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‘You write your own story’: Allen School celebrates the graduating class of 2024

Crowd of people seated in an arena underneath a sign saying Go Huskies! cheer for graduates seated on the arena floor below
5,000 graduates, families, and friends attended the Allen School’s 2024 graduation celebration on the University of Washington campus. Kerry Dahlen

“Tonight, we celebrate the hard work and accomplishments of our graduates. Tomorrow, new adventures await.” 

With that acknowledgment of the Class of 2024’s trials and triumphs, professor Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Allen School, welcomed a crowd of roughly 5,000 to the school’s graduation celebration. The Allen School expects to award more than 770 degrees in total during the 2023-2024 academic cycle; around 650 of the recipients assembled in the Hec Edmundson Pavilion at the Alaska Airlines Arena on June 7 to mark this life-changing milestone in the presence of their families and friends.

‘You write your own story’: Life advice from Andy Jassy

Andy Jassy smiles as he speaks into a microphone attached to wooden podium
Andy Jassy: “There are more interesting opportunities to make a difference than you probably realize.” Matt Hagen

Among those celebrating the graduates’ achievements was Andy Jassy, President and CEO of Amazon and — for this evening, at least — honorary member of the Dawg Pack. Jassy took the stage as the Allen School’s 2024 graduation speaker to share with graduates the most important lessons he had learned over the course of his career, from his early aspirations of being the next Howard Cosell, to his leadership of Amazon Web Services to its position as the undisputed king of the cloud, in the hopes of inspiring them to each be the author of their own story. 

Those early aspirations of sportscasting glory were on Jassy’s mind as he entered the arena. Describing the Allen School as “one of the very best engineering schools in the world,” he noted that the graduates had already achieved a remarkable feat. As they begin their next chapter, they could take both inspiration and some hard-earned lessons from Jassy’s own story — or, as he put it, “what I wish I knew when I was 22.”

First lesson to his younger self, and by extension, the newly-minted graduates? “I am not going to be a famous sportscaster,” he acknowledged, accepting that what he thought he wanted to do upon first graduating from college was not, in fact, destined to be his life’s work. 

Should the graduates come to a similar realization, they needn’t get discouraged. As Jassy shared in his next lesson, “I’m going to pursue a lot of different jobs” — be it jobs for which he interviewed but didn’t receive an offer, or ones that he tried for some time but decided he didn’t want to spend his life doing. Over the course of his career, Jassy attempted a range of professions, from investment banking and consulting, to selling golf clubs and coaching a high school soccer team, on his way to finding his true calling at Amazon. 

For the graduates, then, figuring out what they don’t want to do for a career will be as important as figuring out what they do want to do. While they’re at it, Jassy suggested, they should keep an open mind.

“Life is an adventure. It takes a lot of unpredictable twists and turns,” he said. “You meet people who influence you along the way; you’ll find yourself surprised by what inspires you that you would not have guessed. There are more interesting opportunities to make a difference than you probably realize. Be open to what’s out there.”

His third lesson? “Don’t let others tell you who you are,” Jassy advised, recalling his pre-kindergarten teacher’s assessment that he would never be an athlete because he struggled to hop on one leg. As it turned out, his performance at the tender age of five did not prevent him from going on to play multiple sports in high school and college. What is easy to ignore when we are young becomes harder to ignore as we get older, he acknowledged; and yet, the graduates should not allow the judgments of “uninformed people” to define them.

“Nobody writes your book for you,” Jassy insisted. “You write it.”

And as they do, they should remember that not every presentation or meeting equates to a pass/fail referendum on their competence — despite his own early preoccupation to the contrary. Jassy noted that his biggest regrets were not the occasions that he failed, which he referred to as his “proudest scars,” but rather the times he didn’t take a risk in the first place.

“There is no person in the world who performs perfectly, or has it right 100% of the time, or whose ideas are coherent or sensible every time. That’s not reality,” he said. “It is, however, a sure bet that you will never do something needle-moving if you don’t put yourself out there and take a shot.”

Andy Jassy address a crowd of graduates pictured in caps and gowns from a wooden podium onstage, with a table of souvenir diplomas off to the side
Andy Jassy advised graduates not to lose the learning mindset. “Life is much more fun and rewarding when you’re learning.” Matt Hagen

While there are many things the graduates won’t be able to control, Jassy pointed out that one thing they will always be in control of is their attitude. And although members of the Class of 2024 may be marking the official end to their time at the university, they should not regard their student days as being completely behind them.

