2024 Rising Star: Balázs Bognár, Uni Class of 1996


Uni is pleased to introduce Balázs Bognár, ’96, as the recipient of the 2024 Uni High Rising Star award. 

Bognár, an architect and Partner at Kengo Kuma & Associates in Tokyo, is responsible for innovative projects that span the globe. He traces the roots of his success back to Uni High.

“Everything I was and am has to do with my time at Uni,” he said.

Bognár describes his career as an architect as being a creative problem-solver with a process that usually results in a building, but he emphasizes that interactions with people are an important part of his work. “We design projects, we learn about places, we form friendships and relationships, and we work with cultural institutions,” he said. Uni helped form the basis for him to integrate the pieces he needs for his achievements.

He said Uni had a huge effect during his teenage years, and he is deeply grateful to people “who cared so deeply and aren’t thanked enough.” He holds his classmates from the class of ’96 in high regard, and fondly recalls the social structure of “loose cliques” that allowed students to move easily among groups; he recalls his teachers and coaches as instilling “discipline and fearlessness.” He notes that, in retrospect, he benefitted even from classes that he may not have excelled in.  

Bognár sees the impact of coaches who instilled a sense of team and “being in it together,” and he continues to appreciate the impact of teachers such as Rosemary Laughlin and the writing strategies she taught, Rick Murphy’s leadership in music, and Del Suslick’s legendary senior debates.  Even 28 years later, he easily lists teachers who guided him on his way.

While Bognár will speak at graduation, he is hesitant to say he has “advice” for current students. “It seems presumptuous to call it ‘advice’ because I’m always still learning as well,” he said.

He would share with students that it is ok to take the time that you need to figure out where they’re going and who they’re going to be, and that it’s ok to make mistakes. “Stumbles and ups-and-downs can be scary,” he said, but he has found it has been important to experience those along with successes.

Bognár has been working with Kengo Kuma and Associates since 2007, leading teams for projects primarily in North America.  He received his Master in Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and his B.A. in Architecture from Washington University in St. Louis.

Some of his works include the Rolex Tower in Dallas, Portland Japanese Garden Cultural Village, 1550 Alberni Street Tower in Vancouver, and Amanpuri Retail Pavilion in Thailand.

Uni High is thrilled to recognize Balázs as the 2024 Rising Star recipient and we are looking forward to honoring and celebrating him during graduation weekend.


2023 Rising Star: Vilas Dhar, Uni Class of 2000

Vilas Dhar

Uni High is pleased to announce our 2023 Rising Star Alumni Award recipient, Vilas Dhar (2000).

Uni Alum Vilas Dhar began to see the intersection between technology’s capacity to change the world and how technology can address human issues for the better while he was still a student at Uni High. Today, the president of the Patrick McGovern Foundation and a visionary in his field is guiding the foundation in leveraging technology to amplify the very best of humanity.

Dhar was recognized by the World Economic Forum as its 2022 Young Global Leader. The recognition described him as “a visionary leader at the intersection of philanthropy, technology, and civil society, bringing a unique sense of humanity to an increasingly digital future.”

Dhar describes his career in simple terms as using technology to create a better world for everyone. He believes the world is at the precipice of a major transition that is enabled by technology but focused on relationships between people. One of his core beliefs is to center on human dignity even while expanding the bounds of what is possible.  

For example, the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT, used incorrectly, can lead to fears of cheating and lack of engagement. Dhar goes beyond that, asking, “Can we use the tool to help students dig deeper, ask questions, and get mastery over subjects?”  

He expands thoughts on ChatGPT to include his trademark global perspective: “How do we use AI to predict the worst effects of climate change on vulnerable populations and minimize harm?” 

Dhar travels the world for most of the year, immersing himself in the stories of people and the environment. He is constantly pursuing solutions to problems that impact humans and the earth, and finding ways we can restore our relationship with the planet. 

He recalls his time at Uni as formative in his academic and career journeys. One memory is of his participation in ICTM — a statewide competition — where he came to appreciate that, at Uni, academic excellence was not an individual sport.

