout the city.”

Next, Bibb will head to Gallup as a senior consultant, where he’ll focus on building the firm’s Global Cities Practice, which will assist cities in driving economic competitiveness using data and analytics.

Rita Maricocchi

College of Arts and Sciences
Bachelors of Arts in French, German and Political Science

Photo of Rita Maricocchi holding ice creamAs a junior, Rita Maricocchi had a transformative experience when she studied abroad for two semesters in Heidelberg, Germany.

“It was an incredibly impactful and memorable experience for me that continues to influence my studies and plans for the future,” said Maricocchi, a German, French and political science triple major.

So impactful, in fact, that she will return to Germany in the fall as a Fulbright English teaching assistant in the state of Saxony. During the program, she will assist part-time in English classes in a German school.

She also will have the opportunity to explore a part of Germany she’s never seen and engage with the community, just as she did in Cleveland.

While a student at Case Western Reserve, Maricocchi was heavily involved with the Center for Civic Engagement and Learning (CCEL), working with the Cleveland Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services and the after-school youth writing program Lake Erie Ink. Here on campus, she tutored other students in German and as part of the Spoken English Language Tutoring Program.

In Germany, she hopes she can continue volunteering with a refugee resettlement agency.

But before she heads to Germany, she will go to Paris, France, to continue work she started as part of her capstone in French. She will research French author Françoise Sagan with films and archival materials at the French Cinematheque and the National Library. The Eva L. Pancoast Fellowship for Women in the College of Arts and Sciences will provide the funding for Maricocchi to continue her work in France.

Megan Palko Grudzinski

Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing
Master of Nursing

Photo of Megan Palko GrudzinskiU.S. Army veteran Megan Palko Grudzinski was nervous when she first started her master’s program at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. In addition to the usual start-of-school jitters, she was a non-traditional student, having served in the military. She also would be accompanied to class by her service dog, Harley, who helps her with post-traumatic stress disorder from her time in Afghanistan.

She worried that she would be viewed differently. Instead, she felt both she and Harley were welcomed.

“Case [Western Reserve] realizes that there are non-traditional students and they really try to include everyone in campus life and activities,” Palko Grudzinski said.

Now, both she and Harley will walk together at commencement.

But she won’t have a long “post-grad” period after commencement Sunday. After earning her master’s degree in nursing, she plans to return to Case Western Reserve this fall for the Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner program.

And that’s not the only thing Palko Grudzinski has to look forward to this fall: She will travel to Australia in October to compete at the Invictus Games, a military competition founded by Prince Harry for wounded, ill and injured service members.

Palko Grudzinski was one of 75 individuals selected to represent the United States; she will compete in cycling, track, swimming and rowing events.

She will see some familiar faces at the games, too, as other members of the national level team for the Army in track will attend.

“We aren’t just teammates—we’ve become family,” she said. “Invictus Games is for wounded, injured and ill service members, so having people that understand your struggles and that you can talk to has been amazing.”

Ivy Petsinger

Case School of Engineering
Bachelor of Science in Engineering

Photo of Ivy PetsingerBefore last winter, Ivy Petsinger, had only been out of the country once: on a cruise when she was so young she hardly remembers it. Over winter break, she got her first true global experience while traveling to Tanzania for a study abroad course. There, she worked with chemical engineering and MBA students to install solar panels in off-grid villages and worked on consulting projects with social entrepreneurs.

“While growing up, from a distance I had heard of people traveling the world to follow passions, pursue initiatives and advocate for change; I never imagined that’s something I could do one day,” Petsinger said. “At CWRU, I learned that opportunities exist all around us and there are ample avenues to follow our dreams; we just have to open up our eyes, minds, and hearts, and go after them!”

And that’s just what Petsinger will do after she graduates.

First, she will build off an on-campus initiative she spearheaded as part of the Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual Health Task Force. The project initially started as an effort to provide free menstrual products in bathrooms across campus. But when Petsinger and fellow student Geneva Magsino realized the problem was far greater in low- and middle-income countries, they decided to take their mission abroad.

Working with two non-governmental organizations, Petsinger, Magsino and fellow students will travel to Cameroon to help empower women and girls. They aim to reduce the stigma surrounding menstruation with education and mentorship, and by providing reusable menstrual hygiene kits.

After that, Petsinger will return to Tanzania as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching math and science to secondary students.

In addition to her advocacy work, Petsinger also served as CWRU’s Undergraduate Student Government president.

“As president of USG this past year, I sincerely enjoyed the strides we made toward becoming a more collaborative body,” she said. “These partnerships formed not only allowed for advocacy, initiatives, and projects to result in greater outcomes, but also fostered the development of growth as diverse minds and hearts came together to share different perspectives, learn from one another, and support one another with the shared goal of improving the experiences and lives of everyone that makes up this community.”

Aaron Rentrope

Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences
Master of Science in Social Administration

Photo of Aaron RentropeWhen news broke about the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent protests, Aaron Rentrope felt a half a world away—and he was, serving with his wife in the Peace Corps in Uganda.

“It seemed like the window was opened finally to start talking about this and change the future for the next generation,” Rentrope said.

So as he and his wife looked into social work schools, they looked for cities engaged in those discussions that had institutions with strong programs in social work.

The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences’ emphasis on field work ultimately drew them to Cleveland, and Case Western Reserve University.

