Stellar Georgia college graduates eager to achieve new goals

The graduating class of 2021 has had to adapt more so than any group of students in recent memory.

For more than a year, they’ve taken some or all of their classes online due to the coronavirus pandemic. The shift forced major changes in classroom instruction. There were fewer lab sessions and office hours with professors. There were often poor internet signals that disrupted online learning. They missed their friends.

Despite those challenges, and others, they graduated.

Kennesaw State University holds graduation Wednesday May 12, 2021 at the college’s stadium.  Graduates are handed diplomas during the ceremony but will receive their specific diploma after graduation.   (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Some did so working multiple jobs while raising their children. Many produced award-winning research. Several had dual majors. All in some way overcame a personal obstacle or unforeseen barrier.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently interviewed graduates from some of the region’s colleges and universities who emerged as leaders or impressed campus administrators.

We met a student who won an Emmy. Another worked at a local hospital comforting COVID-19 patients. One student got her bachelor’s degree at the age of 73.

Here are their stories:

Yara Daou

Georgia Gwinnett College

Yara Daou is a 2021 graduate of Georgia Gwinnett College. (Contributed)

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Daou, 22, originally from Beirut, Lebanon, moved to the U.S. with her family at age 17. She was president of the college’s Four Pillars Society, a student leadership program, as well as a student orientation leader and an intramural assistant. She majored in information technology.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “My biggest challenge during my time at GGC was my personal growth and struggling to find my future self. I had to forget about my past (my friends, family, and home) so that I can focus on my present and future here in the U.S. Another challenge was trying to get involved because I am shy.”

How did you get through the challenge? “I pushed myself to start going to events with my friends, and I met a lot of students. I was also excelling academically, so the whole combination gave me a lot of self-confidence to try and do things that I always wanted to do.”

Future plans? Daou will work a full-time job at VMWare, a cloud computing and technology firm based in California, and plans to pursue a master’s degree.


Hope Didier

Kennesaw State University

Hope Didier is a Kennesaw State University student graduating this summer with degrees in dance and biology. Didier worked at a local hospital before the pandemic and adjusted to caring for COVID ICU patients rather than finishing course work this year. She will begin earning her master's degree at Wake Forest after finalizing her biology degree this summer. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Didier, 23, from Peachtree City, has been extremely busy in recent months. The biology and dance major had a full academic load and has also worked 12-hour weekend shifts as a trauma surgery ICU technician at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, which has included helping COVID-19 patients.

“It was downright terrifying at times, but I can definitely say that after every 12-hour night shift, I would still leave the hospital knowing it’s exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Didier said of the work.

University administrators have been impressed with Didier for years. Her research on cervical cancer earned the top award at a 2018 symposium. Didier did a presentation on the research at a state Board of Regents meeting last year.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “I’ve been putting off a back surgery to pursue (her passion to dance), but ultimately, I could no longer put it off. It was a massive challenge to overcome physically and mentally ... and returning to a program when I couldn’t move like I wanted to.”

How did Didier get through the challenge? Didier couldn’t dance for a semester and a half after the surgery. “Thankfully, I was able to take a number of classes that our dance department offered that were as interesting to me as a dual degree individual ... I was growing as a dance scholar and it was a way to keep dance in my life.”

Future plans? Didier will attend Wake Forest University to pursue a doctoral degree in molecular medicine and translational science and a master’s degree in medical science and physician assistant studies.


