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Academics Alum Features Campus & Community

Graduates return to share experiences with students at Tri-Alpha Induction Ceremony, Multicultural Graduation

It’s been less-than-a-decade since Zoua Pa Vang ’18 and Yasin Williams ’15 graduated from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

Yet, in that time, both have gone on to compile an impressive record of accomplishment and contribution toward improving the world around them.

Now Vang and Williams are each returning to campus over the next month to share their experiences and provide encouragement to current members of the CSB and SJU community following in their footsteps.

Vang – a former chemistry major at CSB who went on to graduate school at Marquette University and is now a postdoctoral researcher with the Tonks Group at the University of Minnesota – will be the guest speaker when the CSB and SJU chapter of Tri-Alpha, the national honor society for first-generation college students, holds its second annual induction ceremony on April 7.

The event is scheduled to run from 1 to 3 p.m. in Quad 170 (Founders’ Room) on the SJU campus.

“Being surrounded by such a strong social justice community at CSB and SJU helped me believe and trust in myself more,” said Vang – a first-generation student herself – who last fall was awarded the Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“It gave me a stronger sense of boundaries. Going on to grad school, where there still weren’t a lot of female chemists in the department, it could have been easy to feel minimized as a female voice. But having the experience I got at Saint Ben’s helped give me confidence to assert myself.”

Williams – a former history major at SJU who is now a National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota Medical School within the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health – will be the featured speaker at the 2024 Multicultural Graduation Celebration on May 1.

That event – which celebrates graduating international, first-generation, racially diverse and LGBTQ+ students at the two schools – is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. in Gorecki 204 on the CSB campus. The registration deadline for the event is April 12 (register here).

Staff, faculty and community members are invited to share in the ceremony. Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP by April 15.

“My passion for social justice stems from where I was born and raised,” said Williams, who came to SJU from Newark, New Jersey where he attended Saint Benedict’s Prep, a K-12 urban Catholic school. “As an inner-city kid from Newark, my desire to succeed was often thwarted by entrenched inequality and pervasive poverty.

“My passion for social justice grew when I got to Saint John’s. As a history major, I delved into the history of exclusion and oppression in the U.S. My coursework, particularly ‘The U.S. since 1960,’ taught by Ken Jones, shed light on the 1960s’ social, political and economic shifts that have fueled many of the divisions and equity struggles we’re still experiencing today. Consequently, once-thriving communities of color – like Newark where I grew up – lost their prosperity, which I would later come to understand was directly a consequence of structural racism.”

After graduating from SJU, Williams went on to two consumer-centric positions with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office before moving on to the Robins Kaplan LLP law firm in Minneapolis, where he was the firm’s diversity and inclusion manager. He returned to SJU to become associate director of annual giving before earning his master’s degree in public policy with a specialization in social policy from the University of Minnesota Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

It was during that time that he began working as a research assistant in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, where he is now a full-time health-equity research fellow.

“I’m a part of an NIH-funded research project that examines the intricate ties between structural racism and discrimination (SRD) and the whole-person health of racially/ethnically diverse parents and children in Minnesota,” Williams said. “The objective of our study is to contribute to a body of evidence supporting targeted interventions and reform policies to mitigate the adverse effects of SRD on the health outcomes of communities of color. One of the particularly impactful studies I’m working on right now delves into how community incarceration rates influence mental health within racially and ethnically diverse families and communities.”

Beyond his research endeavors, Williams founded an initiative called CommUnity Talks, a forum that facilitates community dialogues centered on pressing public affairs. Through CommUnity Talks, the power of diverse perspectives and open discourse is celebrated, fostering a sense of unity.

A message of unity is essentially what he intends to share with students at the Multicultural Graduation ceremony.

“The enduring wisdom that ‘it takes a village’ has increasingly resonated with me over the years,” he said. “This principle underscores the indispensable role of communal support in achieving success.”

Vang, meanwhile, expects to stress the importance of staying focused on purpose and goals.

“Before I start anything I really try to sit with myself and think about why I’m doing it and what I hope to accomplish,” she said. “And if it’s something really purposeful, I’ll do it. Because when it gets challenging, I can always come back to that purpose, and it helps provide me with the will to keep doing what I’m doing.”

That approach has certainly served her well. Her current research with the Tonks Group – led by professor Ian Tonks – deals with Ti-catalyzed amination reactions and their potential use in creating drug-like molecules.

“Titanium is part of the periodic table in the transition metals section,” she said. “What we’re basically trying to do is use that metal to catalyze a certain type of reaction called amination. Our goal is to develop a Ti-catalyzed amination reaction method that could be a useful tool for any chemist interested in synthesizing drug-like molecules.”

Her work earned her the prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award in her first time being considered for the honor. Not bad for someone who didn’t care all that much for chemistry while in high school at Armstrong in Plymouth, Minnesota.

“I took AP chemistry in high school and absolutely hated it,” recalls Vang, who will be inducted into Tri-Alpha as an alum at the ceremony on April 7. “We had a tutor who would come in once a week, an older retired person who had gotten their Ph.D. in chemistry. I always wondered why someone would do that to themselves.

“Then I started off as a nursing major at Saint Ben’s and one of the pre-requisites was a chemistry course. I took it as a first-year and did really well. The professor convinced me to change my major, and from there, I never looked back.”

Malik Stewart, director of the multicultural center at CSB and SJU, said he hopes hearing the stories of speakers like Vang and Williams will help inspire current students as they prepare to embark on their own future paths.

“(The Tri-Alpha induction ceremony) is really about recognizing the academic success of first-gen college students and Zoua Pa was such a strong student here who continued on and got her Ph.D.,” Stewart said. “What she’s done in her academic life is so inspirational and my hope is having her come back and share her story will be encouraging for the inductees.

“Many of whom are not seniors. There are sophomores and juniors. And for those younger students, I hope they can see themselves in her a little bit, and that they can be open to continuing on in their academic journeys and really diving in. And for the seniors, I hope they see themselves in the speaker and are able to feel a sense of pride that they share something in common with this alum.

“The way that the Multicultural Graduation feels when you’re in that room is very different than other spaces,” Stewart continued. “It’s the way you feel there, when you’re celebrating with your friends and can be yourself. You don’t have to explain your experiences because other people in the room understand and have similar experiences of their own.

“You want that feeling for more than just that moment. And hearing stories (like Williams’) shows you can continue working for that in a variety of different ways when you leave here. That’s an important message to hear.”

2024 Tri-Alpha inductees

Students

Devani Montes

Samantha Anderson

Alexis Torres

Ignacio Sanchez Romero

April Diaz Bedolla

Grace Dresser

Marisa LaPlante

Beatriz Gabriel Agustin

Alfonso Segura Sanchez

Evan Mattson

Brett Lund

Alums

Zoua Pa Vang

Daniel Yang

Zoua Pa Vang ’18

Yasin Williams ’15