Amazing grads from the Class of 2011

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From military veterans to working moms, from homeschooled students to immigrants born an ocean away, each student at UW Tacoma has a story.

Here are a few of those stories of students in the Class of 2011 who represent the determination, compassion, achievement, and — UW Tacoma’s signature characteristic — pluckiness that are the hallmarks of our graduates.

Annabelle Vo

For Annabelle Vo (pictured above), life has come full circle since she fled Vietnam at the age of 9.

Annabelle was one of the “boat people” who escaped her war-ravaged homeland in the 1980s. Her parents sent her with her aunt’s family on a boat crammed with more than 300 people. It was so crowded, Annabelle recalls, “I sat with my knees bent to my chin for days.”

Soon after the journey began, the engine broke down and the vessel drifted for a week in the South China Sea. There was no drinking water, no food. Annabelle remembers becoming so weak she didn’t care if she died.

The misery ended when a U.S. Navy ship filled with “big, strong and tall American soldiers” came to the rescue. Annabelle remembers walking on the vast deck of the ship and realizing she wanted to be a nurse someday.

Three decades later, Annabelle is a nurse caring for military veterans with cancer at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Seattle.

In 1994, Annabelle received her UW bachelor of science in nursing. This year, she earned a master in nursing with an option in healthcare leadership at UW Tacoma. It’s a step toward her ultimate goal. To provide oncology patients with the best care possible, she now plans to pursue a doctorate in nursing practice.

“When people know they’re dying, they have a different perspective and outlook. It’s very touching,” Annabelle says. “I want to improve my skills and knowledge and do whatever I can to provide their care.”

Kim Dennett

Kim DennettEnvironmental studies graduate Kim Dennett puts her all into every challenge she tackles, whether it’s climbing a rock face or finding a way to detect pathogenic E. coli in soil.

Kim entered UW Tacoma in 2006 as a member of the university’s first freshman class. It was a dramatic change from the homeschool education she received from kindergarten through 12th grade, but she adapted and excelled.

During her time here, Kim researched environmental issues with potential health implications. In one project, she obtained a small grant to investigate whether treated septage sprayed in Pack Forest, the UW’s forest research property, is associated with pathogenic E coli in the soil. Kim’s preliminary tests showed that it wasn’t.

Since UW Tacoma doesn’t offer a formal pre-med program, Kim created her own. She learned which science courses were required to get into medical school and, since they were not offered at UW Tacoma at that time, she studied organic chemistry at Tacoma Community College. She rode the bus to take biochemistry at the UW Seattle campus.

(Starting in September 2011, all of the major required pre-med courses are offered at UW Tacoma.) She forged her own path to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test, in which she scored above the 93rd percentile.

To balance the hours of intensive study, Kim started rock climbing with friends from the Environmental Science department. She continues to climb at a local gym at least once a week and outdoors as often as possible. The photo of Kim on the ropes is at Smith Rocks outside Bend, Oregon, in May 2010.

“Climbing is my favorite way to relieve stress and stay fit and healthy, which I think is incredibly important for long-term academic success,” Kim said.

It must work.

Kim graduated this spring with “cum laude” honors. She was the first from her immediate family to earn a college degree, and she was one of the first UW Tacoma graduates to be accepted into medical school.

Armando Mejia

Armadno MeijaArmando Mejia is not one to let something like a dozen battle injuries impede his future.

He was among the approximately 10 percent of UW Tacoma students who have served in the military, are on active duty, or are family members of someone in the military.

Armando served in the U.S. Army for 11½ years. In 2004, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, an improvised explosive device flipped over the Humvee he was riding in, pinning him under the vehicle for 15 minutes amid small arms fire. His injuries were near fatal, and eventually caused him to retire from the Army.

He was left with 12 major injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, this married father of three refused to give up. He rolled himself in a wheelchair, then hobbled on crutches and later used a cane to get to classes at Pierce College.

After completing his associate degree, he transferred to UW Tacoma to earn a bachelor of arts in social welfare in 2008, and graduated this spring with a master of social work.

Armando achieved his education goals while working full time. He currently serves as an advocate in the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program, helping severely injured soldiers and veterans transition into their next stage of life.