Ashton Edmunds

Clark Atlanta University graduating senior Ashton Edmunds is surrounded by some of the articles he's written. Edmunds, an aspiring sports journalist, plans to pursue his master's degree at Northwestern University. (Courtesy of Sean Bartley)

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Clark Atlanta University

Edmunds, 22, an aspiring sports journalist from Tallahassee, Florida, had “a dream come true” a few months ago when he interviewed NBA All-Star Chris Paul before the big game in Atlanta. “He’s relatable and chill in many ways, which made the interview flow really smooth,” Edmunds said. He made the dean’s list all four years at Clark Atlanta, was sports editor at the student newspaper and was the inaugural Turner Diversity Media Fellow at Warner Media.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “My biggest challenge at CAU was finding my voice as a journalist. I came into college with no journalism experience, with my high school not having a school’s newspaper.” He also didn’t realize how much the profession entailed. “I knew that I was always great at writing and talking about sports but I had to learn the basics and foundation of journalism for everything to come together.”

How did you get through the challenge? “I got through this challenge by stepping outside of my comfort zone and taking on the sports editor role for CAU’s student-led newspaper after my freshman year. The more I wrote and interviewed people, I started to figure out my voice as a journalist. I landed my first internship the summer after my sophomore year and from then on, things started to align perfectly.”

Future plans? Edmunds will pursue his master’s degree at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism through the sports media track.


Christopher B. Edwards

Clayton State University

Christopher B. Edwards was the student commencement speaker at Clayton State University for 2021. Edwards received his master's degree in business administration. Edwards was a member of Beta Gamma Sigma, an international business honor society. (Contributed)

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Edwards, 43, started his collegiate journey at Georgia Tech in 1996 as a football player, but didn’t complete his degree after mustering a 1.6 grade-point average by his senior year. His wife encouraged him in 2013 to try again. He enrolled at Georgia Perimeter College and earned an associate degree three years later with honors. In 2019, he graduated summa cum laude from Georgia State with a degree in business administration. That fall, Edwards began his graduate studies at Clayton State and has excelled. Edwards was a member of Beta Gamma Sigma, an international business honor society, and received his master’s degree in business administration.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “I was working 50 hours per week and taking four classes. During the second session, my sister in-law and grandfather died during the same week. This was a very difficult time for me and my wife. ... During the second session I got sick and eventually was diagnosed with a blood clot in my lung. It took two weeks for me to heal. My professors were very supportive during this period. Because of their support, I was able to keep up and finish all classes with A’s.”

How did you get through the challenge? “I overcame these challenges by holding on to my faith in God and a lot of support from my wife, children, family, and professors.”

Future plans? Edwards plans to apply for part-time positions teaching business courses, specifically in operations management. He’s also returning to Clayton State this fall to complete the Master of Strategic Leadership Development.


Riuki Gakio

Georgia State University

Born in the United States, Gakio, 24, spent much of his childhood in Botswana and went to high school in Kenya before moving back here to attend Georgia State. Gakio created a documentary, “Our Plastic World,” about the impact of plastic pollution on the environment. It included footage from Greece, Kenya and Vietnam and video shot by one of his professors while in Antarctica. The documentary won an Emmy.

Riuki Gakio is a graduating senior from Georgia State University. (Contributed)

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What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “The film was the biggest challenge at Georgia State. It was a huge undertaking ... I knew this film had immense potential and that is what drove me forward to work long nights, many times straight through the night with editing and doing drafts and rewriting the script many times until the film looked fantastic in its final form.”

How did you get through this challenge? “My spirituality and faith — the Baha’i Faith — helped me to stay grounded and centered. It helped me to think more selflessly and about service — that it is not really about me, but trying to serve the audience and by extension contribute to society with timely and extremely valuable information about our environment, and offer ideas from the experts on how we can improve our environment and by extension improve and create a better society. This helped keep me going and served as motivation.”

Future plans? Gakio hopes to get a job in the television, media or film business.


Biya Haile

Georgia Tech

Georgia Institute of Technology graduate Biya Haile poses for a photo outside of the Marcus Nanotechnology Building on the university’s main campus in Atlanta, Thursday, May 13, 2021. Haile will graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering. (Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer/

Haile has been very active at Georgia Tech.

