STEM mentor and future nuclear engineer Natalia Urbas ’23 has been awarded the Cornell Class of 1964 John F. Kennedy Memorial Award for her academic and community contributions. Urbas was honored at the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement’s awards lunch and reception on April 18.
“Natalia dazzles you, at first, with her [academic] numbers and the fact that she’s done so well in her classes and in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps,” said Cynthia Wolloch ’64, chair of the JFK Memorial Award for Public Service. “But what really got us was her story.”
According to Wolloch, the Class of 1964 established the $15,000 JFK Award in their senior year in remembrance of late President John F. Kennedy’s life and commitment to public service. Initially fueled by fundraising events and cap-and-gown deposit givebacks, the award — available to graduating seniors pursuing service careers — has been granted to one or two students each year since 1965.
“[JFK’s death] was the calamity of our generation,” Wolloch said. “This class [of 1964] gift is about what can we do to honor the memory of this man who inspired us — who said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’”
JFK’s famous message has guided Urbas’ academic and extracurricular endeavors.
“From a very young age, it was clear to me that I had opportunities that other people didn’t,” Urbas said. “That puts me in a position where I have to do something for others.”
Urbas, a materials science and engineering major, has served as the diversity and inclusion chair for Cornell Materials Society and has participated in ROTC, academic research, the wrestling club and the Lodge, the co-op housing for low income BIPOC students where she has lived for three years.
Originally from Berkeley, California, Urbas said she wants to use the $15,000 to help create a materials science mentorship program aiding first generation students in Washington, D.C., where she will relocate for her new job with the Navy later this year.
“[When I applied], I was thinking if I got this award, and I got this money, I could do what I’m doing now — but better,” Urbas said, planning to focus her attention on mentoring women and people of color.
According to Action DC, a data analysis and policy leadership non-profit, Washington, D.C. experiences substantial racial gaps in education outcomes.
“There’s a lot of potential in D.C. for a program like this to do a lot of good,” Urbas said.
She credits her aspirations to her mother, a first generation college student from Singapore who has supported Urbas throughout her academic journey.
“Having that resource makes a huge difference. I realize, though, not everyone has those support systems.” Urbas said. “Recognizing where I stand because of this support — and what a difference it can make for other people — is what made me want to work on [a mentorship program].”
Urbas is already mentoring others as a dedicated teaching assistant for courses within the materials science and engineering major, which consists of only around fifty students.
“I care a lot about the students I teach, arguably a little too much,” Urbas said. “I know all the undergraduates and I’m grading quizzes at the start of the semester trying to figure out who I should be worried about.”
According to Wolloch, Urbas stood out from a pool of extremely strong applicants.
“Sometimes [the selection board] has late night arguments, and we call back the next day and so forth, and keep going until we find the student that best exemplifies Cornell’s spirit of contribution to the public good,” Wolloch said. “[Urbas] is that someone for young women.”
Preparing to graduate in May, Urbas expressed gratitude for her diverse experiences and relationships at Cornell. Recognizing how diversity strengthens an intellectual community, Urbas said she wants to nurture inclusivity and support through her mentorship projects.
“People from Cornell come from such different backgrounds,” Urbas said. “[I’ve realized] it’s not that you’re smart regardless of where you’re from. It’s where you’re from that has an impact on how you grew up and really shapes the way you think.”
Following graduation, Urbas will be working with the Navy where she will research and inspect nuclear-powered ships at Naval Reactors. She has conducted electrochemistry research with the Suntivich Group since her sophomore year, and is currently finishing her senior thesis that involves researching the structure of a potential new catalyst in fuel cells.
Urbas said she is grateful that Cornell and the JFK Award have allowed her to pursue her passions to the fullest extent.
“I’m learning for the sake of learning, instead of learning for the sake of a grade or a job or anything like that,” Urbas said. “I mean, it’s really a gift. That’s the point of going somewhere like Cornell.”