Two shining examples of leadership, mentorship and scholarship have been chosen to inspire their fellow Huskies as student speakers at Michigan Technological University’s 2023 Midyear Commencement ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 16.
Undergraduate speaker Aerith Cruz and graduate speaker Sushree Dash will share memorable Michigan Tech moments and advice for the future at the ceremony, which takes place at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in the Varsity Gym in Michigan Tech’s Student Development Complex (SDC).
The occasion honors the achievements of approximately 350 graduates — including Cruz, who majored in management information systems with a minor in statistics, and Dash, earning her Ph.D. in Applied Physics.
- The SDC will be open by 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 16.
- Free parking is on a first-come, first-served basis in Lot 22 adjacent to the SDC and Lot 24 near the football field. See the campus map for accessible parking locations.
- Concessions and campus retail stores will be open.
- Can’t be here? Catch the commencement livestream.
- Share your Husky Pride on social media using #mtugrad.
Dash, who specializes in interactions and applications of light and materials with an emphasis in magneto-optics materials and nanotechnology, said she’s honored to represent MTU’s graduate students and speak to ingrained beliefs surrounding the sacrifices involved for women pursuing advanced degrees.
“Growing up I was scared of pursuing a Ph.D.,” she said. “The stories of academic life, lack of a personal life, women’s voices not being heard … My journey at MTU was life-altering. My old fears were shattered. We are the change. We, with our determination and love for science, can make the field of science a piece of art as well.”
"I see physics as my canvas and me, the physicist, as the artist. My story has never been to say that physics is easy. My story has always been to say physics is fun."
“The mysteries in physics are no less than in the murder mysteries or CLUE or any other board games we love to play,” said Dash. “There are days when I find physics slightly easier than the board games. I am your friendly companion in the world of science when you decide to play the game of physics. And I welcome all to join this journey of solving the mysteries of the atom or the universe.”
Dash, who’s from Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India, said she chose Tech for many reasons, including its research opportunities and Mont Ripley Ski Hill. “But my deciding factor was a call from an undergrad alumnus,” she said. “I felt I was going from one family to another. Michigan Tech is like a family to me. It has been a family to me since day one. I never had to choose between my family in India and research at Michigan Tech. I chose both, and because of that, my personal and professional life is something I adore as part of my Ph.D. journey.”
A 2022 recipient of a Michigan Tech Doctoral Finishing Fellowship, Dash’s accomplishments during her studies at Tech include numerous publications and several awards, including the Ovshinsky and Distinguished Student Awards that recognize Ph.D. students and their research at American Physical Society conferences. “These awards recognized my research and gave me an opportunity to present. The awards covered my conference expenses, helped me learn more about current science and enabled me to talk to female scientists about their life stories in the field of science,” said Dash, who was selected to attend Optica’s Student Leadership Experience as one of the 100 top student leaders in optics and photonics in the world.
A member of Women in Physics, Keweenaw Youth for Climate Action and Students for Sustainability, Dash was also an active outdoor enthusiast and especially enjoyed winter sports. “I will never forget learning to ski on Mont Ripley — the one thousand falls and learning to trust the lack of friction, the angle of the mountain and most importantly, myself,” she said.
Like Dash, undergraduate student speaker Aerith Cruz enjoys skiing at Mont Ripley. A northern lights chaser and Keweenaw explorer, she carried out her goal to create and expand access to opportunities for others across campus by serving as a mentor to prospective students, an Orientation team leader and an ExSEL peer mentor at MTU’s Waino Wahtera Center for Student Success.
She also served on the Center for Diversity and Inclusion President’s Council, helping guide CDI initiatives and advocating for the needs of students across campus.
The Leading Scholar program brought Cruz to Tech. She’s been a proponent ever since, volunteering at 11 scholarship events and supporting prospective students as a Tech Pal mentor.
“My journey to Michigan Tech began in my junior year of high school, when I met an alumna while leading a FIRST Robotics demo at my former elementary school,” said Cruz, who hails from Chaska, Minnesota. “Her passion for Tech sparked my curiosity. When I explored what Michigan Tech has to offer, I discovered the Leading Scholar program. The application deadline was less than a week away! I challenged myself to pursue the opportunity. As a result, I was one of the six winners of Tech’s most prestigious and competitive full-ride scholarship award, which recognizes exemplary leadership and academic excellence.”
