Published November 30, 2022
When deciding on colleges, Kourtney Brown wanted a competitive, Division I basketball program, as well as a respected engineering program that could prepare her for a career after basketball.
She found both with the University at Buffalo.
“I think UB was the perfect balance,” she says.
And Brown pulled off quite the balancing act during her five years on campus from 2006-11. She graduated as the women’s basketball team’s all-time leader in points, rebounds and blocks, while earning a dual degree in computer science and engineering and electrical engineering from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). She was inducted into the Dr. and Mrs. Edmond J. Gicewicz Family UB Athletics Hall of Fame earlier this year and is now a senior process integration engineer for Samsung in Austin, Texas.
While achieving both a Hall of Fame athletics career and successful engineering career was a tall order, Brown isn’t sure one would have happened without the other.
“Being a student-athlete made me a better engineer, and vice versa,” she says. “An engineer’s job is to come up with unique ways to solve a problem. It’s the same thing in basketball – only the problem is how to score on, or defend against, the person in front of you.”
Brown knew she wanted to be an engineer at a young age — ever since she got her hands on some Legos. She thought she’d be an astronautical engineer building rockets, but eventually found herself taking apart the computers in her Ohio childhood home.
“My parents were probably not always super happy with that,” she says with a laugh. “But I just fell in love with the idea of being a part of the forefront of technology.”
As she tinkered with computers and learned programming, Brown, who stands at six feet tall, was setting records at Solon High School near Cleveland and leading the team to a state championship game. She was recruited by St. Bonaventure University and the University of Toledo, but ultimately chose UB for its strong engineering program.
But in choosing an engineering major, Brown took a path less traveled for Division I student-athletes. Just 16% of them earned a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) during the 2019-20 academic year, compared to 27% of the general student body, according to the latest data from the NCAA.
“Everyone tried to talk me out of it at the beginning,” Brown says, “but I also think they knew that I was pretty headstrong and determined.”
Still, her freshman year had its challenges. She appeared in all 29 games for the Bulls and led the team in blocked shots, but juggled a hectic schedule of games, practices and workouts with engineering lectures, labs and homework.
“Freshman year was really difficult to find my balance in basketball and engineering,” Brown says. “And then luckily — or maybe not luckily — I was injured my sophomore year.”
Brown sat out her sophomore year as a medical redshirt. It gave her time to focus on academics and build study habits that would make her a successful student once she got back on the court.
“By the time I got to my junior and senior years, I felt comfortable and was able to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish in engineering and basketball,” Brown says.
In addition to winning Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year and MAC Player of the Year during her junior and senior seasons, respectively, Brown was named to the Academic All-MAC Team, given to student-athletes with at least a 3.20 grade-point average.
Brown credits time management. A typical day would start with 6 a.m. strength and conditioning workouts. After a quick breakfast, she’d spend most of the morning and afternoon in engineering classes and labs before a three-hour practice. She and her teammates would typically then hold a study hall together at night. She’d get back to her room around 9 p.m., eat dinner and go to bed before waking up the next morning and doing it all over again.
“So, a lot of concentration to figure out how I could best maximize my time,” Brown says. “It took a lot of discipline and a lot of coordination.”
She also credits SEAS faculty members with helping her stay on track.
“I was very lucky to have so many engineering professors that were really understanding and knew the rigors of being a Division I athlete,” she says. “They really took a lot of time to help me — even outside of class and their office hours — to make sure I stayed on top of everything.”
Ultimately, Brown came to feel that the demands of being a student-athlete pushed her to be a better engineering student. She says she didn’t procrastinate because she simply didn’t have time to.
And Brown feels her engineering acumen even helped her game. She says teammates and coaches would often call her a methodical player, looking at plays on the court like math equations.
“This spot is X and this spot is Y, and I’m going to take the shortest route to get to Z,” she says.
Those skills are now helping Brown at Samsung. After playing overseas, returning to UB as an assistant coach, and earning her master’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering at Louisiana Tech University, Brown joined the electronics giant in 2017.
There she specializes in computer chip design and verification, making sure they’ll work properly once they end up in your car or smartphone.
“I think the most rewarding part of my job is working on things that are in our phones and cars and getting to say, ‘Hey, I made that chip, and I made it work well,’” Brown says.
Her advice for current engineering students: Be inquisitive.
“A lot of times in college your focus is completing the assignment or getting a good grade on the test,” she says, “but when you get into the engineering industry, the biggest piece that your employer cares about is whether you can learn what they’re doing and be a good problem solver.”