UNMC student leaders: Where are they now?

Peter Whitted, MD, JD, 1977 student senate president; Jay Bansal, MD, 1987 student senate president; and Allison Cushman-Vokoun, MD, PhD, 2000 student senate president

This article and more were featured in the 2024 spring edition of UNMC Connect – a publication for alumni and friends. The online version of the publication is available at this link.

Faces and campus issues change, but the role of student senate president is constant: To promote the interests of UNMC students across all campuses and all colleges.  

Gregory Sorensen, a pharmacy alum, served as UNMC’s first student senate president in 1974. A few years later, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents welcomed the student body presidents from each NU campus as nonvoting, de facto members of the governing body. That regental role gave students a voice in influencing policy on a universitywide level.  

Each student senate president leaves an indelible mark on the university. Here, a series of past presidents share highlights of their terms, advice for current student leaders and an update on their proudest accomplishments post-graduation. 

Peter Whitted, MD, JD 

1977 Student Senate President

Career: Retired ophthalmologist 

“A truly usable fitness facility was always on our wish list and, in fact, a donor came forward to fund one, but the gift was turned down for lack of ongoing funds to maintain it. Student loans were an issue but not to the extent they are today. My main task was to help define the then-new role as student regent representing the medical center… If not the first one, I was one of the first. I thought it was important to be heard at the Board of Regents meetings and tried to stand up for the educational needs of UNMC students. 

“My advice for today’s campus leaders is to take back the narrative from the corporatization and financialization of health care. ‘Suits’ are controlling all levels of care and it’s not about access and quality but $$$$. 

“I’m most proud of the privilege of taking care of patients for 40 years … Their trust is a physician’s greatest gift. 

“Professionally, I’m also proud of being involved in medical liability reform through COPIC, being on the boards of Metro Omaha Medical Society, the Nebraska Medical Association and the American Academy of Ophthalmology, as well as being chairman of the University of Nebraska Foundation.” 

Susanne (Scott) Hiland, PharmD  

1985 Student Senate President  

Career: Senior director, Walmart Health and Wellness 

“As student senate president, I focused on finding ways to improve campus life. We looked at student fees and how they could best be used, updated student break/commons areas to make them more welcoming and scheduled activities to help lessen the pressures of demanding academic loads. 

“My most memorable work stemmed from serving as student regent; 1985 was an especially meaningful year for a pharmacy student to be in that seat. I remember a closed meeting of the Board of Regents when, due to budget constraints of the Nebraska Legislature, a vote was taken to close the college of pharmacy.  

“As a pharmacy student, it was devastating and personal but served as a call to action. We spent the summer in a statewide signature campaign to save the college of pharmacy and prevailed. 

“I’d tell student leaders: Approach your role as a servant leader, be an advocate and don’t try to do everything yourself. 

“Since graduating, I am proud of my time on active duty as a pharmacist in the Navy. Now in my 35th year with Walmart, I have had the opportunity to develop our clinical pharmacist program and start our accredited PGY1 Community Pharmacy Residency Program.” 

Jay Bansal, MD 

1987 Student Senate President 

Career: Medical director, LaserVue Eye Center, Santa Rosa, California 

“Serving as a student regent was a privilege and a highlight of my academic career. I learned about patience and playing the long game, while planting seeds and developing designs for new initiatives and also listening to the perspectives of diverse stakeholders. One of the issues was whether the nursing college should have a PhD program. There was no clear right or wrong — just different opinions that needed to be heard and skillfully harmonized. 

“My advice to today’s campus leaders is to listen more than you talk. Recognize that change comes about slowly. Don’t give up. 

“I’m proud of having developed a successful and thriving practice, taking care of my patients, working with a great and longstanding professional team and contributing to our community. 

“After the devastating Sonoma County fires in October 2017, my family lost our home, and I nearly lost my practice and new surgery center. Since then, my family has thrived and helped rebuild our community.”

Read his first-hand account in CRST at this link.

Allison Cushman-Vokoun, MD, PhD 

2000 Student Senate President

Career: Director, division of diagnostic molecular pathology and human genetics, and medical director, molecular diagnostics and personalized medicine laboratory, UNMC and Nebraska Medicine; fellowship director, ACGME Molecular Genetic Pathology Fellowship Program; professor, UNMC Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology 

“I served as the UNMC Faculty Senate President in 2019-2020 — 20 years after being student senate president and just as the pandemic was starting. 

“When I was a student leader, there was no Michael F. Sorrell Center for Health Sciences Education. Wittson Hall served as the backdrop for many students, and the mailbox system lacked privacy (academic test results used to be released in paper format into mailboxes; little was done via email/internet as it was slow). We worked with Chancellor (Harold) Maurer, MD, to improve this system. 

“We have wonderful training programs at UNMC, and our students and trainees are some of the smartest, hardest-working people I have met. The more we grow our educational programs here, the more human resources we have from which we can recruit. 

“I am proud of helping to build a robust clinical cancer genetics/genomics laboratory at Nebraska Medicine and UNMC to assist oncologists in treating advanced cancer patients with the newest precision therapeutics. I also am proud of the fellowship program I started, and have continued to direct, in molecular genetic pathology. Since its start in 2015, we have hired six of the MGP fellows as faculty in the department of pathology, microbiology and immunology.” 

