By Nicole Capozziello
Published January 19, 2022
When he was six years old, Rudy Karthick was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia and dysgraphia.
While Karthick has faced myriad social, physical and academic challenges at school and in society over the years, he has been determined to use his struggles to empower others.
“Living with autism, dyslexia and dysgraphia was not easy but thanks to the kindness of my parents, teachers and a special circle of friends, it has been an extraordinary journey,” says Karthick, a freshman majoring in computer science and minoring in mathematics. “This journey has transformed me from a self-absorbed child who had trouble showing empathy to a self-confident, empathetic young adult with a passion for autism advocacy and nurturing neurodiversity.”
For this dedication, Karthick, an international student from New Delhi, India, was awarded the first Terry Spencer Leadership Scholarship.
The scholarship was established in 2021 by the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company to honor their colleague and friend, who passed away from a heart attack at age 45 in May of 2019. Terry Spencer, a Buffalo native and mechanical engineer, was a division vice president at Whiting-Turner’s Baltimore headquarters.
“Whiting-Turner has had tremendous success recruiting at UB over the years, and what better way to honor Terry than with this scholarship, at a school in the town that he loved,” says Gino Ciotola, a senior project manager at Whiting-Turner. “Terry was a leader in every sense of the word, and we are very appreciative that UB embraced the idea of creating this scholarship in his name. We hope that hearing his story will inspire young people in STEM programs to embrace leadership qualities that will propel them in their professional careers.”
While his loss is still felt by all who knew him, the new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences scholarship memorializes Spencer’s generous spirit and dedication to serving others.
“We’re happy to be able to honor Terry’s memory by recognizing a student who is following in his footsteps by making a significant contribution to the world,” says Christine Human, associate dean for accreditation and student affairs.
The scholarship awards $4,750 to an undergraduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Applicants write an essay about what it means to be a good leader and the essays are subsequently evaluated by a committee. Even in its first year, there were many strong applicants.
Of the application process, Karthick says, “Always on the lookout for role models, when I read about Terry’s life – his active community service and his act of donating his brain for autism research – I felt inspired by what one could achieve in such a short time span.”
On campus, Karthick is an active member of the rowing team and the campus organization Active Minds, where he advocates for the importance of supporting student mental health.
Karthick was recently selected for the 4th cohort (2021-2022) of the Young Adult Leadership Council of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). Among other tasks, he’ll be filming a video project, conducting a virtual interview with a senator about the history of disability laws and writing blog posts for Learning Disabilities Awareness Month.
“For me, talking about my issues is liberating and empowering. Now I want this hard-won self-confidence to spread to others like me who struggle with acceptance issues,” he says. This self-acceptance and growth inspired him to tell his life story through a series of webinars, which have thus far reached about 800 viewers.
Karthick says that today his idea of a leader is someone who respects and inspires others, motivates, sets a vision, communicates and leads by example.
Spencer was a leader and mentor in the workplace and in the Baltimore community, where he served as an active board member of the Towson YMCA, the Maryland Science Center and the Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF). Through his work with the JOTF, he was particularly passionate about a program he spearheaded called Project Jumpstart, which provides pathways to construction trade careers for people from undeserved neighborhoods.
Ciotola says, “Terry meant so much to me, both on a personal and a professional level. He was my boss, but he was so much more than that. He was my mentor, my leader and my friend. Terry was a family man with an infectious personality and it was nearly impossible to have any conversation with him without laughing at some point during it…sometimes with him, sometimes at him. He was a dedicated Buffalo Bills fan and if any of us ever dared to put ranch on our Buffalo wings, well, let’s just say that wasn’t allowed. He was a tremendous leader, but an even better man.”
In the scholarship description, his colleagues at Whiting-Turner said, “Terry epitomized what we need more of in this world – he was a problem solver, he pulled people together, he was funny and uplifting, and he saw the good in everyone.”
Karthick is honored to be able to carry Spencer’s torch by continuing to advocate for people who are often overlooked and voiceless. “I am extremely passionate about rebranding invisible disabilities like autism by raising awareness, removing misconceptions, countering stereotypes and petitioning institutions to build barrier-free and inclusive environments in schools, offices and the community. I have started doing my bit towards it and hope to continue to do so in the future.”