Valedictorian, salutatorians focus on positive impact

Despite the coronavirus pandemic causing classes and activities to run virtually beginning in March 2020, Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, Ashwin Bhumbla and Jake Bubman were recognized for their academic achievements. (Design: Emma Detrick; Photos courtesy of Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, Ashwin Bhumbla and Jake Bubman.)

Despite the pandemic preventing the class of 2021 from attending in person classes and activities, this year’s graduates have persevered. As Los Angeles’ vaccination rates increase and the county’s reopening continues, USC plans to host an in-person commencement this year with a limit of two guests per graduate. Out of state guests may be invited as long as they are fully vaccinated. 

Although the past year has made it a difficult year for many, Tianna Shaw-Wakeman said she hopes to continue as a positive source in the world. Shaw-Wakeman, a senior majoring in psychology with a progressive masters degree in social entrepreneurship, was selected as the valedictorian for the Class of 2021, and said she feels honored to be given the academic recognition, in part because it reflects her beliefs and the beliefs of her fellow students. 

“I spent … four and a half years completely just [delving] into trying to do what I could to make the community greener and more sustainable, and because of that, I feel like … I’ve been this vessel for the collective sustainable desires of students to shine through,” Shaw-Wakeman said. “I just feel very excited and happy to be able to represent students again in this final way.” 

Shaw-Wakeman, who graduated in December 2020, cares deeply about service and sustainability, and was involved in the Environmental Core activism organization and DivestSC, a project she co-founded. Along with other students and organizations, her work through DivestSC pushed USC to liquidate and freeze all investments in fossil fuels, which they committed to in February.

“With [co-founder] Nathaniel Hyman, we started the project in December of 2019, but really students had started it in the early 2010s. After over a year of working on that project together, USC made that announcement,” Shaw-Wakeman said. “Being able to delve into that advocacy work so deeply and to be able to work with the tons of students that we got to and the faculty members and the community, that was an honor.” 

Shaw-Wakeman is also currently working for a startup in Atlanta and taking part in the USC Presidential Working Group  on Sustainability and the Mayor’s Youth Council for Climate Action. In the future, she hopes to teach abroad through the Peace Corps. 

“I think seeds were planted when I was at USC,” said Shaw-Wakeman. “I will never not be an activist, I will never not be an advocate and I will never not be fighting in every way that I can to make environmental and social change for the better.”

Salutatorian Ashwin Bhumbla, a senior majoring in computer science and narrative studies, also believes in making the world a better place. 

“We’re the ones that are going to inherit the earth, so if we don’t … actively try to be aware of what’s going on around us [and] try to understand what’s going on around us, and then try — however we can, in whatever way — to make it better, then it just won’t happen,” Bhumbla said. 

A dedicated member of the Trojan Marching Band, Engineers Without Borders and Code the Change, Bhumbla hopes to bring about this positive change through his skills in computer science. 

“What I found is a lot of the tech innovation you see is actually just taking advantage of an under-legislated sector. We have old senators and lawmakers that don’t really understand tech,” said Bhumbla, who will be working at Microsoft after graduation. “My motivating factor is [that] I want to leave the world better than how I found it.” 

Jake Bubman, the other salutatorian, said he believes his calling is to be a lawyer. Bubman, a senior majoring in international relations and the global economy and Spanish, said he felt both honored and shocked to receive the academic honor. 

“I always thought to be one of those people — you have to start this crazy nonprofit and cure cancer and have a book deal,” Bubman said. “But looking back on the things that I’ve done in college, they feel a lot more [like] everyday real life now that I’ve actually done them. They don’t feel so otherworldly.” 

Bubman was involved with the SoCal Vocals a capella group and the Immigration Court Watch Program, where he served as a team lead. Although the Immigration Court Watch Program was cut short due to lack of funding, Bubman said, through the program, he was able to realize the powerful impact that he could have as a lawyer. 

“I saw [immigrants] who were just describing their experiences and why they were in the United States applying for asylum, and some of their stories were extremely impactful and really emotionally challenging to listen to,” Bubman said. “They were incredibly moving, and I’d say probably the part that changed me the most from watching that was seeing the degree to which the judges were unaffected by their stories.” 

After graduation, Bubman will attend law school at UCLA. He said he is interested in working on cases involving immigration and issues affecting the LGBTQ community as they hold a close place to his heart, being of Jewish and Cuban descent and a member of the LGBTQ community. 

Shaw-Wakeman, Bhumbla and Bubman were honored at USC’s 40th annual Academic Honors Convention mid-April for their high academic achievement, service and leadership. 

Like many students, Shaw-Wakeman has remained grateful for the opportunity to be part of USC and to have learned and grown in a stimulating environment, especially when USC was in person. 

“When you think about how few people in the world get to go to a college … I would get these awe moments where I would be sitting in a classroom and just think, for these four years, my only responsibility is to take in all of this information, and to grow and to learn and to help people and to exist in this world as a positive source,” Shaw-Wakeman said. “That is like a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful privilege. And so my main motivation has been to never take that privilege lightly.”