Published May 18, 2023
One went back to school for an engineering degree after leaving a television career. Another deferred admission for one year due to pandemic restrictions. A third battled depression with the help of a supportive campus community.
The student speakers at this year’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) commencement ceremonies—being held Saturday, May 20 at Alumni Arena—have overcome much to get to the stage and have plenty of insight to share with their fellow graduates.
Haley Parker, a senior aerospace engineering student, will speak at the school’s undergraduate ceremony at 5 p.m. Vidushi Sharma, who earned a computer science and engineering master’s degree, and Tashfia Mohona, an environmental and water resource engineering PhD student, will speak at the school’s two graduate ceremonies being held at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., respectively.
They are the winners of SEAS’ annual Student Commencement Speaker Competition, run by Christine Human, associate dean for accreditation and student affairs. Numerous students submitted a written, three-minute speech and a select group of finalists were asked to deliver their speeches for the selection committee composed of faculty and staff. Speeches were evaluated based on relevancy, appropriateness of content and delivery.
“Everyone graduating has worked so hard for this moment,” Parker says. “I think that being able to say congratulations to everyone is really quite special.”
Parker plans to discuss improv comedy in her commencement speech. The Greenville, N.Y. native is part of the Buffalo Comedy Collective’s ComedySportz team, which performs unscripted in front of an audience.
“There are limitless possibilities ahead of you and you have to figure things out as you go along,” she says.
Parker might as well be speaking about her own academic journey.
She graduated from Ithaca College six years ago with a bachelor’s degree in film, video and photographic arts, and went on to work several years as a television production assistant in Los Angeles and New York City.
Everything changed after she visited a NASA facility in 2018.
While working for Discovery Studios in Los Angeles, Parker attended a “NASA Social,” a behind-the-scenes tour for NASA social media followers. She saw the Vandenberg Space Force Base launch pad the day before the Insight lander took off to Mars and even got to hold a block of aerogel, a lightweight material used to insulate rovers from the harsh Martian atmosphere.
“I had always loved math and science, but that moment really solidified for me that I needed to be an aerospace engineer,” she says.
Since enrolling at UB in 2019, Parker has conducted research in the Crashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids Lab, run by Javid Bayandor, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. She was part of the UB team whose research on aircrafts withstanding Jupiter’s atmosphere earned first place in the team category for Region 1 at the 2022 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Regional Student Conference.
Her journey has now come full circle, as she’s accepted an aerospace engineering position with NASA Langley Research Center’s Space Mission Analysis Branch.
Parker says she entered the student speaker competition to share the lessons she learned from making a career change.
“I learned that it is never too late to learn new skills and that changing career paths is scary, but also totally doable,” she says.
Sharma completed her master’s degree in the fall semester and is now a software engineer at Amazon Web Services in Seattle.
Still, she wanted a chance to deliver a speech at commencement.
“I thought that this was the perfect opportunity for me to document my master's journey and relive all my days on the campus,” Sharma says.
A native of Ludhiana, India, Sharma says her speech will focus on “the highs and lows” of being an international student.
Some of the lows include the COVID-19 pandemic. After earning her computer science bachelor’s degree at India’s Thapar Institute of Engineering & Technology, Sharma was accepted into the graduate program in the UB Department of Computer Science and Engineering in 2020. However, travel restrictions meant a majority of international students could not travel to the United States, so she deferred admission until 2021.
Once she did arrive on campus, she also dealt with homesickness.
The bonds made on campus are what kept her going, she says. One of those bonds was with the undergraduate students in a School of Management course where she served as a graduate teaching assistant.
“Normally, we restrict ourselves to being friends with people from our own classes or even our own age,” Sharma says, “but when I taught undergraduate students, I could feel the zeal and the enthusiasm they shared.”
Now, when asked where she’s from, Sharma replies, “Buffalo.”
Mohona isn’t sure she’d be delivering a commencement speech without the kindness she received from others on campus.
She struggled with clinical depression during her time as a graduate student—at times not knowing what she wanted to do with her life. The experience was all the more lonely since she was away from her home in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“Sometimes all it takes is a little empathy from those around you to just get you through the day,” she says.
Mohona hopes she was able to pass on that kindness. One of her best experiences at UB was volunteering for SEAS’ STEM outreach program for first-grade students, one of whom was Bangladeshi.
“I saw her face light up when I told her I come from Bangladesh, too,” Mohona says. “At the end of the day-long session, this girl came up to me and said with a big grin, ‘I'm going to tell my mom about you.’ It was a touching moment for me. On some miniscule scale, I was able to be a role model for a little girl. I was reminded, once again, of the significance of women's representation in STEM.”
Mohona’s PhD research is interdisciplinary, applying material science concepts to better understand the challenges of membrane-based water treatment.
This will be her third college commencement ceremony but the first that her parents will be able to attend. She figured that was a good enough reason to try out for the student speaker competition.
“I really wanted to make this one a bit special for them,” she says.