“It was something we did together, and we all cheered for each other. It was cool to be a nerd,” he says.

Dhar said Uni was special because it allowed students to connect local lived experiences to a global view. His history classes in particular let him see how movements were connected to each other.

After graduating from Uni High in 2000, Dhar earned a degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science. Dhar holds a J.D. from New York University School of Law and a master’s in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

His career has included work as a human rights lawyer, CEO, and board director, and he has served as the Gleitsman Fellow on Social Change at Harvard University, an Expert on AI for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and a Senior Fellow of the Berggruen Institute.

Dhar’s message to Uni students is to recognize that they have the capacity to make their own paths, and he believes that building a life of meaning is more important than credentials.

“Where you go to college should be an individual choice and where (you) will be happy and have the chance to grow and learn and have random adventures,” he says.

His own career has involved many domains, and he values the intentionality of being able to say, “I am curious about something I don’t know, and I am confident that I can succeed at it.”


2022 Rising Star: Daniel Grossman, Uni Class of 1999

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Uni High is pleased to announce our 2022 Rising Star Alumni Award recipient, Dr. Daniel Grossman ('99).

Grossman doesn’t remember everything about his Uni classes after more than 20 years, but he does remember people and, particularly, relationships he built with colleagues in the lounge and teachers with memorably unique styles and perspectives.

“Uni students are lucky to have great mentors,” he says.

Grossman recalls his classmates as “incredible” and equally deserving of the Rising Star honor; he hopes that as he fills the role this year, he will help our community acknowledge the great work of so many other Uni alums.

After Uni, Grossman went to St. Olaf College, where he found a combination of science and music that allowed him to build on the “incredible music mentorship” he received at Uni while pursuing his passions for both biology and business. After graduating from St. Olaf with a degree in biology, he earned both an M.D. and an M.B.A through the University of Illinois Medical Scholars program. He then completed a residency at Stanford in Emergency Medicine.

“One of the cool things about the Bay Area is that there is a huge UI alumni base, and a pretty big Uni alumni base,” Grossman says.

Grossman currently lives in Minnesota, where he is transitioning from medical positions at Best Buy and the Mayo Clinic to a career that allows him to explore the intersection of health care and business by looking at the “reinvention of health care delivery.”

At Best Buy, he guided the company’s response to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic while also practicing emergency medicine at the Mayo Clinic.  He is looking forward to delving into other areas, including consumer-centered technology and treatment.

The relationships he formed throughout his life sustained him through his educational, professional and personal journeys, including working in India, Zimbabwe and Israel. He says those relationships were also critical to him when he experienced a spinal cord injury from a bike accident in 2017.

The message he wants to share with Uni students as a Rising Star, although not rooted in injury recovery, is about navigating life’s challenges and the importance of strong relationships as they follow their own paths.

“Everyone’s path is their path, and the path forward is totally uncertain,” Grossman says. “But know that you have the opportunity to make connections with other human beings right now. I wouldn’t be where I am without relationships.”

2021 Rising Star: Phillip Maurice Lewis Owens Nesbitt Rowell II, Uni Class of 2000

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Uni High is pleased to announce our 2021 Rising Star Award recipient, Phillip Maurice Lewis Owens Nesbitt Rowell II.  Rowell graduated from Uni in 2000 and recently reconnected with us (after a long stint in Australia) to serve on our Century Celebration committee. 

Rowell currently serves as the vice president of clinical and business intelligence at Carle Health, based in Urbana, where he oversees the flow information for the entire enterprise. His recent responsibilities included coordinating all COVID data for Carle. 

In addition to his critical role in healthcare, Rowell is the co-founder of Willow Grove International, an international professional services consulting firm focused on macro-level government, health, and educational reform agendas.  Recent clients include a national health ministry focused on digital health transformation because of changes in clinical demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

He is a minority owner in Enlivened Choices, a burgeoning education-oriented entertainment corporation.  Their flagship product, Got a Habit/Habits Happen, a card game system that promotes civility, healthy habits, and constructive dialogue for all ages, will be released in advance of the 2021 holiday season.

