May 05, 2020

Senior Speakers: Asia Wooten BA ’20 and Zafar Ali BA ’20

The two outstanding students addressed their classmates at the 2020 virtual commencement.

Asia Wooten and Zafar Ali. Asia Wooten and Zafar Ali.

Asia Wooten BA ’20 and Zafar Ali BA ’20 were the senior speakers at the College of Arts and Sciences virtual commencement on May 9. We talked to Asia and Zafar about their favorite Lewis & Clark experiences, the message they hope to convey to their fellow graduates, and how they’ve been handling life in the time of COVID-19.

Asia Wooten BA ’20

Hometown: Eugene, Oregon
Major: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Extracurriculars: Copresident of the Black Student Union, Copresident of the Food Pantry Club, Pre-Health Professions Club, Behavioral Genetics Lab Student Research, Piano Accompanying, Chamber Music, Xplore leader, Great Expectations mentor

Zafar Ali BA ’20

Hometown: Tribal Areas, Pakistan
Major: Political Science 
Extracurriculars: Soccer and volleyball

What three words best describe your Lewis & Clark experience?

Asia: Unique, eye-opening, engaging.

Zafar: Family, discovery, transformation.

What made you want to come to Lewis & Clark?

Asia: What attracted me to Lewis & Clark was the abundance of resources and mentorship programs available to help ease the transition into college. I was also interested in the small class sizes, early research opportunities, the vibrant music department, and the proximity to home. After my first tour and the continuous amount of support that I received from the Admissions office, Associate Professor of Music Katherine Fitzgibbon, and Associate Professor of Music Susan DeWitt Smith, Lewis & Clark became my first choice.

Zafar: It was the beauty of the campus that first attracted my eye. I searched more to see whether this place had the resources, commitment, and reputation for excellence; a place where I could find support, energy, and motivation to learn, grow, and build a track for a meaningful life. Everything I found pointed to a place where I could feel truly at home, where true care is the underlying base of every association, and where we are all one big family. In the past four years, Lewis & Clark has been a home away from home; the people here a family.

I have spent the most amazing four years of my life here. The experience has transformed me, and broadened my horizons beyond what I could imagine. In this way, Lewis & Clark has been so much more than I had envisioned.

What was your favorite class? How did it expand your knowledge?

Asia: Two of my all-time favorite classes were Metabolic Biochemistry with Adjunct Chemistry Professor Marie-Pierre Hasne and my private piano lessons with Susan Smith. Metabolic played a fundamental role in allowing me to fully understand my learning style and what truly works for me. I even discovered that I have a photographic memory! I really enjoyed learning about the complex mechanisms that happen in the body, and the range of diseases that result from such small disruptions to those pathways. Marie was such an incredible instructor and made the class feel more enlightening than challenging.

My weekly piano lessons with Susan were the perfect way to balance out the heavy workload of my other classes. She allowed me the freedom to choose the pieces that were the most thought-provoking and inspiring. I learned so much from Susan on how to enhance my technique while retaining my artistic autonomy and having fun! Most importantly, she helped me to accomplish one of my dreams—performing with an orchestra. Here’s a link to my performance with Lewis & Clark’s incredible orchestra during my freshman year!

Zafar: So many classes have shaken and transformed me: three classes in political theory with Assistant Professor John Holzwarth, my classes with Senior Lecturer Cyrus Partovi, a class about radical political economy with Associate Professor Eric Tymoigne, and my math classes with Professor Yung-Pin Chen. I know this is a long list, but all these classes truly impacted me in big ways and had a profound bearing on me as an individual and as a student. Time and space prevent me from giving detailed descriptions, but here is a description of at least one class, and the way it impacted me.

My second Exploration and Discovery class with Adjunct Professor Susan Cohen was titled Citizens of the World: Cosmopolitanism, Group Loyalty, and Individual Freedom. The class jolted all my impressions and beliefs about particularism: my notions of cultural value, attachment, sense of honor, and duty—indeed my whole lifestyle at that moment—were up for debate, and it was incredibly uncomfortable.

