Each year, thousands of students graduate from the University of Utah excited to begin the next chapter of their lives. Armed with a degree, knowledge, friendships, memories and enthusiasm, they embark on their journeys, which take them all over the world. University of Utah alumni are a passionate group of people dedicated to making the world a better place, and include among their ranks astronauts, senators, authors, artists, Pulitzer Prize winners, athletes and more. Over the next few weeks, as the next group of students prepare for graduation, we’ll meet a few of them. We hope you’ll enjoy getting know to know the class of 2016.
‘I want to make a difference’
Very early in my career as an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault and violent crimes, I realized that issues relating to disenfranchised populations would often fall to the wayside if someone were not readily advocating on their behalf. I believed that pursuing a legal career was the natural extension of my activism where I could use my degree to give voice to those who had primarily been silenced and invisible.
My own narrative as an immigrant to this country framed my perception of invisibility and vulnerability. I belonged to a community that was, and continues to be, overwhelmingly underrepresented in positions of power and disproportionately lacks political influence.
I am the daughter of a single parent who raised four daughters on her own, working several jobs in order to provide for her family. I could have become another statistic and failed to accomplish anything of great significance. I was, however, blessed with a mother who served as a phenomenal example of kindness, compassion and service to those in need. She taught me the value of a strong work ethic and instilled in me a desire to advocate for those with less and to give my life to serving a meaningful and greater purpose.
Since I am graduating, I often get asked the question “what is next?” I always respond in the same way, “I want to make a difference.” I recognize that this may seem evasive, a bit unconventional or even borderline idealistic, but I truly believe that regardless of my job title, I want to create solutions and improve practices that better fit the unique needs of the diverse and multifaceted community in which we exist.
I have faith that the desire to live an exceptional life in the service of others has been planted in my heart for a reason. I want to maximize my time and know that I did what I could, and did my very best, in order to leave this world better than I found it. Obtaining a law degree has now unlocked several doors to opportunities that will facilitate me accomplishing each of my goals to serve the underrepresented and disenfranchised in our community and across our nation.
Nubia Peña, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Law (Juris Doctor)
I’m a son of the American Revolution. I’ve had a family member serve in every war America has been in. I was born in California, grew up in West Jordan, Utah, graduated from Jordan High at age 17 in 2003, and two hours later I was on a plane to boot camp. Within a year, I was in Iraq as a Marine. I did three deployments. I was close to one too many explosions and had three or four concussions. I saw a friend lose a leg. Seeing that, do you think I was going to complain about my head hurting? They gave me a bag of IV fluid and 800 milligrams of ibuprofen. They call it grunt candy. I started getting migraines in about 2005 and was honorably discharged and medically retired in 2008 after suffering a seizure, and I returned to Utah. I’ve had five head operations for my traumatic brain injuries, two knee surgeries, groin surgery and back surgery. I’m deaf and have hearing aids but learned to read lips. My equilibrium is off. They implanted a small computer under my armpit with wires to my brain to prevent seizures and migraines. I need reminders to do everything from taking my meds twice a day to locking doors. I had really bad post-traumatic stress disorder, with anger, drinking and fighting. I went to the Department of Veterans Affairs in December 2008. I knew I needed help. The VA taught me to overcome problems. I met my wife in 2008 and we got married Oct. 11, 2010. I started at the University of Utah in 2011. I chose math because it was hard, not because it was easy. The U is a very friendly campus. The professors are awesome and understanding of my medical condition. I had three surgeries while attending the U. My wife is the biggest reason I graduated — and support from the U’s Veterans Support Center. I finished classes last December but will walk in May’s commencement at age 30. I want my son and stepdaughter to see it. Now I am an eighth grade math teacher and working for a Western Governors University master’s degree. When I was a kid, my dad told me the word ‘can’t’ means you’re not trying hard enough, and tough times don’t last, just tough people. That got me through war, surgery, depression, PTSD and recovery.
John W. Angell Jr., West Jordan, Utah
I remember sitting outside the film and media arts building before my first class. I was nervous. I had come to the University of Utah from Peru, following my sister here and becoming entranced by the size and beauty of the campus and accompanying mountains. But I thought that I would be looked at as an outsider. Rather, I was welcomed with open arms by a community of artists, activists and professors. The community inspired me. They made me realize what I was capable of, and thus what I could achieve as an artist. There is so much I am doing with an arts degree that people who ask me about it usually get surprised at what I’ve accomplished. My film initiative “Crisol” (a Spanish term that translates to “melting pot”) was my way of conveying how a degree in the arts is important. It allowed me to celebrate my culture and create an empowering community. Not many other disciplines can claim to do that.
Karem Orrego, Peru
Film and media arts
All about family
I come to the library’s Family Reading Room with three bags: my backpack, the diaper bag and the bag that contains water bottles, changes of clothes, favorite toys, cheerios, etc. Of course I also have my two children with me — Stanley (3 years old) and Leora (15 months).
I have been juggling being a full-time student, a full-time mom and a platoon sergeant in the Army Reserves. The Marriott Library’s Family Reading Room has been a huge help to me as I’ve used it as a campus base —I come here for group projects, tutoring and when I have a lot of homework. Having the lactation room right here has been a lifesaver.
I always knew the value of education. While in high school in Salina I took AP classes from Snow College. I joined the Army in 2003 and eventually earned my associate degree through the University of Maryland’s Asia campus while stationed in South Korea. Then, when I was pregnant with Leora, we moved from Boise to Salt Lake so that I could attend the U and be near family members. I’ll be getting my bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies.
My military background has taught me a lot. I spent 15 months in the hospital at Camp Bucca in Iraq and that has really given me perspective; you don’t worry about life’s little problems once you’ve seen that side of things.
People ask me what I want to do with my education, and I tell them my plan is to further it. I’ll be working on prerequisite coursework for admittance into a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine program. I want to help women after they’ve had their babies, particularly with lactation issues, but really with all of their health needs.
Leslie Felder, Salina, Utah
Human development and family studies
Commencement is the first step
The U’s pretty big. There are so many different things that you can do, but they’re not all put in one place for you. One thing I wanted to do was connect students with resources. I felt like being president of the U’s Psi Chi chapter (psychology honors society) allowed me to reach out to students more.
There have been a lot of people along the way who made me feel like I couldn’t do it. Almost everything I do — I’m the youngest person doing it, I’m a female — I think that makes people look down on me sometimes. I don’t let it affect me because I know I’m creating movement for students. That makes me feel really good.
I definitely want a Ph.D. I’ve focused a lot of my psychology classes around environmental studies, and that’s something I’m passionate about. I’m thinking of doing something in public administration and somehow tying it in to environmental studies.
Commencement is a first step. This was only part of the plan. I feel like I create momentum and I want to do something that helps make a difference in some aspect of the world. That’s the ultimate goal — make a difference beyond just this community.
Sarah Abraham, Sandy, Utah
The University of Utah commencement and convocation ceremonies are held annually at the conclusion of spring semester. Candidates for graduation from the summer 2015, fall 2015, spring 2016 or summer 2016 terms may attend. Commencement will be held on Thursday, May 5, 2016, at 6:30 p.m. at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. This year’s commencement speaker will be foreign policy expert and work-life balance thought leader Anne-Marie Slaughter. Honorary degrees will be awarded to Kem C. Gardner, Lynette Nielsen Gay, Kirk M. Ririe and George D. Smith. For more information, please visit the Commencement Ceremony page.