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Congrats to our Big Cat Heroes!

Heroism comes in many forms and is especially needed in uncertain and challenging times like these. The contributions of these individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic have made a positive impact on others – an outcome that is heroic by many measures. We are proud to name them Big Cat Heroes.

Round 3 Big Cat Heroes

Rachel Peters, Learning Technology Manager, OIT

Nomination Statement: Rachel has been critical part of our campus going to remote instructions. She was in charge of multiple projects and is the administrator for CatCourse (Canvas):

Some of the projects that I know she was apart or in charge of include creating the OIT Educational Continuity webpages for faculty, staff and students, setting up a temporary solution for remote labs to allow students access to specialized software when we went remote in March, creating instructions to help faculty integrate Zoom with CatCourse, integrating new Zoom security to prevent Zoom bombing, setting up the Chat feature on the OIT website to give users another avenue to access support than calling, among many other critical projects.

Again, we could have not done remote instruction without Rachel and she has worked tirelessly during COVID-19.


Hala Alnagar, Sociology Ph.D. Candidate and Graduate Student Researcher for EDI

Nomination Statement: Hala was instrumental in the analysis of our People First COVID-19 experience survey conducting focus groups across staff, faculty (senate and non-senate) as well as grad students to ensure we had qualitative data to accompany the quantitative data. She helped develop the recommended actions post-survey as well and presented findings to leadership and our campus community to ensure the findings were accessible to all. She also ensures the People First website is up to date and drafts communications with the same so that our responsiveness is real time and we stay true to our mission of placing our people first.

Additionally, Hala analyzed the childcare survey identifying several pods for our campus community based on location and educational needs of campus families.

Lastly, Hala has been instrumental in supporting our Valuing Black Lives task force providing subcommittees with the foundational documents, guiding questions and ensuring that the work moves forward seamlessly.


John Villalvazo, Student and Resident Service Desk Lead Office Assistant

Nomination Statement: John lead the Resident Service Desk Team through the pandemic outbreak which required the team to prepare for an unexpected move out of over 2000 students. Before signage was available, John created and set up signage at our check out stations, the front desk, and around the California Room to control the flow of traffic and abide by Covid-19 guidelines (floor markers for people to stand 6 ft apart, mask and gloves stations, one-way directional traffic flow, max occupancy in office setting). Due to the timing of the outbreak, many students were also going home for spring break and during that period, our students were informed that they were now under a “shelter in place” order. When the instruction went to online/remote learning, many students decided to stay home. John worked with his team to assist students that didn’t return to campus with getting their mail forwarded and providing them with options for returning their room key while under “shelter in place” orders.

I recommend John without reservation as he has demonstrated authentic leadership and service while working through a virus outbreak, assisting students transition to remote learning, and though it all, always keeping in mind the best interest of our students and their families.


Katie Brokaw, Associate Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures

Nomination Statement: Before the pandemic she was a clear student advocate and wonderful professor. Since the pandemic, she has worked tirelessly to ensure students are not only receiving the quality of education they deserve, but she also prioritizes the safety, health and mental wellbeing of her students above her own needs and desires. In developing her online course, she has intentionally included welfare checkups and social/emotional engagement (e.g., Spotify playlists) for the students. As the Chair of Literature and Languages, she has also given her own time and effort to support others, including all of us TAs, in working through the challenges of online learning. While it is all too common to write these things off as “part of the job,” which has an element of truth, it is her selfless devotion to others which I believe embodies the Bobcat spirit.  I have been privileged to work through my Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Humanities where so many of our professors tirelessly encourage us and support our needs. I feel both honored and privileged to work under Professor Brokaw’s guidance.

Round 2 Big Cat Heroes

Guillermo Rivas, Senior Custodian 

Nomination Statement: I had to go to campus to get my computer fixed. While there, I came across Guillermo (from a distance of course). During these times, kindness makes all the difference. Guillermo is a true act, he was wiping down the surfaces of the building, including door knobs and counters, and as I saw him, his kindness to share a smile underneath his mask, and laugh, brightened the room. It is warm gestures like this that make all the difference in helping us get through these times. These warm acts of kindness mentioned above, strengthen and build a resilient campus.



Justin Hicks, Associate Teaching Professor, Economics and Business Management 

Nomination Statement: I wanted to nominate Professor Justin Hicks for the Big Cat Hero award; he has helped me a lot during my limited time at UC Merced and I think he deserves it. I joined the campus last year as a transfer student and I knew I wanted to make the most of my two years at UC Merced but had no idea what to do. After talking to my fellow econ students, all of them recommended I talk to Professor Hicks. I showed up at his office hours, not even in one of his classes yet, but he was nevertheless willing to help.

Now, during quarantine, he still manages to make his classes as enjoyable as they are in person.  His lectures never fail to create a narrative that truthfully shows the material, all the while making it easy to understand and entertaining. Many students trip and fall over the way, struggling with the difficult math or amount of reading required. However, Professor Hicks is always present for office hours to offer a helping hand to any who arrive, even a random transfer student.


