SJSU Spring Graduates To Check “Complete Degree” Off Their Bucket Lists
SJSU graduates throw their caps high into the air in celebration of the culmination of their college experience. Photo: David Schmitz
The academic journeys of thousands of SJSU students will come to an exuberant and joyful conclusion at the end of the month — as they begin to plot careers, advanced degree pursuits and other post-graduation plans — when they cross the stage at spring commencement.
From May 25–27, 12 in-person commencements, with hundreds of parents, family members and other supporters expected to be in attendance, will mark the largest in-person gatherings at SJSU since 2019. The ceremonies take place in the Provident Credit Union Event Center at San José State University.
More than 7,500 students from the class of 2022 are scheduled to graduate, with many of them participating in college-specific commencement ceremonies and crossing the graduation stage. Interim President Steve Perez, Provost Vincent Del Casino, Jr., college deans and other university administrators will preside over the events, which will also be livestreamed for guests unable to attend in person.
“It’s a great day to be a Spartan! We are so excited to share this momentous time with our talented students who can now cross earning a college degree off their ‘bucket lists’,” said Interim President Perez.
“Obtaining a college degree represents what happens when you mix talent and intellect with hard work and determination — and these Spartans have done it! I am so proud to congratulate our San José State University Class of 2022 graduates and can’t wait to see what they do next.”
Each Spartan graduate has their own story to tell about their journey toward graduation. Here are just a few of them:
Education as a means toward serving others
Jennifer Tai, ’20 CHAD and Communications, ’22 MSW and Pupil Personnel Services Credential, is no stranger to loss.
While still in high school, her mother passed away, leaving her and her brother in the care of an abusive father before they were placed in foster care. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — Tai took refuge in school and community service before discovering San José State’s Guardian Scholars Program (GSP) for foster youths.
But her struggles continued even as a Spartan, as she experienced housing insecurity during her second semester and worried she would have to drop out. The GSP, which offers career workshops, scholarships and a peer network for foster youths, helped her find emergency housing, allowing her to focus on her studies while getting back on her feet.
Now, with degrees in hand, her goal continues to be to support this underserved population in school settings.
“We [foster youths] face a lot of additional barriers compared to our non-foster care peers,” said Tai. “We struggle with mental health challenges due to the trauma we faced in addition to trying to survive and meet our basic needs. While that makes me sad, at the same time it motivates me to help other foster youths to have the resources and support that I received.”
Geology grad overcomes rocky road to earn Outstanding Thesis Award
Jesse Waco, ‘22 MS Geology, was recently awarded SJSU’s 2022 Outstanding Thesis Award for his thesis: “Evidence of Active Reverse Faulting and a Left-Stepping San Andreas Fault (Mission Creek Strand) in the Eastern San Bernardino Mountains, Southern California.”
“This award means a lot to me because I chose to abandon my career in the tech industry, start over, and go to college in my 30’s and 40’s,” said Waco. He chose to pursue his bachelor’s and master’s degrees back-to-back, leading to occasional frustration in the library and classroom, as well as his own second-guessing as to whether a return to college was the best idea.
“I still questioned it even after completing my thesis, because I didn’t know if it was all worth it or if I even did a good job,” he said. “But receiving this award truly gave me a sense of validation for my entire academic career, and that all those years of hard work had paid off. Getting recognition from the Graduate Studies & Research Committee is a really special thing for me — and makes my family and friends who supported me very proud.”
*Read more about Waco’s thesis award below.
Perseverance pays off
Sometimes, as the saying goes, the best things in life really are worth waiting for.
Adrian Ramirez, ‘22 Psychology, is graduating this spring after more than a decade of pursuing his undergraduate degree. Raised in Alviso, California, Ramirez was removed from his parents’ custody and placed in a group home at 9 years old. His pathway to an education was interrupted by the loss of a close family friend. A Guardian Scholars Program student, Ramirez says that the GSP provided critical resources and support.
“The Guardian Scholars program is vital to students who come from similar backgrounds as me,” he shared. “Once you’re in the foster care system, you’re supposed to become a statistic. The odds are stacked against you and nothing is supposed to go your way.
“Without GSP, I don’t think I would have given this my all,” he continued. “And now, I am in my last semester. This is something I never thought possible. This is beyond my wildest dreams.”
A values-driven education and future
Marissa Ramos, ’22 Social Work, seems to know exactly how she plans on leveraging her education.
“This degree means the opportunity to transform my community and society for the betterment of all,” Ramos said. She notes that she was drawn to the field of social work for its social justice components and for its basis of empowerment for individuals, especially for those who are marginalized in society.
Ramos plans on continuing at SJSU to pursue a master’s degree, also in social work. “I hope to work with communities and broader society to advocate and advance social change for disenfranchised populations in whichever capacity this may be,” she said.
