Seniors Chen and Santhanam earn Knights of St. Patrick honor


Laura Schmitt

Bioengineering seniors Jackie Chen and Shreya Santhanam were among the 11 College of Engineering undergraduates to be selected as 2018 Knights of St. Patrick, an honor that recognizes leadership, excellence in character, and exceptional contributions to the college and its students.  They will be inducted into the society on March 10, at the annual St. Patrick ball.

Bioengineering seniors Shreya Santhanam (left) and Jackie Chen were among 11 engineering students selected as 2018 Knights of St. Patrick.
Bioengineering seniors Shreya Santhanam (left) and Jackie Chen were among 11 engineering students selected as 2018 Knights of St. Patrick.

The son of Chinese immigrants, Chen learned about hard work, leadership, and character from his parents who ran their own restaurant and bakery (Wei Hong) in St. Louis. He and his younger brother worked alongside their parents helping wait tables, wash dishes, and prep and cook meals.   

"They worked hard so I could pursue my dreams," said Chen, who recalled how his parents often missed his school activities when he was younger because they were working 60+ hours each week to support the family.  "I'm really thankful for my family, for the support of the community I found at Illinois, and for the department, who helped me through this process and helped me find my passion."

At Illinois, Chen has been active in service opportunities where he could help other students succeed—from outreach activities for K-12 students to tutoring and mentoring fellow Illinois students. According to Chen, although his parents didn't have the experience to guide his academic success, he did have many caring mentors who could.  

"I had great mentors in high school like teachers, who guided me through the application process for college," he said. "When I got here, I had upperclassmen who helped me be successful. I hoped to inspire people to pursue their goals and dreams, and I wanted to prolong this mentoring chain."

As an officer with the Illinois Engineering Ambassadors, Chen is currently working on a major outreach event that will be held later this spring at the Museum of Science and Industry, pairing Illinois engineering volunteers with Chicago Public School students, particularly historically marginalized people. As the project chair with the Engineering Outreach Society, he organized and participated in weekly visits to local elementary schools, where he and other volunteers led fun, hands-on engineering activities that teach the kids critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Chen has helped scores of Illinois engineering students with their academic work and study skills as a mentor through the Center for Academic Resources in Engineering (CARE), and he taught two sections of the required Engineering 100 course for new freshman. 

During the last two years, Chen has conducted research with Industrial & Enterprise Systems Engineering Professor Kesh Kesavadas and interned at Jump Simulation. A major highlight at Jump was working on the development of an application that displayed 3D models, making it easier for doctors to explain medical diagnoses and procedures to patients.

After he graduates, Chen plans to work in the medical devices field and, longer term, pursue a graduate degree. "I want to help medical professionals do their job better," said Chen, who is particularly interested in working in the surgical robotics field.

Throughout her four years at Illinois, Shreya Santhanam has been passionate about serving others, primarily through Engineering Council (EC) and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) activities. In all her leadership roles, she has strived to create a sense of community among her fellow volunteers while advancing the mission of the two student-focused organizations.

Currently the president of EC, Santhanam works with College of Engineering administration and her fellow board members to enhance major events like Engineering Open House and the Engineering Expo career fair. "I'm really proud of this work because it will directly impact a lot of students," she said.

Each year, hundreds of Illinois engineering students showcase more than 200 engineering projects for thousands of visitors at EOH. Dozens of EC volunteers make sure the event, which also includes several school-age and college design competitions, runs smoothly.

Thanks to Santhanam's leadership in initiating a partnership between EC and local vendors two years ago, EOH visitors can now purchase meals on the engineering campus from food trucks, freeing up more of their time to explore the exhibits and competitions.

As an underclassman EC officer, she designed a Harry Potter-themed media campaign and promotional videos for Illinois engineering students during EWEEK—a weeklong national celebration that highlights the contributions that engineers make to society.

Santhanam has made the most of her leadership roles in SWE, as well. She launched Company Bagel Breaks, a widely popular event where recruiters informally meet with students. As SWE's external vice president, she communicates her chapter's events and accomplishments to 53 fellow SWE regional collegiate groups, sharing best practices to promote growth and development for all the chapters.

Santhanam has had a big impact on Bioengineering students as a course assistant for two, freshman-level courses: BioE 120 and BioE 199. In both courses, she mentors the freshman in technical writing, scientific presentations, and research skills. She also helped develop case-based projects for upperclassmen enrolled in the Biomedical Instrumentation class (BioE 414), and she graded assignments and led online discussion boards to help those students understand the course material better.

After she graduates in May, Santhanam plans to attend law school—a pursuit that has been fueled by her minor in political science. In fact, in late 2016, Santhanam traveled for 10 days to Havana, Cuba, with fellow Illinois students enrolled in a political science class.

"If anything, my trip to Cuba solidified my interest in going into law," she said.  "Learning about the differences between our society and Cuban society showed me how important it is to be able to stand up for what you believe in and be able to protect one's individual rights."