Class of 2015 Looks Back on Moments That Mattered

May 13, 2015

With the 2015 Commencement on the National Mall only days away, GW Today asked seniors and graduate students to reflect on their favorite memories during their time at the George Washington University.

We heard of fulfilling collaborations. Intimacy gained from reaching out and reaching back. Athletic success. And those unexpected moments of alumni generosity.

Here is what some members of the Class of 2015 had to say:

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Charles Taylor
Major: Mechanical Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science

The 2014 GW Business Plan Competition helped to launch Charles Taylor’s career, when his team won the second place overall prize for the software solutions company, BitGrid, which he now oversees as CEO. But one of his most memorable moments involved a much smaller-scale challenge: the winch car design competition held in his mechanical design course. The contest challenges students to build a vehicle that can move up a 45-degree slope and park. Mr. Taylor’s self-described “ragtag team of clowns” was determined to win in the “least complicated way possible.”

“My motto for engineering is ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’ Everyone had all these fancy designs—with different control systems and gears—and we made the simplest thing we could. During our first time trial, our car didn’t move. So, we back went to the shop, and finally I said, ‘Why don’t we just spray it with a bunch of oil?’ We covered it with WD-40, we went outside, and it shot up and won. Our class all knows each other really well, since we’ve been working together for four years, and there are some good rivalries. We’re all really supportive of one another, but when it comes to competition, it’s no holds barred. So these guys got really cocky really fast, and we smoked them. It felt great.”

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Adam Middleton
Major: Journalism and Mass Communication, School of Media and Public Affairs

Adam Middleton received the surprise of a lifetime in 2011, when George Washington President Steven Knapp showed up at Benjamin Banneker High School to award the then-high school senior with a Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (SJT) Scholarship. Though Mr. Middleton was hesitant to stay in the District for the next four years, he embraced GW and his hometown through his positions at Men Can Stop Rape and the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. SJT Day is still his favorite day of the year. Mr. Middleton returned to his high school in 2013 and 2014 to surprise the next generation of scholarship recipients.

“It was about giving the students a chance to see what the scholarship looks like in person. Admittedly, I was on the fence about attending GW, given that I had a few other offers on the table. So it’s been exciting for me to say to these new scholars, ‘Look, I know you might have Ivy League options or opportunities to go across the country, but there is a lot to gain at GW. I did it, and I don’t regret it in the least.’ I’ve learned that GW brings together a unique set of students who are ready to change the world.”

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Polly Drown
Major: Aerospace Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science

Polly Drown will begin her career at the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command this summer, but her journey to become an aerospace engineer started as a freshman on the ninth floor of Thurston Hall. She shared the floor with other aspiring engineers, who bonded during introductory classes and late-night study sessions. She still vividly remembers one night in Thurston when the entire floor of students put their wits together to complete particularly difficult online physics homework.

“We just had one or two problems that we were super stuck on. We thought we knew how to do it, but we kept getting the wrong answer. The computer tells you if you’re close and gives you three tries before you get it wrong. So we had at least 20 people squeezed into a Thurston dorm room, and it was five minutes before the homework was due, and we were desperate. Everyone had three guesses, so we just started going around the room like, ‘You guess this. No, that’s not it. OK, now, you guess that.’ And after about five or six rounds, we got the number. There was this huge celebration, and then everybody submitted the right answer. It was pretty cool living with all the engineers as a freshman. It was a social experience, but it was also a collaborative experience.”

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Matthew Sicheng Jiang
Majors: Economics and History, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences

When an 8,661-mile flight from China to D.C. brought Matthew Sicheng Jiang to GW four years ago, he had little knowledge of American culture beyond what he gleaned from English language courses and popular movies such as “Twilight.” But Mr. Jiang says that becoming a Colonial meant more than overcoming culture shock, experiencing policymaking firsthand as a Capitol Hill intern or rooting for GW basketball at the Charles E. Smith Center. It meant gaining a global family.

“One memory stands out to me from freshman year. I was living in Thurston Hall, and it was the first Chinese New Year that I did not spend with my parents. I couldn’t even celebrate at GW because I had to write a paper. I was feeling a little homesick. That night, I was annoyed when I heard a knock on my door. But when I opened the door, there was a group of people from my floor wishing me a ‘Happy Chinese New Year!’ I still think it was my best New Year’s gift, and it was the only time I’ve cried besides watching ‘Titanic.’ At that moment, I realized it does not matter where you come from. We are all a big family because we are Colonials. At GW, we always say ‘D.C. is our campus, but the world is our classroom.’ The Colonial family is everywhere.”

