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Congratulations to 2021 Badger of the Year – Maria Ontiveros ‘12!

The Badger of the Year Award recognizes local alumni who have represented the university positively through success in their profession, community service initiatives, or volunteer activities.  The Wisconsin Alumni Association: Heart of Illinois Chapter is very happy to recognize the youngest recipient we have ever had.  Although young, she is an “old soul” who has experienced a LOT in a very short time.  Please read on to learn why we are happy to celebrate the caring, giving, entrepreneurial and philanthropic efforts of Maria Ontiveros.

Ms. Ontiveros graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chinese and International Studies.  When she wasn’t studying or exploring all that Madison has to offer, Maria relished her role with the university’s chapter of Slow Food, a global organization that promotes local food and traditional cooking.

After college, the Quad Cities native traveled the country and the world, holding a variety of jobs and volunteer gigs along the way.  She served as a farmhand in New Hampshire, worked at a gourmet grocery store in Berkeley, California, biked across Cuba, Europe and Morocco and taught English in northern Thailand.  Her last adventure before returning home in the spring of 2016 was assisting a medical mission in the Himalayas.

Maria planned to stay with family just for the summer, but three days into her stay, she met her future husband and Madison native, Jack Cullen.  This unexpected meeting, coupled with an opportunity to start a new nonprofit organization with her entrepreneurial family, sealed the deal.  Maria was home.

Under her leadership as President, Mercado on Fifth has quickly become one of the hottest cultural and foodie destinations in the Quad Cities region.  Commonly called “Mercado,” the Spanish word for “market,” this weekly multicultural event in the spring and summer brings people of all ages and ethnicities together to celebrate culture, community and entrepreneurship on Fifth Avenue in Moline, Illinois.  In 2019 alone, Mercado generated an economic impact of $175,000 for the Quad Cities.  As a biproduct of her efforts, she has also been instrumental in the creation of more than 20 minority-owned businesses.

Maria is currently working in Human Resources at her family’s company Group O.  She also is a mayor-appointed board member of MetroLINK, a regional multimodal transportation organization, and serves as a board member of Visit Quad Cities, United Way Quad Cities and the Two Rivers YMCA.