UB's Sean Kaczmarek advocates for the voiceless

Kaczmarek works to improve the opportunity of public education


Sean Kaczmarek chuckles at the idea of someone calling him “a social warrior for public education.”

But as the youngest person to serve on the Cheektowaga-Sloan Board of Education at the age of 19 and as an employee of the Buffalo public schools through UB’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP), the junior political science major considers himself to be on a mission for public education.

Kaczmarek is also the new vice president of the Student Association and finalist for the Harry S. Truman scholarship.

But drawing attention to himself is not part of his mission.

“I don’t like to blow up the situation or make what I’m doing seem greater than it is,” Kaczmarek said. “But, of course, I’m an advocate for public education. I mean there’s no doubt about that. I’m a strong believer in it and the opportunities it provides.”

These opportunities have been evident to Kaczmarek for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Cheektowaga, a suburb just east of Buffalo, school was always important to him. He always worked hard for good grades and knew his effort was not in vain.

During his senior year of high school, Kaczmarek remembers an influx of students transferring to John F. Kennedy High School from inner-city schools. The issues of poverty and inequality in education started to reveal themselves to Kaczmarek.

“The majority of my school was middle-class, nice life, Cheektowaga, suburban kids, but nearing the end of my senior year there were more and more kids coming where you didn’t know what they were going home to, whether it be regarding their family situation, or even having a warm house to go home to,” Kaczmarek said.

Not long after, he began thinking about education on a larger scale than his own life. He was in a position to make changes.

Kaczmarek’s parents always assured him and his sister that college was in their future, but it would not be a college savings account or legacy that got them there.

“I didn’t grow up wealthy by any means,” Kaczmaek said. “I didn’t have any connections or any natural endowments at birth, so I always knew it was necessary for me to get a good education.”

During Kaczmarek’s freshman year at UB, he joked around about running for school board because he was 18. Although it was meant to be sarcastic, Kaczmarek’s father suggested he seriously consider it.

Kaczmarek took his father’s advice. He went to the school board meetings and two things became evident to him: the school board needed someone with his perspective and he needed a spot on the school board to use that perspective toward change.

Kaczmarek had just graduated the year before so he knew the staff, administration and how the school was run. No one else had that perspective, he said.

“I knew I was never going able to voice my opinions or have inside knowledge of what was going on unless I was on the board,” Kaczmarek said.

He began making himself known in his community and collected signatures for the petition that would put him in the running.

By the time of elections, not only did Kaczmarek succeed in getting his name on the ballot, he encouraged enough people to circle his name to make him, at the age of 19, the youngest person to ever be elected to the Cheektowaga-Sloan school board.

Since his election, Kaczmarek describes having an increased understanding regarding the real problems that face the Cheektowaga-Sloan school district as well as an increased say in how to go about fixing them.

His hands-on work with education in Cheektowaga and the City of Buffalo has enhanced Kaczmarek’s extensive knowledge regarding education policy, which is only one of the reasons he is a finalist for the prestigious Harry S. Truman scholarship.

“A Truman scholar is someone who is trying to change the world in a very thoughtful way,” said Elizabeth Colucci, UB’s coordinator of nationally competitive fellowships and scholarships. “I tell people Sean is like an iceberg. You meet him and you see the tip, but he really has such depth to him. He’s the kind of person who’s working in an area to try and make change, but intellectually, has really thought about it.”

Kaczmarek is just as concerned with making changes at UB.

As the SA vice president, Kaczmarek will be helping SA clubs coordinate their events as well as taking part in planning every concert, comedy series, Distinguished Speaker Series and other major SA events.

“I feel like SA tends to get a bad rap sometimes but it’s providing a lot for students and I just want to be part of improving the areas that need improvement and making it better,” Kaczmarek said.

He will be working alongside Minahil Khan, a junior political science and communication major and 2015-16 SA President.

Kaczmarek and Khan are not just running mates, but have been good friends since they began at UB. When considering running for president, Khan said there was no one she would rather run on the ballot with.

“I knew that if I was going to run for president, I would want to run with someone who was super dedicated and having been [Kaczmarek’s] friend for so long, I knew the level of dedication he shows to the things he does so it just made sense to run together,” Khan said.

Being a part of ISEP has had one of the biggest impacts on Kaczmarek.

According to Kaczmarek, the partnership – funded by the National Science Foundation – is an initiative to improve the curriculum in STEM subjects throughout Buffalo public schools.

Kaczmarek first became involved with the science and engineering partnership in the fall of 2014. During his first semester, he went to various Buffalo public schools, going through assignments and labs with students and making sure they understood their curriculum.

This semester, Kaczmarek is primarily working on the “English language learner” portion of the partnership program. Although he has moved from STEM subjects to focus on English, helping the students often involves a combination of the two, he said.

Kaczmarek has students who are English language learners whose parents are refugees from Somalia, Nepal, Burma and Bangladesh – there’s no guarantee the students go home to food or a warm house, he said.

“To get out of these situations, all [these kids] have to rely on is their education,” Kaczmarek said. “There’s no other way for them and that’s why we need to work for a better system or work to fund it more. We need to make it the best we possibly can.”

Because issues in education are always evolving, Kaczmarek does not know exactly what he will want to change about it in the future. He does plan to keep up with changing issues and aspires to work on education and education policy someday as an elected official.

The people surrounding him have no doubt that Kaczmarek will succeed.

Along with Khan, Colucci also describes Kaczmarek as dedicated, knowledgeable, modest and hardworking.

But Kaczmarek said he isn’t interested in inflating his ego so if asked to pick one word to describe himself, he would most likely change the subject.

Sophia McKeone is a staff writer and can be reached at features@ubspectrum.com