STUDY HERE, DO INCREDIBLE THINGS

This year’s senior and provost award recipients have several things in common, including a can-do attitude and global and multicultural awareness. Here, they share some of their proudest moments as Arizona Wildcats. 

Yezan Hassan, Freeman Medal

Yezan Hassan chose to attend the University of Arizona so that he could have a holistic college experience. He was drawn to the diversity of opportunities that the University and Tucson could provide, and he has taken advantage of them. Not only is he a quadruple major (Arabic, Physiology, Neuroscience & Cognitive Science and Molecular & Cellular Biology), he was also crowned Homecoming King in 2017, President Robbins asked him to help with the appointment of the University's new senior vice president for marketing and communications, and he just returned from studying abroad in Morocco to complete his bachelor’s in Arabic. 

The journey hasn’t been easy, especially the challenges that come with the transition to college. Hassan had trouble finding his identity at first. It wasn’t until he made the cheer team that he found stability. The inspiration Hassan felt from the other members of the cheer team took him to new heights. It motivated him to channel his energy in new positive ways, which also translated to him being extra productive in the classroom. 

The amount of love and joy Arizona Wildcat fans gave us was incomparable and made our roles so much more worth it .

— Yezan Hassan

When it came to game time, the energy of the University of Arizona fanbase is electric! Sure, tensions run high during the competitive games. And the fans, decked out in red and blue, shouting their loudest, often drive the win. 

Hassan noticed many fans cheer on the cheer team as much as they do the players. One family, in particular, stood out to him — a family much like his own. This family included a husband, wife and two sons, who live in California. They travel to as many home football games as they can and attend every football game in California. Beyond his many academic accomplishments and leadership experience, Hassan will never forget the power of the Wildcat fan community that he is so proud to be part of.  

 


 

Katrina Konopka, Freeman Medal

Katrina Konopka started swimming when she was eight years old and was recruited by the University of Arizona swim team as a freshman. Today, she graduates as a world champion swimmer and a published research scientist.

Konopka is a chemistry major and a research director for independent undergraduate research where she’s helped find new uses for elemental sulfur. Before gasoline becomes usable to your car, refineries remove elements that are harmful for the environment, like sulfur. Typically, this type of waste is stored because there hasn’t been a favorable way to dispose of it. Konopka is on a team looking to repurpose this material. By adding in a functional organic component, it turns it into a plastic that can be used for different optical devices. Konopka and team continue to discover additional uses for what was once considered waste.

There is nothing better than standing on the podium and holding hands with the girls you literally conquered the world with.

— Katrina Konopka 

As a student-athlete, Konopka was drawn to the positive energy of the Arizona swim team and strong support of the coaches. Her team motivates her to be her best, inside and outside the pool. However, her support network doesn’t stop in Arizona — she has made many lifelong friends across the country and the world from the swim meets over the years. “I never thought that I would go to Taipei, Taiwan and stay in an athletic village with a whole bunch of college kids from all around the world. Next to us were the Canadians and on the other side, Australians. Then we would eat lunch or dinner with South Koreans. We got to meet so many people from around the world.”

Konopka recalls being really nervous about her first international trip. The jet lag combined with the high stakes of the meet didn’t help. Then, a teammate reminded her, “If they didn’t think you could do it, they would not have put you on this relay.” It was at this moment that she felt the confidence to perform her best, and she’s carried that feeling with her to earn numerous medals and set the world record in the 4x50m medley relay.

 


 

Anita Jones, Provost Award 

Anita Jones was born and raised in California. She gave birth to her son a month after her 15th birthday and has worked hard to be an inspiration to him ever since. After graduating high school, Jones joined the U.S. Army. She honorably retired from the Army in 2016 and attained an associate degree in social work from Cochise College. Then, Jones transferred to the University of Arizona South and joined the Human Services program.

Taking people at individual value builds a much stronger rapport with someone than just assuming you already know their history and what they are about. I have learned that empathy goes a long way.

Anita Jones

In a word, Jones’ life experiences have taught her empathy. She retired from the Army with a traumatic brain injury. She underwent many different surgeries. Intense recovery processes followed these surgeries, such as re-learning how to walk and speak normally amidst her shattered teeth. She was faced with the challenge of having to process information in the classroom just like everybody else. With the support of her loving husband and son, Jones made an incredible recovery and is going to be the first of her family to earn a baccalaureate degree. Now she’s on a mission to help veterans like herself who are unsure of how to develop a rewarding college experience.

As a veteran, Jones understands that the transition from serving in the military to being a student in the classroom is a stark one. Although Jones knew exactly what veterans would need coming to Arizona, she was not sure how to implement it. That is where Sheena Brown and Cody Nicholls come in. Together, the three are developing an online veterans’ program that will provide peer mentors for veterans transitioning into the Wildcat experience. It will also provide assistance through various applications, program direction and an online forum where veterans can seek help and resources for their success. 

 


 

Bryn Sharp, Robie Medal

Bryn Sharp’s interest in Latin American studies began at her high school in southern Illinois. She was sitting in her high school cafeteria and noticed the Latin American exchange students sitting alone. Sharp didn’t speak any Spanish at the time but started teaching herself so that she could interact with these students so they didn’t feel out of place. She picked up Spanish quickly with the help of a small pocketbook that taught her basic phrases. At the time, she had no idea that she would one day be using these phrases on a daily basis during a year abroad in Chile.

There was just something about the culture and the people in Chile. I clicked with it.

