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Humans of the U: Commencement

As the Class of 2019 prepares to celebrate their success, meet a few of the graduates and remember the ones we’ve highlighted over the past few weeks.

Collins Kabaira

“I’m originally from Zimbabwe. I went to Snow College for two years, and then came over to the U. I tried to get as involved as possible so I did a year as an ASUU vice-chair of special events. When I first transferred, I was a chemical engineering student, but then I couldn’t afford to go to school for a semester and a half. When I came back I shifted over to chemistry. It gave me the option of trying to create something new and understand why things work. My emphasis was materials science and engineering, so even though I switched, it wasn’t too far away. Chemistry gave me a magnifying glass of how things work so I really enjoyed it.

Coming where I came from, opportunities just don’t come up every day. A lot of people sacrificed for me to get here. I haven’t seen my parents in almost four years. In Africa, we have a saying that’s ‘a village raises a child.’ If anything, I could be the embodiment of that because a lot of people helped me to get to where I am.

There were days where I didn’t think I was going to make it, days when I couldn’t pay to go to school or didn’t have enough money and I couldn’t afford a meal. I kept believing, even in those dark times, that if you just keep pushing eventually those little pushes will compound to a big effect. Just keep going even when it doesn’t look like there’s light.”

—Collins Kabaira, chemistry peer mentor, Class of 2019, B.S. in Chemistry, Materials Science & Engineering emphasis

Ashley Baker

"The first time I can remember realizing that my hearing loss was causing issues in school, I was in second grade. I didn’t hear the teacher tell the class an assignment was due the next day. When I didn’t turn it in, I was made to stand against a wall during recess. By fourth grade I was diagnosed with hearing loss.

It impacted every aspect of my school work. Some more obvious than others. I was always the shy, insecure hearing-impaired girl who was too afraid to stand up for myself or even raise my hand in class because I was embarrassed—embarrassed about missing important parts of lectures, for not understanding what the other kids understood and thinking I wasn’t smart.

I always kind of convinced myself that I was ditzy because I couldn’t hear or that I was just a little slow sometimes. I had convinced myself that I wasn’t worthy. As it turns out, that was never true. I was just young and needed some support.

When I was 32, my husband and in-laws convinced me to go back to school. They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I started at SLCC as a stay-at-home mom during the day, went to classes at night, then to a shift cleaning medical offices. During that time, it was a journalism course that convinced me that I wanted to pursue communications in college. I loved the interactions with people and sharing their stories.

My time as a non-traditional student led me to some truly amazing experiences. At SLCC I landed an internship at the state legislature and received the prestigious Graduate of Excellence in General Studies award. At the U, I was a student journalist at the Daily Utah Chronicle, I interned at Salt Lake Magazine and made the Dean’s List, twice.

Today, I tell my two daughters to raise their hands if they’re struggling at school, to do their best and set themselves apart. I guess you could say my time here has not only provided me with the necessary tools to find my voice. But more importantly, it’s helped me become the person I’ve always wanted to be."

—Ashley Baker, Class of 2019, B.S. in Strategic Communications, College of Humanities

Gavin Yehle

“I first performed at the U’s Babcock Theatre when I was in 4th grade when I was cast as one of the leads for our school play. As a young person pursuing acting, it was something really valuable to have that experience. That is when—as they say—I caught the theater bug.

After that I got involved with Youth Theater at the U programs. I’ve now been in theater at the university for 13 years. It’s become a second home for me.

I really enjoy acting and stage managing. Being able to play characters who are vastly different from who I am is so unique. I also like being backstage, seeing the entire process from beginning to end and knowing all the inner workings of a show. I love being able to figure things out and problem solving different issues every time I do a new show.

I had to play two very different characters in ‘Our Country’s Good’ last year: A timid, Irish convict and an angry, violent Scottish major. Being able to play both characters in the same show and being able to switch back and forth, was probably one of my favorite experiences.

As I look past graduation, I’m going to miss being involved with this good community of people. It’s something I personally really appreciate—the openness and opportunities I’ve been allowed to be a part of here.

And that experience is thanks to teachers and mentors like Penny Caywood, who gave me so many wonderful opportunities. Education will always be important and having good teachers is what’s going to keep the arts alive. They inspire students to become the next generation of great artists.”

—Gavin Yehle, Class of 2019, stage management and acting major, College of Fine Arts

Sophie Wu

“A few years ago, when I was getting close to 30, I decided to pursue my doctoral degree abroad. At the time I began applying, I was in my home country and felt trapped in traditional social norms. I was repeatedly told I should be safely married or I would be a loser in the marriage market over time.

