SF State to honor 12 outstanding graduates at Commencement 2017
Student speakers include a Harvard-bound scientist and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter
More than 5,000 San Francisco State University graduates will line up and experience one of life’s most memorable milestones during the University’s 116th Commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 25. And 12 of those graduates will be on stage at AT&T Park to represent their fellow students in the Class of 2017.
As part of a longstanding tradition, each of the University's six academic colleges selects two students – one undergraduate and one graduate – for the honor of representing their fellow students during the ceremony by wearing their college's academic hood.
Two of those 12 students, one undergraduate and one graduate, are chosen to offer greetings on behalf of their fellow students during the Commencement ceremony. This year the student speakers are undergraduate Talia Hart, a College of Science & Engineering graduate who is heading to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in biology, and graduate student Alicia Garza, College of Ethnic Studies, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter.
Undergraduate hood recipients
Valerie Badua, College of Business
Olga Valerie Badua, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in business (information systems), has overcome a number obstacles – one of them being distance. Throughout her two years at SF State, she commuted from Murrieta in Southern California where she lives with her husband. But the biggest challenge for Badua has been becoming a new mom. She gave birth to her son Gabriel in January and says it’s been challenging balancing pregnancy and motherhood with school.
But challenge isn’t something she shies away from. At age 10, she and her family immigrated to the United States from Russia and moved to Sacramento. “It was a big adjustment trying to learn a new language and adjust to a new culture,” she said.
At 18, she enlisted in the Marine Corps because she was attracted to its values – honor, courage and commitment and an emphasis on teamwork. After sustaining an injury during a training exercise she was medically discharged. She said her experience was incredibly valuable and she learned to understand other cultures.
Badua said she hopes to eventually get a master’s degree and pursue a career in the tech industry working with information systems, but right now her focus is her baby.
Michael Bennett, College of Health & Social Sciences
Michael Bennett was a homeless veteran who dealt with drug issues and rose out of poverty to earn a bachelor’s degree in recreation, parks and tourism at age 62. He credits SF State’s tradition of community service, and more specifically, the Project Rebound program, which helps the formerly incarcerated earn college degrees.
“Social justice means a lot to me,” he said. “I’m a product of social justice.”
For the last 23 years, Bennett has been a community advocate in San Francisco working with homeless and low-income adults and families, military veterans, at-risk youth, unemployed adults and adults trying to improve their physical health and nutritional wellness.
Bennett continued working full-time as a community engagement specialist at Candlestick Point State Park Recreation Area while taking a full load of classes. He says his classes have strengthened his commitment to working with marginalized residents, to improving health disparities with wellness opportunities and to providing recreational opportunities to an aging population. Last year, Bennett worked at the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department as part of The Willie L. Brown, Jr. Fellowship program, which provides SF State students who have faced barriers pursuing a college education with an opportunity to gain professional experience in the public sector while developing a lifelong commitment to public service.
“I think it’s a great accomplishment to graduate as a senior – as a student over 60 years old – from a major university,” he said. “I appreciate that they’ve found room to be open to older students on campus and to be open to listening to their experiences.”
Shannon Deloso, College of Ethnic Studies
Shannon Deloso found her way to SF State as a kinesiology major but found her love of ethnic studies after joining a half dozen clubs and became an Asian American Studies major with a double minor in race and resistance studies and education. The daughter of Filipino immigrants and a first-generation college student, Deloso was the president and CEO of Associated Students during the 2016-2017 academic year. Teaching a high school ethnic studies class in the San Francisco Unified School District and campaigning for the ethnic studies program at SF State helped her find her purpose, she said.
“I’m a shy person,” she said. “But ethnic studies was a turning point. I started to feel this urge to advocate more, to push myself.”
Deloso was a member of the League of Filipino Students and Kappa Psi Epsilon, where she helped develop Mula Sa Ugat, the first Filipino American student organization coalition. She worked with Project Connect, and also served as the Associated Students representative for the College of Ethnic Studies in 2015-2016.
Her advice to current and future SF State students: take an ethnic studies course. That’s even more important in today’s political climate, she said. She plans to attend UCLA this fall and pursue a master’s degree in education.
