Seven undergraduates who are earning their degrees from the University of Arizona will be honored for their extraordinary accomplishments during the university's 156th Commencement on May 15.
The university's Commencement will be held virtually at 6 p.m. on May 15, with an in-person ceremony to be held on Oct. 30.
Nominated by faculty and peers, the students were selected for four awards based on their integrity, notable achievements and positive contributions to their families and communities.
The Provost Award goes to an outstanding graduating student who transferred to the university from an Arizona community college. Criteria for the award include perseverance and commitment to academic studies, contributions to the university community, and above-average scholastic ability, citizenship and leadership.
Lauren Easter is graduating summa cum laude with her Bachelor of Arts in law and philosophy. She is in the Accelerated Master's Program for Legal Studies with a concentration in human rights. Easter is a student, mother and survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. While in a women's shelter, she recognized the need to finish school and be a role model for her son, who has recently been diagnosed with autism.
Easter works as a paralegal and advocates for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. She currently volunteers with Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, assisting women impacted by domestic violence. Easter serves on both the American Enterprise Institute Executive Council and the board of directors for the Tucson Paralegal Association. She is a member of the Honors College and is currently working on her thesis, exploring Germany's corporate governance structure and how it promotes more women into leadership positions in the private and public sectors.
Following graduation, Easter will pursue a dual MBA and law degree. She wants to become an advocate attorney for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as an international human rights lawyer championing women's rights. She intends to create a scholarship foundation to support the educational needs of women and girls around the world.
Robie Gold Medal
The Robie Gold Medal honors those who demonstrate personal integrity, initiative, cooperation, enthusiasm, willingness to give more than required, and a love of God and country.
Coolidge native Tony Viola IV is a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Viola is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in literacy, learning and leadership, with a minor in American Indian studies. In 2016, Viola graduated from Marana High School, where he was involved in a federally funded Upward Bound TRIO program that supports aspiring first-generation college students.
As a sophomore, Viola worked as a cat coach for the First Cats peer mentoring program, where he provided mentorship, guidance and resources to first-generation college students. As a founding member of Voices of Indigenous Concerns in Education, Viola is part of a collective group on campus working to indigenize university spaces and policies to better support indigenous students, staff, faculty and communities.
During his junior year, Viola was an Access, Wellness, and Relational Determinants of School Success research fellow in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium's PREP program under the mentorship of Corey J. Knox and Sara P. Chavarria.
Following graduation, he will continue his studies at the University of Arizona as a doctoral student in the Language, Reading and Culture Program in the College of Education.
Born and raised in Tucson, Sunnyside High School alumna Crystal Alyssia Raygoza – also a winner of the Robie Gold Medal – is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in family studies and human development, with a minor in Spanish.
Raygoza has held several leadership positions at the University of Arizona, including serving on the Student Success and Retention Innovation student advisory board, providing a prospective of inclusivity and diversity. She is also a member of Gamma Alpha Omega, a Latina-founded sorority. A Ronald E. McNair Achievement Program scholar, Raygoza formed her own research question, examining the relation between familismo (strong family bonds) and educational outcomes of Latinx adolescents.
Following graduation, Raygoza will pursue a doctoral degree with the Educational Leadership and Policy program at the University of Arizona. There she will focus on the gap of college transition, college access and achievement in higher education to further establish college preparation and academic guidance programs that create welcoming and accepting spaces.
Robert Logan Nugent Award
The Robert Logan Nugent Award goes to students who display a record of accomplishments that exemplifies the high ideals of Robert Logan Nugent, who was the University of Arizona's executive vice president.
Lily Keane Chavez is graduating magna cum laude from the Honors College with a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and global studies. As an Arizona Assurance scholar from Phoenix, Chavez has committed her undergraduate career to promoting international education and global awareness through exemplifying the essence of service to the university, the Tucson community and underrepresented populations abroad.
