The Class of 2023: Dedicated to Their Dreams
UC San Diego’s Class of 2023 looks forward to diving into their future. Their passions range from international environmental equity to artificial intelligence and from biosustainability to lasers and optics. Together, they forged their own pathways at UC San Diego and look forward to taking their next steps. Our soon-to-be alumni are ready to turn their tassels and start making their dreams into reality.
From June 16-18, thousands of graduates will be recognized in a series of commencement ceremonies for each undergraduate college, the Division of Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs, Jacobs School of Engineering, Rady School of Management, School of Global Policy and Strategy and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They have reached for the stars and left the UC San Diego community better than they found it.
Read more about some of our stunning graduates here.
PhD in Bioengineering
Completing a PhD is a journey, but Kevin Rychel’s final year of his degree was more difficult than for most. Over the last year, Rychel suffered the loss of four important people in his life: his high school best friend, his grandmother, his father-in-law, and another close friend. Rychel attended his father-in-law’s funeral a week before his dissertation defense; after leaving his defense, he went straight to a memorial for his friend.
“No matter what you achieve, you don’t really grow up until you experience grief,” Rychel explained, adding that the support of his family, friends and labmates kept him going even through difficult times. “I wish that all the people I love could be here to celebrate with me; I dedicated my dissertation to the four people I lost this year.”
Rychel credits his first PhD mentor, Anand Sastry, with much of his success; Sastry developed the technology on which Rychel based his dissertation and provided countless hours of feedback and training. Rychel is now the leader of the Genome Analytics subgroup, a collaboration between the Systems Biology Research Group under UC San Diego bioengineering professor Bernard Palsson and the Center for Biosustainability at Denmark Technical University. There, he works with people from both universities on projects dedicated to enhancing science and fighting climate change and has traveled to Denmark twice to present his group’s research.
“I feel very proud because I achieved a lot here, including over a dozen publications, becoming a leader in my lab and traveling the world to discuss my research,” Rychel said. “I’m also very excited to move onto my next chapter where I can work more on applying what I’ve learned to more directly improve lives.”
Soon, Rychel will be starting a position as a Genomics Data Scientist at a biotech company, where he will use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to track and analyze infectious diseases in order to protect public health. He also plans to get married this year.
Bachelor of Arts in Political Science-International Relations with a minor in Human Rights and Migration
Saul Perez-Aragon never thought earning a degree from a world-class university was possible. After his father was deported, Perez-Aragon grew up in a rural town of Oaxaca, Mexico. Upon his high school graduation, he decided to move by himself to California to pursue higher education, though the transition was difficult.
“I had to quickly learn to balance community college coursework with working a full-time job,” Perez-Aragon said. His hard work paid off and he joined the UC San Diego community. Still, it wasn’t always an easy journey. “While at UC San Diego, I faced several challenges, such as commuting from the border to campus, adapting from community college to a four-year university, helping my family move to Southern California with me, and I still needed to earn a living!”
This is when Perez-Aragon applied for a position in the dean’s suite of the School of Global Policy and Strategy working under Marie-Pierre Murry, who was then the executive assistant to the dean. During the summer of 2022 when Murry joined the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Resource Management and Planning (VC-RMP), Perez-Aragon became the office coordinator for VC-RMP and was later selected for the 2023 Triton Student Employee of the Year Award. During his UC San Diego journey, Perez-Aragon still found the time to serve as a facilitator for his peers while conducting research in Tijuana as part of the Mexican Migration Field Research Program.
“My favorite memory at UC San Diego was watching my mother walk into campus after being out of the United States for more than fifteen years,” shared Perez-Aragon, adding that the opportunities he has found at UC San Diego for himself and his family are what matter most. “My mother joined the custodial team at the Price Center; our lives are forever changed for the better.”
Perez-Aragon hopes to find employment at UC San Diego to help his sister in her own higher education journey; later, he plans to pursue graduate studies.
