Commencement 2011:USC Graduates Excel Beyond The Classroom

April 27, 2011

From conducting AIDS research in Peru to etching their names in USC’s athletic record books, many of the students set to graduate at the university’s May 13 commencement are already making an impact.

More than 13,000 degrees will be awarded at USC’s commencement ceremonies on May 13. Among the
outstanding graduates:

Sarrah Shahawy (Valedictorian)
Shahawy is a graduating senior in USC’s honors general education program, Thematic Option, majoring in biological sciences and French in USC Dornsife. She is president of USC’s Student Interfaith Council and was instrumental in getting the Dalai Lama to speak in May at USC for the first time. Shahawy was born in Orange and raised in Pasadena and is first generation Egyptian American. Fluent in Arabic and French, she will attend Harvard Medical School in the fall.

Samantha Ancona (Salutatorian)
Ancona is from Pasadena, Calif. and majored in biological sciences and oboe performance. She also has been a squad leader for the USC Trojan Marching Band and a freelance oboe teacher, as well as a volunteer at LAC+USC Medical Center. She was awarded USC’s Emma Josephine Bradley Bovard Award for the highest grade point average for undergraduate women. Ancona will start work immediately in the research lab of Donald Arnold at USC, in preparation for  applying to a Ph.D. program in molecular biology.

Craig Western (Salutatorian)
Western is a mechanical engineering major at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. He has been involved in undergraduate research as a member of USC’s Teamcore Research Group, focusing on ARMOR research, a game-theoretic application for security scheduling at Los Angeles International Airport. Last summer, he designed robotic hardware as an intern for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Western also serves as a project manager for USC’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. One of only 18 scholars selected for the prestigious 2011 Luce Scholarship, Western will spend a year working in the mechanical engineering department at National Taiwan University.

Cara Bickers
Bickers is one of 10 graduating seniors to be awarded a $10,000 Renaissance Scholar Prize for excellence in two or more widely-separated subjects. (Cara will earn a B.S. in Biological Sciences with a minor in Classics). As a member of the track and field team, Bickers posted personal records of 37 feet, 8 inches in the triple jump (a distance longer than the average-sized school bus) and 18 feet, 7 inches in the long jump. She earned first place in the Life Sciences division of the 2011 Undergraduate Symposium for her work titled “Novel Mutants Link DNA Replication and Centromere Function in the Fission Yeast, Schizosaccharomyces pombe.”

David Larson, M.D.
Larson enrolled at the Keck School of Medicine of USC after completing a Fulbright Fellowship in Spain and working with an innovative public health NGO in rural India. In addition to his leadership projects at USC, Larson conducted AIDS research in Lima, Peru and traveled to Guatemala as a Spanish interpreter. While in Guatemala, he served as a medical assistant with a crisis medical team, collaborating with a film crew to produce an award-winning documentary to educate the public about an endemic genetic disease. During his second year, Larson interviewed over 30 award-winning professors about what drives them to do the work they do and published their responses in the book This I Believe, which was distributed to over 500 students and faculty. Larson has volunteered with the Community Outreach Program at Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall, teaching at-risk young people about domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse.

Zara Lukens
Lukens, a cross country and track athlete at USC, is another Renaissance Scholar Prize awardee who earned a 3.928 GPA with degrees in International Relations and Neuroscience and a minor in Spanish. She was captain of the USC cross country team last fall and in track posted the sixth all-time fastest 10,000-meter run by a Trojan female with a time of 37 minutes, 11.02 seconds.

Matt Oka
Oka, a business major who competed as a freshman on the varsity swim team, will graduate after being paralyzed from the chest down during a 2007 bodysurfing accident. He took just one semester off from classes at USC to rehabilitate. After graduation, Oka will begin work at Boeing Co. in the airplane maker and defense contractor’s finance department. He continues to train in the pool with a goal to qualify for the USA Paralympics.

Bertrand R. Perdomo-Ucles
Graduating with a major in Public Policy, Management and Planning and a minor in Public Health, Perdomo-Ucles travelled to Honduras in January 2011 with USC Global Water Brigades to improve a village’s access to clean water. At USC, he has been treasurer for Sigma Lambda Beta International Fraternity, Inc., on the Governing Board for the USC Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, algebra instructor and soccer coach for the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative, and is currently interning for Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry District 9.

Elizabeth Sophy
Graduating with majors in American Studies and Ethnicity and Biological Sciences, Sophy has served for the past two years as co-director of A Community Place, a student organization that provides services to disadvantaged people in the University Park neighborhood. She volunteers at the Violence Intervention Program Family Advocacy Center at LAC+USC Medical Center, works with USC Global Medical Brigades, tutors middle school students through the USC Med-CORE program and is a recipient of the USC Provosts Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

USC’s commencement ceremony, the first presided over by USC President C. L. Max Nikias, will feature an address by Steve Ballmer, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp. Click here for a list of satellite speakers or go to for more information.

Contact: Merrill Balassone at (213) 740-6156 or