As a senior, Chavez served as a Family and Youth Support and Cultural Orientation intern at the Tucson-based International Rescue Committee. Additionally, she engaged in a semester-long social media enhancement project for Iskashitaa Refugee Network. Chavez is also engaged with the university's Refugee Project, where she builds on existing intercultural competency skills. Chavez is currently serving as a civil rights, communications and social movements research assistant under the advisement of professor Thomas P. Miller. Chavez has also been a member of Alpha Epsilon Phi Sorority, Arizona Model United Nations, Phi Beta Kappa honors society and Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity.
Upon graduation, Chavez intends to conduct research for a non-governmental organization dedicated to gender equality and international education reform. In the following year, Chavez plans to continue her education in the field of international human rights law.
Meucci Watchman Ilunga, another Robert Logan Nugent award winner and a member of the Deer Spring and Red Running Into the Water clans, is graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry. Ilunga is from the Kinłichíí (Kinlichee) community, a small village in northern Arizona and one of the Navajo Nation's 110 chapters. Drawing from the experiences of his mother – a former sheepherder – and his father – an immigrant from central Africa – Ilunga has long hoped to live up to the example of service that both his parents set for him.
In addition to being committed to service, Ilunga is an avid student of the biological sciences. He first started doing research in the labs of Christina Laukaitis and Robert Karn in the University of Arizona Cancer Center, then later, in the lab of Michael D.L. Johnson in the Department of Immunobiology under the National Institutes of Health Maximizing Access to Research Careers program. Additionally, Ilunga spent a summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying computational protein techniques in the lab of Amy Keating.
Upon graduation, Ilunga plans to pursue a doctorate in the field of synthetic biology, hopefully managing to bring the Diné (Navajo) idea of "Hozhó" (Diné wellness philosophy) along with him.
Merrill P. Freeman Medal
The Merrill P. Freeman Medal is named in honor of Merrill Freeman, who served the University of Arizona as a regent and chancellor. Qualifications for the award include outstanding character.
Marcos Gomez Ambriz, known as "Gomez," is a first-generation Mexican American student from Phoenix. Gomez, an Honors College student and Arizona Assurance Scholar, is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in physiology and Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry. At the age of 20, his mother, Maria Teresa Ambriz, left her hometown of Michoacán, Mexico, for the United States. With the guidance of his high school counselor and advanced placement biology teacher – who both saw his potential in science, technology, engineering and math – Gomez applied to the University of Arizona.
Gomez has served the university as a chemistry and biochemistry ambassador, resident assistant in Árbol de la Vida and Honors Village, research assistant in Andrew Capaldi's laboratory, ASUA College of Medicine senator, Project Soar mentor, hospice volunteer and member of the Student Affairs Policy and Research Policy committee. Exploring his interest in sports medicine, Gomez did a sports medicine internship with FC Tucson and worked as a physical therapy technician.
Motivated by his mother, Gomez devoted his college career to being a role model for and mentoring students like himself. Gomez has received various awards, including Chemistry and Biochemistry Student of the Month, the Silver and Sage Scholarship, the Wildcat Excellence Award and Dean's List with Academic Distinction. He also was a member of the 2019 Homecoming Court.
Gomez is applying for a yearlong internship with an orthopedic surgeon and plans to attend medical school.
Ahmad B. Shahin, a first-generation Palestinian American, is graduating summa cum laude from the Honors College with a Bachelor of Science in physiology and a minor in Arabic. As a Baird Scholar from Tucson, Shahin has demonstrated his commitment to the underserved, the university and the greater Tucson community throughout his undergraduate experience.
Since his freshman year, Shahin has served as a volunteer mentor and translator to refugee youths at struggling local high schools through the La Frontera Youth Mentorship Program. In 2018, he traveled to India to support rural eye clinics and record sight-restoring surgeries as an intern for a nonprofit organization.
Shahin has worked both as a medical scribe at a urology clinic and as a research assistant in May Khanna's pharmacology lab, where he conducted research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and chronic pain. Shahin also helps Alzheimer's and dementia patients regain lost mobility and sharpen mental acuity as an intern for the University of Arizona Elder Rehabilitation Program. Shahin is a Center for Middle Eastern Studies Outreach Scholar, Raytheon Scholar and a finalist for University of Arizona Homecoming King.
After graduation, Shahin will pursue a medical degree at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine.