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UA Back to School! 

Six undergraduate student leaders worth getting to know

Next week, the UA campus will awake from its summer slumber, as more than 30,000 students and faculty head back into red-brick academia.

Yes siree, it's back-to-school time.

Once Mom and Dad say goodbye, freshmen will be forced to face reality by having that first fire-and-brimstone encounter with a mall preacher, and by being scared back into their pants at their dorm's health-center presentation on sexually transmitted diseases.

For some students, after hitting the books, going through Greek rush and enjoying few rounds at Bob Dobbs, that's it; they're done. Other students at the UA, however, use their college years as a journey to find out who they are, to become leaders and a force for change.

We talked to six such UA students; here are their stories.


RY ELLISON

Ry Ellison was in the eighth-grade when, like millions of other Americans, he watched on TV as the planes flew into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

The images and the wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq made the now-UA junior think about the world differently--and, for the first time, think seriously about politics.

Ellison was born and raised in Alamogordo, N.M., a city of about 35,000. His mom is a teacher, and his dad is an engineer. Both were registered Democrats; meanwhile, their son began volunteering regularly with the local Republican Party, stuffing envelopes and helping with campaigns.

Eventually, Ellison says, his parents began to agree with him, and they switched party affiliation.

"In a way, Sept. 11 was a wake-up call for me, and my interest in politics continued to grow. I don't come from a very political family, but for people my age, that day really stands out. We were just old enough to remember where we were when it happened," he says.

In January 2005, Ellison's hometown work for the Republican Party paid off when he was invited to George W. Bush's second inauguration.

Ellison came to the UA and says he never questioned whether to keep working for the party. This year, he'll serve as president of the UA College Republicans, and he is the Southern Arizona co-chair for Youth for McCain.

As Ellison prepares to come back to school, he says his fall semester will be all about Sen. John McCain and convincing UA students to vote for the Arizona senator.

"I think that right now, the things that are happening in the world are going to have an impact on our country and world for many years to come. The most important thing I can do is influence my peers. It's just a small piece of what I think I can do to influence the way the country is going and the direction I'd like to see it go," Ellison says, who first supported former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "John McCain is just the kind of leader we need. He's bipartisan in his words, deeds and actions."

Ellison says he's not only a good voice for McCain on the UA campus, but a good voice for the GOP.

"I'm half-Hispanic and half-white, and I embrace that in a way that can help with our outreach in the party," Ellison says.

Ellison says he's frustrated by the big contingent of support he sees on campus for Sen. Barack Obama.

"Why? What are his accomplishments?" Ellison asks.

Ellison credits his active involvement in the college Republicans for helping him easily transition from life in Alamogordo to Tucson.

"I was never homesick, because I was always involved, and I became more focused on school," he says.

Ellison has a photo of himself in front of Air Force One, and one each of him standing next to McCain and Giuliani. In both, Ellison's wide smile looks like it could be coming from a future politician. But Ellison says that won't be the case; the business-management major says he plans to go to dental school and open his own practice.

"But I'll always be involved," he adds.

And if Obama takes office?

"In a couple of years, we'll see a little bit of buyers' remorse after he takes office. ... It will only motivate me to get more involved and get more Republicans in Congress."


ZEKE GEBREKIDANE

When Zeke Gebrekidane came to Tucson, it was like a little bit of home followed him. Not his home in Indianapolis, but the home he left in 1995 when he was 14 years old--Eritrea, in East Africa.

In the backyard of the house he rented near the UA campus, Gebrekidane says, he saw a little cactus. He'd just transferred from a community college in Las Vegas; both desert campuses, he says, offered a reprieve from the Indiana cold.

"It was a complete shock," he remembers. "I grew up on an island that was 80 degrees year-round. And then I came (to Indiana) in January. It was snowing."

As cold as it was, Indiana allowed Gebrekidane and his family to finally be together, in peace and in one place.

His father had been jailed by the Ethiopian government in 1987; when he was told he could be executed, his father fled, leaving Zeke and his family behind. No one knew where his father was or what happened; Zeke's mother was five months pregnant with his baby brother.

