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Student commencement speaker: IU taught her to ‘be brave and explore’

May 4, 2016

Grace Boya Shen first traveled from her home in Beijing, China, to the United States when she enrolled at IU. The culture and language barriers she faced as a freshman were real, she said. Class work took hours, and she was too embarrassed to speak in class.


But four years later, she has overcome her shyness and uncertainty. Selected as student speaker for the 2016 IU Bloomington undergraduate commencement, she will address a crowd of 40,000 people on behalf of her fellow graduating seniors May 7 at IU Memorial Stadium.

Shen, who is graduating with degrees in history and American studies, credits her time at IU with building her confidence, her eagerness to explore the world and her willingness to take risks.

"This place changed me and made me a better version of myself than my parents or I would have ever expected," she said. "Indiana University has given me a lot. I am so grateful and proud of being a Hoosier."

Shen chose to study history despite warnings that the reading and writing would be too much for a non-native English speaker. And it was a lot of work. As a freshman, she spent three or four hours a day just on reading assignments.

But she consistently made the executive dean’s list for academic performance and earned admission to the history department honors program. She won first place in the IU Asian American Studies Student Essay Contest in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and won the department’s Browder-Lewis Internship award in 2015.

For the past academic year, she has served as research assistant, translator and project coordinator for the Liang Qichao Project. Led by IU historian Konstantin Dierks, the project is an ambitious effort to document a 1903 tour of America by a Chinese dissident intellectual and translate his travel journal. For her work on the project, Shen was one of five recipients of the 2016 Provost’s Award for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity.

"Grace is a person of exceptional drive, determination and courage," said Michael McGerr, the Paul V. McNutt Professor of History at IU Bloomington. "We have many international students, of course, who make a similar journey to study in a foreign land and language. But Grace stands out for her eagerness to embrace the full experience of IU and to take chances in the process."

McGerr, who supervised Shen’s honors essay this semester, said she could have chosen to study Chinese history but instead pursued American history. She did research on such topics as the debate over singer Michael Jackson’s racial identity and the life and work of Estelle Ishigo, the only well-known white woman held during World War II in a Japanese-American internment camp, where she accompanied her Japanese-American husband.

Shen also credits her out-of-class activities with helping her grow. Since the fall of 2013, she has worked at the extremely busy Indiana Memorial Union Starbucks, a job that helped her improve her English skills and learn to manage time and balance work and study. Last summer, she had an internship with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, in which she conducted research to identify more than 200 New Deal projects that still exist in Indiana.

She said IU has taught her to "be brave and to explore new things in this big world," and she has done so inside and outside class. In 2015, she took part in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, in which IU students traveled once a week to the Heritage Trail Correctional Facility in Plainfield, Ind., to participate in classes with prison inmates. She said the experience made a profound impression on her and influenced her thinking about gender, class, race and age.

"My experience is unique," Shen said. "But on the other hand, I am not unique at all. IU has offered so many opportunities inside of class and outside of class for us to discover ourselves."

Shen's experiences align with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success and global engagement.

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