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ASU grads receive messages of hope for the future

May 9, 2022

'No one, no group, no persuasion, owns your future,' ASU President Crow told thousands of graduates

Thousands of Arizona State University graduates who earned advanced degrees on Monday were asked to remain positive in these tumultuous times and to use their expertise to improve their communities.

More than 5,000 people earned master’s and PhD degrees from ASU this semester, and many of them celebrated at Graduate Commencement at Desert Financial Arena on Monday morning.

ASU President Michael Crow told the graduates to be optimistic and forge ahead.

He told them, “… Stop getting sucked into information from other people who are maniacally engaged in social media as if that is reality.

 “… The world is not going to hell in a handbasket. Set your own personal ambitions and then drive your life forward to those."

Overall, nearly 18,400 ASU students graduated this spring, including nearly 6,000 ASU Online students.

Former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth V. McGregor, an alumna of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at Monday’s ceremony. She was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court in 1998 and remained until her retirement in 2009, serving as chief justice the last four years.

She told the graduates to wield the same intellectual curiosity they cultivated during their studies to help their communities.

“The topics of your dissertations reveal the amazing scope of the questions you asked and answered as you satisfied your academic curiosity," McGregor said. "Now, what if you apply that same curiosity to find ways to use your knowledge to improve the world around you?”

Ruth McGregor speaking at a lectern during ASU Graduate Commencement

ASU law school alumna and former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth V. McGregor speaks at Graduate Commencement on May 9 at Desert Financial Arena. She received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

McGregor said that a few people will truly change the world, but most people will not, and that’s OK.

“Because we can all do something to make the world around us better, a world we want to live in,” she said.

“What if you mentor students? What if you use your knowledge to improve public education for those who follow you, or to make education more affordable?

“What if you helped a child in your neighborhood feel safer? What if you find ways to make the lives of the elderly more rewarding? What if you organize your neighbors to help one another?

“Your projects don’t have to be earth-shattering. They just need to make our world better.”

Nicole Mayberry, the outgoing president of the Graduate Professional Student Association, graduated with her PhD in human and social dimensions of science and technology in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society on Monday, after earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at ASU.

She shared her 10-year journey at ASU with her fellow graduates.

MORE: A look at some of ASU's top spring 2022 grads

Mayberry lived in 20 different homes and attended 16 different schools when growing up after her parents divorced. She witnessed domestic violence and often went to bed hungry. But she knew that education would be a way to a stable future, so she studied hard to go to a good college.

She went off to a small college in Brooklyn, New York, but left after two days, realizing it wasn’t for her.

So she came to ASU, after initially rejecting the school.

“Classes had started a week earlier, the dorms were full and I had scoffed at ASU and declined their admission months earlier,” she said. Still, she hoped something would work out.

“I’m not kidding when I say that not 15 minutes after arriving at Student Services, ASU had reinstated my acceptance and my full academic scholarship, and that night I moved into the Hassayampa Academic Village,” she said.

“I am just one of many stories of inclusion at ASU.”

Later that night, students milled around the field at Sun Devil Stadium, taking selfies or waving and blowing kisses to loved ones in the stands as ASU held its graduation ceremony for nearly 13,000 undergraduate students.

A purple lei was thrown down to a young man, who proudly placed it around his neck. 

A woman searched the stands at Sun Devil Stadium, saw the face she was looking for and broke into a wide smile.

Students' caps were adorned with ribbons, bows, flowers — artwork of every conceivable kind — and words that reflected their accomplishment. Family members held bouquets of roses and pointed their cellphones to the field, hoping to catch a picture of their soon-to-be-graduate.

Pride, decked out in maroon and gold. 

Finally, it was time. 

ASU President Michael Crow began his speech with a question: “Who is ready to graduate right now?”

The shouts of joy answered him. 

Crow struck an optimistic tone, telling the students he isn’t worried about the future, “because of you people. That’s a very, very powerful thing to say to you. You’re going out to a place where you’re going to make things happen.” 

He also praised the students for working through the COVID-19 pandemic to graduate this spring, calling it “a day of thanksgiving and forward progress.” 

“Tens of millions of people suffered from a global pandemic, and here you are graduating from one of the greatest universities in the country, and so many are not,” Crow said. “I hope you remember that.” 

Crow also told the students to understand the gifts they have been given, to use them and advance with them.

“No one, no group, no persuasion, owns your future,” Crow said. “Only you do.”

Lonnie Bunch III speaks at a podium

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, speaks at Undergraduate Commencement on Monday evening at Sun Devil Stadium. He and McGregor received their honorary degrees just before Bunch spoke. Photo by Mike Sanchez/ASU

Crow presented an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters to Lonnie G. Bunch III, the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, an award-winning author and a former educator at universities across the country — including American University, the University of Massachusetts and The George Washington University.

Bunch smiled as he began his commencement speech, saying it was dangerous to give a historian a microphone and a captive audience. But, he said, he promised to heed the advice of his daughter, who told him, “Don’t be a historian. Be brief.”

Bunch told the students to “remember what you’ve learned here, what you accomplished here and, more than anything, remember and cherish the relationships that were birthed here.”

He noted how a college education can change a life, telling a story about his grandparents, who were sharecroppers on a cotton plantation in North Carolina for the first 27 years of their lives. He said they refused to let others set limits for them, took 11 years to graduate from college and “gave me a chance.”

“You have the power to affect change, the opportunity to have an impact on the lives of your families and, really, the broader community,” Bunch said “... Find your own good fight.” 

Bunch then recounted a conversation he had with Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and historian from Chicago.