“Be a willing and ravenous learner,” he urged. “Believe me, life is much more fun and rewarding when you’re learning.”

In closing, Jassy noted that the Class of 2024 graduates will have many options, and this next chapter represents just one of them.

“Remember that you write your own story,” he said.

Alumni Impact Awards: Leading by example

Continuing an annual tradition, Ed Lazowska, Professor, and Bill & Melinda Gates Chair Emeritus, in the Allen School, ascended the stage to announce the recipients of the Alumni Impact Awards. The awards reinforce for the next generation of alumni how an Allen School education can lead to real-world impact.

Four people stand smiling side by side onstage, with the two in the center hold glass award plaques flanked by two people dressed in graduation regalia from their respective Ph.D. programs
From left: Magdalena Balazinska, John Colleran, Karen Liu and Ed Lazowska. Matt Hagen

John Colleran (B.S., ‘87)

John Colleran barely had time to catch his breath following his graduation from UW in 1987; two days later, he was starting his new job at Microsoft. There, he has spent 37 years driving engineering investment and innovation in successive versions of the Windows operating system before stepping into his current role leading the company’s Developer Productivity team for the Windows and Azure Engineering Systems group. There, he has led the creation of the WAVE engineering productivity tools in addition to the development of industry-leading methods for measuring the impact of various tools and practices on developer productivity.

As the spouse of another UW undergraduate alum and proud father of a student set to walk across the stage that very same evening to collect her own Allen School degree, Colleran is a Husky through and through. 

“John has a long list of engineering accomplishments in the systems arena that have directly contributed to Windows’ dominance in both the business and consumer spaces,” said Lazowska. “John is also a good friend and a good person.”

Karen Liu (Ph.D., ‘05)

Since completing her degree working with professor Zoran Popović in the Allen School’s Graphics & Imaging Laboratory (GRAIL), Ph.D. recipient Karen Liu has made a series of fundamental contributions in computer graphics and robotics spanning physics-based animation, reinforcement learning, optimal control and more. 

Liu launched her faculty career at the University of Southern California before she was recruited away by Georgia Tech and, later, Stanford University, where she currently directs The Movement Lab. Liu focuses on the development of algorithms and software that enable digital agents and physical robots to interact with the world through intelligent and natural movements, drawing upon principles from computer science, mechanical engineering, biomechanics, neuroscience and biology.

“It’s exciting, high-impact, interdisciplinary work for which she has been widely recognized,” said Lazowska, alluding to a litany of honors that includes a TR-35 Award, Sloan Research Fellowship and ACM SIGGRAPH Significant New Researcher Award. “Karen, like John, is building on her Allen School education to change the world.”

Student Awards: Recognizing scholarship, leadership and service

Before they go out and use their education to make a difference in the world, many Allen School students find ways to make a difference to the campus community through their scholarship, leadership and service. Each year, the school recognizes a subset of these students for going above and beyond in supporting their fellow students, advancing the field through research and contributing to a vibrant and inclusive school community.

Four people in graduation regalia stand side by side on a stage decorated with potted ferns and flowers, each smiling and holding a framed award plaque
From left: Undergraduate Service Award winners Lee Janzen-Morel, Kristy Nhan, Olivia Wang and Vidisha Gupta. Matt Hagen

Undergraduate Service Awards

In her role as chair of the student group Computing Community (COM2), honoree Vidisha Gupta stood out “as a phenomenal leader who has worked tirelessly to improve the Allen School experience for students.” Gupta’s contributions included organizing large school-wide events aimed at building community and fostering a sense of connection, whether virtual or in-person. Gupta also represented undergraduate students on the school’s Diversity Committee and during the hiring process for teaching faculty.

Meanwhile, award recipient Lee Janzen-Morel was a driving force behind the creation of the Diversity & Access Lounge, a space for students from underrepresented groups in computing to find community and share experiences. “In the two years since it opened, this space has positively impacted many students and will continue to have an impact in the years to come.” Janzen-Morel also provided extensive support to Ability, the student group focused on promoting accessibility at the Allen School.

During her time at the Allen School, Kristy Nhan “has done immense work to help improve the Allen School experience for students of color, first-generation students, and women in computing.” Nhan’s impact was also felt through her service as a lead CSE Ambassador performing outreach to local K-12 students. In addition, she was a volunteer leader with student groups GEN1 and Women in Computing, for which she developed a new internship program and coordinated high school visits for young women of color, respectively.