Rowell is also an adjunct professor in the graduate school of Health Professions at Sacred Heart University (CT).

At Uni, he was a three-year letter winner in basketball, competed in track, and was a member of various clubs (French, African American Club, among others). 

Rowell has great memories of Uni and the enduring connections he made - including friends who have become professional collaborators. Looking back, he clearly remembers his last day at Uni - in part because he recorded the entire day! 

He hopes current students embrace the diversity in thought and personality they’ll experience at Uni, and advises them not to take it for granted. 

Phillip received his academic qualifications from Loyola University Chicago and holds a Master of Jurisprudence in Health Law as well as a Bachelor of Business Administration in Economics.  He currently lives in Savoy with his wife, Jennifer Rowell, and three children.

Rowell’s engagement, energy, initiative, and contributions embody the spirit of the Rising Star award, which recognizes our younger alumni who have enhanced the reputation of the school by distinguishing themselves in their careers and who have made significant contributions to the school, community, state or nation through professional service, public service and civic activities.

2020 Rising Star: Melinda Taub, Uni Class of 2001

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The 2020 Rising Star Award recipient is Melinda Taub (’01). The award recognizes outstanding young Uni High alumni who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and service to the school and to the community.  Due to the worldwide pandemic, Taub accepted the award while speaking via video at Uni’s first-ever virtual graduation. Taub is a writer and producer, known for her work on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Bad Internet, and UCB Comedy Originals.

2019 Rising Star: Dr. Scott Solomon, Uni Class of 1996

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Scott Solomon (’96) was the recipient of the 2019 University of Illinois Laboratory High School Rising Star Award.

In addition to publishing his first book in 2016 (Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution), he teaches Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Scientific Communication at Rice University. Solomon also teaches field biology at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, and he developed a complete digital course on the modern science of evolution with The Great Courses. He speaks about science at schools, museums, churches, science cafés, TEDx events, and other venues around the country. His writing and photography have appeared in publications such as NBC News, Slate, Aeon, Nautilus, and Wired. Solomon graduated with the Uni High Class of 1996. He completed a B.S. at the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior from the University of Texas at Austin.

2018 Rising Star: Helen Estabrook, Uni Class of 1999

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Helen Estabrook (’99) was the recipient of the 2018 University of Illinois Laboratory High School Rising Star Award. 

Estabrook is an Academy Award-nominated film and television producer. Her career started with Up In The Air, starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick. She then went on to executive produce Jeff, Who Lives at HomeDemolition and Young Adult as well as other films the upcoming Tully from a script by Diablo Cody and The Front Runner starring Hugh Jackman.

In 2014, Estabrook spearheaded Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. Whiplash won many awards, starting with the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance and culminating in three Academy Awards (with five nominations, including Best Picture.)

Estabrook is also executive producer on the Golden Globe-nominated series Casual, and has a television deal with Hulu under her banner, A Thousand Ships.

While at Uni High, Estabrook played basketball and soccer, and served as a Subbie Buddy and Peer College Counselor, as well as being a member of the Spirit Club and yearbook staff. As a thespian, she starred as Emily in Our Town and the fiancé in Arsenic and Old Lace. Upon graduating from Uni High in 1999, Helen attended Harvard.

2017 Rising Star: Jeremy Hobson, Uni Class of 1999

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Jeremy Hobson ('99) was the recipient of the 2017 University of Illinois Laboratory High School Rising Star Award.

Hobson co-hosts NPR’s “Here and Now.” Before joining Here & Now, he hosted the Marketplace Morning Report. He also was a reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C., and later New York City, where he covered Wall Street and its impact on ordinary Americans during the financial crisis of 2008.

Hobson has also reported and hosted for public radio stations including WRNI Providence, WCAI Cape Cod, and WILL in Urbana, Illinois. He spent years as a producer for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” “Day to Day” and “Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!”

Hobson’s radio career began at the age of 9 when he started contributing to a program called Treehouse Radio. He is a graduate of Boston University and the University of Illinois Laboratory High School.