by Nicole Capozziello
Published May 15, 2019
Later this week, over 1,300 School of Engineering and Applied Sciences graduates will sit in anticipation, on the cusp of crossing from student life to adulthood, academia to careers, knowledge to application. While they all share the hope and sadness and pride of the moment, each student arrives with their own unique story of how they got there.
These distinct stories, as diverse as SEAS itself, are the focus of the school’s annual commencement speech competition, which invites any interested graduating student to submit their departing message for their graduating class.
The competition, which grows each year, was introduced in 2015 by Christine Human, associate dean for accreditation and student affairs and commencement coordinator. Prior to the competition, the ceremony featured three student speakers from student clubs and departments, chosen on rotation.
“I wanted all students to have the opportunity to be the commencement speaker,” says Human. Since its introduction, the competition has been sponsored by Josten’s, which gives each winner a class ring.
Now in its fourth year, this year’s competition attracted 21 students – 15 undergraduate and six graduate. Of those, a select group of finalists was asked to deliver their three-minute speeches for the SEAS selection committee, comprised of faculty and staff.
After a tough yet enjoyable selection process, the committee ultimately chose undergraduate student Kate Lukasiewicz and PhD student Philip Odonkor to deliver their messages of reflection and congratulations to their respective graduating classes.
Lukasiewicz, who hails from Hamburg, N.Y., is a senior in industrial engineering. She has served two terms as president of UB's chapter of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE). She also serves as a teaching assistant for the EAS 199 first-year seminar, a student assistant in the SEAS Office of Undergraduate Education, and a volunteer with Tinker, Inc., a summer camp for high school girls interested in exploring engineering. In 2018, she won a Leaders in Excellence Scholarship from the UB Engineering and Applied Science Alumni Association. After graduation, Lukasiewicz will be moving to Albuquerque, N.M. for a position with General Mills.
Odonkor, who is originally from Ghana, completed his B.S., M.S., and PhD at UB, all in mechanical engineering. Odonkor has been a PhD teaching fellow, as well as a student ambassador and mentor for the BEAM outreach program. His research focuses on optimizing energy assets within our homes and offices by developing energy management algorithms that expose our most innate energy habits. He was one of 15 students to receive a 2019 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. Not a stranger to public speaking, Odonkor was the winner of last year’s Three Minute Thesis competition and was an invited speaker at TEDx Buffalo 2018.
The other finalists in the undergraduate speaker category were Angus Lam, Ece Gündoğan, Harshita Girase and Olivia Gustafson, while finalists in the graduate speaker category were Upendra Chitgupi and Biplab Bhattacharya.
Many students spoke of the myriad opportunities – from research projects to travel – afforded to them while at UB and as part of SEAS.
“In these four short years at UB, I have seen many of us accomplish amazing things, from working on satellites that will be launched into space to building cars powered by chemical energy,” said Olivia Gustafson, a senior in aerospace engineering.
All of the finalists expressed gratitude for the communities that had nurtured them during their education, from faculty and staff to classmates to fellow club members. For Angus Lam, a senior majoring in computer science and linguistics, this community provided both support and inspiration. “Here, I met terrific, talented individuals, who walk the narrow corridors of the Spine and work on projects I can’t even begin to wrap my head around.”
For some finalists, like Ece Gündoğan, a senior in civil engineering, their story spanned thousands of miles. Gündoğan was a student in the Dual Diploma program, a partnership between the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering and Istanbul Technical University. After spending two years in Buffalo, she affirmed, “I can truly say that UB became a home away from home.”
Others, like biomedical PhD student Upendra Chitgupi, spoke of the compassion he has given and received at UB. “While I will continue to be a student of science, UB has strongly reinforced my belief that all the wonders of science put together cannot replace the wonder created by kindness for each other! So, let us go out and open the doors of love and kindness to the world – that UB has taught us all.”
Ultimately, finalists were unified in their take-away message for their fellow graduates, encouraging their fellow engineers to use their knowledge, skills, and experience to improve society. As Biplab Bhattacharya, a PhD student in industrial and systems engineering put it, “If I had not taken a leap of faith to fly 7,500 miles away from home, I would not be standing here. I encourage you all to continue to take risks and propel forward. Use these opportunities to move humankind further and make a difference.”