Olivia Wang approached their role as a peer adviser ”with passion, attention to detail, and kindness.” Wang was a peer adviser for two years, during which time they assisted current and prospective students in navigating the undergraduate experience and connecting with academic resources. Wang also was the first-ever peer adviser focused on undergraduate research, organizing events such as the “Getting into Research” workshop and spring research showcase to make opportunities in the Allen School’s labs more accessible to students.

Four people in graduation regalia stand side by side on a stage, each smiling and holding a framed award plaque
Outstanding Senior Award winners, from left: Claris Winston, Matthew Shang, Heer Patel and Grace Brigham. Kerry Dahlen

Outstanding Senior Awards

Recipient Grace Brigham, who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the Allen School’s B.S./M.S. program, was recognized for her research examining the use of artificial intelligence to generate non-consensual intimate imagery and the impact of AI bias on humans — the same project for which she earned a Best Master’s Thesis Award. In addition, Brigham earned accolades for her service as a teaching assistant for the direct admit seminar for new freshmen and her contributions as a mentor for Changemakers in Computing.

Fellow award winner Heer Patel was likewise recognized for research excellence — in this case, her work in data visualization that explored the application of AI to generate educational materials for data science students. In fact, Patel’s leadership, hard work, and dedication led to the submission of a paper on the subject, for which she is first co-author. Patel will remain in the Allen School to pursue her master’s degree as part of the B.S./M.S. program.

Matthew Shang was singled out for his “mathematical prowess” and his contributions to research in chaotic systems and probabilistic programming techniques for analyzing errors in laboratory procedures — the latter in collaboration with members of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. Another undergraduate who is enrolling directly in the B.S./M.S. program, Shang has already completed an impressive amount of graduate-level coursework.

Claris Winston was honored for her research into embroidered tactile graphics to support individuals who are blind or visually impaired, a project for which she was lead author of a journal submission to Transactions on Accessible Computing. She also was a finalist in the Computing Research Association’s Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Awards competition. She, too, will pursue her master’s degree at the Allen School starting this fall.

Thesis Awards

Two smiling people dressed in graduation regalia and jointly holding a framed award plaque
Kavel Rao (left) and Maya Cakmak. Kerry Dahlen

Professor Maya Cakmak, who chairs the Allen School’s Undergraduate Research Committee, presented the research thesis awards. Noting the school’s dual mission to both educate students and push the boundaries of computing via research, Cakmak reminded the audience that it’s not just faculty and Ph.D. students doing the latter.

“There are also opportunities for undergraduate and masters students to get involved in research labs, learn about the research process, and make their own contributions to the field,” she said. 

Kavel Rao earned the Best Senior Thesis Award for “What Makes it Ok to Set a Fire? Iterative Self-Distillation of Contexts and Rationales for Disambiguating Defeasible Social and Moral Situations,” completed under the supervision of professor Yejin Choi in the Allen School’s Natural Language Processing group. In the paper — which was published at last year’s Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP 2023) — Rao put forward new methods for emphasizing contextual information and commonsense reasoning in models tasked with making moral decisions. 

Grace Brigham, who also took home an Outstanding Senior Award, was honored with the Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award for “Violation of my body: Perceptions of non-consensual (intimate) imagery.” That work, which Brigham completed under the supervision of professor Tadayoshi Kohno in the Security and Privacy Research Lab, provided new insights into people’s perceptions of AI-generated non-consensual imagery that are already being used to inform national and international conversations about how to mitigate harms associated with such use of AI. The paper was accepted to the 20th Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS 2024).

Teaching Awards: Honoring those who inspire

Bob Bandes Memorial Awards for Excellence in Teaching

Each year, the Allen School honors the students who take on the role of teaching assistant, or TAs, who wear many hats: course administrator, supplemental instructor, grader, and cheerleader. In all, the school received more than 800 nominations for roughly 260 individual TAs for this year’s Bandes Awards; of those, the school selected four winners and three honorable mentions presented by teaching professors

Three people dressed in graduation regalia side by side smiling onstage, each holding a framed award plaque
Bandes Award winners, from left: Joe Spaniac, Jaela Field and Anjali Agarwal. Not pictured: Jasmine Chi. Kerry Dahlen

Award winner Anjali Agarwal served as a TA nine times, including for the Allen School’s introductory programming courses as well as Data Structures and Parallelism and Foundations of Computing. She also was an instructor for the latter as well as the school’s Mathematics for Computation Workshop. One student summed up the nominators’ assessment by saying, “What stands out most about Anjali is her kindness, how she approaches each student with understanding and without judgment to meet them where they are at and bring them along.” Agarwal will start this fall as teaching faculty at Northwestern University.

