Class of 2016: Making Their Mark

A look at some of the students who, like so many of their classmates, have made the most of their experience at Rochester.

Pedro Vallejo-Ramirez: A Thirst for Knowledge

By Bob Marcotte

“This is extraordinary,” Pedro Vallejo-Ramirez thought to himself as he listened to Cambridge University professor Clemens Kaminski describe super-resolution microscopy and its applications to neurodegenerative diseases. “I want to be part of this research.”

That was last summer, when Vallejo-Ramirez, along with 75 other promising young scholars, attended the Optical Society’s weeklong Siegman School of Lasers in Amberg, Germany.

Thanks to the seed planted in Amberg, Vallejo-Ramirez will head to the renowned British university this fall as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. He is only the third Rochester undergraduate to be accepted by the program.

He will pursue a master’s degree in Cambridge’s chemical engineering department doing research in biotechnology. After completing the yearlong program in Cambridge, he will enroll as a PhD student in the electrical engineering and computer science department at MIT.

A similar seed was planted four years ago, when Vallejo-Ramirez arrived at Rochester, knowing he wanted to pursue a degree in engineering but knowing very little about optics.

At an orientation event, he ran into optics professor Wayne Knox, who was encouraging other incoming engineering students to stop by his introductory optics class the next day.

That class “completely blew my mind,” Vallejo-Ramirez recalls, and it convinced him to pursue a major in optical engineering.

Vallejo-Ramirez would eventually like to be a biomedical entrepreneur, developing new medical devices and techniques.

He sees himself starting out in a well-established company, as a researcher or a manager in technical programs. But ultimately he would like to start his own company, perhaps developing a noninvasive optical device for early detection of skin cancer, “breaking some barriers and disrupting the market.”
Would he have done anything differently during his four years at Rochester? Only one.

“I would have been a Meridian if I had had more time,” Vallejo-Ramirez says, “because I wish I could give some tours and tell people how much I love this place.”


Samantha Lish: Leaving Her Mark on the River Campus

By Jim Mandelaro

Samantha Lish graduates this month with two degrees and a résumé bursting with accomplishments: president of the Campus Activities Board; orientation volunteer; Meridian and senior interviewer; student assistant at the Warner School of Education.

Lish applied to 14 colleges, but Rochester had her at “Rush Rhees.”

“When I saw that amazing library, I was hooked,” she says.

In her four years on the River Campus, Lish—a double major in public health and English—helped plan a Yellowjacket Weekend, a Boar’s Head Dinner, and Dandelion Day; served as a tour guide and recruitment counselor for the Admissions office; was a member of the Chi Omega sorority and a Panhellenic delegate for two years; and served three years as an orientation volunteer. She was a member of the Order of Omega honor society and won the Delta Upsilon Fraternity and Sorority Leadership Award in 2014–15.

Lish, a native of South Salem, New York, will walk the commencement stage with a broken heart.

She lost her father, John Lish, to melanoma on March 28. Hours later, her maternal grandmother passed away at age 89.

“My dad thought he had more time,” says Lish. “Doctors told him in December, ‘It’s not curable, but it’s treatable.’ I remember him saying, ‘As long as I’m at Samantha’s graduation.’’’

She pauses, contemplating the irony. “Timing is a funny thing.”

On April 21, she received a Student Life Award for campus contributions and was one of 19 individuals honored. Her mom was her guest at the ceremony.
“My dad knew I had won, because they had announced the winners ahead of time,” she says. “That makes me happy.”

Her father’s illness put many job interviews on hold. But she has started interviewing again and hopes to land a job in Manhattan in health care communications advertising. Her father’s values will continue to guide her.

“He was that guy who was just so humble,” Lish says. “He had such a wonderful life.”
It’s a life she hopes to emulate.

“I just want to make him proud.”


SeQuoia Kemp: Senior by Day, Doula by Night

By Jim Mandelaro

SeQuoia Kemp grew up fascinated by A Baby Story, a cable show that follows couples through the final weeks of a pregnancy.

Reality TV became reality for Kemp at age 14, when she was asked to videotape the birth of an older friend’s baby. She was mesmerized and told anyone who asked she would become an obstetrician.

“It wasn’t until I came to the University of Rochester and took a public health class with public health history professor Ted Brown that I learned about midwifery and what a doula was,” Kemp says.

As she graduates with a bachelor’s degree in health, behavior, and society, Kemp already has her own business, Doula for a Queen. She has helped 10 women through their pregnancies, most of them free of charge, and was trained through Syracuse Healthy Start, a federally funded doula program.
“She’s amazing,” says Lisa GreenMills, coordinator of the program. “She’s very passionate about this.”

Kemp came to the River Campus as a biology major but switched her program to health, behavior, and society at the start of her sophomore year.
Kemp started her own poetry club, No Disclaimers, served as a senator-at-large in the Students’ Association, was president of the Minority Student Advisory Board, and is president of the Black Students’ Union.

She is a member of the Frederick Douglass Leadership House and last November helped organize a peaceful student protest across campus calling for zero tolerance for hate speech and bigotry.

“SeQuoia stands out as one of the more determined and committed student voices for social change I’ve encountered during my tenure at Rochester,” says Norman Burnett, assistant dean and director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs. “I’ve seen her strength of character put to the test, as she was able to overcome many personal adversities and troubling campus-based experiences.”

Kemp hopes to enroll in an accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program and become a midwife.

She says she’s eager to explore new worlds.“I’m ready to take what I’ve learned and impact the world. I want to give back.”


Nate Powers: From Boot Camp to Bachelor’s Degree

By Bob Marcotte

Eight years ago, Nathaniel Powers stepped off a bus with other Marine Corps recruits and stood at attention on the famed yellow footprints of the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

“I was 25 years old, surrounded by 18- and 19-year-olds, wondering what am I doing here, what am I getting into?” Powers recalls.

He excelled. His “technical prowess” as an avionics technician with the famed Black Sheep air squadron “left a lasting impression,” according to the citation for his Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.

Four years later, he experienced some of the same misgivings when he arrived at Rochester as a 29-year-old undergraduate pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering.

Once again, he excelled. He was honored as an Outstanding Adult Student by the Rochester
Area Colleges Continuing Education Committee.

“He has a quiet and unassuming demeanor and probably has no idea what a great role model he is for the students,” says Barbara Dick, the undergraduate coordinator in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “The students respect him, and from what I have heard from them, they have learned a great deal from Nate.”

After boot camp, Powers was assigned to the Black Sheep squadron based in Yuma, Arizona. Discussions and training sessions with technical representatives (including engineers from Boeing and Northrup Grumman) solidified his resolve to deepen his understanding of engineering, pointing Powers toward electrical and computer engineering as a career path.

Powers graduates with hopes of landing a job in the Rochester area. He is particularly interested in working for a company with military contracts, given his own military background.

“A lot of the work that you do in college is self-directed; someone is not going to be holding your hands through it all,” Powers says. “You have to rely on yourself. Coming from the military, you should feel confident because you will already have that ability.”

“Just hunker down and get it done.”

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