"Once he left, the rebels came in, and from 1988 to 1991, there was constant bombardment, not unlike what we see happening in Iraq or Georgia," Gebrekidane says.

Once Eritrea started gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1991, Gebrekidane's father returned, and the family was reunited.

"My baby brother didn't even know him," he says.

The family moved to Sudan to be near an American embassy to begin the refugee process, in an effort to eventually move to the United States. Once in the U.S., weather wasn't the only challenge; Gebrekidane had to learn English when he was in the eighth-grade.

"Oh my God, there is no challenge in life I can face now that I can compare to that time in my life. My parents just dumped us in this school. ... It took me a year to learn English, because when you're forced to, you have no choice," he says.

Last year, Gebrekidane noticed that a growing number of refugees from East Africa were making their home in Tucson. Therefore, he started Caring for the Advancement of Refugee Education (CARE), a UA club that reaches out to refugee students.

"We go to Tucson high schools, and then help them with their English and other classes. ... The reason I do it is because when I came here, no one helped guide me through going to college, doing internships. They don't have to go through what I've gone through. I felt like if anything, I can help them and make their burden easy."

CARE wasn't Gebrekidane's first experience in taking the lead. In community college and at the UA, he was elected to the student senates, and has been active with the UA's African American Student Affairs office. In spring 2007, Gebrekidane says, he used his position to host a debate on affirmative-action policies with a representative from the Goldwater Institute and a local law-school professor.

"I felt like we opened the dialogue. I told people there, 'I can't tell you how to vote, but that this is happening.' We had about 300 people come. I wanted them to understand that there are more people who could be impacted by changing this kind of policy--people like me," Gebrekidane says.

There are no political aspirations here, Gebrekidane says; he's a chemistry major and remains in love with science.

"It's just that refugees realize education is the door for us, and most of us are succeeding here because of the opportunities we're given. I have to be involved in that, in school and after I graduate. I have to make a difference."


JUSTIN HOWES

Justin Howes says he's always felt different--more because he was the only Asian kid in his school, and less because he is gay.

Howes was born in Korea, and he was adopted while his father was stationed in Hawaii. Eventually, the family moved to Tucson, where Howes' father eventually retired.

"I always knew I was different, but that could certainly have been from being Asian and coming from a white family living in a very white part of town. I used to live on the very far eastside. It's radically different from where I live now, because it's the far westside," he says.

"I'm 19 now. I could legally look at my adoption records, but you know, I just haven't spent a lot of time looking into it. I'm busy going to school, and it just doesn't bother me. Maybe that will change, but not right now."

In 2006, he struggled with his classes and found himself on academic probation. Howes says he had no direction, and felt a little lost.

What turned his studies around, he says, was finding his niche as a women's studies and Spanish double-major. Howes says he has loved every area of his interdisciplinary studies, from analyzing the Bible from a feminist perspective to looking at race, sex and gender identity.

"Before you come to college, you talk about Thanksgiving, but you don't talk about what happened (as the holiday developed)," Howes says. "You don't talk about race, and you definitely don't talk about sex or gender."

Another turning point for Howes was finding a sense of belonging within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community on campus through the UA's first gay fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, which returned with a charter to the UA in 2006. Howes pledged, and from there, he found the Office of LGBTQ Student Affairs, headed by Cathy Busha, the former program director for the Tucson LGBT advocacy organization Wingspan.

"The UA hiring Cathy was the first step in the right direction," Howes says. "It's 2008 now, and a lot of things are different since I first started school, but it's not like being gay is accepted everywhere. It's not like Visa or MasterCard."

He points to Web sites like juicycampus.com as an example of a lack of gay acceptance. The site is like a Perez Hilton rip-off site for students rather than celebrities. He remembers being listed on it: "Justin is a total fag and needs to lose some weight."

"Greek life still serves to support traditional gender expectations, roles and behaviors," Howes says.

Howes is optimistic that his generation may be one of the first to really think differently about these issues--but that doesn't mean he thinks that he and his fellow students are going to end discrimination and all of the other ills that continue to trouble society.

