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Taking a look at the UA senior commencement award winners

The class of 2020 senior award winners. 
Courtesy Claudia Davila

The class of 2020 senior award winners. 

The University of Arizona held its commencement this Friday, May 15. Here are more in-depth profiles on the senior award winners.

Tony Viola: Robie Gold Medal

Tony Viola, a senior majoring in literacy, learning and leadership and minoring in American Indian studies at the UA, was named one of this year’s two Robie Gold Medal recipients. 

This award, established by UA alumni Wendell Robie and Inez Robie, honors students who demonstrate exemplary initiative, integrity, cooperation and versatility during their college careers. 

“I am really excited by this award because I want people to learn about all the projects and collaborations that I have been a part of [at the UA],” Viola said. 

A first-generation college student, Viola came to the UA intending to study how to increase educational attainment among students in underrepresented communities, especially Native American communities. 

Outside the classroom, Viola has been a powerful voice for UA’s Native American community, co-founding VOICE, or Voices of Indigenous Concerns in Education. 

“One of the most meaningful things I have done during my last four years was helping co-found VOICE,” Viola said. “It is really empowering to see a group of Native students, both graduate and undergraduate, come together and really try to focus on creating change on campus that will go beyond us to support students long into the future.”

Viola is also a project coordinator for the Linking Southwest Heritage through Archaeology project, or LSWHTA,  which teaches local high school students about the cultural history of the Southwest through visits to archaeological sites, university research labs and national parks.  

“[Viola] provided guidance on how to talk about our heritage, the topic of conquest of Native lands, and the topic of cultural resource management of our public lands, all in a manner that was constructive and inspiring to our students,” said Sara Chavarria, a lead investigator of LSWHTA and assistant dean for research in the College of Education. 

After graduating this May, Viola will continue his studies at UA in the College of Education’s Language, Reading and Culture Ph.D. program. The interdisciplinary program emphasizes research into multicultural education, literacy, and the impact of other educational initiatives.

RELATED: UA President Robbins announces in-person classes fall 2020

Crystal Raygoza: Robie Gold Medal

Crystal Raygoza, a senior majoring in family studies and human development and minoring in Spanish at the UA, was named one of this year’s two Robie Gold Medal recipients. 

After graduating this May, Raygoza will continue her studies at UA in the College of Education’s educational leadership and policy Ph.D. program. 

“As a low income and first-generation college student, I know a lot of times there are educational barriers that students experience, especially those from non-traditional or underrepresented backgrounds,” Raygoza said. “I want to work with students to fill those gaps by providing access to college transition programs and helping students feel a sense of belonging in college.”

Raygoza was selected as a McNair Scholar, allowing her to pursue an independent research project on campus. Raygoza chose to study the relationship between family values and educational aspirations and attainment among a group of Latinx middle schoolers. 

From her research, Raygoza concluded that while students from underrepresented communities still face adversities in the educational system, family values that place an importance on education positively impact the success of these students. 

“Raygoza is an intelligent and focused student,” said Andrew Huerta, Director of the McNair program at UA. “She was an ideal scholar in the McNair Achievement Program due to her deep commitment to her studies and strong engagement in her undergraduate research.” 

According to Raygoza, a key to her success was building a strong community and support system on campus. One of the programs that Raygoza also participated in was the Global Experiential Learning program. 

Raygoza’s experiences at UA helped her discover her passion and settle on her fourth and final major, a field of study she has thrived in and plans to continue to pursue in the future. 

Lauren Easter: Provost Award

Lauren Easter, a senior majoring in law and philosophy at the UA, was named this year’s Provost Award recipient. After graduating in May, Easter will remain at the UA to complete her accelerated master’s program in legal studies with a focus on human rights. 

The Provost Award was established in 2014 to honor the persistence, leadership and commitment to academic excellence of a graduating student who transferred to the UA from an Arizona community college.

“I choose to study law because I am a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault,” Easter said. “It is really important for me to study the legal system and learn about what aspects of our system needs to be changed to help victims of sexual assault.” 

According to Easter, working at the UA’s Civil Rights Restoration Clinic has been one of her most meaningful experiences on campus. 

The clinic provides students the opportunity to develop litigation skills and fight to restore the rights of previously incarcerated individuals helping them fully reintegrate into their communities. 

“Ms. Easter has been a pleasure to work with,” said Andy Silverman, director of the Civil Rights Restoration Clinic. “[Easter] was assigned four cases to work on and did an excellent job on each one of them. She is highly intelligent, hardworking and relates well with her clients.” 

In addition to her work at the clinic, Easter is also a volunteer at the Emerge! Center, Pima County’s center against domestic abuse. 

As a non-traditional student, Easter faced an array of challenges through college. 

“My biggest challenge at UA was trying to balance my coursework, taking care of my seven-year-old child who has autism and work full-time,” Easter said. “The UA has so many resources to make any plan you want to happen work out, so if you have a dream in mind, do not hold back.”

Lily Chavez: Nugent Award

Lily Chavez, a senior majoring in global studies and creative writing at the UA, was one of two recipients of the Robert Logan Nugent Award this year.  

This award, established by the UA Alumni Association in 1964 in memory of former UA executive vice president Robert Logan Nugent, honors outstanding student service in the Tucson and the UA community. 

Like many students, Chavez entered the UA without knowing exactly which subject she wanted to study, but thanks to the financial support of scholarships was able to participate in a multitude of experiences. 

“It was not until I studied abroad, the summer after my freshman year, that I really, came to see where my true passions resided,” Chavez said. “When I returned from what became my island home, Martinique, I added my creative writing and global studies majors.” 

