"Be Seen," Says Commencement Speaker
June 5, 2023 - “I wanted to be a face people can see,” said this year’s engineering student commencement speaker Wezam Paully-Umeh, about why he became an Engineering Ambassador at UCI. That visibility comes pretty easy for Paully-Umeh who’s 6-foot-4 and has a strong instinct for building community.
His affinity for people likely stems from his childhood in Nigeria, where he fondly recalls he could at any time join a soccer game with 20 other children, be invited to a neighbor’s house for dinner and pick up friends to ride in the back of his uncle’s truck where they played games on the way to church.
Fast forward a decade and Paully-Umeh is active on campus in the National Society of Black Engineers, Nigerian Students Association and as president of Kappa Alpha Psi, which he proudly defines as a fraternity devoted to achievement and service.
He recently took the ΚΑΨ brothers to personally hand out over 200 pieces of clothing and 50 hygiene bags to unhoused people on skid row in Los Angeles. “I love service ‘cause we can be with people in the moment and have a conversation with them,” he said. “It humbles us because no one’s above anybody.”
His family braved immigrating to the United States from West Africa when he was 12. “Coming to this country was no easy feat,” he said. “We came with nothing.” Envisioning better prospects for their three boys, his mother and father ended their careers as an interior designer and water engineer in Nigeria to start a new life with the boys in America.
His father’s skills were a marvel to him as a boy. “My brothers and I were rascals, we broke everything,” he said. But to his amazement, his dad would put the pieces back together again. “I thought it was magic,” he recalled with a smile. Later as a teen, Paully-Umeh would do the same for his young nephews. “My curiosity drove my ambition in engineering,” he said. “I like to fix things and figure out how they work.”
He went on to design award-winning robots in high school and came to UCI attracted by the engineering programs and the financial aid that covered tuition and housing. During his UCI years, he helped create a portable turbine for his senior project and enjoyed highlights like seeing a photo of the Nigerian Student Association Club appear on UCI and UC Instagram pages.
This year the club hosted the 9th Annual Nigerian Student Coalition Conference that saw over 300 university students from all over California gather for panels, workshops and networking.
He and his ΚΑΨ brothers also got to perform a step show during halftime at a Clippers game during Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Night, a game dedicated to black excellence in colleges and universities.
“Be seen,” he tells people of color and women in STEM. “There are so few of you, so make sure you stand out.”
As an outstanding UCI mechanical engineering senior, Paully-Umeh received mechanical engineering job offers from General Dynamics, where he interned, and the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. But the allure of aerospace led him to accept an associate aeronautical engineer position at Northrop Grumman. He also aspires to start a business in Nigeria one day to create new opportunities for his people.
He's a personable and confident young man and credits those qualities to his parents whom he describes as always humble and a pillar of the community. They named him Chukwuwezam – Wezam for short - which in Igbo means “for God has answered my prayer." His Catholic faith formed his discipline and drive, he says, and is a source of strength for him. “When I’m down, I know I can always have a conversation with God.”
Talking - be it to God or to humans - is what Paully-Umeh likes to do. On commencement day, he’ll share this love for connection, aka “networking,” with his fellow graduates. “Talk to people,” he says, “connect with them.” That’s how you build community. That’s how you are seen.
– Natalie Tso