Cruz began paying the opportunity forward from the moment she arrived on campus, continuing to be involved in activities that challenge and nurture prospective Huskies competing in the scholarship program.
“One of my Tech Pals from a 2020 Leading Scholar event recognized me in the dining hall years later,” Cruz said. “He acknowledged that I encouraged him to attend Tech and helped him be successful during his Leading Scholar event. It’s highly rewarding to see the impact of my leadership through the achievement of others.”
Cruz continued to challenge herself while at Tech, earning the 2023 President’s Award for Leadership and the Rising Star of the Year award.
As president of Michigan Tech’s section of the Society of Women Engineers, which has more than 200 members, Cruz presented at national conferences in 2021 and 2022, and was one of 10 students nationwide who received the Outstanding Collegiate Member Award at the 2023 SWE national conference. Cruz is only the second Michigan Tech SWE member to receive this award since the organization was established at MTU in 1976.
Other highlights of Cruz’s term included hosting the event “Breaking Stereotypes for Women Engineers” and establishing the SWE Endowed Scholarship, which will award funding annually to a SWE member beginning in 2026.
"I’m thrilled to leave a legacy in support of the future generations of women engineers at Michigan Tech."
Cruz has also helped to further the cycle project, which provides menstrual products on campus at no charge, and created fundraisers for local Keweenaw organizations. She remains involved in FIRST Robotics, mentoring a team that advanced to the 2022 world championships semifinals, volunteering as a supervisor at competitions and serving as an executive board member of Copper Country Robotics.
Her philanthropy and leadership extends to her recreational activities. The former high school varsity fencer and coach became president of Michigan Tech’s Fencing Club, introducing beginner’s lessons, teaching at community events and creating a competitive training regimen.
“Since then, more than 250 students and community members have tried the sport for the first time and active membership in the group has increased by 500%,” she said.
Cruz, who is completing her degree work in three and a half years, will begin her career as an associate technical project manager at 3M. “I look forward to moving with my family to Houston, Texas,” she said. “Our family — mom, dad, and younger sister — travel together. So far, we have traveled to 21 countries outside of the United States. I'm excited to continue our travels, exploring more of the world with my family.”
Grads Grateful for Bright Futures and Sources of Support
Dash is joining the Langhammer research group at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. “I guess I am getting physically and careerwise closer to the Nobel Prize,” she said, laughing. “And the snowy slopes will stay with me. Jokes aside, the Langhammer group invented a device called a micro-shutter, which has shown incredible results in controlling the growth of materials. I will be joining their research to learn about the technology and contribute toward the materials research/growth in nano alloys.”
“One day, I dream of creating my own startup company to solve quantum computing problems,” said Dash. “I have loved optics and photonics forever. I also dream about using my materials research knowledge to build a portable quantum computer.”
Dash said she’s inspired by India’s mythological hero Krishna, considered a master of strategy and management; Taylor Swift, recently named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and a revolutionary in her industry; and India-born international actress, producer and philanthropist Priyanka Chopra, a 2000 Miss World winner who gives Dash “the courage to venture into the unknown with talent, humility and resilience.”
Dash said she can’t imagine how she could have successfully completed her Ph.D. work without many cherished friendships. She’s especially grateful to her family and friends from India for their unconditional love and support.
“I ventured into many aspects of research because of their belief in my resilience, skills and determination,” she said. “I would also like to express my gratitude to the physics department and my advisor, Dr. Miguel Levy. I also thank Dr. Kathryn Perrine for all the long hours of discussion regarding the balance of research and personal life.”
Cruz also credits faculty, family and friends for her success, including two particularly important influences.
“My mother, Joana Cruz, is my inspiration and role model. She motivates and coaches me to strive to be the best version of myself. She supports me in every opportunity, activity and involvement I’ve pursued. I would not be who and where I am today without her,” she said. “I also extend my deepest gratitude to Dr. Gretchen Hein — the SWE advisor, my mentor and friend — who nominated me for the national SWE award and many others. She is my biggest advocate at Michigan Tech.”
“I am incredibly grateful to be selected as the undergraduate student speaker,” said Cruz. “With every opportunity that has been presented to me, I have always challenged myself with a simple question: ‘Why not? Let’s just go for it.’ I hope to inspire my fellow graduates to continue challenging themselves in their future endeavors, and that there can be a lot of impact within that simple question.”
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.