Mia Qu said she still remembers landing at the Cedar Rapids airport before beginning her first semester at the University of Iowa.
“I remember talking to a few other students on campus, and meeting one of my best friends right in front of Currier,” said Qu, who is from China. “That’s my very first memory about the campus — meeting new people, like a very exciting adventure.”
She chose the UI because she’d visited the U.S. as part of a high school exchange program, knew the institution had strong business and medical programs of study, and liked the campus’ sprawling outdoor areas. Nearly four years later, Qu delivered a student speech at the inaugural UI International Student Affinity graduation ceremony on May 4.
Although other affinity graduations have taken place on campus for years, 2021 was the first year that international students were recognized. Yashwant Vyas, assistant director of Diversity Resources in the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, proposed the initiative as part of an ongoing collaboration between the UI’s Division of DEI and International Programs.
Family, friends, and faculty were able to Zoom in to celebrate the 47 students who participated in the graduation, Vyas wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan.
The virtual program featured remarks from Qu and Associate Dean and Provost of International Programs Russell Ganim, Vyas wrote in an email to the DI. The event also included recognition graphics for all participants who received graduation cords, Vyas wrote.
The colors of the cords — white, light blue, and green — were intentional, Vyas wrote. They signify the tabula rasa or “clean slate” of commencement, limitless possibilities, hope, peace, and planet Earth, she wrote.
“Affinity celebrations, like this one, celebrate the perseverance and achievement in the face of historic and ongoing exclusion and marginalization,” Vyas wrote. “This event is to recognize and celebrate the collective experience and achievements of participating international students, to celebrate international educational interchange, and to be in community.”
While addressing the graduates, Ganim thanked international students for their resiliency and dedication to the university.
“Our international students embody the very best of our university,” Ganim said. “You represent grit, determination, adaptability and responsibility. Our international students contribute to the UI in innumerable ways through your thoughtful perspectives, global outlook, and overall courage in surmounting the obstacles before you.”
Ganim said after the event that, although International Programs and the Division of DEI originally wanted to hold the event in person in the Old Capitol senate chambers, the virtual platform worked well and was well received.
Ganim said his favorite part of the ceremony was the individual student slides.
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“It was great to see how many graduates stated that their favorite memory was just walking along the river, hanging out at the Pentacrest, getting into late-night conversations with their friends, or just walking through downtown Iowa City and getting coffee or tea,” Ganim said. “It just put a real sort of human and personal face on the whole event. And I think people appreciate it.”
Ganim said the generally favorable response to the ceremony shows that there is a considerable degree of cohesion and unity among international students, and International Programs plans to host the event in the future.
Qu is graduating with a triple major in linguistics, economics, and marketing, and was involved in the International Student Advisory Board, the President’s Charter Committee on Diversity, the multicultural business association, and more. She said she was honored to be the keynote speaker at this year’s graduation celebration.
“To be honest, I have always dreamed of a moment like that,” Qu said. “Because I think it’s just very symbolic for me personally, because it’s the end of a part of my journey and the beginning of a new one.”
Qu added she thinks the inaugural ceremony was a much-needed bright spot amid the online learning challenges, travel restrictions, and personal struggles brought about by the last year of the pandemic.
“There has been a lot of turbulence and also uncertainty going on, and I think it was especially a difficult year for international students,” she said. “So, this ceremony happening at this time is especially a celebration for the achievement, not just academically, but also by overcoming those challenges and arriving at a point that’s very important in our lives.”
A major theme in Qu’s speech was to show appreciation and make a celebration of not only what international students have achieved, she said, but what they will achieve in the future.
“For any international students, coming to a new country by yourself most likely is a very scary journey,” Qu said. “Gladly, we weren’t alone in this because of the university support and International Student and Scholar Services’ support. But it’s a very scary journey and full of uncertainty.”
Qu’s education journey will not be over after she graduates from the UI, she said. In the fall, she plans to attend law school, most likely at the University of Washington in Seattle.
If she could say anything to the girl that stepped off the airplane in Cedar Rapids freshman year, Qu said it would be to get out of her comfort zone, get to know more people, make connections, and don’t be afraid to explore new things and different options.
“I want to tell her to enjoy every moment,” Qu said. “I don’t think I would go back and change anything.”