Oxford Student and South Buffalo Native Offers Inspiration to Undergrads

By Brian Peters

Release Date: October 15, 2010

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UB alum Aaron Krolikowski, who now is studying at Oxford University, recently offered advice to UB Honors College students on pursuing their passions.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Aaron Krolikowski sat at a long table normally occupied by prominent University at Buffalo faculty members, surrounded by students and staff from the UB Honors College. The students came from a wide range of majors -- English, architecture, geography, environmental science -- but they all had one thing in common. They had set the bar high. They were all looking for inspiration.

"I was doing a lot of the right things, but for the wrong reasons," Krolikowski advised them.

"Do things because you want to, not because you think you have to."

Krolikowski, who graduated last year with honors from UB, was speaking about the path he took that eventually led him to study at Oxford University in England, where he is currently pursuing a MPhil/DPhil (Oxford's doctor of philosophy degree) in development studies, which is a mix of economics, anthropology and political science. Oxford, a highly esteemed learning institution, was founded more than nine centuries ago, making it the first university in the English-speaking world.

The UB Honors College felt that after having spent a year at Oxford, Krolikowski was a good person to speak to undergraduate students about pursuing their goals. His presentation, entitled "Why Even the 'Perfect' Resume Won't get you into Oxford," was delivered to members of the Honors College gathered on the top floor of UB's Capen Hall on a recent Wednesday afternoon. It focused on students engaging in activities that they enjoyed and felt passionate about, instead of doing activities simply so that they would look good on a resume.

While the "perfect" resume may not be enough to get you into Oxford, one as well-rounded as Krolikowski's certainly didn't hurt. He worked with non-profit groups, such as the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and the Environmental Justice Action Group; was a member of the Buffalo Chips, Buffalo's only all-male a cappella group; worked on environmental policy for Western New York and Southern Ontario with UB's Regional Institute; and spent time working in the New York State Attorney General's office dealing with the Environmental Protection Bureau.

Born in South Buffalo, Krolikowski has been motivated from a young age to strive for academic excellence. "I was encouraged by my parents to push to be my best," he said. He also found inspiration from his sister Allana, also an alumnus of the UB Honors College, who now is enrolled in UB's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

"She is a strong source of support."

In between his sophomore and junior years at UB, Krolikowski traveled with his sister to Tanzania to take part in an agricultural development program. "We relied on each other take that first step," he says of their trip.

But Krolikowski now feels that he initially went on the trip to Tanzania for the wrong reasons. At the time, he had gone to Africa because he thought it was something that would look good on a resume, rather than because it was a cause he was passionate about, and would be a positive experience.

"Every day I was there I wanted to go home," says Krolikowski. Though he may have not enjoyed the trip, he thinks it made him a stronger person. "I don't regret anything that I've done because each experience made me the person I am today, and I like who I am."

As a finalist for the Truman, Marshall and Rhodes Scholarships, Krolikowski attended interviews for each scholarship. Having gone on the trip to Tanzania for the perceived academic rewards, instead of for the experience itself, had a negative impact on his interviewing process. Rather than describing his own ideas and how his experiences had shaped them, Krolikowski found himself trying to tell the interviewees what he thought they would want to hear, and consequently was not selected for any of those scholarships.

Krolikowski did manage to secure a Udall scholarship, a scholarship that focuses on environmental issues, thanks to his work with the UB Regional Institute and environmental non-profits, and he traveled to Arizona to a gathering of all the other Udall scholarship winners. It was there that Krolikowski was able to meet other students with similar aspirations, helping him focus on the true motivations for the choices he had made, which he feels improved his interview skills.

"It's hard to get to know yourself," says Krolikowski. "Sometimes you have to sacrifice taking part in an activity to take time to reflect on the things you've already done, and why."

In December of 2008, Krolikowski was accepted into Oxford, a longtime dream of his, but would have had to take out at least $100,000 in loans in order to go. Initially, his parents were not happy, thinking their son would spend the rest of his life in debt since Krolikowski was not attending Oxford with plans to enter a profession traditionally considered more financially secure, such as a doctor or lawyer, but would instead be going for development studies. So he started applying to other, less expensive, graduate schools.

"It can be hard to reconcile with your parents expectations," Krolikowski said.

On Feb. 2, 2009, Krolikowski announced to his parents that, regardless of what it could cost him, he was going to go to study at Oxford University.

Two weeks later, Krolikowski discovered he had been selected to receive a Clarendon Scholarship, a scholarship funded by the Oxford University Press, which would fully cover his four-years there, alleviating his parent's financial concerns.

Krolikowski concluded his presentation to the UB Honors College students by re-emphasizing some of the main points.

"Focus on the true motivations for your choices," he told them. "Own your choices," rather than simply "trying to appease your parents."

Krolikowski was asked by some Honors College faculty members about what he felt was the best way to assist students in meeting their academic goals.

"Encourage us to dream big," he said. "Be honest with us. Rip us apart, but build us back up at the same time."

When finished at Oxford, Krolikowski plans on getting involved with an urban development group in Buffalo as a way to give back to the community he grew up in.

"When I come back to Buffalo I want to find innovative ways to revitalize declining Rust Belt neighborhoods."