Commencement 2021

Graduate Spotlights

These undergraduate and graduate students share their advice, memories, gratitude, and encouragement for their fellow Gauchos. Read their words below — just make sure the tissues are in reach!

Chassidie Liu

Psychological and Brain Sciences
COLLEGE OF Letters & Science
Glendora, CA

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

We have so much time in our lives. Although sometimes that may be hard to see when you're walking into your dorm room on move-in day, remember that you have the next four years to have the most memorable four years of your life! You have so much time to achieve what you want, and with determination, you will get there... regardless of time.

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

UCSB has brought me the biggest support system I could have ever imagined. I will be leaving UCSB with amazing friends knowing they have the best intention for me. They have taught me to love myself more, have more fun, and most importantly, made me more of a touchy person!

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

Whether you have your life planned down to the tee, or you have absolutely no idea what you are going to do after you graduate, just remember... life is a marathon, not a race!

Chassidie Liu stands in an empty bike path with Storke Tower behind her in the distance.

Ashley Petrie stands along the bluffs at UC Santa Barbara, smiling and wearing sunglasses

Ashley Petrie

CCS Music Composition
College of Creative Studies
Nevada City, CA

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

Community is an incredibly powerful and important thing. I benefited greatly from the incredible community in and around campus, even when we couldn't all be together, and at times, I learned just as much from my peers as I did my faculty.

What professor had a significant impact on you and how?

My composition professor, Leslie Hogan, was an incredible support to me throughout my four years, both in my academics and outside of school. She always supported me and what I wanted to do with my music and my career, and helped me to find the best way to achieve those goals. She pushed me to be a better student and composer, but always gave me enough room to find my personal voice and make things my own. Even outside of academic advising, she was always there for me, no matter what was going on. She helped me to think about my art in a completely different way, and showed me that it's okay to do what you love, even if that's not what everyone else is doing.

Rami Abulaban

Electrical Engineering
College of Engineering
Mission Viejo, CA

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

I learned so much at my time at UCSB. I learned how to manage my time well, delegate tasks efficiently, and work with so many various personalities and people. Additionally, I learned how valuable every moment is in the classroom. Learning from top and highly respected professors in the field is truly an invaluable experience and I am very thankful for each and every professor.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

Take pride in how far you’ve come. Have faith in how far you can go. But don’t forget to enjoy the journey.

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

I was able to develop strong connections and have a great background in engineering coursework to propel me to move into a technical role. I was able to learn new skills and technologies in the classroom and was able to apply those skills in practical lab applications. Looking forward, I wouldn't have been able to land the job offers that I did if it were not for UCSB.

Rami Abulaban stands by Henley Gate wearing a Class of 2021 stole.

Portrait of Miriam Burnett in professional attire

Miriam Burnett

Masters of Education
GeVirtz Graduate School of Education
Goleta, CA

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

UCSB has prepared me for a future in student services by providing me a safe platform to raise issues about equity in science education that lead me into graduate research. Now pressing forward, I am deliberate and intentional in my mission to recognize opportunities to enhance the cultural and educational experiences of African American and other students.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

Pressing forward post COVID-19, it is the relationship you build with people that should be a priority, and that our education compliments relationship and community building efforts to heal our society post-pandemic.

Sean Benevedes

CCS Physics
College of Creative Studies
Patterson, CA

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

I've learned the importance of working to make our intellectual spaces more equitable.

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

The courses and research opportunities presented to me by UCSB have prepared me to pursue a Physics PhD at MIT next fall.

What professor had a significant impact on you and how?

Professor Nathaniel Craig has shaped my development as a physicist. His mentorship has taught me how to approach research problems as well as how to be a conscientious member of the physics community.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

You've done amazing work in getting through these challenging times!

Sean Benevedes smiles with the beach and ocean behind him

Dominique Mihaljevic wears a graduate stole on the bluffs at UC Santa Barbara with the ocean in the background

Dominique Mihaljevic

Communication
College of Letters & Science
Folsom, CA

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

I've learned to make the most out of any situation. Being a transfer student, my time at UCSB was limited. Especially when we had to transition to online learning for part of my junior year and all of my senior year. It's really easy to get discouraged; however, I was still able to have a great experience at UCSB through my two jobs with the university, my internships, and being involved in student organizations. It was very apparent to me that UCSB prides itself in creating community for its students no matter the circumstances.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

Our resiliency has shown a lot about who we are as graduates of UCSB. No matter what challenges we face, we can come out of any obstacle stronger. I'm excited for myself and my fellow graduates who showed exceptional grit during times where it was hard to stay motivated, and I can't wait to see all the amazing things we'll accomplish.

Kat Leigh

Master in Environmental Science & Management
Bren School of Environmental Science & Management
Hercules, CA

What professor had a significant impact on you and how?

Allison Horst. By far the best teacher I've been blessed to learn from during my time at UCSB, Allison has impressed me by her commitment to what she loves, her skills, and her human compassion.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

Prioritize mental health. Not in a superficial way. I don't mean food, exercise, sleep, work-life balance (those are all great), but I mean true emotional-spiritual wellbeing. Pay attention. If something's bothering you and you don't deal with it, it's not gonna go away. So, don't ignore it. Tackle it. Because you matter.