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John Kopriva
Major: Chemistry, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences

Aspiring orthopedic surgeon John Kopriva has had several top moments at GW. In March, the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences senior became just the 10th GW men’s basketball player to be named an Academic All-American. In May, he received the 2015 Red Auerbach Award. His most memorable moment, however, was one he shared with his teammates.

“Going down to North Carolina for the 2014 NCAA tournament was a high moment here at GW for us. Hearing our name called on that Selection Sunday was a great experience. That moment, when you see your name on the screen, the eruption in the room, I just jumped up and grabbed the guy next to me, Ryan McCoy, and started high-fiving all my teammates. I’ll never forget that moment. We had buses going down, caravans of people. It was a really impressive showing of GW spirit—all we had worked for to rebuild the program.”

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Alix Cohen
Major: Systems Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science

School of Engineering and Applied Science senior Alix Cohen studied abroad in Korea, mentored aspiring engineers and co-chaired the Senior Class Giving Campaign. She even presented a research project at the White House. Ms. Cohen, who will move to San Francisco this summer for a job with Pacific Gas and Electric, believes GW extends beyond the Foggy Bottom Campus.

“A lot of the personal relationships and connections I’ve made have come from places outside of D.C. In Korea, one of my defining moments was when I had dinner with alumni there. I was in San Francisco last summer for an internship with PG&E, and the first day I was there, one of the vice presidents—who had an undergraduate degree from GW—brought me into his office and sat me down for an hour and talked about how GW shaped his experience. Meeting alumni of the university and being able to connect on that level is probably something that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”

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Emanuel Johnson
Majors: Political Science and Economics, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences

Chicago native Emanuel Johnson served seven years in the U.S. Navy before coming to GW. He remained a part of the military community on campus, first joining and later becoming president of GW Veterans. As he heads back to Chicago after graduation, he says he’ll take with him the lessons he learned from a famous GW alumnus.

“A great moment was when I had the opportunity to meet Sen. Mark Warner. Just hearing the story of how he transitioned from GW to law school, and when he didn’t have a job as a lawyer he slept on friends’ couches, slept in his station wagon, but eventually he started a really successful telecommunications company. The idea of sticking with your dreams and pursuing your goals and believing in something even when it gets rough—hearing that was an important moment for me.”

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Jennifer Minor
Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Graduate School of Education and Human Development

Jennifer Minor came to GW because she wanted to give back, getting her master’s in clinical mental health counseling from the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. “I’d been through my own mental health journey, and I wanted to help others,” she says. During her time at GSEHD, she had the opportunity to help not only her clients in the community but some of her peers as well.

“My most memorable moment at GW isn’t so much a moment, because it’s all been a really good experience, but the people I came in with. My cohort has made it really special. We’re all getting our master’s in counseling—some of us are in the school counseling program, some of us are in mental health—and we take our core classes together, we go through this really intense internship process. We all have two internships, one at a field site of our choice and one at the Community Counseling Services Center on campus, and they take place at the same time. It’s hard, but we’re all here for each other. I’ve gotten some amazing therapy from my classmates.”

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Maurissa Walls
Major: Marketing, School of Business

Maurissa Walls said that being a GW student means being a part of the D.C. community, which provides rare opportunities for engaging with leaders from government, business, the arts and advocacy groups. That unparalleled access drives students to consider their place in national conversations and engage in service, according to Ms. Walls.

“One of my favorite moments was participating in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington going into my sophomore year. The energy I felt when I was there isn’t something that you can create, and it wasn’t something that I had experienced before. This year, I served as president of the National Council of Negro Women, a service and advocacy group headquartered in D.C. The organization’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, and former president, Dorothy Height, were big civil rights advocates. So to be there 50 years later, participating in the march that they were a part of and helped to organize was really special. To see people from all over the U.S. and other GW students walking in the march and to learn what issues were important to them made me realize we still have a reason to be marching even though we’ve all worked together as a country to overcome a lot of inequalities.”

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Chris Stillwell
Major: International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs

Chris Stillwell knows exactly what he will be doing after graduation: He is going to be commissioned as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. He has picked up plenty of leadership experience at GW during the last four years to guide him. As a member of the Student Association, Mr. Stillwell represented the Elliott School and served on the finance committee; he was the director of finance for the International Affairs Society; and he participated in the Hoya Battalion’s Reserve Officers Training Corps.

“I took a class with Amb. Thomas E. McNamara on counterterrorism. I’m going to be an intelligence officer in the Army, so it was really cool to be taught by an ambassador. He brought us firsthand accounts of real-life things he’d dealt with as ambassador at-large for counter terrorism. I also got to meet former U.N. Amb. Thomas Pickering when he came to GW last semester. It’s been an amazing experience getting to talk one-on-one with people who are changing policy throughout the world.”