Meet the Class of 2018 Valedictorians

Jessi Gray will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in math. After graduation, she plans to return to her native Boston for the summer for a much-needed break, then work in the tech field for a couple of years before pursuing a master’s degree.

Sydney Katz will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and applied science (systems science & engineering) with a minor in applied microeconomics. She will begin graduate school in aerospace engineering at Stanford University next fall.

Nikhil Patel will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering with a minor in bioinformatics. He will remain at WashU for another year earning a master’s in computer science while applying to medical school.

Vanessa Wu will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with a second major in economic strategy and a minor in energy engineering. After graduating, she will begin working with Boston Consulting Group in Dallas.


Jessi Gray

What is your advice to future WashU students? My advice to future WashU students is to make sure to explore the school beyond its academic components. Don’t just go to school, go to college! I learned a lot more outside the classroom than I did inside. Only this semester did I really start taking full advantage of being surrounded by so many people with different backgrounds and interests. I’ve been trying to get more involved in things I’m passionate about, to make new friends and to start more conversations with strangers. There are so many different people here – all with their own stories – that you can learn from and relate to. But that can only happen once you step outside the classroom, outside your comfort zone, and into the world.

How have you changed during your time at WashU? I've accepted and learned to love who I am: a transgender woman (and so much more). I applied to WashU lying to both myself and to the world about who I was. Then, while studying abroad in New Zealand, I realized I couldn't keep ignoring who I was. I needed to start living openly and honestly. I slowly started transitioning over the summer and then began my senior year living a double life. Each day I put on a mask and costume to go to campus and only a select group of people knew who I really was.

Thankfully, this past semester (my final one at WashU) has been my best one yet.
I'm living life outside of the closet, and, though I've lost some friends, I’ve gotten closer with others and made many new ones. Most importantly, I'm happier than I ever imagined was possible and have learned more about life in the past year than I had in the 21 years before it.


Sydney Katz

know now that you wish you had known on your first day at WashU?

I wish I had known about the engineering tutor program earlier. It is a great way to get some extra help in a class from somebody who has taken it before, and it is free for all engineering students!

What was one piece of advice you got as a student that has stuck with you? During a talk given by the center director at one of my internships, he said, “You know you’re a leader when there is a problem and everyone in the room looks at you.” I think that this is a really cool way to look at leadership, and it has shaped the way that I try to make an impact in the various groups I am involved with.

What makes you want to be an engineer? I have always loved working with others to solve challenging problems, and there is certainly no shortage of hard problems in engineering. Engineers get to work on the big stuff like sending spacecraft to Mars or creating cars that drive by themselves, and they do so in extremely collaborative teams. It is the perfect fit for me!



Nikhil Patel

What is something you know now that you wish you had known on your first day at WashU?

Collaboration is the only way to make it through engineering here.

Getting together with a group of people to work through a problem set is always more fun than doing it on your own (even if it takes little bit longer).

Which professors would you recommend new students get to know? Professor Widder!!! I have spent more time in her lab than in any other room in an engineering building as a student, TA, or just as a work place. She’s an incredible teacher but is also a delight to chat with.

What is one thing from your time as a WashU engineering student that you will take with you in your next step? I will never forget the frog dissections I did in QP (Quantitative Physiology) lab because they made me feel like a surgeon! It’s ironic to me that my favorite engineering class is actually one that has motivated me to go to medical school.


Vanessa Wu

Where was your favorite place to study at WashU? Third floor of Green Hall! There are two big round tables there, and the area is bright, spacious, and quiet. The close proximity to Kayaks and Forest Park is also a huge plus in case I need study breaks.

Was there a class that you started out not liking or were struggling in that turned out to be one of your favorite classes or most valuable? Conflict Management and Negotiation. The only reason this class got on my radar was because it was required, and even then, I waited until my last semester to take it. I expected a lot of reading and writing (at least by Engineering standards), but I didn’t expect how practical and applicable it could be. Working through a negotiation simulation and understanding different conflict management approaches were such valuable experiences.

Ultimately, what you get out of these type of classes really depends on how much you put in.

What is one thing from your time as a WashU engineering student that you will take with you in your next step? Being a WashU engineering student and balancing academic with extracurricular activities and other pursuits is not easy. I have definitely felt overwhelmed and have thought about settling and just being “good enough.” However, nothing comes easy. The only way to learn is to keep challenging and pushing ourselves.

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