What is something positive that has come out of being a student during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Daily bike rides. If it wasn't for the pandemic, I would have been biking to my classes, so I wouldn't have had to promise myself I would ride my bike to campus and back each day. But I stuck with it. Every weekday, I have ridden my bike to campus and back. Just to get the blood flowing, feel the breeze, get some sunshine. It ALWAYS improves my mood. Some days it was the highlight of my day. These little things get you through.

Portrait of Kat Leigh

Michelle Chiu sits on the beach wearing glasses and laughing

Michelle Chiu

CCS Biology
College of Creative Studies
Union City, CA

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

My amazing time at UCSB has been defined by the people I've met. I've learned how to build a support system, and the importance of a support system. My support system at UCSB consists of friends, peers, staff members, and faculty.

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

I've developed confidence, strengthened my work ethic, connected with wonderful individuals, and admired innumerable pink-orange sunsets over the ocean. And throughout my time here, I've improved and evolved into a person I'm proud of. Improvement is not overnight; it's a slow-and-steady process.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

I hope that you find solace and inspiration in small moments, with loved ones, doing the things that you love. Wherever you end up next, I hope that you create something that you're proud of, and that you never stop learning.

Shivani Awasthi

Economics
College of Letters & Science
Saratoga, CA

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

One of the most invaluable things I learned from my time at UCSB is the concept of Balance. The mentality at UCSB encourages students to not only focus on their schoolwork but also to take time for themselves. Whether it's taking the time to learn a new activity, like surfing, or doing yoga in the park with a friend, UCSB taught me the importance of nourishing my personal growth. This holistic style of living has led me to enjoy my life more and value each moment I've spent here, whether that be in the classroom or outside.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

Saying we've had a tumultuous year is an understatement, but all of us have persevered! As we go out into the world, we each take a piece of what UCSB has taught us. We go out into the world as kind, compassionate, and informed graduates.

Shivani Awasthi wears a Class of 2021 stole and stands among the flowers in front of Henley Gate

Jonathan Larach smiles while standing in front of a palm tree

Jonathan Larach

Religious Studies
College of Letters & Science
Los Angeles, CA

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

I've learned that community makes the educational journey all the more exciting. Whether that means being part of a club, group project, or study group, community is imperative to have while at college. Indeed, that is one of the great opportunities UCSB offered me: life-long friends.

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

UCSB has prepared me extremely well for the future, both in terms of my major and educational journey as a whole. I am better prepared as a religious studies major to start my MA in the fall because I have taken important classes at UCSB, such as language courses. Additionally, UCSB has taught me to how to improve my time management, since the quarter system entails learning a lot of material in a short span of time. The education I have received at UCSB has been truly incredible.

What is something positive that has come out of being a student during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Professors have done everything in their power to make online learning interactive and engaging, and I am thankful that learning did not come to a stop with the pandemic. Online instruction gave us the opportunity to continue learning and pursuing our academic goals.

Alyssa Hufana

Ph.D. Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology
Gevirtz Graduate School of Education
Cerritos, CA

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

UCSB has prepared me to build confidence in taking complex ideas/knowledge and presenting them to a broader audience and general public, become a thoughtful and intentional researcher, and a leader in my field of psychology.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

Surround yourself with your "village", the people who brought you to the institution, who shaped your experiences, and encourage you to stay true to who you are throughout your academic journey.

What professor had a significant impact on you and how?

I appreciate my advisor, Dr. Melissa Morgan, who has mentored me on what it means to be a woman of color in the field and to take on leadership roles on a national level.

Portrait of Alyssa Hufana

Grace Wiley wears a Class of 2021 stole and stands among the flowers in front of Henley Gate at UC Santa Barbara

Grace Wiley

Global Studies and Spanish
College of Letters & Science
Sacramento, CA

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

I have learned the value of a supportive community. Although I have always known the power of support from family and friends, UCSB has shown me the power of having that support from an entire community. This includes faculty, who have always worked to support my growth as a student and thinker, and the entire community of Isla Vista and UCSB that has made me see the importance of balance and relaxation for mental health benefits, and to simply live life to the fullest.

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

UCSB has prepared me for the future by allowing me to discuss important topics with diverse groups of individuals, which has allowed me to understand different perspectives and grow my own opinions. This has prepared me for a future where I will engage in difficult discussions that will require good listening, empathy for another person's point of view, and a level of questioning, as it is always important to challenge normative perspectives and opinions in order to push for better policies and a better world overall.

Michael Zhang

Ph.D. Computer Science
College of Engineering
Beijing, China

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

Contribute to the community and it will have your back if needed because no one can survive this journey alone. Reach out to people when you are stuck on a problem and you will be amazed by how inspiring your colleagues, friends, and roommates are. Likewise, be nice and thrive to help others when they need a hand either academically, financially, or emotionally. Be the inspiration you want to see from others.

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

When I came to the campus five years ago, I would never expect UCSB to become the most meaningful place in my life so far, where I became a computer science researcher, made life-long friendships, learned sailing and surfing, and boosted my physical and mental health. All those bittersweet moments prepared me to embrace the bigger challenges in the next phase of my life.

