Luther Alumni Magazine

Stellar seniors

Meet six seniors who illustrate something special about the Luther experience. 

Philip Bagnoli: Making an impact in the ICU

Phillip Bagnoli
Phillip Bagnoli

The frail, ailing man spoke no English, and Philip Bagnoli spoke no Hindi. But that didn’t matter in the least as the two sat together, hands grasped, amid the hustle and bustle of the ICU at Holy Family Hospital, a small missionary medical center in New Delhi, India. 

“He was alone and just wanted me to sit with him,” says Bagnoli, a nursing major from Grinnell, Iowa, who served a two-month internship at the hospital in the summer of 2018. “I knew that he was scared, and I knew that I could comfort him.”

While at Holy Family Hospital, working under staff nurses’ supervision, Bagnoli also dispensed medication, inserted IVs, initiated tube feedings, suctioned tracheostomies, and provided comfort to many other patients in need of compassionate care. “ICU nursing is intense, but it’s also rewarding to be a part of something so scary for others and help make their experience as positive as possible,” he says. “I feel like I can really make an impact as an ICU nurse—it’s work I feel called to do.”

Bagnoli felt that call from the moment he entered the Winneshiek Medical Center in Decorah, where, as a sophomore, he spent a day shadowing ER nurses. “I really liked the pace and flow of the ER, and knew I could do well in an environment where I had to think critically on my feet,” he says. Serving his senior capstone in surgical trauma ICU at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, solidified Bagnoli’s decision to pursue critical-care nursing as a career: “It’s work I can see myself doing for quite a long time,” he says.

Bagnoli felt just as sure about his decision to enroll at Luther, made during his first campus visit. “The sense of community was immediately apparent to me,” he says. “I knew I could get a good education at many colleges, but I was looking for a community where I felt like I could be my best version of myself and explore parts of me that I had not yet explored.”

The college’s setting along the banks of the Upper Iowa River and the bluffs of the Driftless Region—topography that reminded him of his childhood in Berea, Kentucky—was a very welcome bonus. An avid outdoorsman, Bagnoli frequently ventured outside when he wasn’t taking classes, preparing for work as a lab assistant, or leading tours of campus for prospective students. “I love backpacking and day hiking, camping and canoeing, mountain biking and running—really just about anything that will get me outside,” he says. This spring, Bagnoli even trained for his first marathon on Decorah’s Trout Run Trail.

The outdoors, in fact, played a key part in his decision to move to Tacoma, Washington, this August to work as a nurse in the neuro/trauma ICU at Tacoma General Hospital while exploring Mount Rainier and other natural draws of the Puget Sound region. While his address may change in the years ahead, Bagnoli knows he is in nursing for the long haul. “The great thing about nursing is that there are so many options and so many tracks one can follow. I like to keep life interesting,” he says, “and with nursing, that is easy to do.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam

Marta Williams: Luther lab opens doors for neuroscientist

Marta Williams
Marta Williams

This September, Marta Williams boarded an overnight flight to Germany, where she is already hard at work investigating a possible future treatment for Parkinson’s disease. “I’m using mouse models to test the possible neuroprotective effects of a compound called polysialic acid,” she says of that research, which she is conducting as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bonn.

Williams is quick to point out her journey to receiving a prestigious Fulbright all began in the Sampson Hoffland laboratory of Stephanie Fretham ’05, Luther assistant professor of biology. Fretham uses C. elegans nematodes, or microscopic worms, to investigate the effect of metals on the nervous system and the interaction between genetic and environmental factors in the development of neurodegenerative disease. “Gaining experience in Dr. Fretham’s lab opened a lot of doors for me,” she says. “It was that initial lab experience that allowed me to gain even more complex lab experience.”

And the research experience Williams gained while working toward a major in biology is inarguably impressive. She spent one summer conducting research at the University of Minnesota and another at New York University. This past summer, she continued her use of C. elegans to study neurological disease at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California. “I have been primarily looking at one particular signaling pathway and how it interacts with iron regulation to influence aging, neurotoxicity, and other things that we know contribute to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s,” she explains.

