Making it Work
By Victor Rogers | December 14, 2016
Graduation: The Long and Winding Road
Their journey has been filled with challenges and surprises, but Griselda Conejo Lopez and Bladimir Ramos Alvarado will celebrate this weekend. She’s graduating with a master’s degree in computer science; he is receiving a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.
The couple grew up in Salamanca, Mexico. They attended the same middle school, and, at one point, their families lived one block apart. But they didn’t meet until high school when she was a student and he was fulfilling the school’s community outreach requirement as a tutor in the same computer lab. They became high school sweethearts.
After Bladimir and Griselda graduated from Salamanca High School in 2004 and 2005, respectively, they both attended the University of Guanajuato. There, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering; she earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering.
The couple married in 2010 while at the University of Guanajuato, then went to Virginia Tech the following year so he could complete a six-month internship for his master’s degree. Griselda spent that time learning English, beginning with lessons at an international center followed by social interaction to hone her language skills.
“I’m very social,” she said. “I didn’t like being alone in the apartment, so I would go out and read signs and try to figure out the right words to say. People were very encouraging. They would help me with the correct pronunciation.”
After Bladimir’s master’s internship ended, he and Griselda returned to Mexico for his graduation from the University of Guanajuato.
In May 2012, they came to Georgia Tech for Bladimir to begin the doctoral program in mechanical engineering in which he used simulations to study nanoscale interactions between solids and liquids. The knowledge gained in that program can be applied in a number of ways, including cooling applications, drug delivery systems, and disease diagnosis.
Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson served as Bladimir’s faculty advisor for four years. As it turns out, he and Bladimir’s faculty advisor in Mexico were colleagues at Texas A&M University. When Bladimir’s advisor mentioned that he needed an advisor at Tech, President Peterson offered to do it.
Although the president has a busy schedule, Bladimir said they communicate frequently, primarily via email, with periodic face-to-face meetings. After graduation, Bladimir will work as a lecturer in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and as a postdoctoral fellow working with President Peterson from January to May. In June he will begin his career as an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University. Griselda plans to apply for an instructor position at Penn State.
And Baby Makes Four
When Bladimir started the Ph.D. program at Tech in 2012, Griselda planned to apply for graduate school also.
“We arrived here and, all of a sudden, I got very sick,” she said. “But that sickness turned out to be a pregnancy.”
The pregnancy took a toll on her physically, so she couldn’t study for the admissions exam. Then, Isaac was born.
“When you have a newborn, the last thing you want is to talk about school,” she said. “So, I just concentrated on him.”
After Isaac turned one, Griselda felt like she was ready to take on the challenge of returning to school. She was accepted into a couple of graduate programs, and, ultimately, enrolled in the master’s program in computer science at Tech.
Isaac will be four next year, and Griselda and Bladimir are expecting their second child in March.
Building a Home Away from Home
Griselda and Bladimir live in graduate housing on campus, and they have bonded with other residents.
“This is family housing,” she said. “It’s easier to find a group of friends here because we share a common interest, which is our kids. I spend most of my free time on playdates, or we organize cultural events. It’s only us. We don’t have family here, so we have to build our community of friends.”
Bladimir said, though, that it can be a challenge to make friends.
“It’s a bit isolating — this experience of being an international student at a very competitive university,” he said. “Everyone wants to be the best. It’s hard to make friends because everyone is so busy with their research. Still, we make friends here and there.”
Griselda added that even though it’s a very competitive environment, they have always found a way to interact with others. “I really enjoy my friends in this community,” she said.
The family enjoys hiking Red Top Mountain, and visiting Sweetwater Creek and the state parks. Occasionally, they go to Buford Highway to get a taste of home, particularly Mexican chicken.
Griselda likes to cook, but she doesn’t make Mexican chicken. “I don’t even know the recipe,” she laughed.
“My cooking really changed here because my friends are cooking Korean or Indian dishes that I like,” she said. “My cooking now is a Mexican-Korean-Indian-American mix. My dishes are not authentically Mexican anymore.”
Commencement will be a time for the couple to celebrate their achievements with family and friends.
Griselda’s parents are coming to Atlanta — for the first time — to attend Commencement. And Bladimir’s best friend from high school is coming, too. They plan to take the group to the Georgia Aquarium and the surrounding tourist attractions to enjoy their time together.
“We come from humble beginnings,” Bladimir said. “My family never owned a house or car, and my parents struggled to put food on the table.”
Griselda comes from a middle-class family, but her family struggled after her father lost his job in his 50s. Her mother, who had been a homemaker, then opened a cyber café.
Reflecting on their trials as a married couple navigating graduate studies, Griselda said it’s been a challenging journey, but they’ve been fortunate to have “a really good support system.”
Bladimir defended his dissertation in June, and he earned a second master’s degree in mechanical engineering a couple of months later, in August.
“Part of the success is the commitment with your spouse,” she said. “It’s different when you’re a single student, and you can manage your own schedule. But once you are married and then have kids, it changes things. [Bladimir] can’t say, ‘Oh, I can just work all night.’ He has a kid at home, and he wants to see his kid and play with him.”
She said raising a family while in graduate school requires a joint effort, and that’s what makes it smoother.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Georgia Tech
Benjamin Marrero and Katily Ramirez met at a Chinese buffet in Savannah, Georgia. It was love at first sight. For him.
“I saw her coming into the restaurant, and I thought she was a model,” Benjamin said. “She just caught my attention, and I thought, ‘Maybe she’s famous. Let me get to know her.’”
He took a couple of minutes to think about what he would say to make himself sound interesting. But when he walked over to speak to her, his mind went blank.
“There were five or 10 seconds of awkwardness, and she was about to walk away,” he said. “Then I saw a dessert that I recognized when I was in China, so I said, ‘You know… on this buffet, that is the only dessert that’s actually from China.'”
It was an unusual opening line, but it broke the ice. Katily introduced Benjamin to her grandmother, who was at the restaurant with her.
That was three years ago. Katily, who is from Bogota, Colombia, was in Savannah visiting her father, a chemical engineer who lives and works there. Benjamin, who is from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, was working at Gulfstream and about to begin his first semester at Tech.
Katily returned to Colombia, but she and Benjamin kept in touch. They Skyped often, and he traveled to Colombia to visit. He proposed to her at a restaurant in Colombia, and they married in 2014.
Katily, who has a B.S. in chemical engineering, was interested in attending Georgia Tech before
she met Benjamin. Their plans just happened to match. Today, she is graduating with a master’s
in chemistry; Benjamin is receiving a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. She will pursue a
Ph.D. in bioengineering, and he is interviewing.
Benjamin just participated in the Capstone Design Course, where his team’s project used soundwaves to heat a room, thereby eliminating harmful gases.
Katily studied with Professor Todd Sulchek in the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB), who is researching how to isolate plasma cells to create alternate ways to produce antibodies.
Although their studies were all-consuming, Katily and Benjamin said they carved out time to have fun and reduce stress.
“It was hard to make friends at first,” said Katily, who is somewhat reserved. “But I have a lot of friends now, and a lot of them are Colombian. The Hispanic culture is very friendly.”
Benjamin, who is outgoing, makes friends rather quickly. “I’m more of a social person. Not shy, and not easily embarrassed,” he said.
The couple enjoys dancing at the Havana Club in Buckhead. Benjamin says Katily is a very good dancer, but he is “learning” to salsa. They also exercise together at the Campus Recreation Center, with racquetball, step aerobics, and a kickboxing workout class keeping them busy.
Katily and Benjamin are looking forward to celebrating graduation with her father, and his parents and older brother.