In addition to studying abroad in Martinique, Chavez also had the opportunity to travel to Paris, France to study international affairs and work for a local refugee resettlement organization. Chavez has also had the opportunity to work with refugees in Arizona, working with Tucson’s International Rescue Committee. 

This past semester, Chavez worked as a research assistant for Thomas Miller, a professor of English, researching civil rights, communications and social movement. 

“Chavez has done outstanding research on the challenges facing immigrant women from Africa and the Middle East as they seek to find jobs and learn how to live in America, and her Honor’s Thesis will be put to use by her community partner in a well that will make a difference in those women’s lives,” Miller said. 

After graduation, Chavez plans to travel to the Ivory Coast to teach English for a year, but the current pandemic has created uncertainty whether or not she will be able to travel.

“After my program in the Ivory Coast, I plan to attain a law degree and pursue international human rights law,” Chavez said. 

Chavez hopes to work with a non-governmental organization to research women’s rights and global education issues.

Meucci Ilunga: Nugent Award

Honors student Meucci Ilunga is a senior graduating from the UA this semester with the Robert Logan Nugent Award as a testament to his commitment to service to others, namely his Native American community.

The Robert Logan Nugent Award honors students who show outstanding service to their community and to the university. Ilunga believes his sense of community is what resonated most with the award selections committee.

“I really am somebody who is committed to the service of others,” Ilunga said. “On the reservation, we have a strong sense of community and it’s really that sense of duty of being bound to other people that allows us to function properly.”  

In the course of his education at UA, the biochemistry major has done everything from overcoming his fear of dogs by volunteering at the local humane society, to mentoring elementary school students, to a summer research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Ilunga said he sees himself in a research career and has received a job offer for a tech position at MIT.

“I’m hopefully going to be spending a year in that tech position and then hopefully moving on to graduate school for a graduate program where I can study synthetic or computational biology,” he said.

Ilunga explained that one of the greatest challenges for Native American students is leaving home. According to a Navajo origin story, “no Navajo who leaves his homeland can be happy,” Ilunga said. For Ilunga, the UA offered a Native American community that made the transition to college easier.

“I think that the greatest takeaway I will have from the UA is that opportunity and my culture are not mutually exclusive,” Ilunga said, “and we can start to move away from this old idea that to go forward is to lose everything and to go back is to lose all opportunity.”

Ahmad Shahin: Freeman Medal 

Ahmad Shahin, a senior majoring in physiology and minoring in Arabic at the UA, was one of two recipients of this year’s Merrill P. Freeman Medal. 

The Freeman Medal, established by the estate of former UA chancellor Dr. Merrill Freeman, honors two graduating students with outstanding moral character, popularity, athleticism and service each year. 

“I am honored to have received the Freeman Medal,” Shahin said. “I do not think I am particularly special, I am proud to be part of a great community of people who really care about each other at UA.” 

A part of the UA’s Undergraduate Biology Research Program, Shahin had the opportunity to work in the research lab of May Khanna, an assistant professor of pharmacology. 

In the lab, Shahin crystallized a protein named TDP-43, linked to the motor neuron degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Using high-resolution imaging, Shahin was able to visualize TDP-43’s interactions with chemical compounds that have been identified as potential treatments for ALS in fruit flies. 

“Dr. Khanna put a lot of trust in me early on, handing me a challenging project in the lab,” Shahin said. “At first, I did not think I was up for the challenge but I learned that there are tasks that seem too difficult to take on, but that is why we should take them on and think big.” 

After graduation, Shahin will be starting medical school at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine in Scottsdale, Ariz. 

Shahin hopes to use his Arabic minor and experience mentoring refugee children at Catalina High School to more effectively provide medical care to underrepresented communities. 

“My advice to UA students would be to definitely focus on what you are passionate about, but also be willing to branch out and take risks,” Shahin said. “Do not commit to just one or two activities early on because there are so many great opportunities to explore so much to do.”

Marcos Gomez Ambriz: Freeman Medal 

Marcos Gomez Ambriz, a senior majoring in physiology and biochemistry at the A, was one of two recipients of this year’s Merrill P. Freeman Medal.

“I never grew up with health insurance and the impact of that never really hit me until college, where I had actually had health insurance for the first time,” Ambriz said. “That is what motivated me to pursue health sciences.” 

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Ambriz had planned to spend the next year working for an orthopedic surgeon before applying to attend medical school. Yet the pandemic has exposed extreme inequalities in the American healthcare system and deepened Ambriz’s interest in public policy.

Currently, Ambriz is applying to earn a Master’s of Science in Law at Northwestern University in Chicago. 

“The program is aimed at helping STEM students get their foot in the door of business and policy, training students to be more effective leaders for the future,” Ambriz said. “As [student body senator] for the College of Medicine, I realized that I can do more than just practice medicine, but also help make the policy [impacting patients].” 

As an Associated Students of the University of Arizona senator, Ambriz fought for additional resources and visibility for undergraduate physiology students in the College of Medicine. 

“As ASUA College of Medicine Senator, [Ambriz] was very active in establishing better lines of communication within the college, providing support for new student programs for peer mentoring and career advising, and implementing fun avenues for volunteering and community outreach, ” said Lucinda Rankin, associate professor of physiology. “Besides all that, he’s a passionate learner and consistent contributor to classroom discussions.”

As a student from an underrepresented background, Ambriz did not see people like himself in leadership positions on campus. 

“I realized that that I could do something on campus, be visible in leadership positions,” Ambriz said. “I could show students that just because they are different, does not mean that they are anything less and that they too can be on the homecoming court or senator for the college for college.”

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