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Standout students: Hood recipients 2007

May 23, 2007

One outstanding student from each academic college and from Liberal Studies/Special Majors and Graduate Studies will be honored at SF State's 106th Commencement Saturday, May 26. They receive the symbolic investiture of the hood on behalf of their fellow students. In addition, Tal Levy-Chen, hood recipient for the College of Business, will be this year's student speaker.

SF State News is pleased to introduce these students to the campus community and friends of SF State:

Behavioral and Social Sciences | Business | Creative Arts | Education | Ethnic Studies | Health and Human Services| Humanities | Science and Engineering | Liberal Studies/Special Majors | Graduate Studies

College of Behavioral and Social Sciences: Heather Weigand
Photo of Heather WeigandHeather Weigand began her studies in criminal justice with a dream of helping the incarcerated turn their lives around. She was passionate about this goal because she had turned her own life around in an extraordinary way.

Weigand, an Iowa native, came to California at 16 and began working full-time after high school. She had married and divorced twice by age 23. She then began using drugs and entered a downward spiral that would eventually claim 12 years of her life, including 8 in the California prison system.

At the age of 36, Weigand found the role models she needed through the Delancey Street recovery program and left her substance abuse in the past. Two years later, she entered San Francisco State with encouragement from the Project Rebound program.

"A professor told me, ‘If you want to create social change, you must speak legalese'," she said. "I changed my major to criminal justice that day."

She wasted no time putting her San Francisco State education to work. Weigand is currently working with New Jersey congressman Donald Payne to pass legislation that would increase funding to help the wrongfully convicted rebuild their lives. She is also working with California assembly member Mark Leno on a bill that would provide state-funded case services to exonerated men and women in California.

Weigand serves as the Life After Exoneration Program's director of client services and new programs. The program provides services for wrongfully convicted and incarcerated individuals who have been exonerated through DNA and other forensic evidence. She recently presented on the first social service treatment model for this population at Harvard University.

Weigand also founded her own consulting company, Focuzup, a collaborative criminal and social justice agency that addresses re-entry issues for the formerly incarcerated.

She plans to continue her education with graduate studies, but said she will always consider San Francisco State her "home university." "It's such a welcoming university," she said. "Anyone from any economic background, religion, or age -- they make you feel welcome. I've really appreciated that."

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College of Business: Tal Levy-Chen
Photo of Tal Levy-ChenTal Levy-Chen has wasted no time applying her SF State learning. Graduating with a bachelor's degree in business administration with a concentration in decision sciences, Tal already runs her own company, Food Tree, which offers a healthy puffed-wheat product called Whiffles. It is already available in Bay Area markets such as Mollie Stone's.

Food Tree is just another manifestation of the talent and enterprising energy Levy-Chen has demonstrated. A gifted dancer in everything from tap to hip-hop, Tal was recruited to dance professionally with the Sigi Nisan Dance Studio at twelve years old; the folk troupe performed on television and toured internationally. After serving her mandatory service for the Israeli Army, where she coordinated operations for a helicopter unit, she accepted an invitation to teach at a dance studio in Queens, New York. In New York she also taught dance to local children with disabilities, an experience she found richly rewarding.

Since leaving her native Israel for the U.S. seven years ago, Levy-Chen found the language barrier more difficult than expected. "I went for a scholarship at the dance studio Steps on Broadway and realized I couldn't fill out the application," she said. "But I decided to seize the opportunity and read the newspapers, Harry Potter books, anything I could." She also met her husband, an American physician. The two were attracted to the pioneering atmosphere on the West Coast.

She chose SF State for the smaller class size and accessible professors. "I went to the open house and the department was just so diverse," she said.

Levy-Chen is considering returning to Israel or pursuing a master's degree, but she knows business is her calling. "The thing that excites me is the opportunity to create new jobs and make others' lives better," she said.

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College of Creative Arts: Belinderjit Kaur Singh
Photo of Belinderjit SinghBelinderjit Kaur "Jeeti" Singh's paintings are bound to make waves in the art world. The 22-year-old art graduate was born in Hong Kong, but raised by Punjabi parents who brought her to the U.S. at age five.

She brings a provocative multi-cultural awareness to her work about female sexuality. In one recent painting, a life-size self-portrait of Singh in scanty clothes gazes at a depiction of her mother in a far more modest house robe. The contrast makes a sociological statement.

"Women are being sexualized at younger and younger ages," Singh said. "And our generation deals with the highest degree of media influence ever."

Raised in Union City, Singh started painting in seventh grade. By high school, she was designing costumes and sets for the band's competitive percussion ensemble. Her own work has long focused on the media's depiction of women. Her parents were supportive, as were the professors she encountered at SF State.

