Exceptional graduating students honored

San Francisco State University will confer degrees to 7,869 graduates at its 111th Commencement on Saturday, May 19. Among them will be this year's hood recipients, who are top graduates chosen from each of SF State's six academic colleges and Graduate Studies to represent their fellow students. College of Business hood recipient Aznaur K. Midov was selected to be the student speaker at Commencement. Read more below about these remarkable graduates.

A photo of SF State student Aznau Midov.

Aznaur K. Midov (Business), creating opportunities for business students
When Aznaur K. Midov came to San Francisco from the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in 2005, he knew few people and hardly any English. He got a job in a diner and began to build his language skills through interactions at work and studying on his own. Soon he applied to SF State’s American Language Institute, which led to fluency and acceptance to SF State in 2008. As an undergraduate, Midov worked two jobs to pay for classes and co-founded Financial Analysis and Management Education (FAME), a widely respected student-run investment group. Due to Midov’s steadfast leadership, FAME has grown in size and the group has organized the largest student investing conference on the West Coast, regular visits from Bay Area business leaders, internship opportunities for students and a trip to a shareholder’s meeting at Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway.

Students in FAME helped Midov embrace the cultural differences of his new home. "In Russia, you lead by just requiring people to do what you think is right. Here, you learn to inspire people; you create opportunities for people to achieve something new, and they always impress you. It’s like the difference between being a manager and a leader." After he graduates with a degree in corporate finance, Midov plans to become an investment analyst in the Bay Area or New York.


A photo of SF State student Reyhaneh Rajabzadeh.

Reyhaneh Rajabzadeh (Education), bringing speech therapy to underserved communities
Reyhaneh Rajabzadeh was born in Iran and grew up in the United States with a close connection to Persian culture. She was drawn to the field of communicative disorders due to its blending of scientific and cultural disciplines, but she noticed that speech therapy programs in Iran were lacking. With the support of her professors and speech organizations -- including a prestigious American Speech-Language-Hearing Association minority leadership program -- she began using her passion for social justice to apply speech pathology to the Farsi language in hopes of making the service more accessible in Iran.

"After talking to my professors, I felt like I could actually create something out of this field myself instead of just following the traditional direction of speech therapy," said Rajabzadeh, who is trilingual and has also volunteered with elementary school students the Mission District. Rajabzadeh has been accepted to a master's program in speech-language pathology at the University of Washington on a scholarship.


A photo of SF State student Shontrice Williamson.

Shontrice Williamson (Ethnic Studies), finding the determination to realize her dreams
The second in a combined family of 15 siblings, Shontrice Williamson found herself in the role of family caretaker early on. Nevertheless, she told herself at a young age she would get a college education -- a dream that will come true when she graduates with a degree in Africana studies. At 19, family difficulties forced Williamson to drop out of school to get a full-time job and provide for her younger sisters, but she resumed her studies at Laney College four years later, where a course in African American studies sparked her interest in the field. She transferred two years later to SF State and has been a model student. "SF State was an obvious choice for me because of the strong history of its College of Ethnic Studies," she said.

Williamson has been published in the San Francisco State University Africana Studies Journal and has spoken publicly about the role of black women in their community. She has also volunteered for two years in the classroom at her former elementary school in Richmond and as a camp counselor for a program in Oakland that serves at-risk youth. She is applying to graduate school at SF State and hopes to someday become a community college professor and help young people to realize their dreams of a college education.


A photo of SF State student Marilyn Bunag.

Marilyn Bunag (Health and Human Services), giving back after climbing out of poverty
Marilyn Bunag was born in the Philippines and grew up in poverty in San Francisco with five siblings she had to help raise.  As she grew older, a series of relationships led to an eight-year period of domestic abuse, drug addiction and homelessness, all while she struggled to raise children of her own. But her children inspired her to turn her life around, and after time in treatment and transitional housing, she attended City College before transferring to SF State. "I realized the only way for me and my family to get out of poverty was through education," she said. "But more than that, school just made me feel good about myself. It made me see the world through a different lens."