Pia Etchegoin, College of Education
Pia Etchegoin grew up in Argentina and came to SF State after several years of travel and work in Europe, Asia and Australia, where she met her husband. When the couple moved to the Bay Area after he received a job offer here, she quickly made attending SF State her goal.
Etchegoin is graduating with a degree in communicative disorders. She has tutored other students and worked as the lab manager for the Gray Matter Laboratory at SF State, where she has contributed to developing research projects and worked with patients. Additionally, she has volunteered at a speech and language clinic in the Mission District.
Because English was not her first language, “There were a lot of questions. It would take a really long time to really grasp things. I always had my dictionary with me,” she said. “But now my dictionary has graduated. I don’t need it as much more. That was a huge accomplishment for me.”
She hopes to pursue a graduate degree in speech and language pathology and plans to become a speech pathologist to help those who struggle finding their voice.
Callum David Liyam Leneman, College of Liberal & Creative Arts
Raised by a cabinetmaker and a ceramics teacher in rural Topanga Canyon, Callum David Liyam Leneman had a number of creative tools and resources at his fingertips. Growing up, he explored various artistic activities, including sewing, drawing and even screen-printing. When he arrived at SF State, he knew he’d pursue a path in design or the arts, and when he took a class in industrial design he realized this was the way to coalesce his disparate interests into one discipline.
Industrial and product design is basically problem solving, Leneman said, and what appeals to him is creating solutions that serve the greater good. He’s most proud of his senior project called the Attune, a coat that helps people with post-concussion syndrome safely navigate public spaces around public transit through haptic (meaning related to touch) feedback.
After graduation, Leneman said he hopes to land a job in a consulting firm working on product and industrial design, and specifically for a company that’s designing for social impact. “My definition of success is how I can maximize whatever skills or resources I have to actually contribute to society.”
Talia Hart, College of Science & Engineering
Talia Hart wasn’t sure she’d pursue a degree in the sciences when she came to SF State as a freshman. In fact, her major during her first year was communications because she wasn’t sure she wanted to spend all of her time inside a lab. “I’m meant to be out talking to people and communicating, not really understanding then that science can offer both.”
She took “Biology 100: Human Biology,” a class for non-science majors in her second semester and that’s when things clicked for her. “The human bio class was very relatable. You’re learning about your own body and you’re learning why it functions the way it does,” she said. She said she was thoroughly captivated by the subject, and is graduating with a bachelor of science degree in biology.
She applied to the Maximizing Access to Research Careers program (MARC), which helps supports underrepresented minority undergraduates in biomedical science and prepares them for Ph.D. programs. While in the program she became an active member of the Society for Advancing of Chicano and Native Americans in Science and worked to get other minorities interested in science.
Hart plans to continue studying biology in a Ph.D. program at Harvard University beginning this fall. She also hopes to spread her love of science to her new community in Boston.
Yasya Goretsky, College of Business
Yasya Goretsky immigrated to the United States as a toddler with her family on a refugee visa from Ukraine. Her parents worked hard to provide for their family, she said, and that inspired her own strong work ethic.
Her determination pushed her to earn a master’s degree in business administration while working full-time as a program manager at UC Berkeley managing research grant programs for faculty. She worked during the day and attended school at night at the Downtown Campus; a 14-hour day that she managed thanks to a strong support system of classmates, colleagues, friends and family. She finished the program in December 2016.
Her culminating project explored whether or not nonprofits can be competitive in the Bay Area in terms of attracting and retaining employees. And, while she is inspired by the work of nonprofits, she is equally excited by the socially-conscious for-profit companies that are prevalent in the Bay Area. She’s particularly interested in jobs in technology, academia, education and health care. “Career-wise, as long as I land at a company that’s doing something positive for society – I’m really happy about that.”
Maryam Khan, College of Science & Engineering
Maryam Khan became fascinated with structural engineering by looking at the huge skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco. While studying for a master’s degree in structural and earthquake engineering, she learned how to design a resilient structure to last through a large magnitude earthquake.