Given Williams’s almost laser-like focus on neurological research, one might think her career path was clear-cut from the start—but that was far from the case. “I grew up in a very musical family, playing piano and flute and singing,” says Williams, who hails from Woodbury, Minnesota. Upon matriculating at Luther, from which her sister, Leah, graduated in 2017, she deliberately kept her options open, signing up for music theory, Latin, chemistry, and (of course!) Paideia classes her first semester. “I quickly decided I wanted to major in biology, but I also wanted to get the most out of my liberal arts experience,’’ she says. “So I took religion, sociology, and Spanish courses, focusing on taking varied classes that genuinely interested me, as opposed to obtaining credits for one particular minor.”

Williams also indulged her passion for music by performing in two Luther ensembles each year, one instrumental (playing piccolo and flute) and one choral. She singles out her Concert Band piccolo solo in Sousa’s iconic “Stars and Stripes Forever” as one of her most treasured musical experiences to date. “A big part of my choosing Luther was that I could participate fully in music while not having to major in it,” she says.

While making the most of her Fulbright year—“I’m constantly striving to improve myself, and I love to embrace a challenge,” she says—Williams has her sights set on medical school, and ultimately on a career in neurology, neurosurgery, or perhaps psychiatry. “Neuroscience is an area where medicine and research really do coexist,” she says. “There is so much related to neurodegenerative diseases that we don’t know yet—and that makes it an intriguing area to study.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam

Italee Castellon: Overcoming personal tragedy while helping others

Italee Castellon
Italee Castellon

Italee Castellon grew up the child of a single mother in a large Mexican American family. Her neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, she says, saw more than its share of violence, gangs, and drugs: “The first thing you’re taught is Don’t talk to strangers, don’t look anybody in the eye. But I’ve always loved people. So here I am, this weird toddler who will make friends with anybody and everybody. It was odd to see that sprout up in my neighborhood.”

Castellon was the first in her family to go to college and the first to leave Chicago. At Luther, she found her groove in social work. She remembers an early class visit to a prison during which students talked to a panel of inmates. “A lot of people were asking pretty normal questions, but I raised my hand and asked, ‘Before you got into trouble, what was your childhood dream?’ It caught them off guard. They were stunned for a second, then said, ‘No one’s ever asked us that before.’” They urged her to become a social worker.

That was indeed her plan, but sadly, a family tragedy would test her resolve earlier and far more brutally than she ever expected.

In April of her sophomore year, she was working on campus when she got some devastating news. Her mother had died unexpectedly, leaving behind Castellon’s one-year-old sister, Cali. “Obviously, I’m not the only person who’s lost a parent,” she says, “but I am one of the few who’s gained a child at the same time.”

Castellon’s cousins came to pick her up, and they drove through the night, arriving in Chicago just as the sun was rising. From there, Castellon was plunged into a chaotic period of consulting lawyers and charities and making lots of decisions, with the support of her extended family. In addition to identifying her mother’s body and planning and hosting a funeral, Castellon says, “My mother didn’t have any life insurance, she didn’t have a job, she had bills in my name I didn’t even know about.” And, most importantly, there was Cali to consider.

At just nineteen, as a college sophomore, Castellon adopted her sister, placed her in custody with family members, then returned to Luther two weeks later to finish her degree. It was a hard decision, but she knew it was the only way forward, telling herself, “This is my one shot—I can’t let this go. If I do, my mom’s going to haunt me my whole life!”

Castellon’s made the most of her “one shot,” embracing volunteer and other opportunities. She became a youth mentor through Luther’s PALS program and through Helping Services of Decorah. She volunteered as a translator at Decorah’s Riverview Center and First Lutheran Food Pantry. She was selected as the first social work major to participate in Luther’s Social Impact Fellowship, a grant-funded program that partners a social work student with a business student to research a problem and develop a business plan to address it. She was also cofounder and first president of Latines Unides, a student organization that supports Hispanic/Latino students and celebrates their culture.