The 22-year-old mechanical engineering graduate worked as an assistant mechanic at the Gwinnett County Airport while pursuing a pilot’s license. He published two research projects. Haile, who was 16 when he came from Ethiopia to Norcross, has volunteered at local refugee outreach organizations.

The honors have been many, including his recent selection as a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow.

A few days after graduation, Haile talked about an ongoing project. He’s working on creating a beekeeping program for people in parts of his homeland as an alternative revenue source to slow deforestation. Meanwhile, he’s in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “Finding a balance between school, work, and social life. The school’s rigorous and tough curriculum was overwhelming throughout my college career, which most students are well aware of. I never underestimated it, however, I had to juggle between work and classes to meet my financial needs along with work experiences to build up my career.”

How did you get through the challenge? “My willingness to seek help and mentorship from different faculty at Georgia Tech played a big role in overcoming the challenge. Despite various setbacks, I continued working in the lab, hit important milestones in my research, and presented at conferences.”

Future plans? Haile will be pursuing graduate studies in electrical and computing engineering at Georgia Tech.


Beverly G. Kelley

Mercer University

Beverly Kelley, 73, graduated from Mercer University’s Henry County Regional Academic Center with a degree in liberal studies. (Contributed)

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Kelley’s family has many things to smile about this month. Two of her granddaughters are graduating from high school. The biggest celebration may be for Kelley, 73, who is receiving her degree in liberal studies from Mercer.

“OMG, we did it!” says a small sign Kelley held in a recent picture, dressed in her cap and gown.

Kelley, who moved in 2003 from New Jersey to Georgia with her husband, Harold, had trouble finding work a few years ago and decided to go to college. (Harold died a few years ago.) She studied at Mercer’s Henry County Regional Academic Center and was a student ambassador, worked as a library assistant and completed two internships.

“I’m not the type of person who likes to sit around,” she said.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “My biggest challenges at Mercer University were my critical thinking and my writing skills that I achieved in all my courses. We had to do a lot of writing. I should have a degree in penmanship by now.”

How did you overcome that challenge? “I was able to overcome these challenges by applying my myself and staying focused on my education.”

Future plans? Kelley plans to pursue a master’s degree, starting this fall, in human services.


Alexandria Lin

University of Georgia

Alexandria Lin is a member of the University of Georgia's graduating class of 2021. (Contributed)

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Lin, 22, a first-generation college student from Atlanta, was part of the team that put the university’s first satellite into space last year. The computer systems engineering major started writing flight software as an electronics team member for UGA lab’s NASA-sponsored mission during her sophomore year. A year later, Lin became the lead flight software engineer and assisted with additional testing and preparing the assembled satellite for handoff to the launch provider.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “For me, it was being able to find that right balance between school and extracurriculars (like the research lab!). When I was a freshman/sophomore, I was very into the work I was doing for the lab — more than I was into classwork — and would pour almost all of my time into my lab tasks. As a result, my schoolwork suffered a bit.”

How did you get through the challenge? “I learned how to manage my time better in the following semesters, both at first as just a member of a team and then leading a team, and knowing when to say no to doing additional work and my limits. I still struggle with this to an extent, especially when it comes to my third responsibility — taking care of myself — which can go out the window sometimes, but I’d imagine this will be a lifelong challenge.”

Future plans? Lin will work at Northrop Grumman Space Systems as an embedded software engineer, writing flight software for a variety of satellites. Lin hopes to go to graduate school soon, pursuing either an aerospace or computer engineering degree.


Star Liu

Emory University

Liu, 22, from Austin, Texas, is a part of the team that developed Emory’s COVID-19 Health Equity Interactive Dashboard, which tracks COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in each state including by race and ethnicity. Liu, a quantitative sciences major, helped process data and conduct an analysis on the effects of mask mandates. A group of Emory’s alumni and students selected Liu as part of its annual list of outstanding students and campus leaders.