Lisseth Lopez-Ponce, Student

Nomination Statement: As a student, I would like to nominate my peer Lisseth Lopez-Ponce, a third-year Political Science and Spanish double major for the COVID-19 Big Cat Heroes Award. Not only has Lisseth shown incredible resilience in these troubling times, but she has been a major part of our campus through her involvement in organizations and advocacy. Lisseth Lopez Ponce has advocated for financial aid and mental health resources for a variety of students from every background. In addition, Lisseth has served as an excellent example of professionalism, maintaining membership in organizations such as the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-law fraternity and UCM Lobby Corps. Lisseth is known by many of her peers for being highly supportive and motivated to not only better herself, but her community as well. I believe that Lisseth is more than fit for receiving this award, and I could not think of a better nominee. 


Melanie LeGro, Doctoral Candidate and Aristotle House Fellow

Nomination Statement: I enthusiastically nominate Melanie LeGro. Melanie has worked with me since Fall of 2019 in implementing Aristotle House, one of the living-learning communities in the School of Natural Sciences. As a House Fellow, her responsibilities include teaching a one-unit first-year seminar, connecting students to critical campus resources, and engaging LLC students in the hopes they’ll make a home away from home… all of which have been made challenging due to COVID-19. Every step of the way, Melanie’s determination to give her best to her students remains unwaivering. She approaches her work with students with excitement and is energized by the challenge of connecting with students virtually. Her pedagogical approach is a model for all to follow; challenging students to become the best version of themselves while employing empathic and compassionate care for students who are overwhelmed by the transition to UC Merced (all while balancing the responsibilities of a Ph.D. program!). Her desire to mentor and uplift others aligns itself with the our motto: Fiat Lux. Undoubtedly, Melanie shares her light and brings out the light in others.

Round 1 Big Cat Heroes

Dr. Aparupa Sengupta, Biosafety Officer, Environmental Health and Safety

Nomination Statement: I would like to nominate our Campus Biosafety Officer, Dr. Aparupa Sengupta, for a Big Cat Hero Award. Through late nights, early mornings, and countless meetings, she has adapted from managing the research-specific biosafety program to being a subject matter expert on nearly all things COVID-19 on campus. From critically decisive meetings as part of the Emergency Operations Center, to training essential employees on COVID-19-specific cleaning and safety practices, to leading the packaging and shipping operations that allows for COVID-19 diagnostic testing on campus, she takes on all that is asked of her and makes it happen. Through her tireless efforts, she strives to give our community whatever it needs, whether it is a clear path forward, recommendations and guidance, or just plain peace of mind. When it comes to campus contributions in this unsettling time, I cannot think of anyone more deserving of recognition than Aparupa.


Shayna Bennett, Graduate Student

Nomination Statement: In answer to your recent call for "Nominate a Big Cat Hero Today!" I want to nominate graduate student Shayna Bennett ( for the following reasons:

1) For her active support, clarity, and voice to school authorities regarding the changed immigration policies for international graduate students during the COVID-19 period,

2) For her initiative to clarify graduate student doubts about the health insurance problems during the week of Aug 3rd,

3) For her efforts to make sure graduate student concerns during the COVID time are getting raised to the appropriate personals through her work with the GSA,

4) For her effort, with the GSA, to take steps toward Diversity / Action Against Racism in the 2020-2021 Academic Year, and

5) For her work to inform the graduate community of child care funding options during the COVID time.


Grace Newman, Student

Nominated Statement: Recently due to the whole pandemic, us students haven't been able to interact with each other, us freshmen being the most impacted. Due to this, a Senior named Grace Newman (email: took the initiative to connect a lot of us through a social app called Discord. She made a server and now I can talk to a lot of people, so I don't feel alone at all during these times. I hence want to nominate Grace for the Big Cat Hero award.




Carolin Frank, Associate Professor, Life and Environmental Studies

Nominated Statement: I would like to nominate Professor Carolin Frank of the School of Natural Sciences as a Faculty Big Cat Hero. As the Chair of the Senate Committee on Faculty Welfare and Academic Freedom (FWAF), which is (unlike some other positions) an uncompensated position, Carolin has taken upon herself to address welfare issues that became more acute during the Covid-19 emergency, and has reached out beyond faculty, to staff and graduate students who are parents and thus are bearing unprecedentedly heavy burden during this pandemic.

Carolin hosted an online gathering for all parents, and has authored a survey on and is facilitating the potential organization of childcare “pods,” personally identifying possible pods and emailing all parents. She has authored committee memos in spring, summer, and fall, advocating for the mitigation of COVID-19 impacts on faculty with family care responsibilities, and offering actionable solutions.

Carolin has done all of this while she herself is a parent of three children, all of whom are doing schoolwork remotely, on top of her teaching and research activities. I know this because I am the Senate analyst for FWAF, and also her friend since our oldest children were in preschool (now they are both in high school!).

Carolin embodies the spirit of community, by reaching out to all parents, beyond faculty; resilience, by offering workable solutions to address faculty welfare during these difficult times; and heroism, by going above and beyond the call of duty as the FWAF Chair even as she shoulders the additional burden of homeschooling three children.