The University of Arizona class of 2020 shares the collective challenge of the coronavirus pandemic. But many students have their own stories, apart from COVID-19, of perseverance and overcoming hardships while excelling in their studies and beginning new careers.
Among them are Zachary Stout, who overcame opioid addiction, and Jenny Nguyen, who mourned the loss of her father and shouldered the news of her mother's cancer diagnosis while she was in school.
There's also Monique Davila, a first-generation college student who balanced caring for her father with pursuing her history degree, and Jeffrey Asman, who returned to college to earn his Doctor of Pharmacy degree at age 50.
Here's a closer look at these four students, who will be recognized along with more than 11,000 other graduates in a virtual ceremony on Friday.
From Prison to Policy Change
Long before Stout was a UArizona student, he was driving past campus amid his addiction to opioids, thinking, "That could have been my future."
He later spent two-and-a-half years in prison for selling opioids. Following the experience, Stout gained a new perspective.
"My main goal is broad-sweeping policy change to expand access to education for the currently incarcerated and put an end to laws that limit admissions for those who have been in prison," he said.
Stout will graduate with a degree in economics from the Eller College of Management, as well as two degrees from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, in philosophy and the interdisciplinary undergraduate major of philosophy, politics, economics and law.
The Honors College student is expected to graduate next year from the accelerated Master's in Philosophy program.
Read more about Stout on the Eller College website.
Architecture Student Carries on Immigrant Father's Dream
Nguyen, who is finishing a five-year Bachelor of Architecture program, says her strong work ethic was built on the example set by her father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in the mid-1970s.
"He traveled thousands of miles by sea on a dangerous, overcrowded wooden boat to an unknown foreign country," she said. "I view the extensive amount of work completed over the past five years as me fighting for the American dream my father pursued."
Two years into Nguyen's time at the university, her father died of liver cancer. Her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer less than a year later. The experience taught Nguyen to balance her personal life with her academic workload.
She plans to spend her career finding ways to help the underserved through architecture, and it's important to her not to erase or replace an area's cultural identity.
"Great architecture doesn't need to be expensive or high design," she said. "It's more about experience and craft. If it can serve a community of people who need it the most, that's the best solution."
Read more about Nguyen on the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture website.
First-Generation Graduate Balances School with Caregiving
Davila will graduate with her Bachelor of Arts in history. She is also receiving the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences' Student Success Award and the Katheryne B. Willock Library Research Award from the University of Arizona Libraries, along with several scholarships and grants.
During her time at the university, Davila researched Navajo youth, identity and education in the mid-20th century. She also volunteered at the Arizona Historical Society for hands-on experience to support her goal of creating a South Tucson Mexican American community museum.
Davila, a first-generation college student, overcame many challenges before she arrived at the university, including the unexpected death of her mother and taking on the full-time care of her disabled father, while working full time and taking courses at Pima Community College.
Davila will attend Utah State University in the fall to pursue a master's degree in history with a focus on archival studies, public history and the 20th century American West.
"While being an undergraduate in the Department of History, I have met such supportive and generous professors, classmates and graduate students that have motivated me to continue my success in higher education and obtain a graduate degree in history," Davila said. "Having an amazing group of mentors in the department has benefited my time as an undergrad as they have greatly assisted me in becoming a successful student."
Read more about Davila on the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences website.
Never too Late for an Education
Asman already had a career running a tile subcontracting business when he decided to return to school to earn his Doctor of Pharmacy. He was 50 years old at the time.
Now, seven years later, Asman is looking ahead to his career in community pharmacy, specifically in long-term or ambulatory care.
Despite a significant age gap between him and many of his classmates, Asman was elected class representative for the past three years. He also was deeply involved in the College of Pharmacy's organizations and activities.
His words of advice for others considering returning to college? "It's never too late."
Read more about Asman in a Q&A on College of Pharmacy website.