Star Liu is part of Emory University's graduating class of 2021. (Contributed)

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What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “The biggest challenge that I have faced at Emory is juggling academics, leadership responsibilities, and leisure time and see how far I can push myself. I started joining student organizations, volunteer trips, etc. One at a time and one after another. By the end of my junior year, I had contributed meaningfully to five different initiatives/organizations and two work/research positions in the Rollins School of Public Health.”

How did you overcome the challenge? “He learned by trying, which is very impressive,” said Yubin Park, an adjunct professor in the Department of Computer Science.

Future plans? Liu is going to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for a master’s degree in health sciences informatics research.


Ximena Luna

University of North Georgia

Luna, 21, from Flowery Branch, is a first-generation student who won a Gilman scholarship to study in Spain in summer 2019. She also completed research-related projects and was recently named a Fulbright alternate. She majored in Spanish.

Ximena Luna is part of the University of North Georgia's graduating class of 2021. (Contributed)

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What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “One of the biggest challenges during my time at UNG was the lack of knowledge about the college experience. As a first-generation college student, I had no idea what college was like and was scared to fail and disappoint my parents and myself. It was challenging to learn how to prioritize tasks, manage time effectively and ask for help. During my four years at UNG, I learned to balance work, school, and family responsibilities.”

How did you get through the challenge? “I started getting involved in school and asking questions. I learned to manage my time and started believing in myself and my potential.”

Future plans? Luna will begin a master’s in Hispanic studies at the University of Georgia. “I hope to keep getting involved at school and keep helping the Latinx community. ... My goal is to continue supporting students in higher education who, like me, did not think that they could reach their fullest potential.”


Angélica Martini

Agnes Scott College

Angélica Martini is a member of Agnes Scott College's graduating class of 2021. She took this photo in China during a study abroad program in 2019. (Contributed)

Credit: Eric Stirgus

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Credit: Eric Stirgus

Martini, 22, who is legally blind, proudly says she beat the odds. Fewer than 35% of students with disabilities graduate from four-year institutions within eight years, according to the Hechinger Report, an education news site.

“Scholarly articles don’t come in large print,” said Martini, who returned to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with her family during the pandemic and completed her studies online.

Martini, a first-generation student who majored in international relations and economics, served in several leadership positions on campus. She studied abroad in China and Ghana.

“I want to be a lifelong learner,” she said.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “Finding my own confidence. I had to remind myself I don’t care what people think who see me or people think of me ... I don’t need other people to help me validate my confidence. I have to believe in myself.”

How did you get through the challenge? Martini credits strong support systems at Agnes Scott from faculty members, advisers and mentors who guided her to resources that could help her. “They told me the future belongs to people who believe in their dreams.”

Future plans? Martini will be an economic research analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. It’s a two- to three-year program that prepares students who want to pursue doctoral degrees in economics.


Amari Parris

Morehouse College

Amari Parris is the salutatorian for the Morehouse College class of 2021. (Contributed)

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Parris, 22, a kinesiology, sports studies and physical education major from Silver Spring, Maryland, was the college’s salutatorian this year.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “I think, like many Morehouse students, I faced a ton of financial obstacles that at times hampered the experience for me. However, those same obstacles have played a huge role in my becoming who I am today. I was about $4,000 in the hole. I was fresh off a 4.0 GPA, and I had applied for scholarships. I thought I was being proactive and positioning myself to be able to pay for school. It was a tough time, but it was also a turning point for me.”

How did you get through the challenge? “I wound up earning the money I needed through scholarships, focused on paid internships to support my education, and became a residential advisor to supplement any outstanding fees. When faced with uncertainty and doubt, I chose to bet on myself and worked harder to make things happen for myself.”

Future plans? Parris will pursue a master’s degree in sports management at Columbia University with the long-term goal of becoming an intercollegiate athletic director.