Nick Behrendt, MD  

2005 Student Senate President  

Career: Physician, Colorado Fetal Care Center, specializing in maternal-fetal medicine and fetal surgery through the University of Colorado/Children’s Hospital Colorado/Anschutz Medical Campus in Denver 

“During my year as president of student senate, we tried to get a pool added to the Student Center…but that never happened! We worked with a local business to raise enough money to help fund a medical mission trip to Central America. Personally, I wrote a fight song for UNMC and sung it at a Board of Regents meeting. 

“My advice is to interact with leaders from across campus. Being a student leader is an incredible opportunity to see how a major academic medical center works. Your investment in this process helps build the future of UNMC and gives you experiences that will serve you well during your career. 

“I am proud to be part of a team (Colorado Fetal Care Center) that built a unit within Children’s Hospital Colorado that specializes in multidisciplinary care from prenatal to postnatal life. Because of this, I enjoy getting to work with patients and providers from my home state of Nebraska!” 

Brendan “Dan” Connealy, MD 

2006 Student Senate President  

Career: Partner, Perinatal Associates; maternal-fetal medicine provider, Methodist Women’s Hospital in Omaha 

“During my time as student senate president, the campus was undergoing significant growth and change. Measures were in place to grow and expand enrollment, and with that came the need for upgrading and expanding campus facilities. UNMC Student Senate representatives were involved in the design and layout of these upgrades, and their input was used to develop technology and multipurpose spaces that would lead to enhanced interdisciplinary educational opportunities that exist to this day.  

“My advice? Embrace opportunities to learn the academic side of professional education and explore the intricacies of the business and administrative sides of health care.  

“I love my clinical practice and the opportunity to be directly involved in patient care. I am proud to serve in leadership roles within our health system and across the state. I received my Executive MBA in Healthcare Administration in 2022 and hope to take what I’ve learned and improve patient care.  

“Lastly, who you chose to spend your life with is the most important decision you will ever make. I am blessed to have a wonderful wife of 22 years and five amazing children who keep me grounded.”

Curtis McKnight, MD 

2008 Student Senate President  

Career: Practicing psychiatrist, Phoenix, Arizona 

“The UNMC campus ban on smoking went into effect at the start of my tenure. It was many years in the making, and we were the first NU campus to do it. 

“My advice to today’s campus leaders is to doublecheck emails before sending! Also, the connections you make with leadership and administration are likely to be meaningful long after you’ve completed your service. 

“I am a proud associate professor for Creighton University through the Arizona Health Education Alliance and a Fellow of the Academy of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry (ACLP).”

Bradley Bohn, MD 

2009 Student Senate President  

Career: Assistant professor, department of family medicine, Mayo Clinic Rochester 

“2009 was a particularly challenging year with budget issues. Bob Bartee formed a legislative committee to formulate a strategy to help with the budget. I was proud of the work we put in. Additionally, we pushed for and passed a smoking ban on campus. It also was great to hold our senate meetings in what was, at that time, the new Sorrell Center. 

“I’d tell student leaders to spend time talking with the students you represent so you can best advocate for them. 

“I’m most proud of my military service. I commissioned while in medical school and have served in the Air National Guard since 2007. I finished flight surgeon school in 2017 and, in 2018, deployed to Afghanistan as a flight surgeon with the Nebraska Air National Guard. I have since transferred to the 133rd Airlift Wing in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I serve as the deputy chief of aerospace medicine.”

Jeremy Hosein, MD 

2013 Student Senate President 

Career: Neurosurgeon, Lincoln, Nebraska 

“We started a student grant program to fund projects for philanthropy and community building. We also brought the Readership Program to UNMC, which provides free newspapers so student professionals could stay informed of current events. 

“I’d encourage students to keep a daily journal for reflections and gratitude. 

“During the Trump administration, I am proud to have served as a White House Fellow for one year, working in the Office of Legislative Affairs and as an advisor to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.  
 
“In the future, I hope to visit all the presidential libraries. Four down so far!” 

Krupa Savalia, MD, PhD 

2014 Student Senate President  

Career: Assistant professor, department of neurological surgery, University of California-Davis 

“I am most proud of initiating and laying the groundwork for what became the ‘Grievance Resolution Procedure.’ I had the privilege of serving on the Graduate Student Association while completing my doctoral studies at UNMC. Through this leadership position, I learned more about the potential for conflict/struggle when a power dynamic exists between a mentee and their mentor. Many hours of research, interviewing students/faculty and writing went into developing a thoughtful policy which was judicious and, importantly, confidential. The goal was to create a safe place to further enhance a culture that aligns with the values of our great institution. 

“I also am proud of hosting the UNMC Student Senate’s first Leadership Summit, featuring former NBC News anchorwoman and UNMC College of Medicine alum Nancy Snyderman, MD … and creating the UNMC Graduate Student Oath with vice president Dr. Alicia Diener (in a car ride to Lincoln for a Board of Regents meeting). 

