Head of the Class

By Keren G. Raz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, May 12, 2004

UA honors 6 seniors for their accomplishments, academics

Out of a graduating class of 3,260 seniors, six accomplished undergraduates have received top honors and the chance to sit on stage in the McKale Center Saturday.

Nita Umashankar and Jon Gandomi received the Merrill P. Freeman Medals. Freeman, who served the UA as a regent and a chancellor in the university's early years, provided the university with funds in 1916 to honor two outstanding seniors with medals.

Jason Chang and Angie Kebric have won the Robert Logan Nugent Awards, created by the Alumni Association in 1964 in memory of Robert Logan Nugent, who served more than 30 years as the UA's executive vice president.

Rachel Wellhausen and Chris Cabello have been selected to receive the Robie Medals, which are accompanied by cash awards provided by late alumni Wendell T. Robie and his wife, Inez Benzie Robie.

Cabello, a chemistry, biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology senior, comes from a family of more than 50 people. Yet this week, he will become only the fourth person in his family to receive a bachelor's degree.

For Cabello, college has been about breaking away from small-town life in Casa Grande.

Now, the top senior will move on to graduate school at the University of Michigan to study with some of the top chemistry professors in the country.

Umashankar, who founded the Theta Xi Nu multicultural sorority and has performed Indian classical dance for 10 years, said her greatest accomplishment is not the awards she has won but the relationships she has maintained.

"Accolades are good, but these things come and go," she said. "What you learn from others, the knowledge and the wealth, can never be taken away from me."

Kebric has been involved in activities all over the map while at the UA. During her freshman year, she got involved in the football hostess program. Then, after realizing she wanted to learn more about government, she took on an internship with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

One day, a legislative assistant told her to go watch McCain debate a bill Kebric helped research on the House floor, and when she did, she found him quoting parts of her research.

"I had a part in it," she said.

In his four years at the UA, Gandomi, the winner of the nationally competitive Truman Scholarship, has made most of his impact off campus. Before he arrived at the UA, he took a year off to travel around Russia with a group of eight people who promoted peace and tolerance through the arts.

That experience not only got him involved in a project called Generation Hope, for which he now coordinates training sessions all over the world, but it also sparked his interest in studying development in former Soviet countries.

The international studies senior said by carving out a program of study all his own, he thrived at the UA.

"Take your education and experience and make it personal in whatever way that means," he said.

Like Gandomi, Wellhausen has also studied in places to which few people travel, such as Siberia, where she studied Russian and economic development.

Wellhausen, an economics, English and interdisciplinary studies senior who is graduating with the equivalent of nearly six majors, has also been named the outstanding honors student and the outstanding economics student.

Chang, a mechanical and biosciences engineering senior, has scars to remind him about some of what he has done at the UA.

His arm boasts burn marks that he got while participating in Light the "A" with the Primus freshman honorary.

On the bottom of his foot, lies a scar created after stepping on something while surfing in Africa.

But the scars do not even begin to capture all that he has done; the outstanding engineering student has also studied in Turkey, researched Vitamin A deficiency in Zambia, backpacked up to Kenya and written a 150-page thesis.

Chang, a fifth-year senior, said the biggest challenge would have been to get everything done in four years. Instead, he took his time and now has two pieces of advice for students who remain at the UA.

"Don't miss an opportunity," he said. "Take your time."