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Their Time

They lead in academics, athletics, community service, and business. Meet six members of the Class of 2004 who excel both inside the classroom and out.

By Caroline Jenkins
Photos by Mark McCarty

It’s difficult to describe a typical graduate of Rensselaer. On any given day, a cross section of faculty, staff, and students will offer diverse opinions. “Problem-solving” is mentioned, as is “innovative,” “curious,” “excited,” and “smart.”

“Inquisitive,” says Teresa Duffy, dean of enrollment management. “Actually, involved is a better word. Or maybe disciplined.”

“They all possess such a vast array of talents, histories, backgrounds, abilities, and futures that I couldn’t possibly use one word to describe them all,” she says. “It is impossible to pigeonhole them that way.”

Consider the eclectic mix of talents and accomplishments possessed by the Institute’s most recent graduates who received their degrees in May. This year’s group of nearly 1,300 graduates from a wide variety of undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs includes at least one aspiring astronaut, a Peace Corps volunteer, future surgeons, successful small-business owners, inventors, and more than 200 Rensselaer Medalists. They hail from across the U.S., as well as from China, Greece, India, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Romania, Mexico, and seven other nations. They play cricket, sing in a cappella groups, and participate in student government, religious organizations, and fraternities and sororities.

Following are the stories of some of the stand-out graduates of 2004.

Eight Is Enough

Flynn Cochran ’04

Flynn Cochran ’04

Flynn Cochran knows what it’s like to be “the younger brother” in life — and on campus.

The 23-year-old Kent, Wash., native followed in the footsteps of older brothers Andy ’95, Chris ’98, Danny ’98, and Evan ’02, and enrolled at Rensselaer in 1999 without visiting the campus. (Younger brother Grant is a member of the Class of 2006.) His family’s descriptions of the university’s campus, academics, and extracurricular activities compelled him to attend. Though he knew from day one of classes that he inevitably would be compared to his brothers, being at Rensselaer “just felt right” to him.

Of course, growing up sixth in the family of eight children, Cochran was used to having to differentiate himself from the pack. He often had to do battle with his six brothers and one sister for a second helping of mashed potatoes at the dinner table, for a few minutes in the shower, and sometimes even for the attention of his parents.

“Since there was always someone around to talk to — or fight with,” Cochran says, “I’ve always been forced to stand out.” It was that determination to grab the spotlight from his siblings, he says, that spawned his sense of competition, and his drive to excel in Rensselaer’s classrooms, Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) unit, and athletics.

Cochran indeed distinguished himself from his brothers at Rensselaer. He joined the football and baseball teams, and, through stellar performances in both sports, helped lead them to national playoffs. A management major, he also received many honors for being a scholar-athlete, among them being named to the 2003 National Scholar-Athlete Class, the National All-American First Team, the All-District One First Team, the Upstate Collegiate Athletic Association All-Academic Team, and the Academic All-Conference. He was tapped to join Phalanx, an honor society that recognizes leadership, service, and devotion to the Institute. And his GPA — an impressive 3.8 — earned him the RPI Academic Excellence Award and a spot in the Epsilon Delta Sigma Management Honor Society.

Cochran also was awarded the Livingston W. Houston Citzenship Award at Commencement.

Cochran was chosen to participate in the highly selective Navy Mini-BUD/S program, a rigorous training course designed to expose carefully screened recruits to the basics of becoming a Navy SEAL. The subsequent semester, he was asked to command a company of 20 midshipmen.

“In all my years at Rensselaer, Flynn is probably one of the most tough, competitive kids that I have ever had,” says Joe King, coach of the Rensselaer football team, who recruited all of the Cochrans for the program. “But at the same time, he’s got a very rounded perspective, and he always puts the team above himself. When he can’t play, there’s definitely something missing—a spark, an intensity.”

That intensity on the field and in the classroom, says Cochran, is tempered by another one of his passions: his faith. The Cochran children were raised as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he regularly taught Sunday school in Albany.

Cochran also took a four-semester hiatus from classes at Rensselaer for a religious mission. He was sent on a particularly difficult one to Reykjavik, Iceland, which challenged him both mentally and spiritually. During that period, he spent much of his time educating others about the Mormon religion, even though he didn’t know the language before setting foot in the country.

“The experience taught me a lot of things, mostly about hard work and failure,” he says. Yet he believes the skills he acquired on the mission complement the training he received at Rensselaer, and both will help prepare him for leadership roles in the Navy and at a start-up company — where he hopes to land after serving in the military.

“Nothing will ever surprise me about Flynn,” says King of Cochran’s future plans. “He could go on to be a famous politician, a successful businessman, or an important religious leader. He just has that presence about him, that drive… He’s unique — he’s something special.”

Serving as a Role Model for Other Women and Minority Engineers

Naila Stephens ’04

Naila Stephens ’04

Naila Stephens has been a busy woman at Rensselaer. For the past four years, the 22-year-old has balanced her rigorous academic workload in computer and systems engineering with her internships, professional experiences, extracurricular activities, and social engagements. But she always managed to make time in her schedule to participate in events with Rensselaer’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE)—and especially the ones involving tutoring.

“You could tell Naila really loved helping with NSBE’s precollege initiatives and mentoring students in the local communities,” says Angela Cox-Jones, career counselor in the Career Development Center and adviser to NSBE. “She has such a quiet, unassuming demeanor, but she is so dynamic in her abilities in the classroom and with other people. Since she started with tutoring, she’s become quite a role model to many of the children and to many of her classmates as well.”

That’s because educating others about math, science, and particularly engineering, says Stephens, is a passion of hers. At times one of a handful of women or minority students in her advanced engineering courses, Stephens made it a priority to educate others like herself about what it means to be an engineer, and to encourage them to follow her lead. “Since there are not a lot of women or minorities in the engineering field, I always hope that each time I perform well or accomplish something it helps to increase the faith that people have in women or minorities,” she says.

Stephens has been doing just that for years. In her native St. Augustine, Trinidad, Stephens performed so well in her classes that she was immediately awarded her high school equivalency degree when her family immigrated to Silver Spring, Md., when she was 15. To make it easier to apply to college, she took courses at a local community college while working part time to earn money for her first semester. Once again, her performance in her classes was outstanding, and she was awarded several scholarships to attend Rensselaer, including the Institute’s Emily Roebling merit award for women and the General Motors Minority Engineering Scholarship.

At Rensselaer, Stephens continued to excel academically. She graduated with a 3.4 GPA in May, and received several scholastic honors along the way. Perhaps most notably, Stephens won a research poster competition at Rensselaer’s Walter Lincoln Hawkins ’32 Graduate Minority Research Conference in October 2003 for work on speech recognition systems during a summer internship with General Motors. The same presentation earned her a second-place win at a regional NSBE contest and a trip to the finals of the prestigious Undergraduate Studies in Technical Research competition at the national NSBE competition in Dallas. All her accomplishments helped to land her a position as an information technology analyst working with equities technology at Lehman Brothers Inc.

While she is excited to begin her new job in New York in July, the decision to defer graduate studies was a tough one for Stephens. “I feel like there are a lot more minorities and women in engineering now at the undergraduate level, but there is still the need for a lot more of us to stay on for advanced degrees,” she says, adding that she won’t rule out a doctorate in engineering at some point in the coming years.

Nevertheless, she is excited at her prospects for the immediate future — and for the temporary break from her hectic schedule. “It’s definitely nice to have a job lined up,” she laughs. “It will finally give me some time off to relax a little.”

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Rensselaer Magazine: Summer 2004
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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

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