In year of firsts, SEAS class of '23 told to embrace uncertainty at commencement

School of Engineering and Applied Sciences graduates walk to the stage to receive their diplomas during the first of the school's two graduate commencement ceremonies May 20 at Alumni Arena. Photo: Ashley Popp

By Tom Dinki

Published June 2, 2023

Much was different about this year’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) commencement.

“Some people may tell you that at this point you should envision where you want to be and just go for it. But I am telling you to not worry if you don’t know where you want to be. ”
Laura Pyrak-Nolte, 1981 engineering science alum
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

SEAS graduated the largest class in its history and awarded a new doctorate for the first time, while its newest department saw its first cohort of students receive diplomas.

But if there was ever a class accustomed to change, it’s the class of 2023.

Many were in their freshman year when the pandemic hit, making them the first class to have all four years of their undergraduate career impacted by COVID-19. They were also impacted by natural disasters near and far, including earthquakes, wildfires and deadly snowstorms, as well as the rapid emergence of new technologies like artificial intelligence that offer great opportunity but also great disruption.

“You are the class that went through one of the deadliest pandemics of the world. You survived it. You did the online class thing. You probably had to spend a little bit of time waiting around, trying to figure out what to do,” said Marcus Yam, a 2006 mechanical engineering alum and Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer who spoke at the undergraduate ceremony.

“You’ve got this. You all have got this,” he said. “I wish you the very best as you all navigate the unknown after this.”

The SEAS graduating class now navigating the unknown totals approximately 2,500 students: 1,000 undergraduate students, 1,400 master’s students and 100 PhD students. Almost 2,000 students participated in the three commencement ceremonies—the graduate ceremony was split into two—all held May 20 at Alumni Arena.

Among the class was the first cohort of graduates to receive the BS in Engineering Science since the program relaunched in 2021. The program is provided by the Department of Engineering Education, which was founded in 2018.

Kemper Lewis, dean of SEAS, said during the ceremonies that school leaders are never content and so new graduates should not be content either.

“While today is a goal accomplished, adopt a growth mindset because growth is the only way to ensure that tomorrow is better than today,” Lewis said. 

Kemper Lewis, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, gives the horns up sign to new graduates at the first graduate commencement ceremony. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

Perhaps the most consistent message graduates heard was to embrace uncertainty.

Laura Pyrak-Nolte, a Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Purdue University who received the 2023 Dean’s Award for Achievement, SEAS’ highest honor, told graduates to “go with the flow.” When she graduated from the University at Buffalo in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering science, Pyrak-Nolte said that she saw nothing but a blank slate when she envisioned her future. 

“Some people may tell you that at this point you should envision where you want to be and just go for it,” she said. “But I am telling you to not worry if you don’t know where you want to be.”

Also honored was Yam, who received the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, UB’s highest honor. Yam said he too was uncertain about his future when graduating, and that he’s still uncertain, even now, as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

“I have pretty much walked into five different wars in five different years and every time I go in, I remind myself you have to practice a certain kind of radical open-mindedness,” he told graduates. “It’s how you embrace any possibility that comes in front of you, and you kind of go down the rabbit hole with any idea that might swing by.”

Marcus Yam received the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, the University at Buffalo's highest honor. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

Yam’s engineering background helped him on assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan shortly after the country fell to the Taliban in 2021. He had been tasked with confirming that a United States drone strike intended for ISIS in Khorasan militants had inadvertently killed 10 civilians.

He ultimately dug into the point of impact and found metal components, which the L.A. Times was able to confirm were part of a U.S. Hellfire missile. The U.S. Department of Defense would later call the strike a tragic mistake

“In that moment I realized that that engineering brain was always working,” Yam said. “I’m glad that I’ve always had that background.”

The new graduates also heard from their classmates who won the school’s Student Commencement Speaker Competition.

The undergraduate ceremony speaker, Haley Parker, who received a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, spoke about her time with the Buffalo Comedy Collective’s improv team that performs unscripted in front of a live audience.

“One of the things I love most about improv is that when you walk onto the stage, there are an infinite amount of possibilities in front of you,” she said. “Similarly to improv, when you walk out of those doors today, there will be an infinite number of possibilities ahead of you, and it will be your job to make everything up as you go.”

Speaking at the first graduate ceremony, Vidushi Sharma, who graduated with a master’s degree in computer science and engineering and now works as an Amazon Web Services software engineer, acknowledged the turmoil in the tech industry.

“I have realized that it’s OK… to feel completely lost. It’s OK to feel anxious and not know where we will be five years from now. It’s OK to feel this way and not always have everything sorted for us at every single point of time,” she said. 

Vidushi Sharma, one of the winners of the school's Student Commencement Speaker Competition, delivers a speech at the first graduate ceremony. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

The lingering pandemic, global conflict and disasters, and deep divisions in society make it all the more crucial to be kind to one another, said the second graduate speaker, Tashfia Mohona. 

“Whether in scientific collaboration, innovation or public policy debates, keeping kindness at the core helps us make progress together,” Mohana said. “As we begin the next chapter of our lives, we will have opportunities to lift others up, to ease suffering, to make someone's day just a bit brighter. Let's take those opportunities.”

Mohona was UB’s first recipient of a doctorate in environmental and water resources engineering, which was approved in 2020. Previously, all environmental engineering PhDs received a PhD in civil engineering.

Despite the uncertainty in the world around them, SEAS graduates are expected to help resolve that uncertainty, said Ann Bisantz, SEAS dean of undergraduate education and professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

“You are graduating into a nation and world that is wrestling with extraordinary problems in justice and equity, political division, health, and climate change. The promises of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data loom large, but so do concerns regarding privacy and the degree to which these new technologies will increase disparities and distrust,” Bisantz told graduates. “As daunting as these challenges may seem, I have confidence that you have the knowledge and preparation to take on these problems… You will be the people society calls on to solve whatever challenges come next in our collective future.”