"If we tried to fix everything, we'd all go crazy. But I think it's important to get involved. You can create change, and finding other people you can do that with is important. It's time to be active. Sure, it's an election year, but even so, there are things going on in the world--wrongs that need to be righted."

Howes intends to help right those wrongs by becoming a high school teacher after he graduates from the UA.

"I know what it's like to be gay in a public school," he says.


JAMES JEFFERIES

James Jefferies, at the age of 33, isn't a typical UA student. He spent years after high school working in a series of retail jobs before realizing that if he really wanted to do something more meaningful, he needed to go back to school and get a degree.

About five years ago, he started going to school part-time at Pima Community College, and when he transferred to the UA in 2006, he made two decisions: to jump into school full-time, and to put his heart into politics, due to the continuing Iraq war.

"I was disappointed in the 2004 election, and when I enrolled at the UA after getting my stuff wrapped up at Pima in 2006, I just went looking for a chance to make things different," Jefferies says.

Jefferies ended up joining the UA Young Democrats, of which he currently serves as president.

"What we have now--public, private and corporate--is an unholy alliance with a government that does corporate bidding, and the public is removed from their role in really dealing with their end of things: keeping people honest in the public process. Ideally, we'd have a system that would work for everybody, but it doesn't right now," he laments.

Jefferies says he thinks his generation, for the first time, sees the world sliding out of control, with the country now "knocked off the top of the heap of world powers," with more manufacturing going to China and India.

"We're probably never going to be the hub of the universe again," he says. "We don't have to be, but we have to rearrange things in a way that allows society to work better for the average American. That whole idea of someone going to college and working for the same employer for 40 years just isn't going to happen. Now we need to compete globally, and we're lagging behind in terms of educational infrastructure that could help make that happen."

Jefferies, a media arts and Japanese major, wonders if he'll be able to stay and work in his native Tucson once he completes his degree.

"It's a great place to live, especially if you have the dough," Jefferies says. "I'm from Tucson; this is my home, and my entire family is from here. We don't have enough high-paying industries or jobs to hang our hat on, and there has to be if this community is going to be sustainable. And if Tucson wants me to stay home, it needs to change its economy so I can have a job with a decent salary."


LINDSAY SCHROEDER

It was the end of Lindsay Schroeder's first month at the UA in 2005. She was lonely and ready to return to Batavia, her hometown of 16,000 in western New York.

The philosophy major, now 21, and her brother were both born in Korea and were adopted as babies. She didn't think much about being a Korean American while growing up in small-town America--even though she and her brother were the only Asian Americans in their schools--but in college, it seemed like the right time to explore her identify. That exploration helped her not only to stay in school, but excel.

"When I came out here, I wasn't really looking for that at all, because I didn't know anything about it. My parents are white," Schroeder says. "Then I got involved in the Asian Pacific American Student Affairs Center, and I found out about an Asian-interest sorority that was starting. Rush was over, but a few of us thought about it and decided, 'Why not?'"

She says she had finally found a group of people with whom she could mesh.

"Yeah, it was finding my community," Schroeder recalls.

This summer, Schroeder worked as a research assistant with the UA's Summer Research Institute, which provides opportunities for undergraduates to work with a mentor on an ongoing project or a project of the student's choice. Schroeder focused on racial identity in trans-racial adoptees versus traditional adoptees.

Schroeder isn't only interested in her own identity issues, but on gender-identity issues, too, as part of her philosophy major. Last year, in her hometown of Batavia, a teacher was going through a gender transition from male to female.

"For a year, you have to dress and speak and act like someone of the opposite gender. ... I just wished I had been (in Batavia), because the whole community had been divided. I wish I had been there to offer my support."

Perhaps someone like Schroeder can offer up hope--a pioneer looking at her own identity as a Korean American with white parents, with the empathy to look at the process others are going through while finding their own gender identity.

"I think society is always progressing," Schroeder says. "I think that now more than ever, I'm realizing how much I think it's important for us to find out who we are in order to accept each other."

