UA's International Students to Take Their Talents and Memories Home
The Class of 2016 includes international students with interests ranging from language preservation to film making.

By Alexis Blue, University Relations - Communications
May 11, 2016

The University of Arizona's richly diverse student population includes 3,825 international students, representing 115 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Several graduating international students will celebrate their success at the UA's 152nd Commencement ceremony on Friday.

Here are four international students who plan to return to their home countries as proud Wildcat alumni.

Ph.D. Recipient Works to Protect Her People's Language

Tatiana Degai will graduate from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences with a doctorate in American Indian studies, with a minor in linguistics.

Her work at the UA has focused on preserving the language of the Itelmen people, the original inhabitants of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, an area best known for its wild salmon and many volcanoes. Only five native, fluent Itelmen speakers are still known to be living, and all are older than 70.

Degai is Itelmen, so her work is personally important, and she is learning the language while exploring ways to preserve it.

"It's my heritage. It's who I am," she says.

Earlier this year, Deagi participated as one of seven regional experts in a United Nations global meeting of experts on the state of indigenous languages worldwide.

Previously, in 2012, she helped organize a gathering of native Itelmen speakers, anthropologists and linguists in Kamcahtka as part of an international project led by the University of Connecticut, with support from the National Science Foundation. Using transcriptions collected at the gathering, Dagai produced a DVD in 2014 of Itelmen songs with Russian subtitles, as a teaching tool for those trying to learn the language.

After graduating, Degai will return home to Kamchatka, on Russia's Pacific coast, to be with her husband and two young sons, ages 3 and 4. They live in Kovran, a traditional Itelmen village with only about 300 inhabitants.

Degai will work as director of the Community House of Kovran, a governmental organization that coordinates social and cultural events and state celebrations in the village. She hopes to be able to incorporate the work she has done in language revitalization.

"I have a lot of new knowledge," she says. "There are many indigenous languages in the United States that are also severely endangered — especially languages in California and some languages in Alaska — so I've been reading the articles on language revitalization from those areas and met people who were actually doing this, and it has been very inspirational."

Before coming to the UA, Degai studied English and Japanese at Kamchatka State Pedagogical University and earned a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She was encouraged in her academic pursuits by her grandmother, an Itelmen professor who has worked with anthropologists all over the world.

Degai says she'll miss many things about Tucson and the UA, including the Zumba classes she has been taking at a local studio, the academic environment and the inspirational people she has met, including her dissertation committee chair, renowned linguist and Regents' Professor Ofelia Zepeda.

Eller Grad Lands Job With Major Manufacturer

Hesham Sairafi was drawn to the UA by the reputation of the Eller College of Management. He will graduate with a bachelor's degree in business management and management information systems.

Sairafi is from Medina in the western part of Saudi Arabia. The small, historic city is home to Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, or Prophet's Mosque, which is a major Islamic pilgrimage site, drawing Muslims from around the globe.

Sairafi plans to return to Saudi Arabia after graduating and already has a job lined up — as a human resources analyst for Saudi Arabia Basic Industries Corp., one of the world’s largest petrochemicals manufacturers, in Riyadh.

He applied for a position with the company after graduating from high school and was awarded a scholarship by the business that allowed him to study in the United States.

Prior to attending the UA, he spent 18 months in Philadelphia, studying English as a second language at the University of Pennsylvania. After enduring a year and a half of East Coast cold, he was eager to move to Tucson, where the climate is more similar to his desert home.

Sairafi says his time at the UA has helped him hone his leadership skills. As a student, he was involved in the UA's Blue Chip Leadership Experience, Eller College Student Council and the Eller Unity Board, a group that promotes diversity and inclusion in the Eller College. He also worked as a student mentor in the Office of Student Engagement.

"Being exposed to various projects that helped me develop and grow as a person and as a professional business leader is the real preparation," he says. "For instance, my involvement in Eller College Student Council truly allowed me to acquire leadership skills such as event planning, mentoring younger students and representing the student voices. Also, I participated in organizing and putting together the largest volunteering event on campus, Eller Make A Difference Day 2015, as the recruitment chair."

Sairafi worked on Eller Make a Difference Day with Pam Perry, Eller associate dean and undergraduate programs director, and adviser of the Eller Student Council. Sairafi also took a nonprofit management course from Perry and says she had a valuable impact on his undergraduate experience.

Sairafi says he will miss Tucson's hiking trails (especially Sabino Canyon's Seven Falls) and also the city's diverse restaurants (especially P.F. Chang's and the Karamelo King Mexican food truck on Grant Road).

He said he'll also miss the "friends, advisers and professors who always motivated me to go above and beyond to be the person I am now."

Chemistry Grad Plans to Translate Skills From Lab to Winery

Yuan Chung Wang came to the UA with encouragement from his mother, who has always instilled in him the importance of developing a global view.

Born in Taiwan, Wang grew up in Hong Kong, where he lived just before coming to the UA. As a child, he traveled much with his parents and spent time in the U.S., Canada and Germany.

Drawn to Arizona by the warm weather and the UA's rankings in chemistry and biochemistry, Wang will graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from the College of Science.

In June, he will move to Taiwan to be near family. There, he will complete a year of mandatory military service and then hopes to put his experience in chemistry to work in winemaking.

"It's totally organic chemistry — making compounds, making flavors," he says of the wine business.

Before going back to Taiwan, Wang will spend a month traveling the U.S. with his girlfriend, visiting major cities including New York, Boston and Philadelphia. He's especially looking forward to a stop in Washington, D.C., having become a fan of the Netflix political drama "House of Cards" while living in the U.S.

During his time at the UA, Wang was involved in a number of student clubs and organizations, including the Chemistry Club and the Taiwanese Student Association. He also served as a chemistry department ambassador, welcoming new and prospective students to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and as an International Student Services global ambassador, mentoring and helping incoming international students get acclimated.

He also worked in a pharmacy lab at the BIO5 Institute.

Wang says his time at the UA has given him the confidence for whatever comes next.

"The experience I gained from labs — actually doing stuff — helped give me confidence that I know how to do this," he says.

Wang says he will miss the friends he has made in Tucson, and he's grateful for the support he received at the UA, especially from academic adviser Martin Marquez.

Film Student to Pursue Career in International Moviemaking

Aspiring film editor Jiaxin Zheng will graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in film and television from the College of Fine Arts.

Over the weekend, she was among several fine-arts students to participate in the UA School of Theatre, Film & Television's I Dream in Widescreen showcase of senior thesis films at the Fox Tucson Theatre.

Zheng worked as an editor of the student film "School of Demons."

Zheng is from Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China's Sichuan province. She hadn't been to the U.S. before being accepted to the UA.

She says her experience at the University, as a non-native English speaker and as the only Chinese student in her major, has been challenging but has helped her grow significantly.

She says her professors have been supportive and understanding of her struggles speaking English.

"My professors helped me a lot — seriously, they helped me all the time," she says. "I remember that I had a script-writing class a year ago, and I talked to my professor. I said I couldn't finish my homework because I really don't know how to write a script. My grammar is not good, and the script needs to have some slang or more cultures involved, so I just couldn't do it. My professor was very understanding."

Zheng, who has a strong knowledge of both Chinese and American film culture, plans to stay in the U.S. for another year or two to gain experience working in film. She would then like to return to China to work on international film co-productions.

"It would be perfect if I have USA film work experiences and then go back to China to bring some fresh blood in filmmaking," she says.