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Student commencement speakers to share messages of gratitude, optimism

Two students with different but equally important messages will take the podium to address their fellow graduates at their respective Indiana University Bloomington commencement ceremonies.

Muna Adem, who is earning a doctorate in sociology, will speak about the importance of students expressing gratitude to those who have helped them in their journeys during the spring graduate commencement at 4 p.m. May 5 in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

Gayatri Thiru, a double major who embraces opportunities to learn, will speak about tackling the uncertainty of the future by embracing lifelong learning at the spring undergraduate commencement at 10 a.m. May 6 at Memorial Stadium.

IU Bloomington is awarding 10,252 degrees to graduate and undergraduate students this spring.

‘It does take a village to make it’

Adem, 38, the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, is receiving her doctorate after earning master’s degrees in applied statistics and sociology at IU. In the fall, she’ll start at the University of Maryland as an assistant professor of sociology.

Muna Adem. Photo by Ethan Gill, Indiana University Muna Adem. Photo by Ethan Gill, Indiana UniversityThose achievements, she said, didn’t come without the sacrifices, encouragement and guidance of family, friends and mentors.

“It does take a village to make it, and usually we don’t make it to the top alone,” Adem said. “There’s people in the background who have helped us along the way.”

Her parents fled Ethiopia because of famine and conflict, and Adem, her parents and siblings lived in Germany and then Sweden. Adem moved to the United States in 2008 to attend college. She said she’s grateful for the sacrifice her parents made, leaving everything behind to give their children an opportunity for better lives.

But the journey has had other challenges. Growing up in a poor neighborhood in Sweden, Adem said she experienced segregation and discrimination, and saw how one’s lack of resources impacted their chance for success. Yet she also saw how support and encouragement by teachers can undo these effects by uplifting individuals and communities.

Adem said she firmly believes she’s accomplished what she has in graduate school because of the support and guidance of multiple mentors.

“I think along the way there have been people that have pushed us — not just me, but also other students — and truly thought we could do it and gave us the guide on how to do it,” she said.

Her experiences and influences are reasons why Adem’s academic research lies at the intersection of immigration, race and ethnicity, and why her extracurricular involvements have centered on helping underrepresented students.

She’s been involved with Emissaries for Graduate Student Diversity and the Getting You Into Indiana University program, both of which try to improve the recruitment and retention of underrepresented students in higher education.

“That’s my way to help the way I can, and take the tools given to me and give them back to other people who might want similar chances,” she said.

Adem has been a graduate affiliate with the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society, serving as a mentor for incoming graduate students. She also served as co-president of the Sociology Graduate Student Association, which works with faculty and staff on issues of importance to graduate students.

“I think it’s essential to always remember where you come from and give back whenever possible,” Adem said. “If life after 2020 taught us anything, it is that everything essentially becomes meaningless without family and friends to celebrate life with and communities to uplift.”

‘It’s always possible to learn’

Thiru said she’s excited to have the honor of delivering the undergraduate student speech because she wants to reassure classmates who might be anxious and uncertain about their futures after graduation. She said things will work out if they pursue their passions and embrace opportunities and the desire to learn.

Gayatri Thiru. Photo by Ethan Gill, Indiana University Gayatri Thiru. Photo by Ethan Gill, Indiana University“I think that it’s always possible to learn and absorb anything you are passionate about,” said Thiru, a 21-year-old Hinsdale, Illinois, native.

Thiru, who majored in finance in the Kelley School of Business and neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences, is earning Bachelor of Science degrees in business and science. She’s been an undergraduate research assistant in neuroscience, and she participated in a workshop for students preparing for careers in investment banking. Thiru will start a job as a financial analyst in New York City after graduation but said it’s possible that her passion for neuroscience could take her down a different path later.

“I want to see what my brain’s capacity is; how much can I learn and absorb?” said Thiru, who is in the Hutton Honors College and the Hudson and Holland Scholars Program, and also earned a Dean’s Scholarship.

Thiru’s passions extend beyond academia. She participated in the Beekeeping Club at IU as a freshman and is learning to play electric guitar.

“It has greatly increased my confidence to learn and reduces the fear of the future and that’s it’s too late to do something,” Thiru said. “There’s nothing to stop me in this short life.”

For the past two years, she’s also participated in the Autism Mentoring Program, mentoring elementary school students. Thiru said it’s a way to help people and understand neuroscience better, and that the experience has taught her to have patience.

Thiru said she’s also one to embrace challenges and figure out solutions. One was how to pay for her education. Her solution: She joined the U.S. Army Reserve.

“That pushed my mental and physical limits. If I can do that, I can try doing anything else I feel like trying,” Thiru said. “I try to reject the whole notion that once people reach a certain age they can’t learn anything more.”

Kirk Johannesen is a communications specialist in the Office of the Vice President for Communications and Marketing.