Student Commencement speaker reflects on growth and investing in education

New CSE graduate Joshua Ichen reminds peers to empower others

Despite being from a small town, Joshua Ichen always had big dreams. On May 10, the boy from Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin—home to 21,840 residents—spoke on behalf of the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering graduating Class of 2024. Soon, Ichen will start a coveted job as an industrial engineer at Boston Scientific—a fulltime position he landed long before Commencement day. 

“It was just four years ago that I cooked my first meal at college, trying to use chicken straight from the freezer, and confused when it was still raw after I cooked it,” said Ichen, who majored in industrial and systems engineering (ISyE), in his speech to the gathered crowd of nearly 4,000 at Mariucci Arena. “It was just four years ago that my high school, and many others around the world, canceled graduation due to the pandemic,” he continued. “And, it was just four years ago that we selected the University of Minnesota for various reasons—a decision, for me, that has turned into one of the greatest of my life.”

In class, Ichen soaked up all he could from his professors. His enthusiasm and hard work paid off. He earned one of his department's 2023-24 Dr. Alan L. Eliason Undergraduate Achievement in ISyE scholarship recipients. 

Outside the classroom, he continued to learn—and give back. He served on the Student Senate Campus Safety Committee for two years. He was invited to do research on allocation mechanisms with a professor, after earning top marks in an exam. He traveled to Africa with the CSE Global Seminar: “Design for Life: Water in Tanzania,” a trip that altered his mindset.

“Earlier this year, I would have said that success would show itself in corporate America through job-related personal accomplishments and possibly a high-paying salary,” he said in his Commencement speech. “However, it was experiences with a real impact on those around me, like my Tanzania experience, that helped to reframe my idea of success.” 

Success, he now believes, lies in one having the support of a community that cares and access to education. 

Case in point: If the water system design he and his global seminar classmates proposed gets implemented in the village of Makungu, he explained, then students at the primary school wouldn’t need to “miss out on critical learning time” because they needed to spend hours collecting clean water for their families every day.

 “Hopefully, given these improvements the village could build a secondary school in order to provide a more advanced education,” he said. 

Two Class of 1974 alumni seated at a dinner table with Joshua Ichen.
CSE student Joshua Ichen (center) shared his experiences on engineering clean water solutions in Tanzania as part of a department-hosted showcase session at the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering 50-Year Reunion for the Class of 1974 in May—two days before his graduation. Photo credit: Pauline Oo

Ichen was an active member in Greek Life and Club Tennis during his college years and regularly jumped at the chance to play in other University of Minnesota intramural sports. 

During the summers, he held internships at companies such as Boston Scientific and HLT, Inc. in Maple Grove, Minn., and Design Department Incorporated in Racine, Wisc. He gained valuable experience in everything from manufacturing to inventory management. 

Last year, he competed in the 2023 MinneMUDAC Data Science Competition with three other University of Minnesota students. The team's presentation—forecasting Twins season ticket sales—ranked in the Top 10 among other college teams from across the United States. He was even named Homecoming Royalty, earning a spot on the University of Minnesota 2023 Homecoming Court. 

Ichen rounded up his Commencement speech with a call to his fellow graduates.

“I will never forget when an elder of the Makungu village said to us: ‘If you are planning for a year, then plant some rice. If you are planning for 10 years, then plant some trees. But if you are planning for centuries, you must invest your whole self where the kids are around you,’” Icen recalled. “To me, there is no more powerful investment than the chance at an education. As you all go out into the world today, I want to challenge you to make sure that we are all planning for eternity.”

Story by Pauline Oo

Learn more about Ichen, and the Commencement keynote speaker Geoff Martha, Medtronic chairman and CEO, at CSE Commencement speakers.