Reflection Speakers Highlight Tech Community
Catherine Schlabach, Zharia Redhead, Natalie Huertas, and Yasser El Masri
Commencement is one of the happiest days of the year for Georgia Tech graduates. For the four students selected as reflection speakers, it presents an opportunity to address their fellow graduates, professors, and loved ones.
At each of Georgia Tech’s Spring Commencement ceremonies (master’s, Ph.D., and two bachelor’s), a graduating student is given three minutes to deliver an inspiring message. The bachelor’s speakers are Catherine Schlabach, an aerospace engineering major, and Zharia Redhead, a business administration major. The master’s speaker is Natalie Huertas, who is earning a degree in digital media. And the Ph.D. speaker is Yasser El Masri in architecture.
Students must apply to become a reflection speaker. A panel of faculty, staff, and students selects a group of finalists who present a full version of their speech to the committee. The reflection speakers are required to work with Tech’s Communication Center in preparation for the ceremony.
The day before graduation, Catherine Schlabach is commissioning into the U.S. Space Force as an officer and will be an engineer.
“I’ll be at Tech for another year to get my master’s in aerospace engineering, and then I’m going to a Space Force base either in Colorado or California,” she said. “I love Tech and I love Atlanta. I’m glad I get one more year here.”
For her reflection speech, Schlabach was inspired by Nick Selby’s “We can do that” speech given at Georgia Tech’s New Student Convocation 10 years ago.
“We say to ourselves, ‘We can do that,’ but it brings added pressure sometimes,” she said. “As students we tend to compare ourselves and we don’t give ourselves a lot of credit. So, I say give yourself a pat on the back. We did that. We’re graduating. Whether it took four, five, or six years to get here, we’re doing it. We even made it through a pandemic. And we should recognize our achievements.”
About 30 family members, including her parents and twin sister, will join Schlabach to celebrate her graduation. “My sister, Julia, was a big inspiration for my speech because she has been with me through all of my ups and downs at Georgia Tech. I couldn’t have written it without her, and I wouldn’t have the confidence to go and speak to the entire Commencement ceremony without her.”
Zharia Redhead is earning a business degree with a concentration in finance. She’s also an aspiring physician and plans to apply to medical school and complete the MD-MBA dual degree program. She is interested obstetrics, gynecology, and other surgical related fields. After residency, she plans to open her own medical practice.
Her reflection speech will highlight what it means for Georgia Tech students to "get out" and what it means to be a true Yellow Jacket. “Often times, people mistake Tech students for brainiacs or nerds, and maybe we are a little nerdy, but we are in fact much more," she said. “We are innovators, problem solvers, leaders, and competitors, but, most of all, we are fighters."
A challenge Redhead faced at the beginning of her Georgia Tech experience was finding a community on campus. “Although Tech was diverse, I found myself as the only Black woman in most of my finance classes. This presented an opportunity to make Tech a more welcoming and inclusive community.”
She co-founded The Black Women Support Group with her sister, Asha Redhead, IE 2022, and other Black women at Tech. As president of the organization, she helped secure sponsorships, increase attendance, and provide a space for Black women to excel socially, academically, and professionally. In its first year, the organization won the Student Government Association’s Emerging Excellence Award.
Joining Redhead to celebrate Commencement will be about 30 family members including her parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Public speaking does not come naturally for Natalie Huertas, but she likes a challenge. So, as a cancer survivor she took on another challenge and decided to apply to be the reflection speaker for the master’s ceremony.
“It was a challenge as well as an opportunity to prove I could do it,” she said. “Presentations are not my comfort zone, but they have become less daunting because I’ve had to make so many presentations here at Georgia Tech. Speaking in this format will be a good challenge, and I’m very excited about it.”
On May 5, Huertas will celebrate the three-year anniversary of her cancer being in remission. She was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia in September 2019, and while in treatment, she wrote part of her graduate school application letter to keep her in good spirits and optimistic about her future. “I am really blessed that I was able to get in and finish the program,” she said.
Her speech will center around the phrase “Purpose comes from perspective” and she will reflect on her time at Tech.
Huertas is earning a degree in digital media because she wants to connect art, technology, and research. “This is such a unique program in the sense that I can do all of those at the same time,” she said. She plans to work in the area of business design, strategy, and customer experience.
Yasser El Masri
In the last four years, Yasser El Masri has earned three degrees from Georgia Tech: a master’s in architecture, a master’s in international affairs, and now a Ph.D. in architecture. The impact on his life has been profound.
“My time at Georgia Tech has really been so foundational to my entire career and education, I really felt like I wanted to tell the world about it in some way,” he said. “I can't tell you how much of an impact it had on me as a person, as an educator, as a researcher, and as a practitioner. I feel that taking the stage and sharing it with the world is important.”
The path is different for every Ph.D. student, but El Masri will talk about their shared experiences and Georgia Tech’s philosophy of helping to solve tough challenges.
After graduating, he will head to the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, as a researcher. “Georgia Tech prepared me very well for it,” said El Masri, who recently won one of three Institute-wide awards given for Graduate Student Instructor of the Year.
He will celebrate Commencement in person with his wife and Georgia Tech friends, and via Zoom with his parents in Lebanon. He plans to visit his family in Lebanon before beginning his new position in Colorado.