Jaela Field earned an award for her nine quarters of service as a TA for Software Design & Implementation. Saying that Field knows the content inside-out, one nominator enthused “Saying that Jaela goes above and beyond is an understatement. She goes above, beyond, out of this world, around it, and then a couple more times around it…She makes the impossible possible through her passion to help others learn.” The instructors she has worked with were similarly effusive about her dedication and willingness to jump in and help with all aspects of a course, citing her combination of technical and people skills.

Winner Jasmine Chi is a seven-time TA who has assisted with the Allen School’s revamped introductory series as well as the freshman direct admit seminar. In addition to her enthusiasm, patience and reliability, students appreciated how Chi “ensures that every student that attends her lectures feels seen” while prioritizing their understanding of the concepts covered in the course. An instructor applauded her leadership on course infrastructure, including her management of assignment development and grading, while keeping up with course communication and supporting her fellow TAs — qualities that made her “mission critical” to the course.

Bandes Honorable Mention recipients, from left: Zhi Yang Lim, Yuxuan Mei and Hannah Lee. Matt Hagen

Award recipient Joe Spaniac served as a TA for an impressive 15 quarters, including multiple offerings of the introductory series, and as an instructor for one course — with a second to come this summer. One of the instructors with whom he worked raved that Spaniac was the most effective TA they had ever worked with, noting that “most issues that cropped up during the quarter were never seen by the instructors because Joe got there first.” Spaniac’s students particularly appreciated how he made them feel sufficiently comfortable, even encouraged, to ask the so-called dumb questions and get the support they needed.

Honorable mentions went to Hannah Lee, who has TAed a total of six times for multiple offerings of the undergraduate Machine Learning and the graduate-level Machine Learning for Neuroscience courses; Yuxuan Mei, a TA for three different courses — including Computational Design & Fabrication and Intermediate Data Programming, for which Mei will be an instructor this summer; and Zhi Yang Lim, who served as a TA for four quarters of Foundations of Computing II, including one as lead TA.

Two smiling people onstage, one dressed in a suit jacket over a t-shirt and trousers while holding a framed award plaque, and the other in a blouse and skirt with hair decoration
Matt Wang (left) and Kianna Bolante. Matt Hagen

COM2 Teaching Awards

While graduation is a time for celebrating students, each year the student group Computing Community, or COM2, turns the spotlight back on the faculty who, in chair Kianna Bolante’s words, “inspired us, challenged us, and shaped our paths” through its Undergraduate Teaching Awards.

The first honoree, teaching professor Matt Wang, earned accolades for being an “incredible educator who has made a remarkable impact in just his first year in the Allen School” as an instructor in the introductory programming series and System and Software Tools. Bolante highlighted in particular how Wang comes up with creative ways to engage students through interactive demonstrations and relatable examples, as well as his ability to create a welcoming classroom environment where everyone feels included and valued. 

“His talent for simplifying complex concepts, and eagerness to offer additional assistance and encouragement, demonstrates his unwavering commitment to his students’ growth and achievement,” she said.

The second recipient, teaching professor Miya Natsuhara, was singled out by students for her “contagious energy,” “engaging teaching style” and “efforts to know her students” — even while running large introductory programming courses. It is an approach that has left a lasting impression on those who take her classes, and inspired many to pursue careers in computing.

“Her approachable character and genuine concern for her students’ well-being always creates a supportive environment,” Bolante said, noting that Natsuhara “not only excels in teaching, but also goes the extra mile” for her TAs by empowering them to contribute to course development and supporting their professional growth.

Portrait of a smiling Miya Natsuhara against a wood paneled wall
Miya Natsuhara. Matt Hagen

‘We will be cheering you on’

Speaking of professional growth, Balazinska had encouraging words for the graduates about to flip their tassels and depart the arena as Allen School alumni.

“You are starting your careers at an especially challenging time for society. But along with those challenges come many opportunities,” Balazinska reminded the graduates in the arena. “Opportunities to use your Allen School education, your passion, your kindness, and your creativity to make a positive impact on the people and the world around you. 

“And just as we did tonight, we will be cheering you on.”

Congratulations to all of our graduates! We can’t wait to see what your next chapter brings!

View Andy Jassy’s speech here and the full graduation program here. Read additional coverage by GeekWire here.

A group shot of 46 people dressed in doctoral regalia posing onstage
The Allen School Ph.D. Class of 2024. Matt Hagen