RICHLAND -- Zixu Ha plans to one day ensure fairness in the trade between China and the United States. Living and studying in the Tri-Cities gave him the tools to pursue that goal.
Ha will be one of more than 400 students to receive a degree from Washington State University Tri-Cities today.
The WSU Tri-Cities commencement ceremony is at 4 p.m. at the Toyota Center. The university will be awarding degrees to 438 students -- its largest graduating class so far.
The degrees to be handed out include 354 bachelor's, 83 master's and one doctoral degree.
About 300 students will be marching in caps and gown, and 3,000 are expected to attend the ceremony.
In the audience will be three people who flew in from China this week to see their son and brother graduate from an American university.
Ha -- who goes by the nickname "Ha Ha," because he laughs a lot -- came to Kennewick High from Beijing, China, as an exchange student in 2006. He had been matched up with Bruce and Renee Kerr of Kennewick.
Having grown up in a metropolis of about 20 million people, he experienced some serious culture shock at first. "It wasn't what I expected," he said, laughing.
But he wasted no time getting involved in his temporary home. Within days, Ha started volunteering at a summer arts program for people with disabilities.
"It was a life-changing experience," he said. "The culture in China is different. People with disabilities don't really come out and have fun."
Going to an American high school was very different from his previous experiences too. Ha joined the cross-country team and the band, activities he wouldn't have been able to qualify for at home. "Everybody was so nice to me," he said.
He preferred how teachers here explained things, too. When the year was up, Ha decided to continue his education in the Tri-Cities.
He went back to China in the summer of 2007 and applied for another student visa, this time for college. That fall, he started at Columbia Basin College and transferred to WSU after two years there.
He chose accounting as a major, in large part because he had grown up around the entrepreneurial work of his father, Jianmin Ha, who is a businessman.
"I want to be an auditor and use my knowledge to ensure fairness in trading between China and America," the younger Ha said.
Having working professionals as adjunct instructors in small classes really helped, he said. "They have real-world experience and I was able to have a dialogue with the professors," he said.
He didn't just learn about business --he learned about politics too.
Ha ran for student government as soon as he got to WSU and became a student senator. Campaigning for the post was another new experience.
"I never saw that where I came from," he said. "My friends (back in China) will never experience that."
There are student governments in Chinese universities, he said, but teachers have more say in their make-up than students do.
In his senior year, the young man who only had planned to come for a year of high school became the student body president of his new hometown's state university.
When he walks on stage in front of 3,000 today, his parents and sister will be in the audience.
"We're very excited," his mother, Shujun Wang, said through an interpreter, i.e. her son.
It was difficult to have their son be gone for so long, said Ha's father. But his parents figured that he would finish his degree here once he returned for college.
"We knew he would be consistent with his career goals," Jianmin Ha said.
While Zixu Ha's parents are here to visit, he calls two people mom.
"I feel so spoiled having two mothers," Ha said.
Renee Kerr smiled.
"We're so impressed," she said. "It hasn't been easy for him culturally and language-wise. But he's pushed and pushed."
The last thing he needs to push through in his career at WSU is the speech he's giving before the huge crowd today. It'll be a light-hearted one, he said.
He said he will talk about two facets of American life he has come to appreciate -- individualism and pickles.
He will leave the serious side of the moment to the commencement speaker who follows him, former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe.