Members of the Class of 2021 can hold their heads high as survivors and achievers. Through pandemic and polemic, they have completed the next stage of their journeys through life. We present a sampling of their stories.
The degree says “University of Washington,” but it is their experience as South Sound Huskies that unites the UW Tacoma Class of 2021. Each of the UW campuses has special qualities, but as these alumni look back, there are some things that will stand out about their educational journeys.
The pandemic, for one! Who could have imagined spending a year doing remote classes? And before that, things like the railroad tracks slicing through campus; stone and brick up against steel and glass; not being just a face in the crowd as you walk through campus.
The experience imprints. Click any of the faces below to read some stories about a few newly-minted UW Tacoma degree-holders.
SARAH ABRUZZINI, ’21
B.S. Biomedical Sciences
Sarah Abruzzini is a pragmatic person. The 39-year-old grew up in the small town of Kalama, Wash. “I think there were something like 56 people in my high school graduating class.” A first-generation student, Abruzzini is graduating with a degree in biomedical sciences. “I like mysteries,” she said. “I like to stay engaged mentally and I like to be challenged. The human body fulfills both of these needs.”
A few short years ago, Abdalah Adan was studying health at his local community college. Like most degrees it required two math classes, and Adan found that the content of these peripheral classes fascinated and excited him far more than his chosen major. He completed the entire series of math classes, earning high grades, and was soon hungry for more. That put him on the track to becoming an electrical engineer.
Some people are microwaves: they make decisions and act on them quickly. Others are crockpots: they take a little longer but there’s always a low heat about them. Dennis Adjetey is more the latter, living in London and Arizona and working in Tacoma before he tapped into the drive and desire to pursue a degree in urban design.
Felix Aráoz-Copley’s experiences in school were strongly influenced by his first-generation status and his age. He began college at 29 and felt insecure and embarrassed about his age. But now, at 33, his perspective has shifted. “It has been a long, challenging road, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Every step I took in this direction, every class, every paper I wrote has led me here.”
After a medical retirement from the U.S. Army and a difficult transition to civilian life, Jeff Bantay blossomed at Tacoma Community College, and then at UW Tacoma. He served as president of Student Veterans Organization at UW Tacoma (SVOUWT), and as one of the team leaders for Peer Advisors for Veterans Education. “I’ve really enjoyed my experience here. My involvement with SVOUWT has given me a sense of belonging again.”
With three degrees from UW Tacoma, the latest being a doctorate in educational leadership, Dr. Star Berry is passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion, both in and out of the classroom. In some ways, her pursuit of education and advanced degrees can be seen as a way to better understand and address these issues. “I’ve utilized my degrees to work within immigrant rights, to work on communications for farm workers’ rights,” she said. “I’ve also been a labor organizer.”
From an early age, Paola Jean Caguiat Chua knew she wanted to work in the medical field. A 13-year-old Chua arrived in the United States in 2012. “School had already started, so I didn’t really have time to adjust,” she said. Chua had been a top ten student back in the Philippines. She had already completed high school-level courses, but that didn’t matter. “I ended up being placed in eighth grade and doing work that I’d already done before,” she said.
ASUWT President Vincent Da had a goal as a student leader: to ensure that UW Tacoma students feel connected, welcome and accommodated. “I really want to focus on what it means to be a UW Tacoma Husky.” In Da’s mind, that means every Tacoma Husky “feels connected with their professors and benefits from a more intimate academic and classroom experience.”
Teresa Dennerlein is a violinist who performed with the indie folk band “The Last Bison,” but she had a different vision of her future. “We’d play at college shows and I would have students come up to me and say something like ‘This is my dream,’ and I would tell them they were living my dream.”
Growing up in Puyallup as part of the immigrant community and as the daughter of the owners of a popular restaurant, Margarita Gonzalez learned early that she could succeed with the help of those around her. “The people around me — my friends, staff and faculty — have been a really big help and a great resource for me.”