When the semester ended, I realized that I was changing in fundamental ways. It was an unsettling period because all my previous ideals and notions of a society and self had suddenly crumbled. What was my anchor now? Where was I to trace myself to now? And on a fundamental level, what did that mean for me as an individual; sense had given way to ambiguity. If everything I had ever believed in could collapse so suddenly, what was the guarantee that a conclusion I was reaching was a valid one. And if one could conceivably imagine the most fundamental of personal principles to be up for debate in some future time, that sense in itself undercut any solace or comfort in current notions. These were the ideas I continued grappling with throughout subsequent semesters.

What was the best thing you were involved with at L&C outside of class?

Asia: There are so many rewarding activities that I was involved in at L&C, but the most important has been my mentorship role in the Xplore program, the Great Expectations program (which is designed to help incoming first-generation students and/or students of color), and my leadership role in the Black Student Union. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be surrounded by a strong presence of mentorship programs and affinity groups in college. When I first arrived at Lewis & Clark, these were the first three groups that embraced me with a sense of community away from home. They provided me with a solid foundation of support that positively impacted my social and academic experience at L&C. At the end of my freshman year, I made a pact with myself to pay it forward in any way that I could and to help provide a worthwhile experience for those who came after me.

Zafar: I loved participating in intramural competitions. I like and play various sports, so I took part in soccer, basketball, and volleyball. Every year, I also looked forward to the International Affairs symposium. It brings together some of the most accomplished and reputable scholars to campus for debates on various issues. It’s immensely rewarding to hear from the experts and be abreast of how real world wheeling and dealing works among nations.

How have you been handling the past seven weeks since classes moved online? Is there anything you’ve found that’s offered comfort during the pandemic?

Asia: I’ve found comfort in continuing to focus on the things that I can control as well as the many aspects of life that I’m grateful for, including life itself. I’ve really enjoyed having more time to play the piano and even take song requests from friends and family! I’ve always believed in music’s potential for healing, so being able to evoke a sense of comfort and reassurance within myself and others through music has been incredibly invaluable to me.

I’ve also had the opportunity to reconnect with our local NAACP branch to help safely distribute bagged lunches and groceries from the food bank to families in need. It’s always great to give back.

Zafar: I feel like this pandemic has given us all a chance to reflect on and appreciate so many things we take for granted. It has revealed the fundamental inequities and deficiencies of our systems, and made us aware of the pain and plight of people everywhere. The loss of life and peace due to this pandemic is substantial, and our routines will continue to be disrupted for the foreseeable future, and yet the fact is this shall pass, we shall overcome, and we shall learn from this. This pandemic can be a lesson in the kinds of investments and institutions we need to tackle problems facing the human family.

Do you have any graduation plans?

Asia: Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, I received two incredible internship opportunities to work at the Centers for Disease Control and Johns Hopkins University, which have both unfortunately been postponed. In the meantime, I plan to spend some time working as a medical scribe while applying to medical school. My long-term goal is to become a pediatrician and a medical director for Medicaid services within a nonprofit healthcare organization. I especially want to become a patient advocate and work to help build multifaceted, sustainable, and reliable systems of support for underserved communities.

Zafar: Yes, I begin my doctoral studies in political science at Syracuse University in New York this fall.

What message do you hope to convey to your fellow graduates at commencement?

Asia: My goal is to be completely transparent in illuminating some of the noteworthy experiences that we have all likely shared at Lewis & Clark. I would like to remind my fellow graduates of the level of tenacity we’ve demonstrated after having made it through this unprecedented ending to our college experience. The current time that we are facing does not by any means signify the end of our progress or lessen the magnitude and diversity of memories and achievements that we’ve gained over the years. I am so proud to be a part of this resilient class.

Zafar: In my speech, I speak of our current moment, and my journey to and at Lewis & Clark. In a world that is turning increasingly isolationist, I will speak to how unity and cooperation have always propelled us forward, helping us achieve progress and prosperity. I talk of my time on campus, the way people and the support structures here not only helped me achieve my academic goals, but also shaped my fundamental identity. I have also outlined my future aspirations. Parts of my speech can appear idealistic, even naive, but the fact is that big changes always require idealism. If we reconcile with the way things are, how can we have any motivation or reason for changing them? I speak of a vision of a better world because I know we have to be better, and that we can be.