As a grad student, Khan worked as a research assistant in the Structural Lab for Multi-Hazard Mitigation; helped with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workshops for visiting K-12 students and with outreach events for campus recruiting; and mentored sophomore-level community college students by introducing them to graduate-level research projects.
Khan is interested in encouraging girls and other young women to enter the STEM fields. In many of her engineering courses, she often looked around and realized that there were only one or two other women in the classroom. “I’ve always had a fascination with science, so that might have been my pull toward it. But when I was a girl, I never thought about engineering.”
Robert Nakamoto, College of Education
After 23 years as an educator, Robert Nakamoto came to SF State to earn his doctorate in educational leadership and to research ways public school educators can mitigate the adverse impact of implicit bias in classroom instructional practices. His dissertation explored whether and how teachers changed following unconscious bias training.
Going back to his childhood, Nakamoto remembers the few times his father spoke about the years he spent in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. It was too painful for his father to speak about in detail, which only made Nakamoto more interested in learning about the issue. That led to undergraduate research and ultimately a greater desire to pursue social justice as a professional.
Nakamoto believes that so many issues in education are also social justice issues, but transformation and progress on racial disparities, racism and systemic injustice can take place in schools.
“I’ve seen it happen firsthand,” he said. “I feel grateful to be able to engage in critical analysis around education, to be able to dialogue with colleagues around the challenges and social issues facing society. I don’t take for granted the opportunities that I have, as well as the responsibility that comes with it.”
Alicia Garza, College of Ethnic Studies
While a graduate student in ethnic studies, Alicia Garza co-founded Black Lives Matter, an internationally recognized organization that began in 2013 to fight violence and racism toward black people. The organization began after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. It has since grown to an international network of more than 40 chapters across North America and the United Kingdom.
Garza said it took her eight years to finish her master’s degree, partly because she had so many other projects going on. She credits SF State Professor of Africana Studies Dawn Elissa Fischer and Dorothy Randall Tsuruta, the chair of the Africana Studies Department, with pushing her to complete her thesis, which looked at how intersectionality has impacted the black radical tradition. Her thesis title states, “None of us are free until all of us are free.”
“I feel really proud of this place. It has a really special history,” she said. “A lot of people who I was mentored by helped create the program that I just graduated from. It’s a special honor to be able to graduate from a program that people fought for really hard and won.”
Visakha Som, College of Health & Social Sciences
Spending her teenage years in Cambodia was a formative experience for Visakha Som. She was born and raised in California and had little idea of the years of civil war that had ravaged the Southeast Asian nation. She watched as United Nations peacekeepers and nonprofits worked to rebuild the country and became inspired to do similar work for people in need.
Som is graduating with a master’s degree in public administration. She was first admitted to the program in 2013, but held off for a few years, choosing instead to manage a Meals on Wheels program in Oakland and later, other programs for adults with disabilities and the elderly.
Returning to school allowed her to reflect on her experiences as a manager and to further explore what makes a good leader.
“I’ve learned that being a good collaborator makes me a good leader and that managing people is not the same thing as leading,” she said. “I realized I can help myself truly grow as a leader by allowing and helping people come into their own as well.”
She wants to continue working in public policy, and would like to help marginalized communities by improving health care systems.
Saliem Wakeem Shehadeh, College of Liberal & Creative Arts
Saliem Wakeem Shehadeh is a Palestinian-American and will receive his master of arts degree in anthropology. He focused his studies on compiling oral histories of the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) at San Francisco State and the experience of Palestinian activism and resistance politics on campus.
Shehadeh graduated from the University of California, Davis with a B.A. in Middle East/South Asia studies and political science. He interned at Bizreit University in Palestine and while he attended SF State he worked as a teaching assistant for Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi. He received the University’s Edward Said Scholarship Award in 2016.
His master’s thesis is an ethnographically informed social history of GUPS at SF State. He has been admitted to the University of California, Los Angeles doctoral program in anthropology.
Additional Commencement information:
• Learn what to expect at this year's Commencement by reading these frequently asked questions.
• Get details about what to expect at AT&T Park. http://commencement.sfsu.edu/content/att-park-information
• Understand the guest ticket policy. http://commencement.sfsu.edu/content/guest-ticket-policy