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Creating transformational change

by Catalina Myers  |   

commencementspeakerfall2021
Tanya Charoonsophonsak, a first-generation Alaskan and UAA’s fall 2021 commencement speaker, is encouraging her class to continue making transformational changes that will not only impact them now but for generations to come. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

 Tanya Charoonsophonsak is a first-generation Alaskan. Born in California, her parents emigrated from Thailand to the U.S. and moved her and her older brother to the North Slope, where she spent her childhood until middle school. Charoonsophonsak has lived in Utqiagvik, the state’s northernmost city, and the state's largest one — Anchorage. Growing up in rural and urban environments, she witnessed firsthand the positive impact health professionals have on a community. From a very early age, UAA’s fall 2021 commencement speaker knew her calling was for the medical field.

Initially beginning her undergraduate career at UAA as a nursing major, Charoonsophonsak quickly realized it was not the career path she wanted and ended up setting her sights set on a medical laboratory science degree with a minor in nutrition. 

“I’ve particularly focused on rural communities — especially here in Alaska — I’ve done a few research projects regarding environmental contaminants and how that impacts a community,” Charoonsophonsak said. “Public health, rural communities and health care access have been a big focus academically and professionally for me. Health care isn’t a privilege; you should have the ability to access health care and to take care of yourself.”

Charoonsophonsak said she is happy she stuck with UAA despite changing her major and educational course. Not only was UAA a financially sound decision. Attending her hometown university allowed her to stay close to her family, particularly her parents, who have always encouraged her to pursue higher education.

“Everything in pursuit of my educational experience is because of my parents and because of the sacrifices they've made,” Charoonsophonsak said. “This degree is not just for me. It's for them as well.”

In addition to pursuing a rigorous degree program, participating in undergraduate research and finishing up her clinical rotations, Charoonsophonsak is a highly engaged student and enjoyed her undergraduate experience at UAA. She participated in the sorority Alpha Sigma Alpha on campus, Alpha Phi Omega, the Union of Students at UAA (USUAA) and the student medical laboratory science club.

“I really like being here, and it helps to have fun while going to college,” said Charoonsophonsak. “I really like the professors here, and I really like the class size, the community, and everything about the campus has felt like home to me.” 

Charoonsophonsak said growing up and into high school, being actively involved in her community was essential. As she has gotten older, stepping into leadership roles has been a natural progression. She said joining her sorority at UAA allowed her to branch out and become more actively engaged in the student community. 

“Through my membership in the sorority and other organizations like USUAA, I’ve grown as a person and a leader,” Charoonsophonsak said. “These clubs helped encourage my confidence in myself and my abilities to do harder things in life. UAA has given me the space to grow and go outside the box a little bit, make some bold choices while still having a supportive community surrounding me.”

Charoonsophonsak said she’s watched her parents make big, daring decisions, and that their resiliency inspired her commencement speech. Motivated by her parents and the risks and sacrifices they made to provide opportunities for a better future, Charoonsophonsak invites her classmates to do the same.

“I took their story and idea and related that to our class's journey currently — as graduates in 2021,” Charoonsophonsak said. “We’re all resilient; that can’t be stated enough. But for those who continued and didn’t take a break, we’re making transformational change for ourselves. And we may not see it directly right now, but our future generations will, just like my parents did.”

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