Military life is a unique experience, as is life as a military child. UW Tacoma senior Renée Guzman knows a little something about the latter. Her mother served in the army for 21 years. The younger Guzman went where Mom went including, Alaska, Kentucky, Germany (twice), Texas, Indiana and, finally, Washington state, where she enrolled at UW Tacoma in the fall of 2017. “My end goal is to work with veterans and military families,” she said. “I want to get my social work license so I can work in a hospital setting with veterans.”
Kirsten Hargett is “a human plant. I need sunshine.” That's not all she needs to thrive. “Education was always big in our house,” she said. “My parents always told us ‘Why choose to not know when you’ve been given the resources to know?’ ”
The sea has always been part of Aidan Helt’s story. She is a native of Ketchikan, Alaska, a city that can only be accessed via plane or boat. She traveled the world as a merchant mariner. Now, with her degree in business administration and economics, she is on a new journey.
Ping Luarn, an international student from Taiwan, came to study in Tacoma because “I actually found that I really enjoy the UW Tacoma campus because it’s smaller.” Besides her classes, she holds four on-campus jobs, and was named the Student Employee of the Year in April. She has discovered she likes uncovering what makes a website click with a user and what drives them away.
Rebecca Morgan’s lifelong passion for art informs her newly-awakened interest in web design that developed based on her experiences at Pierce College and at UW Tacoma. She plans to take what she has learned about technical communication and apply it to her work as a designer at Brown & Haley, and then start a freelance web design business on the side.
Taylor Owens is soft-spoken, but not necessarily quiet. She is a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe, whose ancestral homelands are situated in what is now southeast Mason County. Community is an important part of Owens’ life. She is actively involved with her tribe and has been for several years. Named a Udall Scholar in her junior year, she wants to use her criminal justice degree to address the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
By her own admission, Seonhwa Pak’s first couple of years at UW Tacoma weren’t great. That changed towards the end of Pak’s sophomore year on campus. “I started getting involved with registered student organizations (RSO) like Campus Adult Ministry and the Filipino Student Association,” she said. “That inspired me to start my own club, the Korean Student Association.”
Davina Pasillas is the Student Speaker for the 2021 Commencement. She wants to talk about the past 15 months — of public health emergency, cultural flashpoints around social justice and contested elections — and what they meant to her and to the Class of 2021. “I want to set an example for my siblings and for my kids. I want them to shoot for the stars.”
Max Raeburn was shy and insecure at the beginning of their academic career, unsure of their ability and their future. But jobs as a Pack Advisor, a writing tutor in the Teaching & Learning Center and a Peer Success Mentor changed that. “I got so much more confident. That was the avenue that helped me figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Veronica Ramirez Ramsay finds time, or maybe she makes it. Either way, the UW Tacoma senior spends those extra hours and minutes in the service of others. As an aspiring healthcare leader, Ramirez Ramsay's long-term career goal is to improve access to healthcare for underserved communities and marginalized populations through advocacy, policy, and activism. “I am wholeheartedly committed to being a servant leader to my community in the effort of achieving my community’s optimal health and well-being,” she said.
Michael Villalpando worked as a paramedic for 15 years. Now he is on a path to becoming a physician assistant, one that includes earning a bachelor’s in healthcare leadership. “I want to be able to be in just more than an emergency setting,” Villalpando said. “I just want to be able to continue taking care of people long term, getting to know them and doing more internal medicine. I know I can do this at a higher level.”
The intrepid among us seek to break new ground. For Madeline Zent, a Dressel Scholar, that meant founding the Outdoor Adventures club, reactiviting the Women in Computer Science club, and serving as UW Tacoma’s STEM Youth Outreach Coordinator. “I think every time a woman chooses computer science, she is definitely improving the lives of other women,” she said. “How can we really be serving half of the population If only 20% to 26% of those in the field are women?”
In a story about increasing exposure to wildfire smoke in our region, Associate Professor Robin Evans-Agnew talks about the resulting increased prevalence of asthma and its inequitable burden on society.