"Meeting the faculty, you could see they were an artistic community," she said. "And they forced you to go out there, look at the galleries, see where you wanted to be."

Singh curated and managed the Martin Wong Gallery for undergraduate students, a job she describes as "one of the best experiences of my life." She plans to apply to master's programs in the fall and is busy readying her portfolio of paintings.

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College of Education: Mirabai Oyao
Photo of Mirabai OyaoMirabai Oyao began her undergraduate education as an anthropology major in 2003. The next year, however, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Oyao left school to help care for her. She took a job as a para-educator for a special-needs day class at Benicia Middle School. As her mother returned to health, Oyao discovered her professional calling: Helping children with severe disabilities learn to communicate.

Oyao returned to SF State the next year as a Communicative disorders major. She found the faculty, particularly professor Flo Kimmerling, "absolutely inspiring." That inspiration propels Oyao through challenging but richly rewarding work. On a typical day, for instance, Oyao might help a boy with Cornelia de Lange syndrome learn to express his wishes by blowing bubbles in his face because he enjoys popping them, then prompting him to push a button for a recorded message that says "more bubbles, please."

Oyao serves as a student representative to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

A native of Melbourne, Australia, Oyao moved with her parents to the U.S. in 2001 and now lives in Benicia. In the fall she will continue her studies at State, pursuing a master's in speech language pathology. She can hardly wait. "I've seen that helping children with language helps them with their emotional and behavioral difficulties," she said. "This career combines language and children. This is totally what I'm into."

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College of Ethnic Studies: Josue F. Revolorio Illescas
Photo of Josue Revolorio IllescasJosue F. Revolorio Illescas' passion for education drove him to excel in his pursuit of an undergraduate degree in Raza studies. But first it sustained him through an extraordinary life story of hardship and persecution in his native Guatemala.

Born to a working class family in Guatemala City, Revolorio Illescas suffered pneumatic fever that went undiagnosed during most of his childhood due to unaffordable health care, resulting in a serious heart condition. In 1976, the Guatemalan earthquake that killed 30,000 people also destroyed his family's house, forcing thirteen-year-old Revolorio Illescas to live in the streets for a year and a half.

Despite these setbacks, he entered college, where he began organizing student demonstrations against the oppressive government. He received frequent death threats. In 1989, 10 student leaders, including many of Revolorio Illescas' friends, were kidnapped, and five were never heard from again. Fearing for his life, Revolorio Illescas briefly gave up activism, but was soon traveling to teach at refugee camps in Mexico and Nicaragua, and once again risking government harassment. In 1993, at a march protesting genocide against Guatemala's Mayans, he met his future wife, an American activist.

Returning to school after such tumult, Revolorio Illescas was eager to interact with the Salvadorian and Guatemalan professors at SF State.

"They put things I knew in a wider perspective," he said. "The role of the U.S. government in Latin American history especially. I didn't want to leave class."

Revolorio Illescas is a member of the Guatemala News and Information Bureau and serves on the board of NISGUA, a national network supporting survivors of the Guatemalan civil war. He assists other nonprofit agencies as a Spanish tutor and translator. He plans to take time off from school to support his family, but hopes to pursue a master's degree in education and build a teaching career.

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College of Health and Human Services: Oscar Gustavo Macias Martinez
Photo of Oscar Macias MartinezIn 1984, Oscar Gustavo Macias Martinez was performing with a folklorico dance troupe in the Los Angeles Olympics Arts Festival when he faced a wrenching decision. Friends offered to take him to San Francisco, where they said he could live openly as a gay man. Back in his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, Macias Martinez had faced repeated police and community harassment for his sexual orientation. If he fled, he would have to leave behind his family and his rights as a citizen. At age 19, Macias Martinez chose San Francisco.

He spent ten years as an undocumented immigrant, working such jobs as dishwasher, before finding the courage to seek political asylum in 1997. His new legal status opened doors immediately: He secured a position as an outreach worker with the AIDS non-profit Proyecto Contra SIDA Por Vida. The work fit his passion -- helping gay Latinos lead healthful lives. "Just walking up and down the streets of the Mission District handing out condoms and giving referrals -- that's how I started," he said.

The SF State department of Health Education was the next logical step. "I needed the theoretical foundation for the things I was learning empirically -- how to write grant proposals, facilitate meetings, form coalitions," he says. "I got that and much more."

Currently Macias Martinez works full-time for the San Francisco Department of Public Health AIDS office. One of his proudest achievements is organizing the first ever Latino Gay Pride Day in 2005. Produced on a shoestring budget, the event attracted a crowd of 500 and made a bold cultural statement. The impact was also personal: "This was my chance to face my demons and move forward," he said.

Macias Martinez plans to take a year off from school to work, and then resume his education by applying to SF State's graduate program in public health.

