SEAS commencement speakers encourage peers to take initiative in the face of adversity

Three students, two males and one female stand side by side with their arms folded smiling. They stand in a bright atrium with many windows.

From left: Rahul Thurairatnam, Mikayla Stevens and Rudram Bhimpure. Photo: Sethu Thakkilapati

By Justin Huang

Published May 15, 2024

This year’s commencement speakers for UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences come from a broad array of backgrounds and are prepared to share their valuable experience with their fellow graduates. They are set to take the stage at Alumni Area Saturday, May 18.

“The first thing you need to understand about leadership is that you need to give support to people who lack the courage to ask for it. ”
Rudram Bhimpure, MS student
Department of Computer Science and Engineering

Mikayla Stevens, a senior in computer science and engineering, will deliver her speech at the school’s undergraduate ceremony at 5 p.m. Rudram Bhimpure, a graduate student who also studied computer science and engineering and Rahul A. Thurairatnam, a graduate student in electrical engineering , will speak at the school’s two graduate ceremonies at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. respectively.

These three won the annual SEAS Commencement Speaker Competition, where students submitted a three-minute speech, and  finalists presented to a panel of  faculty. Speakers were selected based on relevancy, appropriateness of content and delivery, but panelists also looked for strong themes, interesting journeys and messages of encouragement for the student body. 

Ona Strang, student affairs coordinator, helped plan the commencement ceremony and select the student speakers. “We get to celebrate the time, effort, friendship made, experiences, failures and successes the students have had while here at UB,” says Strang. “It truly is a special day for them.”

Mikayla Stevens, Undergraduate Ceremony

Mikayla Stevens.

Mikayla Stevens’s road to graduation didn’t start in the classroom, but instead at Fort Drum as an intelligence collector for the United States Army. After her service, she completed her associates degree at community college before arriving at UB.

Diversity played a large factor in Stevens’s college experience. Stationed in barracks with soldiers from across the country, attending university with younger classmates, and balancing a serving job and extracurriculars, she met peers from various backgrounds. However, She wasn’t nearly as outgoing during her first few years at college—due to her service, she was older than her fellow students. 

“I used to tell my mom I literally talked to five people today, and two of them were teaching assistants at office hours,” Stevens says. 

It wasn’t until her professor encouraged her to become a teaching assistant in a class she initially struggled with that she began to become a more active participant in campus life.

“That was the turning point because before that, I was not confident,” she says. “I went on to win the following couple semesters.”

Shortly after, Stevens collaborated with fellow students to develop Pantry Pal, an app that recommended recipes based on the user’s available ingredients and allergies. Her team ended up presenting it at the Computer Science and Engineering Department’s 2021 Demo Day, where they placed second with their product and pitching. 

As a teaching assistant, Stevens was able to give back in the classroom, and capitalize on her leadership and further engage with the diversity around her. Her initiative led to participation in the community, volunteering with a presidential campaign to petition for greater ballot access for the 2024 United States race. 

“Get involved,” Stevens says. “Do as many group activities or clubs and put yourself out there.”

Rudram Bhimpure, Graduate Ceremony 1

Rudram Bhimpure.

It seemed Rudram Bhimpure had it all figured out since childhood. Raised in Pune, India, he was passionate about coding, leading him to study computer engineering at UB. 

From the beginning of his college experience, Bhimpure got involved. Not only was he working on various machine learning projects, but he celebrated cultural events and festivals as part of the Indian Student Association. 

Bhimpure’s speech centers around the idea of “being more,” or conquering challenges as a student, especially as an international student away from home. For him, “being more” meant testing the boundaries of what he could accomplish, and taking initiative. 

“I’ve been pushed,” Bhimpure says. “Last fall, I had an on-campus job which was 20 hours a week. I was working on a startup, taking classes, studying for interviews, and there was so much going on, but I gave my best effort.”

None of his software internships or the artificial intelligence chatbots he developed would have happened if Bhimpure didn’t push beyond his comfort zone or have the support of his peers. Balancing his commitments was easier when he became part of a community or worked on a team.

For Bhimpure, “being more” isn’t exclusive to personal accomplishment. It’s also leading others and treating people how you’d like to be treated. 

“The first thing you need to understand about leadership is that you need to give support to people who lack the courage to ask for it,” he says. “Go out of your way to support each other.”

Rahul A. Thurairatnam, Graduate Ceremony 2

Rahul Thurairatna.

Rahul A. Thurairatnam has come a long way from where he started. He graduated from Singapore Polytechnic with a 2.0 GPA, and constantly faced adversity and societal pressure. 

“There was a time where I thought I would have to give up on my dream,” Thurairatnam says. “There were people who were unsupportive, people who just laughed at my face.”

As a child, Thurairatnam loved to take things apart and reassemble them. Despite his parents’ expectations for a career in medicine or law, he chose to become an electrical engineer. After graduating from Singapore Polytechnic, he earned a job as a technician for Micron in Singapore, producing and developing memory chips. Thurairatnam 's passion for electronics continued as he moved his studies to UB. As a student assistant technician in Davis Hall Electrical Engineering Cleanroom, he maintained the machines and assisted researchers with the process technology, all while being guided and mentored by the Cleanroom manager and technician. He also worked for UB Information Technology Help Center as a student assistant supervisor, helping anyone affiliated with UB to solve their IT-related issues.

Thurairatnam credits the Hindu mythological stories his grandmother would always tell him with achieving his goals. Despite adversity, the heroes in these stories always persevered and triumphed. 

As a Star Wars fan, Thurairatnam says “I see Luke Skywalker in particular walks that same hero’s journey, because despite everything, he knew he was destined to be a Jedi.”

Thurairatnam sees a reflection of himself  when working towards becoming an electrical engineer, especially dealing with racism and limiting societal norms back in Asia. Like Skywalker, the hero of the Star Wars film franchise, he took risks, explored far away from home, and embarked on new ventures in the face of uncertainty. According to Thurairatnam, his commitment remains steadfast, and does not regret any of his actions. 

“Don’t be afraid.,” he says. “You just have to close your eyes, trust in yourself, and jump.”