Castellon started her master’s degree in social work at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa, this fall. After graduating, she plans to get settled in a counseling career and arrange for her sister to live with her, even if she’s not exactly sure where yet. “I need a stable job, stable housing, and a good school district for Cali,” she says. “I’ll go anywhere that meets those criteria, as long as it’s nice.”

—Kate Frentzel

Janet Irankunda
Janet Irankunda

Janet Irankunda: From place of struggle to campus leader

Janet Irankunda is a powerful example of how a college experience can transform a life. Born in Tanzania, her family was fractured during the Rwandan genocide. She and her mom became refugees in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, while her dad stayed behind.

“Being a refugee is tough,” she says. Her mom, who arrived in the U.S. speaking no English and without knowing anyone in her new country, worked long hours to barely scrape by on rent and food. “It’s very isolating,” Irankunda says. “My goal throughout my education and life in general is to make sure no one feels that same level of isolation or disparity, and the only way for me to do that is through my education.”

Irankunda struggled with self-esteem in high school: “Every day I went to school worrying if people would smell the poor on me. . . . I hated my clothes, my body, my hair, even my voice. And this is the way I came to Luther—scared of my circumstances and resigned to living a life without friends because of what I deemed as my social status.”

Even today, Irankunda wouldn’t call herself confident, but says she’s “been empowered” during her time at Luther. A glance at her resume would certainly suggest as much: Student Senate president and two-time class representative; student body representative on both the Strategic Planning Committee and the Presidential Search Committee; student director of Gospel Choir; vice president of Cathedral Choir; president of Aurora; and winner of the Krahn Family Student Life Service Award, the Kuh Family “Positively Luther” Award, the Steven Mark Anderson Scholarship, the Timothy and Sandra Peter Leadership Award, and the Jenson Medal. 

About representing the student body in so many ways, Irankunda says, “I’ve been empowered to push and hear and listen and problem-solve, so I’m prepared as well as I can be. But when I am the only student in the room, I’m ‘the expert’ in that area, and I have to do my peers well in that sense. It’s a pressure for sure. But it’s a pressure I’m excited about, because I’m impacting Luther for years to come, and it goes with my life goal of making sure I’m able to help people even after I’m gone.”

Irankunda’s also been a support for other students through her work as a resident assistant and assistant hall director. Working with the Residence Life staff has had a profound impact on her, helping to define some of her career goals. “I want to continue in student affairs and work with students to create community the way we do as RAs, but even more broadly,” she says. “And a huge part of that has been my experience here in Res Life. Seeing the work they’re doing makes me so confident in this place’s ability to sustain a community that is growing and becoming more diverse.”

This fall, Irankunda began a position at Wartburg College as an area coordinator in a first-year residence hall, but she knows she’ll bring some Luther love with her. “I thank God every day for bringing me this Luther community,” she says, “and I am so excited to take this legacy out into the world, wherever I go.”

—Kate Frentzel

Claire Hamilton: Building community through service and nature

Claire Hamilton
Claire Hamilton

Claire Hamilton’s laugh is contagious, her personality warm, and her voice undeniably calming.

And those attributes, as well as an adventurous spirit, served her well during not one but three outdoor-immersion experiences while at Luther, where she majored in environmental studies and French. As an incoming first-year student, she ventured to the Boundary Waters with an intimate group of five other students and two leaders. “It was the first time that I had ever been in the wilderness with absolutely no access to technology,” says Hamilton, a native of tiny Conesville, Iowa. “It was a transformative experience for me, and I made such strong connections with the other students in my group.”

She also developed the skills and confidence that inspired her to lead outdoor trips through Endeavor Together, a pre-orientation program designed to unite incoming first-year Luther students to build community and prepare for college life. Before her junior year, Hamilton co-led a backpacking trip on the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. The following August, she guided two groups on the Upper Iowa River, canoeing some 50 miles over five days. “My goal was to create a safe, inclusive space where the participants felt as comfortable as possible getting to know each other as they entered Luther,” Hamilton reflects. “It was stressful at times but extremely rewarding to know that I could have a positive influence and give back to the college that way.”

