Uthej Vattipalli, a master’s student in civil engineering, put international and minority students at the top of his agenda.
COLLEGE STATION, June 3, 2021 – Outgoing 2020-2021 Texas A&M University Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG) student body president Uthej Vattipalli looks back with pride at what he and the GPSG accomplished during a challenging academic year. As he concludes his tenure, he looks forward to pursuing bold ambitions: richest man in the world; prime minister of India; physicist. Yes, in that order.
“I know these are probably not achievable,” Vattipalli acknowledges, displaying a wide, impish grin under a short mustache. “But at the same time, that’s not going to stop me from pursuing them.”
Ever since he can remember, Vattipalli has wrestled with a need for recognition. Growing up in Andhra Pradesh, India, he became the only one of his siblings to attend university. There, a relationship spoiled by violence and codependency, a failed class and disqualification from participating in the student council presidential race forced him to confront what he considers his own narcissistic impulses.
“The narcissism in me kind of made it like, ‘yeah, I’m going to win everything.’ But then I always fell short,” he says. Failure not only impeded his plans, but hurt those who depended on his promises—for leadership, for contribution to academic projects, for pride in a son. As a result, according to Vattipalli, he lacked pride in himself.
Exiting a toxic relationship provided Vattipalli the impetus he needed to focus more intently on his academic and personal goals. Imbued with newfound confidence, he went on to lead a team of students through the development of an infrastructure design to win the Safer India Challenge 2018, India’s largest road safety engineering competition.
Seeking Opportunity in the United States
After a year of working, Vattipalli moved to the United States to complete his master’s degree. Texas A&M’s reputation as a premiere civil engineering school appealed to Vattipalli, and he began the Master’s in Transportation Engineering program in 2019.
“Coming to United States was to kind of find myself,” recalls Vattipalli. That meant applying the research process to every opportunity presented to him.
First, Vattipalli joined a team of students competing in a NASA’s Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge. NASA rejected their proposal, dissolving the team. But Vattipalli was undeterred by failure. Excited by the NASA project, he persevered, joining at the eleventh hour another Texas A&M group under Dr. Eduardo Gildin. The team had succeeded in earning the $10,000 grant to develop the Drilling and Extraction Automated System (DREAMS).
A resilient spirit would serve Vattipalli well as social distancing precautions and supply-chain shortages resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to derail the project. With his help, the team designed and built the “Integrity Structure,” a light but incredibly strong system that supported extraterrestrial subsurface drilling.
Nevertheless, the NASA project failed to provide the sense of fulfilment Vattipalli was looking for. He moved on to two more projects: working with a team to design an autonomous Indy 500-style racing vehicle and co-founding Ai-Ris, a Texas A&M University group focused on developing a low-cost retinal imaging system to diagnose eye diseases in diabetics.
A pattern had begun to emerge where joy came not in the project itself, but in the process of identifying innovative projects and shepherding them through their beginning stages.
Vattipalli made it his ambition to climb mountains until none are left to climb. “I want to be an entrepreneur—a serial entrepreneur—entering different domains and pursuing the edge of innovation to maximize my utility for humanity.” Blending his knowledge of the sciences and newfound entrepreneurial spirit, Vattipalli participated in a National Science Foundation I-Corps fellowship from January – February 2021 performing customer discovery.
One more mountain related to his time at Texas A&M remained for Vattipalli to overcome before he graduates. He had served as a “decent” GPSG senator during the 2019-2020 school year. But when the opportunity arose to pursue the office of GPSG president for the 2020-2021 term, Vattipalli devoted himself to campaigning—he sent emails to the communication coordinators for every college and school—in the first-ever public GPSG election.
“I just became a beast,” Vattipalli says with a laugh, describing his campaigning style. He won by a margin of two votes, a feat he attributes to his persistence.
Novel difficulties compelled Vattipalli to consider the talents and resources in his own team more fully. “I had certain pre-notions about certain teammates,” admits Vattipalli. “I had to cut that off, cut those pre-notions to be myself and be more open to my teammates.”
As a participant in prior initiatives, he had learned to deliver on promises made by working hard and pressing on despite mounting obstacles. Now, he relied on others to do the same. “This is all a chessboard, and you have to see what are the different strengths that people bring,” he says.
Vattipalli describes how the greatest accomplishments of the GPSG in the past year directly stemmed from the social and political tumult in America that dominated the news cycle over the course of the pandemic. The GPSG facilitated campus conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion and, in collaboration with the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), hosted a safe protest—Vattipalli’s first—on campus.
The GPSG advocated for international students negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic before Texas state and local governments. Representatives from the GPSG met with U.S. senators and staff, authored white papers and lobbied for the reintroduction of the Startup Act, pleading for the state officials to loosen immigration restrictions pertaining to students and entrepreneurs.
The GPSG also provided a student perspective to the Office of Graduate and Professional Studies in its ongoing transition to the Graduate and Professional School, participating in focus groups and providing input as to how the new Grad School can best serve the graduate and professional community.
Pursuit of Happiness
For Vattipalli, accomplishments like these are byproducts of his quest for personal happiness. As a kid, his sole desire was to achieve goals, “but now it’s this happiness of being in the learning experience.” Each time he begins a new project, whether in a leadership position or simply as a reliable teammate, Vattipalli gains knowledge and the experience that comes with it.
Endeavors don’t always materialize the way Vattipalli envisions. “I’ve become good friends with failure to the point I embrace it,” he says. Thought of failure still daunts Vattipalli, even triggering panic attacks. But it also emboldens him to take risks.
“It’s that blind hope that helped me keep moving.” Blind, because he still doesn’t know where he will go next, even with a new job as a transit designer for a multinational civil engineering company. Hope, because, he says, “I’m very grown up, I’m having a lot of fun, and I’ve found my identity.”
When he completed his undergraduate degree, Vattipalli didn’t find his accomplishment valuable enough to merit his parents’ attendance at the graduation ceremony. When he walks in December 2021 with his master’s degree from Texas A&M, he promises not to make the same mistake.
By Micaela Burrow, Texas A&M University Graduate and Professional School
- Rob Dixon, Texas A&M University Graduate and Professional School,
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