Schroeder says without that acceptance, humanity usually opts to oppress people and marginalize others.

"While, yes, we're progressing, I hate the idea that we've come so far, yet we're still discriminating against other groups. We're not committing genocide (in the United States), but it's not any less painful that we ultimately tell a whole group of (LGBT) people that because of this choice you've made, you're not equal."

Schroeder says her studies show that she's not just interested in Asian-American cultural identity, although still she finds it interesting to be part of a group that is so often overlooked.

"One of the fellowships I'm looking at right now is a diversity fellowship, and it lists all these minorities that are eligible to apply, but Asian Americans were not listed. I'm still going to apply. I e-mailed them a month ago, and I still haven't heard back from them," she says, smiling wide.


JENNIFER STANLEY

Native American stereotypes have always been part of the United States' culture. When you're a student at the UA, like Jennifer Stanley, how you deal with those stereotypes can either help you remain in college--or force you to drop out.

Stanley is a senior working on a degree in agriculture technology, and she is a member of the Navajo nation. This summer, she finished a research project in her department on developing a curriculum on open-source software.

When asked if that makes her a bit of a computer geek, Stanley smiles. "A little," she replies.

There are more women today working in technology--but not that many Native Americans, Stanley noticed. It's something she has worked to change on campus, and something she wants to continue to be involved in when she graduates and goes on to get graduate degrees.

Part of the problem, she says, is that many Native Americans who attend the UA leave school and return to the reservation. Thanks to the Native American Student Affairs office, those statistics are turning around--but that turnaround has also depended on the involvement of students like Stanley.

Stanley comes from Kayenta, a small town in the Four Corners region on the reservation in Arizona. Her parents operate a ranch where they grow corn, melons, cucumbers and hay--a much different experience than what the UA and Tucson offer, which can result in culture shock for Native American students.

"I'd say it is very quiet and peaceful (at home), comparing it to the city, where things are always moving and on a time schedule. Back home, you're taking your time and hoping you get things right and learning more about yourself and your culture. But here in the city, you don't have that much teaching from your elders. I feel like I'm losing some of those things while being in school, but my parents really push for education," Stanley says.

The UA's First Years Scholars program for Native Americans made a difference for Stanley when she came to school. She says she spent her freshman year in a living/learning community, where Native American students lived together in the same dorm and took many classes together.

"I think that's why I was able to get through the transition and the culture shock. I really feel like I never had any homesickness my freshman year, but I did a little my sophomore year. Now they are working on a program to continue it on in the sophomore and junior years. I think it's a way to keep us in the loop, and I do believe those programs have really helped me," she says.

Stanley adds that the programs have also helped her become an advocate for Native American students and to get more students to stay at the UA. In college, she has had to change her behaviors to adapt to what is expected of her as a UA student. Native Americans are often seen as quiet and shy, but that's because they are taught not to question or debate their elders.

"One of the things I have found to be a challenge was to project my voice and be more outgoing. But I know it's important to be outgoing, and it's important for me to share that with other Native Americans."

While she works to be a mentor to younger students, she has found her own mentors through the Native American Student Affairs office and through Karen Francis-Begay, the Native American affairs advisor to UA President Richard Shelton. Last year, Stanley organized a 5k run with four other cultural centers on campus, called the Multicultural Classic. She hopes the run will return for a second year with support from other minority students.

When she graduates next year, Stanley says she doubts she'll return to the reservation right away, and will most likely go on to graduate school at an Ivy League college. Once finished with school, however, she knows there won't be a job waiting for her on the reservation--but that doesn't mean she doesn't want to work with kids coming from the reservation in the future.

"I want to get my master's in a technology-related program that targets youth, especially Native Americans, but also minorities with a focus on recruiting those students to attend college," Stanley says.

In the meantime, Stanley identifies one trait that she's come to understand is important to her survival: humor.

"When you come out to different cities, you're supposed to act professional, or courteous, but then Native Americans have to bring the tempo down, and they do that with humor and laughter. Keeping your humor keeps you safe. You can take things too seriously living in the city, but humor takes you home."

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