It was far from the only way she gave back while at Luther. As a first-year student, Hamilton dove right in to the Luther chapter of Habitat for Humanity, helping build a home in Florida one year and co-leading a spring break trip to New Orleans the following year as a member of the chapter’s executive board. “Habitat for Humanity allowed me to build community and homes alongside other Luther students I might not have interacted with otherwise,” she says. 

Luther, says Hamilton, felt like home from the start, due in part to the fact that she had visited the campus and her aunt, Jane (Greene) Hildebrand ’74, former women’s basketball coach and assistant dean of student life, numerous times as a child. The college’s setting amid the Driftless Region was also a big draw for Hamilton, who was born with a love of the outdoors. One of the ways she fed that love was through interning at the Raptor Resource Project to band and take measurements of birds of prey before releasing them back to the wild. “What’s more exciting than trapping migrating hawks and other raptors?” she says.

Perhaps embarking on a new career in a new place amid new people. Hamilton recently moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where she is working with the Cornerstone West Community Development Project through the Lutheran Volunteers Corps. “It’s a community-revitalization organization focused on building economy, connecting community, and achieving sustainability,” she says. “Through my classes and my many other experiences while at Luther, I’ve learned that environmental issues aren’t just about the environment and that we need to look for solutions from a holistic perspective. I think I can do that here.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam

Ismail Hamid: Leadership roles empower future changemaker

Ismail Hamid
Ismail Hamid

After high school at the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales, Ismail Hamid returned home to the Maldives for a gap year. He spent it working as a journalist at the Maldives Independent, one of the few reliable news outlets in the country. It was an extremely turbulent year for the country, and Hamid covered intense, high-level news, like press conferences at the president’s office or at ministries across the country, and demonstrations and protests during which he sometimes got pepper-sprayed or tear-gassed.

He describes the experience of watching his country’s first democratically elected president, who was overthrown in a coup and then arrested on controversial terrorism charges, getting marched into the courthouse. As soon as the former president stopped to address the media, police got aggressive. “I remember that after everything happened,” Hamid says, “his shirt was torn. They literally dragged him from the ground into the courtroom, and I started thinking, If that was a former president of the country, what about your average citizen? I wanted to change things.”

With the goal of eventually working in Maldivian politics, Hamid double majored at Luther in international studies and political science and found ways to involve himself on campus that will support his future plans. He joined the International Student Association, serving for a time as its vice president and then acting president. There, he says, he learned how to moderate civil, respectful discussions and how to delegate work.

He also joined Luther’s mock trial team and became a resident assistant. These experiences allowed him to interact with new people. “My first year as an RA, I had basketball players and wrestlers on my floor—both groups of people I would not get to hang out with otherwise. I did astronomy homework with some of the wrestlers. I did a lot of cooking and hosted board games and video games and hung out with some of the basketball players too,” he says.

He also found a lot of fulfillment—and a way to help his community—through Zeta Tau Psi, a self-described multicultural service fraternity with the mission of fostering “respect, dignity, integrity, leadership, and brotherhood through cultural, intellectual, and social diversity.” Hamid held several leadership roles in the organization and feels deeply its camaraderie. “We mean it when we call ourselves a brotherhood,” he says. “We’re there to support each other in our best times and also our hardest times. We’ve cried together and laughed together. One of the best things is to show men—especially men of color—that it’s okay to be vulnerable.”

Hamid also loves the service aspect of Zeta. “You can go your four years here with your head down and not see what is happening around you,” he says. “It’s so important at a college like this and in a community like this to give back to it.”

Luther and Decorah are lucky to be able to keep Hamid for another year. In 2019–20, he’ll serve as a fellow in Luther’s Center for Global Learning. After that, he plans to use his broad leadership and service experiences to make his mark in his home country.

—Kate Frentzel