Graduates return to make a difference in troubled home countries

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ayaka Hagiuda 11

Ayaka Hagiuda 11

Ayaka Hagiuda 11 James Khat 11 

Like every one of St. Cloud State's 1,659 spring graduates, James Khat '11 and Ayaka Hagiuda '11 crossed the stage with an exciting mix of hopes, plans and questions. For them, that future starts with going home to countries whose names have been prominent in international headlines this past year South Sudan for its political strife and Japan for its devastating earthquakes and tsunami.

Khat, who came to Minnesota in 2000 after 18 years in northern African refugee camps, plans to be in South Sudan for its declaration of independence events July 9. "Because my country has been at war for 50-something years, not many people have been going to school," he said.

With his degree in international relations and years of activism in the Sudan People's Liberation Movement – described as the political arm of the ruling party whose stated goals are for a democratic, secular South Sudan – Khat has been promised a position back home as minister of education. "If you have a degree you should go home and help people," he said. "These are our times."

Hagiuda is returning to her home city of Sendai, Japan, located near the epicenter of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck March 12 and the tsunami that followed. She is anxious to see her mother and 18 year-old sister. They and her father, who attended St. Cloud State's May 8 commencement ceremonies, were unharmed by the tragedies that killed thousands in the Sendai region.

A mass communications major with an emphasis in photojournalism, Hagiuda waited 14 hours for news from her family after hearing about the earthquake. She was relieved to hear that while they experienced days without power and water, all in her family were okay.

Hagiuda knows she is returning to a community that is still searching for missing people and working through the challenges of massive destruction. "It's just a mess," she said. "The east side of Sendai, along the Pacific 10-15 kilometers from the coast is really destroyed because of the tsunami."

Although they both came to Minnesota from countries halfway around the globe, Khat and Hagiuda took very different routes to St. Cloud State. Khat started college in 2001 at Riverland Community College in Austin, graduated in 2007 and came to St. Cloud State in 2009 to finish his education.

Professor Tracy Ore said she was impressed with Khat's passion for his home country as well as his perseverance with his studies. "When he was challenged by some aspect of his classes, he kept working to understand it," Ore said. "Like many of our international students, he came to St. Cloud State to get the skills, resources and knowledge that he couldn't get back home. James is very excited to get home and help move his country forward."

Khat said he has embraced the democratic system, including freedom of speech, liberty, and freedom to enjoy life. "We have seen something good in the U.S. – a beloved country. It's very different here – with nice people here. I very much like St. Cloud State."

Hagiuda first experienced Minnesota as a high school exchange student in Henning, living with a host family and getting to know St. Cloud during visits. She too was struck by the friendliness of Minnesotans. "People are more outgoing here," she said. "Walking down the street people say, "Hi, how are you. I think that's really amazing because you don't see that much in Japan."

Hagiuda, who was counted among St. Cloud State's international students – 1,076 from 86 countries this spring – was one of 142 international students representing 41 countries to earn degrees in 51 different majors. She will return home accompanied by another 2011 graduate, Jack Hennen, an English as a Second Language major, native of Zimmerman and Hagiuda's fiancé.

- Story By Marsha Shoemaker | Photographs by Neil Andersen '96

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