Yale College 2021: Meet some of the graduates
We present here a series of profiles of members of the Yale College Class of 2021. Selected from nominations submitted by residential college heads and deans, these outstanding students are variously (and sometimes in combination) entrepreneurs and athletes, artists and activists, musicians, magicians, and mathematicians. One was a member of the Air Force ROTC. Another wowed the judges of American Idol. Another has helped first-generation college students adapt to campus life. We hope this small but impressive sample offers a sense of the breadth of experience, achievement, and humanity within the undergraduate Class of 2021.
Camara Aaron’s years at Yale have been a journey of courage and fear.
The fear came from wondering whether she truly belonged in the land of Lux et Veritas; the courage arrived when she found her voice and used it speak up, build a community of friends, and fully engage with her creative spirit.
“For me, the dream is to end up telling stories that I believe in, that center Black women and marginalized people in movies,” said Aaron, 22, a graduating senior from Benjamin Franklin College.
She’s already living that dream. As a writer, performer, director, and producer at Yale, she has told Black women’s stories in genres as far-ranging as science fiction, romance, and horror.
Rohan Angadi’s education at Yale has helped him make a career choice. But he also learned many lessons simply applying to the school.
Angadi is from Clovis, New Mexico, located in an agricultural region in the eastern part of the state, near the Texas border. His high school’s lone guidance counselor had little experience in helping students apply to top academic institutions, he said. Most of the counselor’s time was spent helping 300 students simply graduate from high school.
So after he was accepted at Yale, one of the first things he did on campus was to volunteer at Matriculate, a non-profit organization that helps low-income and first-generation students apply to top colleges and universities. In the past four years, Angadi, a resident of Davenport College, has counseled dozens of poor high school students from mostly rural districts about how to take the leap from their local school to the sometimes intimidating culture at top academic institutions.
By his senior year, he was head advising fellow for Matriculate at Yale, providing training and guidance to 73 college students, and counseled incoming freshmen at Yale.
The only things Josh Beasley has up his sleeve are a passion for magic, a knowledge of cybersecurity, and a plan for serving his country.
Beasley, a 22-year-old graduating senior from Timothy Dwight College, often tells people his hobby is having hobbies. But there’s more to it than that.
Beasley goes where his interests take him and he takes his interests wherever he goes. Which is amazingly far.
As the son of an Air Force bomber pilot, Beasley’s childhood took him to Texas, South Dakota, Alabama, and Virginia, where he graduated from high school. Beasley’s Yale College years have been the longest stretch he’s ever had with the same classmates — making his Yale friendships all the stronger.
“They’re my wing men and my friends,” Beasley said. “The people make Yale what it is.”
Yale was not Gabriella Blatt’s first-choice college until she visited the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) during a trip to campus for Bulldog Days. That, she said, was a “game changer.”
Blatt, who was accepted into seven Ivy League schools, was impressed that an entire building at Yale was devoted to Native student life. During her time at Yale the NACC became her anchor — a fact, she says, that was ironic.
“In high school, I couldn’t wait to get off the reservation,” said the graduating senior, a member of the Chippewa Cree tribe who grew up on Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana. “At Yale, the Native community has been my beacon of support. I love my reservation and love being Indigenous.”
It was on a whim, during orientation for first-year students back in 2017, that Annie Gao took a tour of the Yale Memorial Carillon, located in Harkness Tower. The experience sparked four years of “ringing” joy.
Intrigued by the carillon, which consists of an organ-like console and 54 bells, Gao subsequently attended an information session about auditioning for the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs, the student organization responsible for playing the famed instrument. At the meeting, seasoned carillonneurs played two practice instruments to offer a sense of the carillon’s sound.
“The ringing envelopes you and it feels magical,” said Gao, a resident of Branford College. “I got lost in it.”
Gao, who played the piano throughout her childhood, poured herself into learning the carillon. She took advantage of free lessons offered by the guild. Then she endured a five-week audition and was accepted into the 26-member guild.
People often ask Mia Jackson what exactly applied mathematics is.
But in some ways, she says, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s the field of study that has allowed her, as a Yale College student, to take “math-ish” courses offered by schools and departments across campus — biology, economics, public health — and apply some math-related skills to challenges in those domains.
Once she began incorporating her growing interest in computer science, her area of academic concentration, Jackson, a Jonathan Edwards resident and Fulbright recipient, started seeing the opportunity to really make a difference.
Take, for instance, her experience in the course “Sickness and Health in African American History.” In the class, offered through the History of Science and Medicine program, she learned about disparities in maternal health in communities of color and how the pernicious effects of past inequities persist today.
Struck by these lessons, she and two other students created a prototype for a mobile app that provides women of color with perinatal resources. In early 2020, the concept won a second-place prize in a “health hackathon” hosted by Yale’s Center for Biomedical Innovation and Technology.
Some of Qusay Omran’s fondest memories of his undergraduate experience are the impromptu meals he enjoyed with friends in Berkeley College’s dining hall.
“There was something special about the spontaneity of running into friends in the dining hall and bonding over dinner,” Omran said. “I’ll miss it.”
Omran, a chemistry major, embraced residential-college life at Yale. As a first-year student, he joined the Berkeley College Council, later serving as its secretary. He became a Berkeley College aide, organizing events and doing what he could to make his neighbors feel at home. His devotion to the community earned him Berkeley’s Fellows Prize, presented annually to the senior who has “brought the most light and air” to the college.
“He is one of those people who can make anyone feel welcomed, heard, and cared for,” stated one of the many nominations for the honor Omran received from the college’s senior class.
For the first few years after Megan Sardis ’21 arrived at Yale, she nurtured competing visions of her future.