Patricia Rendall Rocha
Master of Advanced Studies in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (MAS-MBC)
A one-year master’s program is often intense—let alone when studying in a third language thousands of miles from home. Cape Verdean Patricia Rendall Rocha acknowledged that she had difficulty adjusting to and understanding academic English during the summer portion of her program. She explained that she felt overwhelmed, as she was understanding only 30-40% of what the guest lecturers discussed.
“I thought about giving up more than I want to admit,” Rendall Rocha said, noting that there were few other students who didn’t have English as a native or official language of their home country. “What helped me overcome this was my cohort; even if English wasn’t a struggle for them, they tried to put themselves in my shoes to make me feel welcome. I consider them my friends now.”
Rendall Rocha explained that, since coming to the U.S., she’s often been shocked to see that many educated, world renowned people have what she calls “the Western vision” that doesn’t fully acknowledge or account for the reality of nations outside of the Western world. However, talking to Samantha Murray, the executive director of the MAS-MBC program, has made her enjoy how the program's curriculum has different visions, narratives and food for thought.
Rendall Rocha hopes to work for a multilateral organization like the United Nations or the World Bank to change the narrative for small island nations and serve as an advocate for small islands in Africa.
“If a conference is held in Europe or the U.S., that is called a world conference,” she said. “If it is held in Africa, it will be named the Africa conference. Sometimes, these ‘worldwide’ conferences don't include the African point of view or just have one African country representing the whole continent—I want to change that narrative.”
Bachelor of Science in Computer Science with a minor in Humanities
When he looks back at who he was when he started at UC San Diego, Yash Shah almost doesn’t recognize himself. As a recent immigrant to the U.S., the thought of approaching people, making friends and getting engaged in student life was scary. Now, Shah’s one of the first to go out of his way to get involved with student organizations, research, community service and any other opportunity that comes his way.
“My favorite memories at UC San Diego revolve around my association with Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society,” Shah explained, noting that he’s also enjoyed opportunities to research healthcare, human-computer interaction, and AI. “I’ve made lifelong friends, supported engineering outreach for underrepresented students and co-hosted a district conference for chapters from across Southern California.”
Beyond computer science, Shah also serves as a peer tutor for the Revelle College Humanities Program, which offers interdisciplinary courses in history, philosophy and literature. Shah credits the program and its director Antony Lyon with giving him the opportunity to grow into a better version of himself.
“It’s because of the Humanities Program that I decided to minor in Humanities, take classes outside of STEM, make sense of my place in human society and learn how I can give back as an informed individual,” Shah said.
Shah hopes to become an industry researcher in AI and will be attending Stanford University this fall for a master’s in computer science.
Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering
While Chris Ballecer’s journey to his engineering degree has been long, he knows it’s been worthwhile. Ballecer first began taking classes in the early 2010s; between working part-time, attending school full-time and dancing on a local hip-hop team, he was swamped. After retiring from dancing in 2016, he decided to focus on school.
“Lo and behold, my shift in focus paid off and I got straight A’s for the first time ever,” Ballecer said. In 2017, he joined a local laser manufacturing company as an intern before being hired on as a full-time electrical engineering technician in 2018, the same year he transferred part-time to UC San Diego. “Working full-time while going to UC San Diego part-time was extremely tough, but thankfully I had a strong support system who were understanding and supportive.”
Over the last few years, Ballecer has had quite a few highs and lows. He overcame the heavy stress caused by working full-time and studying engineering part-time and a transient group of friends who graduated while he was still completing his degree. Still, he also proposed to the “love of his life, best friend and most supportive person” in Dec. 2021 and got married a year later. Ballecer and his wife are now happily six months pregnant with an expected due date of his birthday in August.
Ballecer looks forward to continuing to learn and improve his skills as an electrical engineer and to ultimately create tech start-ups aimed at improving the lives of others. “I’ve lived and learned a lot throughout my academic journey,” Ballecer said. “I’m so excited to graduate. I’m ready.”
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