— Bryn Sharp 

Bryn’s year abroad in Viña del Mar, Chile started out as a single semester. A couple of weeks in, she knew that she could learn more by staying longer. With help from her advisors in the University of Arizona Study Abroad office, she was able to double her time in Chile for a richer international experience. After a semester overcoming culture shock and getting lost, Sharp truly integrated into the culture. Her friendships with Chileans became more deep and profound as she became a part of their world — the colorful food, the friendly people and the beautiful weather. Sharp came back to Arizona changed and inspired to share the beauty of human diversity with others. 

At Arizona, among many volunteer efforts, Sharp participated in the Honors College Alternative Spring Break to learn about local Native American culture and tradition. She interned at Adelante Mujeres, Oregon, a nonprofit aimed at empowering Latina women and children. As a Global Ambassador for the University, she has assisted in running international student orientations and has been very involved with the Buddy Program, aimed at creating a global community at the University. Sharp led a trip in collaboration with the UA Outdoor Rec to take international students rock climbing on Mt. Lemmon, showing them a part of her world as the Chileans showed her theirs. 

What started out as an act of kindness towards students who felt out of place, turned into a lifelong passion for Latin American studies that Sharp will continue as a Fulbright Scholar in Uruguay.

 


 

Francy Luna Diaz, Robie Gold Medal 

Francy Luna Diaz was born and raised in Colombia and moved to the United States when she was 19. As an immigrant and a first-generation college student from a low socio-economic background, her road to higher education was challenging. 

I have within me what I need to succeed but there is a larger community of people out there who can help people like me do well.

— Francy Luna Diaz 

One of her defining moments includes participating in a research consortium under the mentorship of Samara Klar. At first, Luna Diaz thought that she would be a bother if she went into a professor’s office for help. Asking for help made her nervous. But, she has found professors actually love helping her both inside and outside of the classroom. She has also become very close with her Honors thesis advisor, Suzanne Dovi. Luna Diaz has presented her papers “The Influence of Minority Representatives on the Political Engagement of Latina Constituents” and “Women ‘Doing’ the Judiciary,” which she co-authored with Dovi. Together, they dive into the importance of Latina women in American politics and have shared their findings with the country, opportunities Luna Diaz never would have had without taking the initiative to build a relationship with her professor. Now, Luna Diaz will stop into her professor’s office just to say “Hey, hope you had a good day!” 
 
This confidence inspired Luna Diaz to apply for a position as a Supreme Court of Arizona legislative intern, where she was one of two in the state to be selected. Luna Diaz further explored her growing interest in women in politics. During her junior and senior years, she worked as a research assistant for two political science faculty members, where she continued to explore her research interests and define her career plans.
 
Maybe some teachers aren’t so scary after all. Luna Diaz says that “Life is about being with people who help you succeed, and then you can pay that forward.” 

 


 

Alexa Nguyen, Nugent Award

Alexa Nguyen went to high school in Prescott, a quaint town in Northern Arizona. She was not a fan of small towns at first. But since being at the University, Nguyen has fallen in love with the City of Tucson and Arizona as a whole. The University of Arizona has given her the opportunity to meet diverse students who are like-minded, curious and appreciative of learning. 

I learned what Arizona can offer me but also what I can give back. I should give back to a place that has given me so much.

— Alexa Nguyen 

Nguyen has given back in several ways, including involvement with cancer research in the College of Science, Molecular & Cellular Biology, and volunteer work with the nonprofit, Ben’s Bells, as an ambassador for the College of Science and the Honors College. She hopes to attend medical school but first will join the National Health Corps to serve as a health outreach and care coordinator for under-served communities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
 
However, her proudest accomplishment to date is a short documentary she made through her honors documentary filmmaking course. The film, entitled “I Am”, features high school refugee students in Tucson. This documentary portrays many students from refugee communities, telling their stories so that the general public could be more informed about their situation. A lot of the students started out as reserved, but Nguyen quickly got to know them and how they work hard to be where they are today. These students love the freedom they have found in America. 
 
Creating this documentary, Nguyen learned about people who have lived lives very different from her own, expanding her insights and compassion for human diversity. As a physician, Nguyen will continue to use her compassion for others in every step of her career.

 


 

Tala Shahin, Nugent Award

Tala Shahin chose Arizona because of the opportunity to directly give back to the community that gave her so much. As a medical scientist and peer mentor, Shahin is motivated by a commitment to continually better herself, as well as the opportunity to positively impact others’ lives.

Volunteering in her community and taking on leadership roles are not unfamiliar for Shahin, who is a co-organizer of the Tucson Pack-a-Thon, an employee with the Disability Resource Center, and a hospice and elder rehabilitation volunteer. She was also an intern at the Banner University Medical Center Hospital and the president and health chair of the national pre-health honor society, Alpha Epsilon Delta.

However, one of Shahin’s most inspiring experiences at the University of Arizona comes from her time in Ghana, where she served in an internship with a global health-based nonprofit Unite for Sight. Alone in a new continent, Shahin worked with local doctors to provide sight-related medical services to rural communities, where she quickly discovered that human connection and healing extends far beyond physical treatments. While there, Shahin learned the importance of providing access to care to underserved populations both locally and internationally.

A tender heart and a listening ear can be so much more powerful than pills and procedures.

— Tala Shahin

Back in Arizona, Shahin drew on her experiences to fuel her work in her research labs on projects aimed to medically treat diabetic foot ulcers and provide access of care to rural populations. Through the translational nature of her projects, she could work on providing quality of care to patients remotely by disseminating her findings to continue problem solving among the scientific community. 

Pursuing medical school after graduation, Shahin will continue to serve her community and will utilize the compassion and drive that she has developed through her activities in her devotion to the health of her future patients.