She decided to major in global affairs, but also took pre-med classes. Perhaps she would become an engineer, or a doctor. She thought about pursuing a business degree, and maybe even starting a non-profit business.
But eventually the intellectual eddies swirling around campus and the New Haven community carried her back to two loves she had nurtured since she was a high school student in Bernardsville, N.J. — swimming and caring for autistic children.
A marriage of those two passions led her to launch a program called SNUGs (Special Needs Undergraduate Swim Lessons) National, which offers underserved children with autism and other disabilities the opportunity to immerse themselves in the calming confines of a swimming pool.
Last spring, when college students found themselves isolated in quarantine, Ileana Valdez made a light-hearted offer to create a digital tool matching singles for blind dates or conversation. It quickly blew up into a full-fledged dating app, OKZoomer, which was featured in Rolling Stone and other national media. It now has 30,000 registrants.
For Valdez, the experience revealed the “beautiful potential for using technology for social relationships nowadays.” “Our research shows that people in my generation especially are very open to online-first relationships,” said Valdez, a computer science (CS) major from Red Oak, Texas, who launched the venture with fellow Yale CS major Patrycja Gorsk, and her brother Jorge Valdez, also a computer scientist.
During her time at Yale, she has encouraged others to discover the power of technology.
Alondra Vázquez López
Running down a list of all the courses she has taken at Yale, Alondra Vázquez López points out that many have “Mexico” in their title.
The country looms large in her life: It’s her father’s birthplace. And it’s where Vázquez López, a resident of Grace Hopper College, has spent many hours helping asylum seekers in the border cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.
Born in the U.S., Vázquez López grew up in California in a mixed-status family. Her mother is from Guatemala. It was not unusual for school personnel to call her home to warn of possible U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids. Sometimes, family trips to church were followed by visits with relatives in detention centers.
While that life felt “normal” to Vázquez López growing up, her Yale coursework and research, particularly in her ethnicity, race, and migration major (ER&M), helped her see her family’s history in a wider context.
Xavier Washington found his voice at Yale. That’s not to say he didn’t already have a strong baritone and singing chops when he arrived from Atlanta. Music was always an important part of his life. “I’ve been singing since I was able to talk,” he said.
But at Yale, where he majored in African American studies, Washington found something more: technique, assuredness, and opportunity.
“At first I thought, when I got here, I’d go to law school,” said the 23-year-old from Silliman College. “I thought of music as a hobby because I didn’t know if I could really do it yet.”
At Yale, however, that started to change. During his first two years, he sang with the Shades of Yale, an undergraduate a cappella group. During his junior year, Washington joined the Yale Glee Club, which was his first experience with classical choral music repertoire. He was also a teaching assistant for the Morse Chorale, a youth choir sponsored by Yale’s Music in Schools Initiative. But it wasn’t until he performed a solo set at a Spring Fling concert in 2019 — culminating with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — that he saw his future. “I realized this is what I want to do,” he said.
When she was learning to dive competitively as a young girl in Ohio, Nikki Watters had a Ukrainian coach who drove home the elements of a good dive: executing the perfect jump off the platform, keeping the toes pointed, making even the most complex dive look easy.
Watters became quite good. After becoming one of the nation’s best divers, she came to Yale, where she won Ivy League championships in the 1- and 3-meter boards, received first-team All-Ivy honors, and set a Yale record in the 3-meter dive.
But there were other lessons from that childhood coach that, in a subtle way, may have positioned Watters for her post-Yale life. Back then, she was intrigued that he would sometimes speak in Russian. Watters, whose family had emigrated from Russia, eventually asked him to use that language when sharing his feedback from the pool deck.
“I’d come out of the pool and he’d say, ‘OK, one more. This is what you’re doing wrong,’ or, ‘This is what I want to see on the next one.’ But he’d say it in Russian.”
Karena Zhao was 5 years old when she decided she wanted to be a doctor, although she had no idea what the profession involved. Now that she is graduating from Yale with a B.S. in neuroscience and hands-on experience in the medical field, she said, “I realize my 5-year-old self was correct.”
Zhao came to Yale from Edmond, Oklahoma, planning to major in the biological sciences. She quickly switched to psychology — a change she credits to Yale’s “shopping period,” when undergraduates can sample classes before registering. She ultimately decided to major in neuroscience, which is “a place between psychology and medicine,” she said.
“Yale does biological science very well and social science very well, and I was able to take off from both departments.”
Outside of the classroom, Zhao got first-hand experience in her future field while volunteering at Connecticut Hospice and the New Haven Free Clinic. She welcomed visitors to campus as a Yale College tour guide and introduced incoming students to New Haven — especially areas outside of campus — as director of the FOCUS first-year orientation program. On a whim, she accompanied a friend to a Yale Daily News meeting one night, and stayed on to become senior editor of production and design for the print edition of the student-run newspaper. An avid knitter, who confesses to owning too much yarn to store in her current space, Zhao was president of Knit One Give One, whose members donate their creations to local non-profits.
He had a car and a cello. They had little time left and no place to go.
Jerry Zhou ’21 provided a soundtrack for their final days.
“Feeling music is innate to who we are as humans,” said the Trumbull College student leader and cellist from Tennessee, who co-founded Yale Undergraduates at Connecticut Hospice. “And it’s more important than ever for those who are dying to still feel present and to feel human.”
The group’s members attend to patients in Branford, Connecticut — feeding them, washing them, listening. And in Zhou’s case, performing.
He would set up in a common room or the hallway.
“There were always a few who would be rolled out from their room,” he said. “I don’t think it was because my cello playing was so great; I think music is just our most fundamental language.”
Throughout Zhou’s Yale experience, he discovered ways to blend music with an interest in medicine and an instinct to aid, comfort, soothe, pitch in.