An English major — who aims to use fiction to address climate change and help its refugees — will be honored as the top graduating senior at the University of California, Davis, during its online graduation celebration Friday, June 12.
Jumana Esau is being awarded the University Medal, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate studies, outstanding community service, and the promise of future scholarship and contributions to society.
Raised in Jordan and the San Francisco Bay Area, Esau had found comfort in imagined stories as a child and chose to study literature at the university. Once on campus, she discovered academics and community service that she knit together for her future.
She studied literature about issues of Palestinian erasure and misrepresentation, took a course in climate change fiction, wrote a 26-page honors thesis about African futuristic works in climate fiction, and served refugees.
“My goal has always been to try to improve the lives of others,” Esau said.
The struggles of climate refugees from developing countries, she said, are too important to go untold in our literature. “We have a responsibility to tell stories that inform the public while also being inclusive,” she said.
Spending part of her life in Jordan, Esau has seen man-made climate disaster unfold as water is being siphoned from the Jordan River. “I am watching the country I was raised in slowly evaporate,” she said.
At UC Davis, Esau’s English professors fostered her love of literature and more. “I found myself digging deeper into issues such as climate change because of the classes they taught,” she said.
“Jumana consistently thinks about why literature matters and how we can use it to expose inequities, change the world, and throughout, savor its pleasures,” wrote Frances Dolan, a distinguished professor of English who taught Esau in four classes.
Outside of class, Esau worked with UC Davis’ Article 26 Backpack, a humanitarian tool helping displaced people securely store and share documents — such as diplomas, transcripts and resumes — with universities and prospective employers. At the Sacramento Food Bank, she helped enroll refugees who came to the area with special visas for working with the military in Afghanistan.
Esau has also been a junior chief of staff to the president of the undergraduate student body and a student representative to the admissions and enrollment committee of the Academic Senate, the faculty government.
Among her honors, Esau is one of 77 students from 30 countries to be awarded a Gates-Cambridge Scholarship for postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge this fall. The full-ride scholarship recognizes outstanding intellectual ability, leadership potential and commitment to improving the lives of others.
Esau plans to pursue studies in climate fiction toward a master’s degree in English studies: criticism and culture.