While pursuing a degree in sociology, Bunag developed a strong interest in studying the poverty, inequalities and power structures that she had lived through. In addition to raising her four children, who range in age from 8 to 19, Bunag now works as a case manager at a vocational training nonprofit in the Mission District and serves on the Board of Directors for the shelter and family services program where she was once a client. After graduation, Bunag plans to apply to graduate school and continue doing social work in low-income communities.


A photo of SF State student Gioconda Amanza.

Gioconda Almanza (Liberal and Creative Arts), using communication skills to help others
Graduating with a degree in communication studies and a minor in French, Gioconda Almanza is an exceptional student who has been providing for those in need from a young age. Born and raised in San Francisco's Mission District to parents who had emigrated from Nicaragua just a year earlier, Almanza, like her older sisters, worked throughout high school to help support the family. Nevertheless, she dreamed of a college education and chose SF State to stay close to her family. "What I loved most about my experience at SF State was the diversity of the student body and the flexibility the instructors demonstrated," Almanza said. "They encouraged us to work as hard as possible and I feel that I'll be able to put my skills to good use in whatever field I choose to work in."

While in school, Almanza has continued to help those in need, interning for a nonprofit that provides Internet access and computer skills to residents of low-income housing projects. She also volunteers 70 hours per month at her church and worked for five years at an independent living facility. Almanza envisions a future using her communication and other skills to improve the circumstances of vulnerable populations.


A photo of SF State student Apurwa Sharma.

Apurwa Sharma (Science and Engineering), innovating and leading in the lab
Raised in a working class family in Nepal, Apurwa Sharma learned that hard work and education were essential to success, breaking social barriers and making the world a better place. Graduating magna cum laude with a degree in biochemistry, he has excelled in his four years on campus. His own research involves using a nanosecond laser-based time-resolved spectrophotometer to monitor protein dynamics, mutating and cloning a smaller protein to study the behaviors of a larger, more complicated one. Sharma is one of the few undergraduate students to train and supervise his peers and even graduate students in the lab. He has contributed to three major projects and will co-author three publications, one of which will serve as the basis for grant applications to the National Science Foundation. Sharma has also volunteered with SF State's Chemistry and Biochemistry Student Association and with the American Chemistry Society, where he teaches Bay Area youths about science.

He will begin his Ph.D. in biochemistry this fall at Washington University in St. Louis, and wants to become not only a renowned scientific researcher but an advocate for scientific education as well. "I want to go to a place like SF State where teaching and research go side by side, and I can get the next generation to be just as excited about biochemistry as I am," he said. Sharma's older sister, Abriti, also is graduating from SF State this spring.


A photo of SF State graduate student Adrienne Wilson.

Adrienne Wilson (Graduate Studies), understanding poverty and breast cancer
Graduating with a master's in public health, Adrienne Wilson's personal experience galvanized her dedication to helping others obtain health care. Growing up, she witnessed her parents' struggle to find health care for her autistic sister. Her mother, who worked as a janitor, died from pulmonary fibrosis, which Wilson believes was caused by exposure to toxic cleaning products. Service in the Peace Corps in East Africa introduced Wilson to global public health issues, leading her to conduct her master's research project on how inequalities contribute to breast cancer rates among women in poor countries.

Wilson is the recipient of numerous prestigious scholarships, including the California State University Galinson Scholarship. At SF State, she was a mentor and educator for Metro Academies -- a program that guides underrepresented students through the first two years of college -- and tutored and mentored middle and high school students, preparing them for college through the GEAR UP program. "I've had so many opportunities for personal development at SF State, to learn about leadership and gain experience teaching," Wilson said. "The faculty really invest in their students. My professors helped me connect what I was learning about health inequities to my own life experience." She graduated in December 2011 and is currently teaching courses at SF State and City College of San Francisco.

-- Jonathan Morales