On campus, Rentrope continued the mission to have important conversations by forming the organization Collective Action Toward Social Justice. Through that organization, faculty, staff and students started the “Art in Action” program with two installations, the first on race and policing and the second on gender-based violence. He also worked with the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities.

Through his program at the Mandel School, he interned with a detention center, even reaching out to families to better understand the challenges they face and how they can be addressed.

“I took any opportunity to get out into the community to help out with different programs that they had to improve the outcomes for the youths who were in detention or probation,” Rentrope said.

Britni Skoda

School of Dental Medicine
Doctor of Dental Medicine

Photo of Britni SkodaBritni Skoda remembers loving her dentist as a kid, and always knew that was the career path she wanted to pursue. But she didn’t know how to make it happen.

Soon, she will achieve her lifelong ambition: After commencement, she will work at ImmediaDent in South Euclid as an associate dentist.

“[I] found my way through a really crooked road—lots of twists and turns,” Skoda said.

The path started with an undergraduate education in business, followed by several years in the field. Eventually, though, she decided to make a major life change and pursue dental medicine.

First, she took several undergraduate courses to get the necessary prerequisites, some while working full time and then, as the classes became more intensive, quitting her job to go back to college to finish up coursework.

The Case Western Reserve School of Dental Medicine was the only program she applied to—as it was the only place she wanted to go. It had the ideal combination of location, reputation and early clinical exposure.

In addition to her coursework, Skoda was the president of the school’s American Student Dental Association. Through her involvement with the organization, Skoda was engaged in advocacy, traveled to conferences and implemented educational activities at local schools.

After Skoda had people take interest in helping her develop professionally, she wanted to pay it forward, which her work with the American Student Dental Association allowed her to do.

Now, with commencement just a few days away, Skoda knows she made the right decision to go back to school.

“It almost seems like a different person lived that previous life because I feel so much happier, so much more fulfilled and so much more like myself than I ever have,” she said. “There is not a second that I would ever look back and think I made the wrong decision. I’m 100 percent confident I did the right thing and I just can’t wait to really live this life now.”

Stephanie Starek and Brandon Wojtasik

School of Law
Juris Doctorate

Photo of Brandon Wojtasik and Stephanie StarekStephanie Starek and Brandon Wojtasik first met while undergraduate students at Baldwin Wallace University, where they began dating in 2012.

When the couple first began looking at law schools, they agreed they would individually decide where to go. It just so happens they both fell in love with Case Western Reserve.

Now, three years later, they have jobs lined up in downtown Cleveland: Starek with Jones Day and Wojtasik at the litigation group at Calfee, Halter, & Griswold.

While at Case Western Reserve, Starek and Wojtasik served on the executive board of the Case Western Reserve Law Review, with Starek as executive notes editor and Wojtasik as administrative director.

Starek also was involved with Moot Court, winning the Dean Dunmore Moot Court Competition in her second year, and joining the American Bar Association Moot Court Team. She and her partner advanced out of the Regional Tournament in Portland, Oregon.

Meanwhile, Wojtasik was part of the Student Bar Association, chairing the social committee and sitting on the Dean’s Advisory Committee.

Last fall, they both spent time in Washington, D.C., to complete their capstone. When exploring the capital their first week, Starek mentioned to Wojtasik how much she loved the Lincoln Memorial.

Wojtasik filed that information away, and a few months later, it’s where he dropped down on one knee to ask Starek to marry him. She said yes.

Now, the couple is planning a wedding for December 2019.

But before they walk down the aisle, they will walk across the stage at commencement and celebrate their hard work during law school.

“Celebrating commencement together is an awesome experience because we truly understand the amount of work and effort involved in earning a law degree,” they said. “It’s fun getting to walk across the stage in the same ceremony. Also, we both know that commencement only permits so much celebrating since the bar exam is only a few months down the road.”

Rita Tohmé

School of Medicine
PhD in Molecular Medicine

Photo of Rita TohmePart of what intrigues Rita Tohmé about life after completing her PhD in molecular medicine is “the unknown.”

“It is a new challenge, a new opportunity to grow and prove myself, a new opportunity to widen my knowledge in the cancer research field,” she said. “And I get to share this new chapter with my best friend and husband, Elias, who is also a CWRU medical school alumna.”

But Tohmé, who will graduate from the School of Medicine Sunday, does have at least part of her future locked down. She will begin her post-doctoral work at Cleveland Clinic in July as a researcher under Yogen Saunthararajah. In her new position, Tohmé will develop therapies to treat both pancreatic and liver cancer.

Her research will build off the work she did during her doctoral program with her mentor Goutham Narla, associate professor of medicine. At CWRU, Tohmé focused on how to overcome the resistance to therapies that patients with lung cancer develop.

Outside of the lab and classroom, Tohmé was highly involved. When she first came to Case Western Reserve, Tohmé got started with the Graduate Student Council (GSC) early on, first as vice president for social and special programs, and then as president of the organization.

“From planning the Graduate Student Appreciation Week Ball at the Cleveland Museum of Art to advocating on behalf of graduate students when the tax reforms threatened affordability to graduate education, the GSC has allowed me be there for my fellow students,” she said.

This past year, Tohmé also served on the search committee in helping to select Ben Vinson III as the university’s next provost.

In addition to her roles on campus, Tohmé also is the president of the Northeast Ohio Chapter for the Worldwide Alumni Association of the American University of Beirut, her alma mater.