Release Date: May 11, 2021
BUFFALO, N.Y. — As graduating University at Buffalo students prepare to transition to the next stage of their lives, many are looking back to where they began, and how far they’ve come.
The graduating students spotlighted below agreed to share their stories. Their love, pain, triumphs and tragedies have forged them into something stronger than they were: inspirations to others.
Batool Nass had no interest in occupational therapy.
In fact, when she left Saudi Arabia for the United States, she’d never even heard of OT.
But the moment she did, she immediately thought of her great-grandmother, Salma Alshamlawi. And those memories have made all the difference.
“Unfortunately, my great-grandmother had diabetes. She was the strongest woman I’ve ever met in my life,” Alshamlawi said. “I have yet to meet anyone who was stronger than her. She was very independent … she didn’t rely on anyone else but herself, and she supported her family, and I loved that about her. But because of diabetes, she had to have surgery and … had below-the-knee amputation, and she couldn’t walk around anymore… We didn’t have any kind of OT to guide her on how to do the things she liked to do, not without help.”
Without professional assistance, Alshamlawi’s family pitched in to help, going as far as carrying her around the house, helping her in getting to the bathroom, or holding her up while she showered. For such a proud woman, suddenly needing such assistance took its toll.
“That hurt her dignity,” Nass said of her great-grandmother. “She felt less of a person when they did that. They were very happily doing it, but for her it was very difficult because she was used to doing everything on her own.
“She passed away a few years after the amputation, but all the memories of her crying, all the memories of her feeling so ashamed of whatever condition she was in, it was really hurtful for me. Through her, I saw the pain and loss of dignity, loss of independence that wasn’t how she wanted to live her life.”
While Nass was studying English in Ohio, she started considering college majors.
“I didn’t know about OT until I was trying to find what major I want — other than psychology, because that was my first (choice). And I read about OT, and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ Then I read more about it and what (occupational therapists) do and I was thinking of my great-grandma (and) how it could have helped her a lot to live a better life. Through OT, she would have been much better, so I was like, ‘That’s awesome! I want to do that! I want to support people.’”
Nass picked UB because it would help her help people sooner.
“I was looking for an OT program, but I realized that no university would give me a bachelor’s (degree) in OT; I’d have to have a prior degree and then go into OT. The good thing about UB is they provide the five-year program, which is BS/MS, and I graduate with a master’s degree in less amount of time, so that was attractive.”
After all of her hard work — learning English, acclimating to a new country, entering college, adjusting to diverse people and their ideas and religions — Nass wants to return to Saudi Arabia. There, she plans to open an occupational therapy clinic, one that what will provide affordable care.
Still, despite all of the patients she looks forward to helping, it will still always come down to one person: her great-grandmother, Alshamlawi.
“I want to not let other people feel the way my great-grandma felt,” Nass said. “I want to dedicate all the success I have to her and have it in her memory since she’s the one who motivated me.”
Nass will receive her diplomas at the School of Public Health and Health Professions commencement on Saturday, May 15.
An interesting detail about senior Denice Guillermo is that she doesn’t seem to have changed in the last six years. At least, not outwardly.
“I have been the same height and roughly the same size as when I was in middle school,” said Guillermo, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines when she was 6.
Still, she has seen a lot of change in her life. Last year, she lost her father, Ali Dennis Guillermo, to COVID-19. Her father, a frontline health care worker, had wanted his family to experience a better life. He came to the U.S. from the Philippines, months ahead of his family, to lay the groundwork that would become his family’s foundation.
“My father (had) always been a hard and humble worker,” says Guillermo. “It was because of him that my family and I were able to have a life here in America. (My) father chose to work the night shifts at the (Long Island Community Hospital), leading him to sleep during the day. Therefore, every day, we would all convene at the dining table and have dinner as a family for some quality time together.
“I knew that those dinners were important and treasured by my father as a way to connect with the family that he worked so hard to build. Despite his apparent exhaustion, I could see his contentment and pride at witnessing his dream come true. Seeing all five of us at the dinner table is something that I will always hold dear in my heart.”
As a child, Guillermo did her best to fit in. “In hindsight, growing up I instinctively took measures to hide or minimize my foreign origins from my classmates in order to fit in better,” she said, “which often resulted in forgetting my own heritage, at times even rejecting it. Looking back now, I see that I failed to recognize my upbringing as an opportunity to share and celebrate my unique experiences in a diverse world.”
These days, Guillermo blends art, culture and diversity in her approach to life. She will receive her bachelor’s in architecture at the School of Architecture and Planning commencement on Friday, May 14, and will enter the school’s master’s in architecture program in the fall.
“Throughout my developmental years, I had always taken towards visual and performance art as an essential part to my daily schedule that I often looked forward to. This included participation and education in drawing and painting, photography, mixed media, dance and theater, music, and arts and crafts. All of these, mixed with my social justice and inclusion mindset, research curiosities, and creative writing and communications skills, led me into the path of architecture and planning. I believe that this major has offered more than a creative outlet for me, rather introduced a multi-faceted way of thinking about such an expansive field.”
Unlike during her childhood, she now celebrates her differences, as well as those of others. In a time where so many people fear and hate those they consider “different,” Guillermo challenges people to stop and think, rather than simply react.
“If I was supreme ruler, I would mandate a daily reflection regarding oneself and others,” she said. “This would entail that everyone takes a couple of moments to acknowledge their accomplishments, learn from failures, and identify their current state of being. In addition, I would encourage people to imagine themselves in another’s shoes, whether a friend, loved one, a stranger, and especially an enemy. With these I hope to bring out more compassion across seemingly divergent groups, to reinforce that we are all human and that we are all flawed.”
For Peter Balogh, it’s all about the economics.
“I have been drawn to business since I was in elementary school,” he said. “It was hard to feed that interest, though, as there aren't many classes that were available to me up until high school. I've always had a knack for business and would usually buy and sell things during the summer to make some money. Business administration seemed a little bit saturated to me when I was first coming into UB, and I had taken an economics course my senior year of high school, and it seemed very interesting — along the same lines, but with more detail about why we as consumers and sellers act the way we do in a market. Since then, it’s been all economics for me.”
Perhaps so. However, as with all people, it’s a little bit more complex than that. Indeed, one of the first things Balogh’s classmates noticed about him wasn’t his love of business. It was that he was always willing to share. Balogh would attend lectures, type up his notes from the classes, and then share them with his classmates.
“I've always been one to share and help out where I can,” said Balogh, who will receive his diploma as part of the College of Arts and Sciences ceremonies on Sunday, May 16.
Born in Hungary, Balogh maintains a link to his native culture by volunteering his time with the Hungarian Scout Association. Despite — or, perhaps, because of — his love of business, Balogh likes helping others, as evidenced by his helping the young children and teens of the Scouts with their education goals. At UB, he also served as a College Ambassador, helping new students and their parents navigate the Economics program.
As he prepared for graduation, he reflected on his life at UB.
“My favorite memory at UB would have to be the dorm rooms,” he said, adding that’s where he met some of his best college friends.
And, of course, he’s always thinking about others.
“A simple improvement I would make is to assign each freshman an ambassador in their department,” Balogh said. “University is a tricky thing: signing up for specific classes, knowing the little loopholes of prerequisites, and which classes might interest you more than others, (it) can all drastically shape your experience in college. Having a 'big brother/sister' to help you through difficult decisions can be super helpful, especially when they are ambassadors with good grades and high standings already.”