“My experience at SJSU has been one that has been undeniably positive and transformative, as I’ve not only acquired the skills and knowledge I need to move forward with my education, but I’ve gained a larger sense of purpose for my future through SJSU’s focus on social justice.”
Appreciating those who helped along the way
MacKenzie Owens, ‘22 Global Studies, has much to be proud of when she walks across the stage this month.
Among her academic achievements and activities, Owens presented at the Human Rights Institute research colloquium about her work with Students Against Mass Incarceration (SAMI), who are part of the Care First Jail Last (CFJL) Coalition in Santa Clara County. She’s also a climate water advocate at Restore the Delta, working on climate and water issues for the San Francisco Delta estuary.
Following graduation, Owens hopes to work in the humanitarian field in the aspects of policy, diplomacy or community organizing, one of the skills she said she learned during her academic journey at SJSU.
“Advocacy in any form is my main aspiration not only as a career but as a dedication to collaborating with others in solidarity,” she said.
In addition, she credits the people she’s met along the way for her success. “The teachers I’ve had are truly dedicated to learning and embracing all walks of life,” she said. “They’ve been nothing but an endless amount of support, and for that I’m grateful. The friends I’ve made who share my interests and academic pursuits have solidified a lifelong bond. I’m also appreciative of how diverse the campus is in all aspects.”
2022 Student Award Winners
2022 Outstanding Graduating Seniors
Kelly Prashar, ’22 Justice Studies
A five-time President’s Scholar and a two-time Dean’s Scholar, Kelly Prashar founded SJSU’s South Asian Student Association (SASA) and served as an advisor to the Sikh Pre-College Network; president of the Pre-Law Society; and vice president and treasurer of Alpha Phi Sigma, the SJSU chapter of the National Criminal Justice Honor Society. During an internship with SJSU’s Record Clearance Project, she successfully petitioned on behalf of a citizen seeking expungement under the supervision of RCP Director Margaret Stevenson. Prashar is also the founder of the Dream Foundation, for which she created a college resource packet to support first-generation and low-income students that she and others disseminated at high schools across Northern California. Justice Studies Lecturer Natalie Birthelmer described her overall as “a conscientious and engaged student … a kind human being [who supports] other students by giving them feedback on their assignments and helping them with their studies.”
Arshia Hamzehpour Savojblaghi, ’22 Biology
Arshia Hamzehpour Savojblaghi dedicated his time at SJSU to community service and academic excellence. In addition to serving as a senior lead and tutor at Peer Connections, Savojblaghi worked in research labs for both Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Frank Huynh and Chemistry Professor David Brook. He volunteered at a residential care facility for the elderly and Trinity Surgery Center and presided over Spartan MD, SJSU’s pre-med club. Savojblaghi excelled in each of these endeavors and created opportunities for Spartans to connect virtually during the pandemic. He was also a five-time President’s Scholar and recipient of the Claudia Greathead Scholarship and the F. Albert and Dorothy Ellis Scholarship. Deanna Peck, director of Peer Connections, notes that despite being separated from his family in Iran for five years, Savojblaghi “did not only survive, but thrive and contribute greatly to the SJSU community.” He will be attending medical school at New York University this fall.
Benz Phan, ’22 Applied Mathematics and Statistics*
Benz Phan describes his core values as “welfare and community involvement” — passions that he explored while serving on the Associated Students’ Programming and Finance Committees as well as through his work as a registered behavioral technician supporting children living with autism. Phan’s interest in actuarial science, combined with his commitment to academic excellence, prepared him well to pass five professional actuarial exams while pursuing his degree. An experienced judo fighter, Phan founded the SJSU Judo Sports Club to create a space for beginning and intermediate athletes to explore the sport — and even organized an intercollegiate judo tournament in his final semester with more than 100 competitors. Phan’s focus on service extended beyond SJSU; when he landed his first full-time job as a data analyst in early 2022, he immediately took his family out to lunch using his first paycheck.
*Benz Phan, ’22 Applied Mathematics and Statistics, received honorable mention for the Graduating Seniors Award.
May 2022 Outstanding Thesis Award Winner
Jesse Waco, ’21 MS Geology
Jesse Waco mapped geology along the San Andreas Fault in the San Gorgonio Pass region for his thesis, “Evidence of active reserve faulting and left-stepping San Andreas fault (Mission Creek strand) in the eastern San Bernardino Mountains, Southern California.” His thesis combines detailed geomorphic and geologic field mapping and sediment source analyses to revise our understanding of the San Andreas fault in southern California — challenging what Associate Professor of Geology Kim Blisniuk describes as “over 50 years of tectonic and fault models for the San Andreas Fault in the region where the next big earthquake in California is anticipated to rupture through.” A graduate geologist with GHD, a firm in Roseville, Waco is an expert in digital map development using ArcGIS and Adobe Illustrator. He has previously served as an assistant geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.