“He was always a champion of the little man and woman,” Bunch said. “But when he was near 90, he said to me, ‘I can’t hear much. I can’t see much. I can’t stand for long, so all I want you to do is point me in the direction of where I can do good.’”

“I want you to always point yourself in the direction where you can do good,” Bunch told the students. “With this diploma comes the responsibility to use your skills, to use your creativity, to use your education to live a good life and make this country better.”

Written with contributions from ASU News reporters Mary Beth Faller and Scott Bordow.

Top photo: Clinical exercise and physiology master's degree graduate Molly Tomah poses for her sister, Katie Tomah, before Graduate Commencement on Monday, May 9, at Desert Financial Arena. The Tomahs are members of the Comanche Nation Tribe. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Faith motivates first-generation student to succeed

May 9, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Family and faith are of the utmost importance to Alaa Amjad Khalaf, a first-generation college student who is proud to be a Palestinian Muslim woman.   Alaa Khalaf looks directly at the camera. She is wearing a black dress or top with small white dots arranged in vertical lines. A light blue scarf wraps around her head, covering her hair and draping over her shoulders. Her face is visible. Alaa Amjad Khalaf is a first-generation college student who is proud to be a Palestinian Muslim woman. She credits her faith and family for inspiring her on her journey to earn two bachelor's degrees from ASU while also being a part of Barrett, The Honors College. Download Full Image

Khalaf is graduating as a Barrett, The Honors College student with bachelor’s degrees in political science and international letters and cultures (Arabic studies) from the School of Politics and Global Studies and the School of International Letters and Cultures, respectively. She added the concurrent major in Arabic studies midway through her time at ASU because she “realized that I need something that will always keep me connected to my Palestinian roots.” 

Khalaf moved to Palestine with her mother and brother after the death of her father when she was just 4 years old. Amjad Khalaf was her father’s name, and she feels honored to have it as part of her own name.  

Her father was “the joy and light of my life,” she said. “The clear memories of him and all the happy moments are engraved in my mind and will never be forgotten.” 

Khalaf’s mother dedicated her whole life to raising Khalaf and her brother. Along the way, her mother instilled in her the value of a good education, especially for women. She pushed Khalaf to do and be her best as a trailblazer in their family, the first to graduate college.  

In addition to her parents, Khalaf draws inspiration from her immigrant grandparents, who she said “taught me that hard work always pays off.” 

In particular, her grandfather, Nashat Khalaf, was a role model who demonstrated strength and dedication. He was a man of faith who achieved all that he envisioned and credited Allah for his successes. 

“The most valuable thing he has taught me is to put trust in Allah. With your trust in him, everything you will ever need will be handed to you,” Khalaf said. Her grandfather “taught me that anything you want and work for is yours. (He) taught me to take life step by step and to reach for the sky.” 

Everyone in her family is hard-working, Khalaf said, although she wasn’t a dedicated student in her younger years. But she wanted to make her family proud, so she worked hard to improve as a student so that she could achieve her goals. After graduating high school in Palestine, Khalaf moved back to the U.S. to attend college. 

“I met many people from different backgrounds and gained a ton of knowledge. I tried my best to be the best version of myself mentally and physically every day, month and year — meaning every day I had to improve,” she said. 

Her efforts were recognized by her professors, including Associate Professor of Arabic Souad T. Ali, who is the faculty head of Classics and Middle Eastern studies, coordinator of Arabic studies and founding chair of the ASU Council for Arabic and Islamic Studies. This spring, Khalaf was one of five students to receive the Dr. Souad T. Ali's Award of Excellence in Advanced Arabic.

“Her professional and extracurricular activities nationally and locally, including serving as an Arabic tutor and being a member of several student clubs promoting peace and cross-cultural understanding at ASU, has been remarkable,” Ali said.  

Besides her Arabic studies degree, Khalaf also was able to connect with her Palestinian culture through her honors thesis project, which she completed alongside her cousin, Rawaan Khatib. Khalaf and Khatib’s project, titled “Traditional Palestinian Recipes from Our Grandmother’s Kitchen,” documents family dishes and stories alongside a history of Palestinian cuisine and its most common ingredients. Prior to completing the honors thesis, the two cousins enjoyed Palestinian food but did not know much about its background or how to prepare it.  

“Learning the recipes and translating them into measured ingredients and actions helped them connect with their heritage,” said Honors Faculty Fellow Sarah Graff, who advised Khalaf on the honors thesis. “Creating the cookbook was a welcome reminder of her past.” 

Graff said the project encapsulated all the key parts of an honors thesis, starting with an idea the student is passionate about and extending through a demonstration of research and writing skills. It was creative, engaging and forward-thinking.  

“By learning how to make these recipes, Alaa and Rawaan can bring their cultural roots back into their own daily practice and preserve the techniques for future generations,” Graff said.  

The skills Khalaf demonstrated in her honors thesis project and all her coursework while at ASU will be valuable as she applies her degrees to her future career. 

“I have no doubt in my mind that she will be equally successful in any future academic field of study and professional career,” Ali said. 

Khalaf plans to celebrate her graduation by visiting Palestine to recharge amid family and friends before taking the LSAT and applying to law school. “From there, I will start a new chapter of my life,” she said. 

Starting a new chapter is something Khalaf has done a few times now. Between her supportive family and the strength of her faith, she knows she has all the tools she needs to trust herself, stay motivated and pursue her dreams.  

“After all, nothing you truly want or dream of is easy  it’s all hard and requires a ton of time and dedication,” Khalaf said. “Thankfully, with the support of my family and ASU professors, achieving my goals became a dash easier.” 

Kimberly Koerth

Content Writer, School of International Letters and Cultures