Published November 24, 2015
UB senior economics major Sean Kaczmarek has been chosen to receive a Marshall Scholarship, one of the most selective graduate fellowships available to American undergraduates and an honor many consider the country’s most prestigious scholarship.
Although his actual placement has yet to be decided, he most likely will study at Oxford University.
Kaczmarek, who became the youngest person ever elected to the Cheektowaga-Sloan Board of Education, is the second UB student selected as a Marshall Scholar in the past three years.
He joins the ranks of other Marshall Scholarship winners who have included prominent CEOs, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and the U.S. Cabinet, university presidents and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors.
Kaczmarek is a recipient of UB’s Provost Scholarship, an HSBC Scholarship and has studied in China on a Fulbright-Hays Grant. He is also a Western New York Prosperity Fellow, an annual gift supported by the Prentice Family Foundation given to civic-minded students with entrepreneurial spirits.
“A Marshall Scholarship is one of the most prestigious honors a student can receive,” says President Satish K. Tripathi. “These are really students who go on to change the world.
“Sean is richly deserving of this recognition, and it is wonderful to see more and more of our outstanding students compete successfully on a global stage,” Tripathi says. “The student experience we foster at UB is ultimately focused on preparing our students to be thoughtful, experienced, globally minded leaders in their fields. Students like Sean really embody that vision and are using their experiences at UB as the springboard for leadership in a wide array of areas, from civic and governmental leadership to science, arts and culture, business and industry, and the professions,” he says.
“On behalf of the entire UB community, I want to extend my heartiest congratulations to Sean, as well as to his faculty and staff mentors.”
A graduate of John F. Kennedy High School in Cheektowaga, Kaczmarek 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 political director 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.
Kaczmarek, whose particular interest is finding ways to make a more equitable system of public education, says he will know more soon about how his Marshall Scholarship will serve as a way to further his goals.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” he says. “I still can’t believe I have it. To study policy issues in a world-class university with world-class scholars is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
His story has a distinctive and familiar Buffalo flavor. The son of Thomas and Mary Kaczmarek, 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 said when he was named a finalist for the national Harry S. Truman Scholarship earlier this year. But education became the avenue to opportunity, just the way it has for generations of talented and determined working-class people before him.
“For me, education is personal,” he says. “I am a first-generation college student who realized education would open up opportunities for me, and I want education to hold the same power for all students.”
Elizabeth Colucci, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships at UB, calls Kaczmarek “an amazing individual, and it has been my pleasure to work with him throughout the fellowship process.” Colucci’s office has fostered a significant increase in the number of UB undergraduates chosen for nationally competitive scholarships: In the past three years, UB students have received three Goldwater Scholarships, a Boren Scholarship, two Fulbright English Teaching Assistantships and a Critical Language Scholarship.
Kaczmarek “is a leader and an ardent advocate for improving education through thoughtful, well-crafted education policy,” Colucci says. “He has worked tirelessly on the (Cheektowaga-Sloan) board of education and in the Buffalo Public Schools to make positive changes in the learning process and environment for children.”
Colucci says Kaczmarek has the “passion, intellect and drive” to be a leader in the effort to improve the educational system of New York and the nation.”
“Sean’s goal to eventually be an elected official with the ability to direct this change in public education will be greatly enhanced by his graduate studies in the UK as a Marshall Scholar,” she says. “Marshall Scholars are national and international leaders in their fields, and Sean is joining this esteemed group of individuals. To have Sean recognized at that level is a reflection of excellence at the University at Buffalo. Having two Marshall Scholarship winners in three years from UB is a testament to the strength of our students, faculty and academic programs. It truly is an amazing moment for UB and for Sean.”
Those who wrote recommendations for Kaczmarek stressed his contributions and commitment to the Western New York community.
“Through tutoring and teaching in the Buffalo Public Schools, as a board of education trustee and through his involvement both inside and outside of my office, Sean has already had a profound impact on the Western New York community,” New York State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy wrote. “I do not expect his commitment to public service to diminish in the slightest. This is not because he is interested in prominence, but because he truly wants to work toward a better community.”
Kaczmarek’s passion to make a difference in his hometown also was cited in the recommendation written by Joseph A. Gardella Jr., SUNY Distinguished Professor and John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry.
“Mr. Kaczmarek was assigned to work at School 93 Southside Elementary supporting science teachers and working with Southside students,” wrote Gardella, ISEP project lead. “He immediately established himself as a key resource for working with students with a strong and helpful personality.”
Kaczmarek’s selection as a Marshall Scholar also reflects the determination and resolve of those working-class roots. After not being chosen for the Truman Scholarship, Kaczmarek says he almost chose not to enter the competitive and arduous application path for the Marshall Scholarship, partly because he seriously doubted whether he could even qualify as a finalist. The short timetable to the interview process was much more intense than previous scholarship competitions he had taken part in, he says.
Colucci urged him to apply and his first impulse was to pass.
But Kaczmarek did apply, and he started the process that Colucci’s office sets into motion for all applicants vying for the nation’s top academic scholarships. This included three lengthy, mock interviews — sometimes two in one day — with UB faculty and administrators assuming the part of the Marshall Scholarship panelists.
Kaczmarek says he learned he had won the scholarship when he received a phone call while walking on campus. He saw an unfamiliar phone number on his phone and accidentally ended the call. He thought it might be from the Marshall Commission, so hee tried calling back, but got no answer. Kaczmarek admits to undergoing a certain amount of being “freaked out.”
“They ended up calling me back,” Kaczmarek recalls. “When the person on the other end said they were calling from the Marshall Commission, I immediately became anxious because I had heard about people getting notified by phone even when they did not receive the award.
“And they were saying, ‘Hi. How are you?’ So I was waiting for the next words out of their mouth. I kept thinking ‘this is taking way too long.’”
When the caller congratulated him and told him he was a winner, Kaczmarek didn’t say anything for four or five seconds. At the time he was walking by the office of the Undergraduate Academies in Norton Hall and decided to see Administrative Director Hadar Borden.
“I told her I got it, finished the phone call and sat down in a chair because I felt like I couldn’t stand. My legs were shaking and it was difficult for me to stand or form any sentences,” Kaczmarek says. “It was a shock. It was very surreal.”
“My friends, family and advisers deserve all the credit in the world,” Kaczmarek says. “Through all the doubts and questions, they had my back and supported me. I couldn’t be more thankful.”