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College of Humanities: Brigitte Polianos
Photo of Brigitte PolianosBrigitte Polianos graduates knowing she will be back at SF State in the fall -- to continue in the master's program in comparative literature. She is well on her way to teaching and -- her stated dream -- writing books of her own. It's a dream that looked very distant a decade ago.

Raised in Nuremberg, Germany, Polianos came to the Bay Area in 1991, and shortly thereafter abandoned school.

Polianos, who now lives in Burlingame, worked her way towards SF State after meeting pastors Gigi and Brad Allen at San Mateo's Victory International church, were she found the motivation to turn her life around. She held a full-time job as a warehouse systems administrator and taught Bible school while working on her degree. She was the founder of "Project Joseph," an outreach program in South San Francisco that provides food and clothing for poor Bay Area residents.

As an immigrant, she faced challenges. "English is my second language, but literature is my first love," she said. Her goal is to write fluently in English, beginning with an autobiography.

Polianos offers inspirational advice for future students. "People sometimes feel 'I can't get an education because I have no money, I'm not smart enough'," Polianos said. "It's not true. Many people told me I was not smart enough, and they were wrong. If I can do it, anyone can."

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College of Science and Engineering: Karen Chan
Photo of Karen ChanFuture laptops or cell phones may contain parts designed by Karen Chan. She has already accepted a design engineer position with Santa Clara-based National Semiconductor. There she'll create switching regulators that control the flow of electricity. The position usually goes to someone with a Ph.D., but Karen's excitement for engineering was so strong when she transferred to San Francisco State that she quickly took an internship with local firm Linear Technology. The experience she gained put her ahead of the pack in the job market.

Chan grew up in South San Francisco as the daughter of Hong Kong emigrants. In high school, she considered a career in medicine and volunteered at the Seton Medical Center, the Recreational Center for the Handicapped, and Leather's Residential Home for the Elderly. But ultimately she could not resist the pull of engineering.

"Engineering interested me because there's always so much change," she said. "I thought it was an opportunity to innovate and constantly do something new."

Chan also enjoys playing the piano and the Chinese zither, and practicing Chinese calligraphy. She plans to gain hands-on experience at National Semiconductor before continuing her education in a doctoral program.

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Liberal Studies/Special Programs: Jessica Quan
Photo of Jessica QuanEver since volunteering as a summer camp counselor in high school, Jessica Quan had a single career goal: teaching. "Most of the teachers I talked to went to San Francisco State and spoke highly of it," said Quan. "Of course it didn't hurt that the school offered me a scholarship."

In fact, Quan was named a Presidential Scholar, the school's highest honor for incoming freshmen. She graduates with a bachelor's degree in liberal studies, specializing in science and mathematics.

Quan grew up in San Carlos, raised by a Japanese mother and Chinese father. Her early love for biology spilled over into her hobbies of gardening and landscape photography. She plans to continue towards a teaching credential and hopes to work with fourth or fifth graders. "That's when they get the foundation for math and science," she said. "It's exciting to provide a stepping stone for everything in these children's future."

Quan also works as an SAT proctor, helps moderate an online anime art community at, and is a member of the City College of San Francisco Dragon Boat rowing team.

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Graduate Studies: Diana Marina
Photo of Diana MarinaDiana Marina fled to the U.S. from Indonesia with her parents at the age of 18 after a racially motivated riot against the Chinese-Indonesian minority group in her native Jakarta. Because she was the eldest daughter and had a few English skills, she struggled to help her family navigate a new life.

Marina completed an undergraduate degree in biology at Cal State Hayward (now CSU East Bay), and while investigating graduate programs ran across the Web site of Biology Professor Leticia Marquez-Magana. She was impressed by Marquez-Magana's efforts to mentor minority women in science and also discovered that they shared some research interests. Marina decided to apply to SF State "because it's a minority-serving institution."

While at State, Marina excelled. She did research in Marquez-Magana's lab, focusing her work on the swrA gene's operon and how it regulates transcription (DNA sequencing). She also was awarded a GK12 fellowship, a program that pairs graduate students in science with K-12 teachers. She works 10 hours a week at San Francisco's Lowell High School, helping plan and co-teach science experiments.

"I've learned that there are a lot of roles that scientists can play in science education," she said.

Marina will continue to play a role in science education after graduation. She has been accepted in to UC San Francisco's prestigious Tetrad program, which combines courses and research in biochemistry, cell biology, developmental biology and genetics. She hopes to become a research professor and, like Marquez-Magana, mentor minority women in science.

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-- Public Affairs and Publications
Photos: Rena Buchgraber, William Morris, Dave Reddy, Denize Springer and Mitch Wong


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Last modified May 23, 2007 by University Communications