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No Borders to Human Compassion

By Gregg Sangillo

AU President Neil Kerwin and President's Award winner Candace Evilsizor.

AU President Neil Kerwin and President's Award winner Candace Evilsizor.

With no shortage of talented students graduating in May, how do you select the President's Award winner? Spend a little time with Candace Evilsizor, and you'll see why she was chosen. The fact that she has a 3.99 GPA doesn't even scratch the surface. She exudes an abundance of warmth and compassion, informed by her work on migration issues in the U.S. and abroad. "The stories of suffering and of human strength that I've heard and encountered have been unbelievable," she says.

Evilsizor has clearly been moved by these experiences. And she places great emphasis on human relationships, both empathizing with people and learning from them.

The President's Award is the highest honor for undergraduate students at American University, and it's given to a truly exceptional graduating senior. It comes with a $1,000 contribution, which Evilsizor will use to continue her Arabic language studies.

Supporting the Southwest

Evilsizor was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. Her parents instilled in her a strong sense of social justice, and she broadened her horizons by traveling overseas. Though Evilsizor is Caucasian, she went to a predominantly Hispanic high school, and many of her classmates were undocumented immigrants. This led to her focus on immigration issues and helping refugees. As she was preparing for college, she regretted that some of her high school friends didn't have the same opportunities.

Yet through AU, Evilsizor had a built-in way to give back to her community and assist immigrants and refugees abroad. She was accepted into the prestigious Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars program, where full scholarship money comes with an expectation to help underserved and under-resourced communities. "It's great because there's an accountability to stick to this," she says. "It feels like a vote of confidence from the university."

She's already active in this regard. Through her internship with the National Immigrant Women's Advocacy Project, she devised a training program for high school counselors to help undocumented immigrant victims of crime. She's presented her training program to seven Phoenix-area high schools and more than 100 counselors statewide.

The World of Academia

Evilsizor says she's benefited from the wisdom of AU faculty. Early on, she was captivated by a class co-taught by physics professor Nathan Harshman and literature professor Richard Sha. "We would study the human brain and then read Frankenstein," she recalls. "That was my freshman year, and I was like, 'The world of academia awaits!'" Professor Christine Chin in the School of International Service is her primary mentor, helping her unpack the dynamics of transnational migration.

She was heavily involved with Chi Alpha Campus Ministries. This gave her the chance to mentor AU classmates, including international students. "You watch them deal with the curveballs that life throws at them, because problems don't stop at American borders," she says.

Evilsizor studied abroad in both France and Morocco. In Paris, she frequented a market with mostly North and Sub-Saharan African vendors, and she pondered how immigrants affect their host societies through food. This formed the basis of her senior Honors capstone, in which she compared the prevalence of immigrant restaurants in Paris and Los Angeles. "I found very clearly that immigrant food has a much stronger presence in Los Angeles than in Paris," she says.

In May, she is graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in international studies and a minor in French.

Cake, Coffee, and Soccer

Picture this scene. Evilsizor was in Lebanon spending time with an American friend. At 1:00 A.M., her friend got a call from a Syrian Kurdish family living down the street. Evilsizor and her friend were invited over to watch the U.S.-Ghana World Cup soccer game. Upon arrival, they found two entire families living in a one-room apartment. "There was also an old man sleeping in the corner, and I asked them, 'Is that your grandpa?' And they said, 'No, we don't know who he is, but he pays rent, so we let him stay here,'" Evilsizor recalls with a laugh. After 2:00 A.M., the family was still bringing the two Americans coffee and cake.

What did Evilsizor glean from all of this? Well, people love soccer pretty much everywhere. And it typifies the poverty and exorbitant rental rates spurred by the Syrian refugee crisis. But Evilsizor mentions something else: "The hospitality of the Arab world, and of refugees, is incredible. They put us to shame."

In the Middle East, Evilsizor has provided psychosocial support for women and children refugees. She describes this work as creating safe spaces for people to talk. "It's not like I was doing therapy, but I was helping facilitate an environment where stories could be shared." She's hoping to return to the region after graduation.

A Penchant to Explore

Evilsizor sometimes gets emotional while reflecting on her experiences, but she also maintains a healthy sense of humor. When not confronting seismic challenges like international migration and human rights, she has a few outlets. She seeks out obscure monuments and landmarks around Washington. And she's pushed herself physically, running a half marathon and riding her bike from campus to Mount Vernon.

It's a penchant for exploration. But Evilsizor also doesn't feel the need to map out her entire future. "The way that I've lived life, I've done what's in front of me to do," she says. "I'll do whatever comes next, and I try to do it well."