Michael Zhang wears a wetsuit and stands next to his surfboard on the beach

Lesley-Ann Agenor sits at a patio table in front of a bring wall, smiling

Lesley-Ann Agenor

Biological Sciences
Colleges of Letters & Science
Miami, FL

What professor had a significant impact on you and how?

Kathy Foltz has honestly been the most caring and truly empathetic professor I've had at UCSB. She made me realize that it's okay to ask for help and take advantage of the resources granted to me. I always thought that I needed to figure things out on my own and professors were the last option I had in regard to any kind of help. Kathy has taught me to not only ask for help when it’s needed but also to be there for those around me because you never know who needs that support. She goes out of her way to be there for her students, no matter the issue. We can never stop learning, especially in a field like science. There’s always something new to be discovered and educated about in every aspect of life. Kathy has definitely inspired me to be more curious and ask questions because life is about building upon what we already know in a way to broaden our knowledge, which consequently ends up bettering ourselves as people.

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

UCSB has shown me that everyone is different and no one person is going to follow the same structure of life so it’s best to just do your own thing and be happy with your own progress.

Justine Johnson-Yurchak

Psychological and Brain Sciences
College of Letters & Science
San Luis Obispo, CA

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

I have learned valuable lessons not only about academics and research, but also about independence, motivation, and perseverance with all tasks and challenges. I am looking forward to carrying these skills with me into my future career.

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

I've learned the importance of life-long friendships and building a strong support network of those that care about you and share in your accomplishments.

What is something positive that has come out of being a student during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I have been able to spend more time with family and friends. My roommates and I have gotten so much closer this past year, and I know I will value this time I got to spend with them forever.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

Be open to new experiences. :)

Justine Johnson-Yurchak wears a Class of 2021 stole in front of Henley Gate at UC Santa Barbara

Portrait of Alphie Rodriguez

Alphie Rodriguez

Linguistics
College of Letters & Science
Pasadena, CA

What is something invaluable you've learned, beyond academics, from your time at UCSB?

I learned that "alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much."

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

Beyond academics, I am more mentally prepared to face the adversities of life through the experiences learned inside and outside the classroom. I learned that in order to be successful one must also rely on the help of others for there are people who are more experienced than we are.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

No matter what adversities one faces there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Never lose focus of what is most important, and most of all do not try to undertake what comes your way alone.

Smaranda Ioana Lawrie

Ph.D. Psychological and Brain Sciences
Masters of Education 
Gevirtz Graduate School of Education
Bacau, Romania

What is something positive that has come out of being a student during the COVID-19 pandemic?

My students inspired me to start the UCSB Resilience Summit and Certificate Program. We couldn’t have imagined then how big the program would get and how many incredible speakers from both on and off-campus we would be able to recruit. As for the nearly-one thousand sign-ups we got on the first day. . . . well, we still can't quite wrap our heads around it. Now, I get several thank-you letters a week from students who participated in the series. Some have called it their best experience at UCSB. We are beyond humbled, proud, and grateful. This whole experience has taught me to just go for it. If you really believe in something, dare to dream big, take risks, and go for it because you might just be surprised by the outcome!

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates? 

Embrace the challenges, difficulties, and failures along the way. None of us can avoid them, but we can choose to grow from them.

Portrait of Smaranda Lawrie

Shiva Areff stands in front of foliage wearing graduate attire

Shiva Areff

Biopsychology
College of Letters & Science
Santa Clarita, CA

What professor had a significant impact on you and how?

Dr. Emily Jacobs' courses are so incredibly introspective and thought-provoking. They commonly deal with the issue of women's health which is often overlooked and under-researched. From her courses, I have gained a new sense of critical thinking and feel strongly about helping educate those around me on the topics on which she educated us.

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

I have gained invaluable experiences during my time at UCSB. I feel more professionally and personally developed, which truly excites me for what lies ahead. UCSB also taught me that it is so important to work hard and do your best at whatever you set out to do, but to also have fun!

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

It's okay to not know what's next! I think we need to remind ourselves that we are young and just starting our "adult" lives, so there is no rush in figuring things out. Our 20s are the best time to continue growing and learning with an open mind. Things usually have a way of working out, so just trust the process!

Sean Hixon

Ph.D. Anthropology
College of Letters & Science
Corvallis, OR

What professor had a significant impact on you and how?

Dr. Douglas Kennett inspired the direction of my dissertation research and has continually helped expand my professional skill sets through opportunities both in the U.S. and abroad.

How has UCSB prepared you for the future?

UCSB has prepared me for the future by introducing me to new friends and colleagues, both informally and through conferences. I think that these connections are an important part of my personal and professional development, and I look forward to staying in communication.

What words of encouragement do you have for your fellow graduates?

There is always uncertainty in the future, and this may be particularly true during a pandemic. If circumstances prevent us from having a career focused on what we studied in undergrad or grad school, this does not mean that our time at the university was wasted. Each person brings a unique background to whatever career they ultimately pursue, and a wide range of experiences at places like UCSB has lasting value.

Portrait of Sean Hixon