Senior Mike Ferenczy, winner of this year’s Wendell Philips award, is not quite sure why he was chosen to be the only undergraduate to speak at this year’s commencement exercises.
“I think I had a pretty good speech,” the engineering major said. “I don’t know if anything really set me apart from the other seven finalists. From what I hear, they all had really great speeches, and I’m sure anyone of them would have been a great speaker at commencement.”
Despite his humble explanation, Ferenczy has the academics and a wide variety of activities to back up his award. The 22 year-old Buffalo, NY, native began his academic career at Hamburg High School in Western New York. While in high school, Ferenczy played baseball and the drums, the latter passion he continued last semester by playing for Torn Ticket II’s production of Zombie Prom.
Unlike many freshmen, Ferenczy began his year with an uncommon degree of confidence. “I had just come back from living a year with my family in Switzerland, and I was ready to go to college,” he said. “I’d been through the typical anxieties about leaving home the year before, so I was able to enjoy freshman year without that added stress.”
Ferenczy credits college with teaching him how to live with a group of diverse people. “I think it’s a hard skill to learn, and an important one that Tufts teaches you,” he said. “Also, Hamburg, NY, is a pretty homogeneous place, and I’ve learned a lot about other people and cultures here.”
And though Ferenczy failed to earn a spot on the Tufts baseball team during his freshman year, he was more successful in other endeavors. Ferenczy has been a resident assistant for three years.
“It’s probably the most gratifying experience I’ve had at Tufts, or in my life so far,” he said. “The positive effect I can have on someone’s life is so much more important than any schoolwork I’ve done.”
And in typical RA mode, Ferenczy is full of advice about maximizing the Tufts experience. He is quick to recommend a few “must-have” professors.
“Professor Morse is the most committed professor I have met at Tufts, and a great lecturer,” Ferenczy said. “Both “Intro to Philosophy” with Professor David Denby and “Ethical Theory” with Professor Lionel McPherson were great courses.”
But most students would recognize Ferenczy’s name from his work outside of the classroom, particularly in student government. He has been active on service committees such as Budget and Priorities, and has participated in Kids to College and Kids Day for Leonard Carmichael Society. Outside of campus, he has worked on cancer research in Buffalo at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, trying to find out why DNA replicates. Ferenczy is currently a TA for Chemistry 2 lab.
As the Chair of the Tufts Community Union Judiciary (TCUJ), Ferenczy was involved in renewing the process of recognizing new student groups and running the “re-recognition” of existing student groups. His interest in the “J” spawns from his concern for advocacy and justice on campus.
“We’re training a group of students to act as advocates for people involved in the disciplinary process,” he said. “This is a way to make the process better, and to hopefully give everyone the feeling that they’re getting treated fairly.”
Ferenczy declined to comment on his college GPA. But he stressed that although academics have always been a priority, he has always balanced his classes with his extracurricular commitments.
“I think it’s important to develop both intellectual and emotional maturity at college,” Ferenczy said. “You need to get a good GPA so you can accomplish your post-graduation goals, but a 4.0 isn’t essential.”
In his speech to the Committee on Student Life during the competition for the Wendell Philips award, he said, “the most important lessons of life you don’t learn in a classroom. You learn just by the act of living, especially during times of struggle.”
Ferenczy cites the tragic death of his father, when Ferenczy was 16, as a crucial life lesson that has defined his college experience. After spending time reading and reflecting, Ferenczy decided to try to move forward with his life. Reflecting on his father’s illness, Ferenczy now says that “for more reasons than I can list” his parents are his true heroes.
“When my father was sick, that taught me a lot about life,” Ferenczy said. “My mother was amazing, holding my family together and raising three children and working and taking care of my dad. I learned values and strength and pride during that period.”
Claiming that he is no more an expert on dealing with life’s hardships than any other student, Ferenczy recognizes that no two hardships are exactly alike.
“Each person must learn to deal with struggle in his or her own way,” Ferenczy said. “I do believe in the resiliency of the human spirit.”
After graduating this year, Ferenczy hopes to teach with Teach for America, possibly at an inner-city school. His first choice is a position in New York City. The volunteer spirit runs in his family; Ferenczy’s brother, a junior at University of Pittsburgh, is pursuing similar goals.
After the Wendell Phillips address is over, Ferenczy’s plan is a bit less structured.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to be doing yet,” he said. “I have a couple of ideas – I might go on to law school or grad school for science. I’ve always wanted to teach after having a career, but maybe I’ll do it the other way around.”