Leader in Motion

Meet Zaria Opara: Researcher, student-athlete, and creative problem solver

Zaria Opara demonstrates how to use an ultrasound machine. 

Photo: College of Arts & Sciences

Since starting her studies at California Lutheran University in 2019, senior Zaria Opara has immersed herself in all aspects of university life. Her coursework in exercise science along with her participation in women’s track and field, student government, and other groups have kept her thoroughly engaged. They have also empowered her to discover new facets of herself.

Leadership development 

Hailing from Carnation, Washington, a rural community about 30 miles east of Seattle, Opara decided to attend Cal Lutheran for several reasons.

“It’s close but far from home. It’s close enough that I could quickly fly back for a day trip but far enough that I feel like I am living on my own,” said Opara.

She also chose the university because of its physical beauty and inviting atmosphere. 

“When I first arrived, I immediately felt I was in my environment. I love the small community and having the ability to know all my professors well,” said Opara.

Opara has found myriad opportunities through her involvement in campus activities. She is in her third year of service on the Associated Students California Lutheran University Government Senate (ASCLUG) as a Senate Director, overseeing legislative actions impacting her peers and student-based organizations and clubs. She also serves as a cabinet member on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, an Exercise Science Club cabinet member, and Peer Advisor. 

“All of these positions have given me an extremely strong and diverse set of leadership skills, including teamwork, creative problem solving, and decision making, that I can use in my future endeavors,” said Opara.

These leadership traits extend to her participation on the Regals Track and Field team, where she serves as a captain.

“Being a track and field captain means that all the athletes rely on me for many things in their life,” said Opara. “I've had all the throwers reach out to me asking for advice about things ranging from class registration to relationship troubles. This has led to all of us having an extremely strong bond and trust as a group.” 

As part of the team, Zaria has also earned individual recognition. She received honors at the All-Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference last spring during the conference’s championships winning the hammer throw and placing second in the discus competition. She also placed first in the hammer throw at the 2022 Occidental Invitational last May and earned All-Region honors in June.

An inquiring mind

Through her exercise science major, Opara has developed an intense appreciation for research. She initially wanted to practice medicine yet recently found her affinity with the investigative and discovery processes involved in research. 

“Conducting research has given me a newfound love. It has become my happy place to be. When my dog passed, I told my parents I wanted to stay on campus to go to the lab because I feel at peace while I am there,” said Opara.

A recipient of a 2022 Swenson Science Summer Research Fellowship, Opara observed whether differences exist in cardiovascular responses (heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow) following exercise in different racial groups for her project. The recent Student Research Symposium highlighted her findings, which showed clinical significance in the varying ways racial groups respond to aerobic exercise.

Both the cardiovascular and respiratory functions of exercise science hold great interest for Opara. 

“They are fields that have a vast number of topics that all need to be researched, and the smallest details like a resting heart rate can play the biggest roles in a person's life,” said Opara.

After she graduates in the spring, Opara intends to continue her education and earn a doctorate in exercise physiology. She wants a career in healthcare and believes her scholastic efforts as an undergraduate have prepared her to work toward her advanced degree and have a strong grasp of the responsibilities involved in her profession.

“With the exercise science major and psychology minor, they work hand-in-hand to provide a holistic point of view of practicing any form of healthcare. From a PhD standpoint, the major and minor work hand-in-hand because I feel more compassion for those undergoing testing. Having a psychology minor is essential for anyone who is working with other humans because it provides a more sympathetic point of view for a subject or participant,” said Opara. 

Opara’s zeal toward research likely stems from an innate curiosity as she reveals that she loves to answer questions. 

“I’m the friend who immediately looks up a question instead of wondering what the answer is,” said Opara. “Conducting research allows me to fully develop my own questions and find the answers as well.”

As she plans her post-Cal Lutheran life, Opara said she wants to stay in Southern California because she enjoys the area, its weather, and the work-related opportunities it provides to those in her field. Nonetheless, she cherishes the relationships she has built over the past four years and what she has realized about herself.

“I've learned about the vast capabilities I have. I've been blessed to have amazing mentors and friends who constantly remind me of my greatness, strength, and abilities. This has led to me having confidence in myself and in everything that I do,” said Opara.

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