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Published June 26, 2019
They finish each other’s sentences, and share a phrase shorthand that brings to mind common reference points resonating to deep, shared values. And when Aaron Krolikowski and Michael Brown get together, their mutual respect and appreciation come across loud and clear.
There is no better example of a UB mentor-mentee relationship than Krolikowski and Brown. It’s a rich and exciting connection UB educators say is exactly what promising and ambitious students need. It’s a higher education bonus that raises the orbit of their time here, a catalyst for expanding their horizons and ability.
“There are two critical aspects to this mentorship,” says Brown, who graduated from UB this spring after compiling an extensive resume including student representative to the UB Council, finalist for the Truman Scholarship and founder of Buffalo’s Code for America chapter.
“One is in terms of getting me to think more critically about my work, and two, serving as a connector to other people in the community.”
Krolikowski has his own take on the relationship.
“Mike was just really interested in the same things I was interested in,” says Krolikowski, a 2009 UB graduate who earned his PhD from Oxford and worked at one time as director of research and public policy for the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County. He is now an independent research consultant based in Buffalo, “specializing in the application of mobile technology in public and community service provision,” and has been working on starting a second business that helps municipalities use data and analytics to improve stormwater management.
“He wanted to talk about things I wanted to talk about. And it wasn’t just to talk about them,” says Krolikowski. “There is a focus with Mike on action, and on actually taking the steps necessary to do that. Baby steps, always. But just trying things and not being afraid to fail.
“I think one of the first things that really started to hit home was that Mike was someone I wanted to continue working with.”
Krolikowski and Brown recognize their mentor relationship and friendship. But it’s grown, and now they’re colleagues, they both say. Whatever its name, the Krolikowski-Brown relationship is exactly what progressive UB administrators and professors seek to encourage.
The Krolikowski-Brown symbiosis began in the SPARK program, created by UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships to identify promising undergraduates and prepare them to compete for the most prestigious and competitive scholarships.
“The goal with SPARK is to inspire and motivate UB students who show academic and personal promise of excellence,” says Elizabeth Colucci director of the Office of Fellowships and Scholarships. “We bring in speakers, including alumni and community members, faculty and students who have already won awards, to SPARK.
“I am especially proud of the relationships that emerge from SPARK. Aaron and Mike’s specifically is an outstanding example of what can happen when students are mentored and motivated.”
Brown and Krolikowski both remember their first meeting. Brown was a freshman in 2016 when he attended a SPARK workshop in the Honors College that Colucci’s office had set up on identifying civic engagement opportunities. Krolikowski had just returned from Oxford and presented on his work using text messaging to increase civic engagement and reduce corruption in Tanzania’s water sector. And Brown remembers what an engaging speaker Krolikowski was, “and obviously very well-accomplished in the same very interesting field of study” that drew Brown in.
“He mentioned the phrase ‘civic technology’ (which Krolikowski defines as “the intersection of technology with public issues, the environment and society”),” says Brown, who mixes an educated intensity with a touch of “The Big Bang Theory” charm. “And I was very intrigued.
“I came to UB interested in both computer science and political science. So I had always tried to explore what a potential combination could be.
“So when Aaron mentioned civic tech, I did a quick Google search of the term and was immediately hooked. I followed up and said, ‘Can we grab coffee somewhere and meet up?’”
“Mike was a very, very ambitious and motivated freshman,” Krolikowski recalls. “It wasn’t ‘Oh, you’re so much younger than me and you haven’t finished your education yet, so I can’t talk to you.’ It was more ‘Here is someone who is not only ambitious and bright I’ve been connected with, but he followed up.’ He was persistent.”
Numerous UB organizations try to forge similar mentorships. NEAR, the Network for Enriched Academic Relationships, is a mentoring program for graduate students. Created by Laina Y. Bay-Cheng — associate dean for doctoral programs, PhD program director and associate professor in the School of Social Work — NEAR’s goal is to expand mentoring opportunities for graduate students beyond the academic department. Faculty volunteer to mentor students on the minority experience, personal circumstances and the academic culture.
Nathan Daun-Barnett, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in the Graduate School of Education, works with a team that offers a similar mentoring opportunity for low-income, first generation and underrepresented students of color. The dinner conversation series was designed to serve the needs of students struggling to find their place at UB. The dinners aim to encourage students to interact with faculty and staff, and Daun-Barnett expects to have 30 to 35 students, faculty and staff attend each dinner this coming semester. This past year, several of the early participants in the dinner conversation series served as coordinators of later events.
Daun-Barnett says that students and potential mentors frequently connect at these dinners and the relationships evolve from there. He describes his collaboration with Pemba Sherpa, an undergraduate student at UB. “It started with a project they were doing in the Buffalo Public Schools,” he recalls. "I brought her on to an internship, and then she started participating in the dinners. Now I am working with her on her own mentoring program at the International Preparatory School at Grover Cleveland in the city school district, while also helping her figure out her future career path.”
GSE’s Alumni Association also offers a mentoring program for the school’s students and alumni. It connects students with alumni mentors who want to give back to the university by providing fellow alumni and current GSE students with career-related information and guidance.
And at the School of Law, the school and its Law Alumni Association coordinate a mentoring program for law students. Experienced practitioners in the Western New York area are matched with first-year law students or LLM students. Law school educators say their students greatly benefit from the generous commitment of time and expertise offered by members of the local legal community.
Krolikowski remembers when his relationship with Brown evolved from mentor and mentee to colleagues.
“Mike had joined the Amherst Open Government Board,” Krolikowski recalls. “So he was getting involved in off-campus, open government issues. And just then for me, it clicked. He wasn’t just going for a scholarship or fellowship. He wasn’t just trying to pad his resume.
“You’re not just waiting for my advice or someone else’s advice. You’re self-motivated trying to make a change. And honestly, if I can put it into words, that’s when I first started seeing Mike as a colleague and not as a student.”
A meeting at Spot Coffee on Chippewa, where Krolikowski invited Brown to join a group he had brought together to review the city of Buffalo’s open data policy, was a “cornerstone moment,” they both agree. Brown was an urban fellow for the Division of Citizen Services in the mayor’s office. Krolikowski had started a business that used a lot of data. The two found common ground in City Hall’s community engagement efforts to establish an open data portal — civic technology at its finest.
“I would see Mike maybe once every month or once every two months, just always keeping that line of community conversation going,” Krolikowski says.
“Mike has helped me,” Krolikowski says. “In that case, I was kept informed. I was running a business, I was traveling between Buffalo and Las Vegas. It was tough for me to keep my finger on the pulse of Buffalo, even though it was critically important.”
Brown considers his one-on-one meetings with Krolikowski as key influences in his life, especially in helping him focus on setting a specific direction.
“One of the biggest things was he would ask a lot of provoking questions in terms of getting me to think more critically about my field of study, about the goals I wanted to accomplish,” Brown says about Krolikowski.
Brown still is an insider in City Hall, working as a Code for America fellow. Their relationship continues to evolve.
“Sometimes when you are working on an issue for years, you can become disheartened,” says Krolikowski. “The community comes and goes. And faces change. But Mike has been a consistent face, and I think he has shown me you are not in it alone. There are other people working on it, whether they are older, younger or the same age as you. Just knowing there are people who are smart, capable and focused on solving a problem we both care about.
“That’s the inspiration.”