2022 Celebration of Excellence Brought CS Students, Faculty, Alumni, and Staff Together Again to Honor the Capabilities of This Community

5/5/2022 8:45:19 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Following another academic year in which Illinois Computer Science students, faculty, alumni, and staff again proved what they were capable of as a community, a ballroom at the Illini Union was filled to capacity to honor the achievements of this remarkable collective at the 2022 Celebration of Excellence.

About 60 Illinois CS undergraduate students, 90 graduate students, 30 faculty members, five staff members and five alumni earned awards and came together, in-person, to celebrate each other. In total, approximately 300 guests attended the event.

Clockwise from top left: Illinois CS Department Head Nancy M. Amato pictured with Early Career Academic Achievement Alumni Award winner Jing Gao and her daughter; Amato with Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award winner Carol Craig; Amato with Distinguished Alumni Service Award winner Ulku Rowe; and Young Alumni Achievement Award winner Jerry Talton speaking in front of the audience that included approximately 300 guests.
Clockwise from top left: Illinois CS Department Head Nancy M. Amato pictured with Early Career Academic Achievement Alumni Award winner Jing Gao and her daughter; Amato with Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award winner Carol Craig; Amato with Distinguished Alumni Service Award winner Ulku Rowe; and Young Alumni Achievement Award winner Jerry Talton speaking in front of the audience that included approximately 300 guests.

The Department of Computer Science also acknowledged generous donors, who provided the opportunity for fellowships, scholarships, and awards. Their gifts support talented individuals as they prepare to make their impact on the computer science field.

A complete list of the winners and donors can be found on the Celebration of Excellence webpage.

Department Head Nancy M. Amato delivered opening remarks to the assembled group in attendance, stressing the uniqueness of the efforts put forth by so many.

“In this department, we are lucky to be able to teach, mentor, collaborate with, and learn from some of the brightest and hardest working people on the planet,” Amato said. “Your intellectual curiosity, dedication to excellence, and positive attitudes are big reasons why we continue to be a top computer science department, and why the future of computing looks so bright.

“For the first time, we have the pleasure of debuting our new format for the annual Celebration of Excellence event, which will honor our students, faculty, staff, alumni and donors all in one big celebration.”

CS students were the first group recognized at the ceremony.

Undergraduate student award winners came to the podium, one-by-one crossing the stage. Greeting them with a smile and a bow was Elsa Gunter, Research Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs.

Then each of the graduate students crossed the stage, greeted by Professor and Director of Graduate Programs Robin Kravitz. She shook each winner’s hand while offering an encouraging word.

After each student crossed the stage, Amato waited for a picture opportunity and more words of encouragement.

The faculty and staff award winners did the same, before four of the five distinguished alumni award winners who could attend in-person accepted their recognitions and delivered an acceptance speech.

This included:

  • Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award winner: Carol Craig, CEO of Sidus Space Inc.
  • Early Career Academic Achievement Alumni Award winner: Jing Gao, Associate Professor in the Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University
  • Distinguished Alumni Service Award winner: Ulku Rowe, Engineering Director at Google Cloud’s Office of the CTO
  • Young Alumni Achievement Award winner: Jerry Talton, Chief Technology Officer at Carta
  • David Blaauw, Distinguished Academic Achievement Alumni Award winner and Kensall D. Wise Collegiate Professor of EECS at the University of Michigan, was unable to attend the event.

Amato also recognized two previous alumni award winners who could attend in person, Scott Fisher and Mary McDowell.

Earlier in the day, the alumni award winners also addressed students in a more intimate setting during the Distinguished Alumni Panel. Questions came quickly from an eager group of students who filled up lecture room 2405 in the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science.

Each of the alumni present covered topics such as career advice following their academic journey, team building, entrepreneurship in technology, and leadership in the field.

  • Craig spoke about the importance of people, rather than skills, when building a team: “What I’ve found to be true is that relationships are the most important aspect of building a team around you to be successful. I’ve hired my best friend and my parents. Of course, passion for the work and skills are important, but I’ve come to believe that building a culture and finding people that fit within that culture is really important. Everyone is smart. We can all learn. But to fit in is integral. And the same goes for you when you interview at a place. You should be interviewing your potential employer. Do they deserve you? Find out what that company is about. Find out if it resonates with you and be prepared to walk out if it doesn’t.”
  • Gao explained ways students can succeed within academic research: “If you’re an undergrad student who is contemplating whether to pursue your masters or PhD later, try to find a research lab to do some undergraduate research. I believe the benefit is twofold. First, this will boost your resume if you want to apply for graduate school. More than that, though, it will help you decide if you value research. The field is demanding and asks you to constantly think out of the box to design something new. Research expands your mindset. If you consider that important, then perhaps this is the path for you. For graduate students, I know you’re working hard on your papers, but do try to develop other soft skills – like writing or presenting. It can also be really beneficial to help manage a research team and develop interpersonal skills at an early age.”
  • Rowe spoke about the well-rounded collegiate experience offered at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “I have a son who is starting college this year, and I would like to give you all the same advice give him – if you go to college just to take classes you will have failed. There is such a great diversity of courses, so please do explore that. But also live the life that this university offers. Visit Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, dig into entrepreneurship opportunities on campus, go to a sporting event. Relax a bit and breathe. This is a time to live life to the fullest.”
  • Talton discussed specific motivations in computing: “The world has so many problems, and computing can make our lives together better. Look into what we can do for inequality, help people learn to read, go to space. More than anything, though, find and work on problems that affect other human beings. Find a problem that you really care about and solve that. Look for actual value that you can put into the world.”