Taylor Roberts

Oglethorpe University

Roberts, 22, an art history major, has been involved in several efforts to increase diversity in art collections on campus and elsewhere. Roberts helped lead a student-driven campaign to add artists of different racial backgrounds to the university’s Museum of Art. The Chicago native was also a Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the High Museum of Art, a two-year paid program that offers specialized training and mentoring in the curatorial profession for students from communities that are historically underrepresented in the museum field. Roberts was also Oglethorpe’s Student Government Association president.

Taylor Roberts was Oglethorpe University's student government association president and is part of the graduating class of 2021. (Contributed)

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What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “The biggest challenge I faced at Oglethorpe was trying to continue my education. The college fund that my parents saved only got me through my freshman year, so every consecutive year, I fought to secure funding to continue to grow and learn at Oglethorpe.”

How did you get past that challenge? “I pursued scholarships, fellowships, and on-campus jobs that would allow me to pay my tuition. My Mellon Fellowship at the High Museum of Art both developed my skills as a museum professional and ensured funding that allowed me to continue school. I also became a Community Advisor in Residence Life to grow my relationships on campus and decrease my tuition.”

Future plans? Roberts will be a Lead for America Fellow serving BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities in Atlanta and Chicago. She will continue her work at the Oakland Cemetery, where she serves as a programming intern, with a focus on strengthening relationships with local universities and minority-owned nonprofits and businesses.


Kayla Smith

Spelman College

Kayla Smith is a Spelman College student working to navigate COVID and her senior thesis as well as working to stay connected to her school. Smith spends time in Decatur Square on Friday, Nov 13, 2020. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Smith, 22, from Stone Mountain, started a podcast called “The Blue Record,” which explores the intersection of race and gender. She’s part of a group that mentors students at Dunbar Elementary School, located a mile away from Spelman. Smith was featured in an AJC series that examined how some students and faculty navigated through the coronavirus pandemic.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “The biggest challenge I faced at Spelman is being comfortable in charting my own path. You see so many people who are inspirational and influential student leaders and individuals on campus that you wonder how they charted their path. Who helped cultivate it? How did they get on this path?”

How did Smith get through that challenge? Smith said she embraced feeling comfortable with being uncomfortable about not knowing. “By not knowing, it allowed me to be open-minded ... It allowed me to cultivate my own path, which is rooted in storytelling and intersectional race theory and justice work.”

Future plans? Smith was selected as a fellow to the Charles Rangel International Affairs Program, named after the late, longtime congressman from Harlem, New York. She’ll be an intern this summer for U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas. Smith will pursue a master of arts degree at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.


Joey Ye

Emory University

Emory University student Joey Ye has taken courses remotely for more than a year from his hometown in southwest China. Some of the classes require attendance and begin at midnight or later his time. (Contributed)

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Ye double-majored in neuroscience and philosophy. Originally from China, Ye returned to his homeland in March 2020 and completed his studies there taking online courses. Ye received several honors, including being inducted as a member of the national neuroscience Honor Society — Nu Rho Psi. The AJC met Ye a few months ago as part of its College & The Coronavirus series.

What was the biggest challenge you faced pursuing your degree? “The uncertainties that I dealt with throughout last year. Many of my plans were not settled until the last minute, and some of them were even conflicting, making it a more anxious circumstance for me to decide what I could do to make the most of my time. For example, last spring I applied for my internships and NGO programs, and some were hesitant to offer in-person/remote positions with delays due to the pandemic, and others were unable to determine the dates of start.”

How did he get through the challenge? “I would say I overcame it just as most of my peers would have done. I did not allow myself to be waiting and eventually becoming anxious, but kept on regular exercise and occasional reading. But more importantly, it was very helpful just to seek backup plans, and lower my expectation, which reduced my anxiety. I talked to my friends, and I also made times to watch movies, YouTube, flower some tiny plants, help my family with chores. These daily activities diverted my attention and helped me avoid negative moods.”

Future plans? Ye has an internship lined up. He’s thinking about taking a year off before pursuing graduate school, possibly in the U.S.