He tells them to “dig deep inside and use all those skills you have learned in the military, and put them to use when needed. Yes, you are wounded, but what separates us from everyone else is our never-quit attitude. Knowing how to bounce back and adapt to any situation is the most difficult part of your journey … which I know you can achieve.”

Minh Thai

Minh ThaiMinh Thai’s life keystones have been family and the pursuit of high-quality education. UW Tacoma, therefore, was the perfect fit for Minh.

In 1998, when he was 10 years old, Minh and his family emigrated from Vietnam. “My parents decided to move the family to the United States so my sister and I would have better opportunities to attend college,” Minh says.  

He attended Tacoma schools and graduated from Foss High School, just five miles from the UW Tacoma campus.

The prospect of small class sizes and professors who had time to talk individually with students attracted Minh to UW Tacoma. Attending college in Tacoma also allowed him to continue living at home with his family.

Minh thrived at UW Tacoma, making the dean’s list 10 times since his arrival as a freshman. This year, he graduated with “cum laude” honors from the Institute of Technology, with a double major in computer engineering and systems, and computer science and systems. He says his UW Tacoma teachers were fantastic.

Perhaps best of all, when he walked through Commencement, he knew he had a job lined up as a software programmer.

Lorraine Poe

Lorraine PoeMembers of the Class of 2011 will undoubtedly make positive changes in their corner of the world. Graduate Lorraine Poe has already started making a direct impact on the lives of troubled youth, hungry families and imprisoned mothers.

She received the university’s 2011 Rod Hagenbuch Award for Distinguished Volunteer Service. Her long list of service includes:

  • Volunteering at the Mission Creek Correctional Facility for Women to help re-connect incarcerated mothers with their children. Some of the women hadn’t seen or talked to their children for as long as two years. Efforts by Lorraine and Marian Harris, associate professor of social work, helped the women to begin exchanging letters or to visit with their children at the prison.
  • Serving the past two years on a board of trained volunteers who divert minor offenders from the Pierce County Juvenile Court system. The panel works individually with youths to determine whether they should pay restitution, get drug treatment or be held accountable in another way.
  • Volunteering two days a week to assist diversion staff who oversee the youth. Lorraine’s success rate with the young people she works with exceeds 90 percent, according to the diversion office.

This spring, Lorraine earned a bachelor of arts in interdisciplinary arts and sciences with a concentration in self and society and a minor in criminal justice. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work and enter the probation field or clinical social work.

Zoe Tzu-Han Shen

Zoe Tsu-Han ShenZoe Tzu-Han Shen is all too familiar with the challenge of communicating in a foreign language. She knows the difficulties ­ ­— and the joys — of adjusting to a new culture, a new living situation, a new education system.

The Taiwanese native is among the small-but-growing number of international students at UW Tacoma.

Faculty and staff say Zoe (pictured at right with Hendrix the Husky) is known for her upbeat attitude and willingness to lend a hand. She helped organize this year’s accounting forum held by the Accounting Student Association and served on the Student Leadership Council at the Milgard School of Business Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility. And she’s a student adviser for a newly founded undergraduate chapter of Net Impact, which encourages business to create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world.

Her resolve to be of service has helped our students from other countries adjust to campus life.

When she transferred from South Puget Sound Community College to UW Tacoma in 2008, Zoe noticed there was no student organization or campus office dedicated to assisting international students. She started gathering support for a student club by striking up conversations with classmates who looked as though they might be from another country. Many of the students Zoe approached weren’t foreigners, and Zoe would get embarrassed, but that didn’t stop her.

Eventually, Zoe and other students gained official campus recognition to form an International Student Association. The group holds major social events that promote friendships among international students and the wider campus community. This year, the 200-member group received the university’s MLK Dream Award for advocating for diversity, social justice and civil rights.

With support from the association, the university launched the International Student Services office last fall, where Zoe works as a student employee.

Zoe is graduating with a bachelor of arts in business administration with an option in accounting and a bachelor of arts in interdisciplinary arts and sciences with a concentration in global studies.  She plans to become a certified public accountant, and dreams of representing Taiwan as a cultural ambassador.

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Debby Abe / July 5, 2011