“My advice to students is to lead by example and collaborate across disciplines. Our role in health care is multidisciplinary, and I hope I created a safe space for our diverse student body to collaborate on innovative projects and to develop creative solutions. 

“Since graduating, I’m proud of surviving and, in some sense, thriving in my two-year critical care fellowship training, which occurred during some of the darkest days of the pandemic. 

“I am the proud mother of two wonderful children. I have an independent, creative and highly spirited 5-year-old, Natalia Raina, and an adventurous, strong-armed and sweet 1-year-old, Justinian Rohan. We were brave enough to travel from California to Italy with them, where we enjoyed exploring the beautiful north and eating lots of gelato.” 

Carissa Lueck, DPN 

2017 Student Senate President  

Career: Active-duty pediatric nurse practitioner and pediatric clinic element leader, RAF (Royal Air Force) in Lakenheath, United Kingdom 

“I was proud of our efforts to encourage students to reach out to legislators regarding university funding and other items of impact. I also was proud of the conversations and education around diversity and inclusion. 

“My advice to campus leaders is to talk to fellow students and senate members. Listen to their ideas — everyone has different and unique experiences that we can learn from. 

“Since graduating, I’m proud of receiving a secondary certification in primary care mental health. 

“Being able to travel around Europe while being stationed here is a big bucket list item!” 

Sarah Hotovy, MD 

2018 Student Senate President 

Career: Practicing family medicine with obstetrics, Mayo Clinic Health System, Eau Claire, Wisconsin 

“One of our main goals in student senate was to increase student interconnection. We worked hard to leverage virtual meeting technology (before Zoom became a way of life in 2020!) to include representatives from the campuses outside of Omaha. We also created an all-campus events email to increase student engagement. 

“My advice to students: Don’t be afraid to speak up! At times I worried I didn’t know enough about certain subject matter to add to the conversation. A mentor reminded me that I had a unique and important viewpoint to share as an expert on the student experience; if I did not contribute my insights, an important perspective would be left unheard. 

“I’m proud of being a four-year Pisacano Leadership Foundation Scholar through the American Board of Family Medicine. I’m inspired and encouraged by my fellow scholars’ commitment to innovation and excellence in our profession. 

“My husband and I welcomed a son, Micah, in September 2023. He is adored by all, but especially his big brother, Jack (age 2.5).”

Thomas (Tom) Schroeder, MD 

2020 Student Senate President 

Career: Urology residency, second year; Duke University, Durham, North Carolina  

“While senate president, we worked with other student leaders to help transition our university endowment to a portfolio that focused on ESG (environment, social, governance) parameters when choosing investments. We also worked to lower our overall focus on fossil fuels and had many conversations about ways to be more environmentally conscious. 

“I would tell students to make the most of your experiences. Try not to perseverate on things you cannot control. Focus on improving things you can. 

“I’m proud to say UNMC prepared me with the technical competency I needed to pursue a surgical residency, much of which was the result of working with great mentors and surgeons and having access to excellent resources.”

Taylor Kratochvil, MD 

2021 Student Senate President 

Career: Pediatric residency, second year, Boston Children’s Hospital & Boston Medical Center 

“While president, the senate launched the opt-out mental health counseling pilot program, which has since expanded to all new UNMC students, and initiated the UNMC Green Space Series (a recurring outdoor event series sparked by COVID event restrictions). 

“The most important role as a student leader is in building a culture of community. Despite UNMC’s growth over the past decade, the campus has maintained a “small town” feel in its supportive culture. As a student, you have a valuable perspective on how best to reinforce this culture for your fellow students. 

“Since graduating, I have been able to carry forward many initiatives I was involved in at UNMC, including the study of an opt-out mental health counseling program for pediatric residents (mirroring UNMC’s) and the expanded study of a clinical tool (developed while at UNMC) to promote healthy screen media use in kids. 

“I have accepted a chief resident position at Boston Children’s Hospital and plan to pursue further training (likely in pediatric gastroenterology). I also look forward to returning home to UNMC and Children’s Nebraska in the not-so-distant future.”

7 comments

  1. Tom O’Connor says:

    Cool story, Karen. Appreciate the time you put into this – it was very nostalgic and enlightening.

  2. Marcela Williams says:

    This is a great story! It is wonderful to see all the powerful things they did as students for the University but even better to see where their careers have taken them.

  3. Dara Troutman says:

    This article was so much fun to read. Having worked with many of these student leaders while in the Office of the President, it’s great to learn what they are up to now.

  4. Susan says:

    Great article, Karen!

  5. Sarah Schaefer says:

    This was such a fun read! I loved learning about everyone’s journeys and how much (or how little) they’ve changed since their student days. The photos were a great addition!

  6. Dave Carver says:

    Karen, thanks for writing this wonderful story about a truly outstanding group of student leaders. Over the years I had the honor and privilege of working with most of them while serving as the Student Senate advisor. I’m not surprised that they all have achieved so much in their careers after graduating from UNMC!

  7. C.K. Duryea says:

    This article warmed my heart and filled me with pride! Decades of noble humanity. I’ve already passed this on to so many peeps, including a few “moms” of those interviewed. Afterall, that’s where it all started.

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