Caesar Sereseres, associate dean for social sciences undergraduate studies and associate professor of political science, clearly remembers meeting Vanessa Zuabi five years ago. He was giving a presentation on the Middle East to the Knowledge and Social Responsibility student leadership program for high school juniors. Fixing Sereseres with her intense brown eyes, Zuabi asked provocative questions that showed a mature grasp of the region’s problems.

“This was a 17-year-old who knew about the world and was already thinking about a career in public service,” Sereseres recalls.

Zuabi, who will be the student speaker for commencement ceremony 1 of the School of Social Sciences at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 17, has always been before her time. Since she was in eighth grade and did a report about Palestinian refugees, she’s been committed to fostering greater understanding of the Arab world.

“I’ve always felt an obligation, as an Arab, to represent my people in the best way,” says Zuabi, who is “half-Palestinian, half Italian.” She grew up in an Italian community in New Jersey, but it’s her Middle Eastern heritage that became her “growing passion.”

She was just 16 when she became involved in the Arab Association for Human Rights while visiting family members in Nazareth, Israel.

“It made me realize what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “It became a huge part of my identity.”

While majoring in political science and international studies, Zuabi has devoted herself to public service. She’s co-president of the UCI chapter of the Model United Nations, former vice president of the Society of Arab Students and co-founder of the Arab Student Coalition, a statewide organization of Arab student groups.

In 2004, she won the Peace and Justice Award from the Palestinian Women’s Association for supporting Palestinian human rights, and she recently received the UCI Alumni Association’s Lauds & Laurels Award for Outstanding Community Service.

“It’s a great honor – it shows what I’m doing is making a difference,” she says. Next year, she will study comparative politics on a Fulbright scholarship.

As a junior, Zuabi studied abroad in Lebanon, researching the education system in overcrowded Palestinian refugee camps. This year, she’s working on a student initiative to create an interdisciplinary Middle East studies program at UCI.

“It’s been the focus of my life,” she says. “It’s important to create a scholarly forum where students can engage in constructive dialogue about issues and conflict in the Middle East.”

Sereseres has been impressed with Zuabi’s ability to mobilize students, faculty and community members to her cause.

“I have seen her develop as a leader. She behaves like a 25- or 30-year-old in the way she brings people together,” he says. “You just know she’s going to do great things.”