Students Prepare to Reflect With Peers
On Friday and Saturday, Georgia Tech will celebrate Commencement during extraordinary, and extraordinarily weird, times. Graduates and their families and friends will gather in Bobby Dodd Stadium. They’ll be wearing face coverings and minding their distance.
But some things will remain untouched by the pandemic — the joy, the tears, the collective pat on the back for this singular accomplishment, and the traditions, including a select group of graduates who, each semester, are tasked with putting years of memories, observations, and feelings into words that will inspire their classmates and everyone in the seats. This semester’s student reflection speakers are more than up to the challenge. They’re preparing to knock it out of the proverbial park.
Isabella Sanders is receiving a Ph.D. in industrial engineering (as well as an MBA from Scheller College), and she has already begun teaching in the Department of Systems Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.
Her motivation for serving as a reflection speaker had a lot to do with recognizing the support network behind every graduate, especially at the Ph.D. level. “I think a lot of ceremonies focus on the people who are graduating, but there isn’t enough focus on the people who support the graduates,” she said. “So my speech is about thanking those people. It isn’t a trip that you take by yourself, and I feel like it's good to thank everyone who got you to where you are.”
For Sanders, a New York native who did her undergraduate work at MIT, these are not her first Tech graduate degrees. She also holds a master’s in operations research and another in geographic information science and technology. In her remarks, she’s not planning to spend too much time on the upheavals of the past 14 months. “Most people who have supported our Ph.D. journeys have been in our lives long before the coronavirus hit, so my reflections were not largely affected by the pandemic.”
The reflection speaker at Friday’s master’s ceremony will be computer science graduate Sheryl Ratnam from Santa Clara, California. She, like Sanders, finished her degree in December but is returning to campus for this special day. Two months ago, she began working as a software development engineer at Amazon.
“I really wanted to take this as an opportunity to celebrate a remarkable group of people who have inspired me in more ways than one,” Ratnam said. “I’m grateful to have met lifelong friends at Georgia Tech, and am honored to have learned alongside the best and brightest.” She thinks of her reflection speech as a thank you and a gesture of appreciation “for Georgia Tech, and the Class of 2020, both of which have paved the path toward my future.”
For Ratnam, how — and how much — she will talk about the pandemic is a balancing act. Not mentioning it at all would be to ignore “a monumental historical event that has no doubt shaped our academic and personal journeys.” She instead will focus on the ways that Covid-19 has brought into sharp relief, for many people, an awareness of “all that we can accomplish despite the obstacles that may stand in our way.”
Saturday, May 8, will feature two bachelor’s ceremonies, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Morning speaker Sidartha Rakuram is a computer science graduate from Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. The first time he set foot in the U.S., in 2017, he was on his way to Atlanta for FASET. Now, he is “excited at the opportunity to reflect on all the memories we have made over the past few years. Commencement is also such a joyous celebration, and I am so honored.”
Rakuram’s emphasis will be on gratitude. He plans to “reflect on the love and kindness we experienced that has helped all of us through our time at Tech — whether it was family, friends, or the faculty and staff here — and I will be thanking them all in the address.”
Later this month, he will return to Malaysia to begin working at Astro, a leading entertainment and content provider. While he looks forward to being back home with his family, he knows this goodbye is going to be tough. Still, he has “told all my friends that they have an open invitation to visit.”
Abigail Burke’s journey to Tech was considerably shorter, originating in nearby Peachtree City. The economics and international affairs major will be delivering the reflection speech at the final Commencement ceremony of Spring 2021. She was motivated to apply, in part, because all four of her grandparents will be sitting in the audience.
For Burke, the pandemic “was at the forefront of my mind as I was brainstorming what to talk about. It's been a difficult time for everyone, and graduating this year is an immense accomplishment for the Class of 2021,” she said. “With most of my extraneous activities gone, I had the chance to focus on my close friendships and get involved at Georgia Tech in ways I didn't expect.” That included working as the assistant manager for the McCamish Pavilion voting precinct in November, and as an intern for a voter education startup. These experiences helped shape the reflection speech she ended up writing.
After graduation she will take some time for herself — by working on a ranch in Colorado — before heading to the University of Oxford to pursue a master’s degree in social science of the internet.
But not until she’s had her moment on the stage, reflecting on “what has ultimately made my time at Georgia Tech meaningful.”