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Senior orators will encourage graduates to dream big and build community

In keeping with a Brown tradition of elevating student voices at Commencement, seniors George Kubai and Siddhi Nadkarni will encourage their classmates to strengthen communities and remove barriers.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — During their time at Brown, seniors George Kubai and Siddhi Nadkarni dedicated themselves to more than just getting an education. They worked hard to strengthen the communities around them, providing support for fellow students and the people of Providence. Both plan to carry that ethos of service with them as they pass through the Van Wickle Gates, and they will encourage their peers to do the same when they address their fellow graduates during as this year’s senior orators.

The speeches will be part of a 253-year-old Brown tradition of elevating student voices at Commencement. And in what may be a historic first, each speaker will deliver their address twice — to adhere to state gathering size limits during the COVID-19 ceremony, Brown will host separate morning and afternoon for Commencement on Sunday, May 2, with graduating seniors opting to attend one or the other. Nadkarni and Kubai plan to attend both.

As in years past, the orators were selected through a rigorous review process, which began with a call for nominations in the fall and submission of sample speeches. A selection committee comprising faculty and students then invited the top candidates to deliver their proposed addresses earlier this semester

Nadkarni’s dedication to service started well before she arrived at Brown, while she was growing up in Syracuse, New York. She credits her parents, both physicians, for providing “endless love and support” along with a keen interest in science. Nadkarni was eager to share that interest with others in her community — particularly those in Syracuse’s sizable refugee community. With her best friend in high school, she helped to found a nonprofit called SciExcite that brings fun science experiments to urban elementary schools and after-school programs for refugees.

“It was so great to see the kids suddenly realize that they could be a scientist, or start thinking about going to college, just by doing a few simple experiments,” Nadkarni said. “That was really exciting.”

Nadkarni’s own interest in science led to a concentration at Brown in health and human biology with a focus on global health. But she says that the perspective she gained working with marginalized communities in Syracuse continued to inform her work at Brown and will stay with her as she heads to medical school after graduation.

“I remember speaking to parents of SciExcite students and hearing about the struggles they had in terms of health care — lack of access and other problems affecting certain communities,” she said. “I think hearing about health care through that lens drove me toward health equity and global health when I came to Brown.”

I think reflecting on how much we've been able to accomplish even when things have been so tough should give us a hopeful feeling for what will come next in our lives.

Siddhi Nadkarni Senior Orator

Nadkarni’s senior thesis focused on one of the leading causes of death worldwide: malaria.  She studied the proteins produced by the malaria parasite, with an eye toward finding a new vaccine target. Brown’s Open Curriculum enabled her to combine biology courses with classes in anthropology, sociology, international affairs, entrepreneurship and other areas. She says that experience helped to further broaden her outlook and will make her a better doctor.

“That’s the kind of doctor I want to be,” Nadkarni said. “I want to be an advocate for my future patients because I know that health is so much more than just medicine.”

She’s also had the opportunity to take what she’s learned at Brown back to her hometown. During the summer after her first year, Nadkarni worked with local leaders to organize an inaugural health fair for the refugee community in Syracuse.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she again turned her focus toward helping those around her. She volunteered at the Rhode Island Free Clinic’s COVID-19 testing site, which provides free testing for people with low incomes or no insurance. She worked side-by-side with dozens of Brown students who also volunteered at the clinic and found it inspiring to see so many of her classmates doing whatever they could to help people during a difficult and often frightening time.

In her Commencement speech, she’ll thank her classmates for all they’ve done and encourage them to carry that community spirit forward.

“Our whole college experience has been very strange with the pandemic, yet I’ve been so inspired by how much my peers have done for our community,” Nadkarni said. “They’ve worked so hard to make Providence better and make Brown better — including holding Brown accountable when it needed to be. I think reflecting on how much we've been able to accomplish even when things have been so tough should give us a hopeful feeling for what will come next in our lives.”

George Kubai shares Nadkarni’s commitment to helping others.

As a biomedical engineering concentrator, Kubai works with technologies that can improve people’s health. As an entrepreneur, he’s started ventures aimed at helping students of color from low-income families. He’s held leadership roles in organizations that support people from underrepresented groups in STEM, and unite people in a common faith.

He says he’s done all of those things in honor of his mother, who sacrificed much to put her son on track for success.

Kubai was born in Kenya. He was just a few months old when his father died, and his mother, Lucy, decided to come to the U.S. to build a new life for her family. She worked tirelessly until she was able to get herself established and bring her boys over to join her, which she did when Kubai was 8.

“I have watched my mother work two or three jobs at a time just to provide for my brother and me all while carrying the fear of deportation on her back, but not once have I ever found myself in lack,” Kubai said. “She is a superhero. All that I do is so that one day I can repay just an ounce of what she’s done for my brother and me.” 

And Kubai been busy.

His work in biomedical engineering has earned him a job after graduation working on health technology for a global consulting firm. While pursuing his own education, he’s committed himself to helping others to find success of their own.

His senior year, he was vice president of Brown’s chapter of the National Association of Black Engineers, which provides mentoring, academic support and networking opportunities for people of color in engineering. He was also a leader in the student group Black Christian Ministries (BCM). Kubai says his faith is a big part of his life, yet he struggled with it as a first-year student. BCM helped him through that time, and he took a leadership role to make sure the group would be there for others who needed it.  

I want to encourage people to dream bigger than themselves, to dream of removing barriers that stand in people’s way.

George Kubai Senior Orator

Kubai also worked with classmates to ideate and pitch two community-minded startup-up concepts. One of those ventures, called Surge, aimed to teach computer coding to low-income students and connect them with leading technology firms. Another, called Cashout Catalyst, aimed to teach coding and financial literacy to high school students from low-income families in Providence.

Kubai says he sees all of these efforts as ways to help open doors for others.

“I think I’ve been given an incredible opportunity here at Brown and with that comes an obligation to help people who didn’t have as much help along the way as I had,” Kubai said.

In his speech, he’ll encourage his classmates to keep that obligation in mind.

“I want to encourage people to dream bigger than themselves, to dream of removing barriers that stand in people’s way,” Kubai said. “We celebrate when people overcome these barriers, but let’s go to the next step and make a world where those barriers don’t exist.”  

Both speakers say that for all the sadness and anxiety caused by the pandemic, it has also presented new opportunities to build community. It’s a message that’s sure to resonate with the Brown community as it gathers on College Hill and on computer screens around the world to celebrate a new class of Brown graduates.  

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