Published March 26, 2015
Sean Kaczmarek, the youngest person ever elected to the Cheektowaga-Sloan Board of Education and a tireless advocate for equitable public education, is UB’s finalist for the national Harry S. Truman Scholarship.
Kaczmarek, 21, won election to the suburban school board at age 19. A native of West Seneca and a junior majoring in economics and political science with a minor in Mandarin Chinese, Kaczmarek mixes a passion for working toward a more equitable system of public education with a personal trait of throwing himself into often longshot causes because he believes he and other like-minded people can bring about meaningful change.
“If a problem appears, one may voice his opinion or write a letter, but usually will not run for office,” he wrote on his Truman Scholarship application. “My decision to run for the Board of Education proved I would take action when I saw problems.
“For me, education is personal. I am first-generation college student who realizes education would open up opportunities for me, and I want education to hold the same power for all students.”
Kaczmarek says others on the board saw him as “too young, too inexperienced” to make a difference.
“I persist because I am determined to create a more equitable system for all students,” he wrote. “As a trustee in the first-ring district outside of Buffalo, we are on the front lines of urban sprawl, and poverty is creeping in. We have to continually change to meet our students’ changing needs and externally imposed curriculum. Yet, the State Education Department does not have to respond to our needs. Despite this, I am still determined to make a change, as I have demonstrated with my initiative in changing curriculum.”
Kaczmarek has compiled an extensive — to say the least — list of accomplishments and community activities. A graduate of John F. Kennedy High School in Cheektowaga, he has been a teaching assistant in the Department of Economics; a member of the New York State executive board for College Democrats of New York, serving as chairman of the Western New York region; and has interned for the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP), a UB-led program to improve science education in the Buffalo Public Schools.
He is a recipient of UB’s Provost Scholarship and also has received a New York State Scholarship and an HSBC Scholarship.
Kaczmarek looks he would fit in well in an episode of “Mad Men.” He’s heard that comparison before and watches the show. With his neatly parted hair and his clean-cut appearance, he says he knows there is a 1960s style to him.
But anyone who knows him understands his values and politics are as far away from the show’s as you can get. He’s easy to talk to and very aware of his working-class roots. The son of two U.S. Postal Service workers and grandson of a steel mill employee, Kaczmarek comes from a family he says was “relegated” to the Old First Ward in Buffalo, “a neighborhood meant for poor immigrants.” Education, he says, was a way he could prove himself.
“I don’t believe I have any special talents or attributes,” he says. “I’ve just always worked for what I wanted.”
He also calls himself an idealist. “I don’t consider there are limits sometimes. My friends would say I’m easy-going, but they know I can be stubborn and hard-headed, too.”
Kaczmarek’s accomplishments and attitude have attracted rave reviews from those working with him, both on campus and off.
“The Truman Scholarship seeks to recognize and support individuals who will be leaders in their chosen field,” says Elizabeth Colucci, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships for UB. “Sean is already a leader both on and off campus. His deep engagement in the issues surrounding education, and educational empowerment and equity are the mark of a leader.
“For a student to be an elected official, attain high academic distinction and be engaged in the Buffalo Public Schools is amazing.”
State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, in whose office Kaczmarek served as an intern from January 2013 to September 2014, called him one of his office’s “go-to” interns, praising his commitment to public service.
“Sean has always demonstrated a high degree of professionalism that made him one of my ‘go-t0’ interns for important projects that needed to be done correctly,” Kennedy wrote in his Truman Scholarship recommendation.
“However, his work in my office is only a small piece of the puzzle,” according to Kennedy. “I remember greeting Sean with ‘congratulations’ when he walked into my office several days after he had won a seat on the Cheektowaga-Sloan Board of Education at 19 years old; he was, and still is, the youngest ever elected from his district. After my congratulations, he wasted no time in speaking to me about educational funding in New York State, demonstrating a pro-active approach even though he has just been elected.”
Kaczmarek has demonstrated a surprising ability to grasp complexities on issues relating to taxes, educational policy and helping manage a $34 million budget.
His high degree of responsibility and activism is “extraordinary for a college student with such a heavy workload,” says Kennedy.
Joseph A. Gardella Jr., SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and director of ISEP, called Kaczmarek “an exceptional case.”
“For someone his age, his strength is the sophistication of questions that he asks, and the underlying intelligence and knowledge to develop those questions,” Gardella wrote in his letter of recommendation. “Mr. Kaczmarek does not have the simple-minded approach that he knows something from his experience as a student. He digs deep into every topic. He researches the issues and does not stand still in his effort.”
Kaczmarek was among 200 Truman Scholarship finalists from 135 colleges and universities selected for their records of leadership, public service and academic achievement from among almost 700 applications from 297 institutions. The Truman committee will select between 55 and 65 juniors who each will receive a $30,000 scholarship to pursue graduate work in public service.
Kaczmarek will interview with the Truman Foundation Regional Review Panel on March 30 in New York City. Winners will be announced by April 15.