Many people today still face critical challenges due to social norms, regardless of their levels of education. They are given less freedom to follow their own agendas in pursuit of important life events. Just when I felt most doomed about my future, I received a full financial package from the University of Utah—arriving like a special gift from the sky, one that successfully lifted me here, to a state with liberty and freedom. What a great relief!

I knew I would be re-setting my future in a new direction with a lot of opportunities. I was lucky.

I started my own family midway through my doctoral studies. My daughter’s birth caused me to re-visit the old fears that have shadowed me since the starting point of my Ph.D. Fear is a mirror-image reflection of an old way of thinking. We feel trapped because we allow ourselves to feel that way. We allow other people to tell us what we should do to make them feel safe. Once we change our perception, our minds will no longer be chained.

Faculty at the College of Social and Behavior Science gave me tremendous support as a doctoral student who also was a first-time mother. They reassured me that I could accomplish my degree and be useful in the job market after graduation. And, I am no longer viewed as a depreciated wedding candidate in the marriage market.

Coming to Utah let me believe that age and gender will never be a barrier to success. With my deepest gratitude, I humbly share this thought with you: If you believe something is right to do, just do it. When you truly want a thing for better, the whole world will stay united to help you make it come true. Nothing will prevent you from moving further.

—Sophie Wu, Class of 2019, economics doctoral candidate, College of Social and Behavioral Science

Hollie Morales

“I’m what they call a non-traditional student. I’m a mother, grandmother, daughter, sister … and widow. Each of these roles has made me the person I am today—one tenacious sassy lady who holds nothing back. I may have been born in Texas y’all, but I found my home, my tribe, here at the University of Utah.

It’s taken me longer than I expected to walk across the graduation stage in my cowboy boots. Moments of impact can change our trajectory and set our life course on a different path. My moment of impact hit seven years ago.

I never fathomed that I’d become a widow at 34, left to raise my four children alone, the oldest 15, the baby 2. Medulloblastoma was supposed to be a pediatric brain tumor, so how could it put a 36-year-old man in the grave in just eight months? It felt like déjà vu. My daddy died from glioblastoma brain cancer when I was 20. The two most important men in my life, taken from me by the same grim reaper.

But I’m not going to tell you a sob story. Quite the opposite. I’m proof of what can be done in the face of adversity if you refuse to give up. In my moment of greatest darkness, I began my journey to what feels like a calling more than a profession. I started school at 35 determined to make a difference in the world of cancer and this fall, I’ll embark upon my next quest—a Ph.D. in oncological sciences studying brain cancer here at the U. If I am able to make a difference in just one life all the years of studying, sleepless nights and sacrificing a social life will be worth it.

Don’t let others tell you what can’t be done. Chase your dreams with reckless abandon. Cherish your loved ones—we aren’t promised tomorrow. When adversity strikes and you find your face in the mud, get up, tighten your bootstraps and march forward.”

—Hollie Morales, Class of 2019, B.S. in Biology, Anatomy and Physiology emphasis, minor in Chemistry, College of Science

Gabe Moreno

“In 2007, my family and I immigrated to Utah from Colombia seeking safety and opportunity. We chose Utah, in particular, because we knew one person—a close family friend. We’ve called Salt Lake City our home ever since.

I started seventh grade in the U.S. with no prior English capabilities. Spanish was the only language I knew. Despite the challenge, I was able to graduate from the Salt Lake Community College with an A.S. in Speech Communication and transfer to the University of Utah.

During my time as an undergraduate student, I volunteered regularly with the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation as a snowshoe guide, Promise South Salt Lake as an after-school program coordinator and at the Guadalupe School as an ESL teacher. Teaching at the Guadalupe School was an impactful experience, as I saw my family and myself in the people I was teaching. I know first-hand what it’s like to arrive in a new country not knowing the language and starting from scratch.

These humbling experiences set me on a path for serving and ‘doing good.’ I became enamored with mission-driven organizations—I had the opportunity to intern at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, the Sorenson Impact Center and the National Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.

My experience at the University of Utah has been transformative. From internships to mentorship from dedicated faculty members from the Department of Communication, I have gained a competitive edge and feel confident as I head into a career in the field of strategic communication in the public sector. I have recently accepted a politically appointed position working full-time for the Mayor of Salt Lake County—I am thrilled to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

—Gabe Moreno, Class of 2019, B.S. in Communication, strategic communication track, College of Humanities