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NCAA committee names Byers Scholarship recipients

Tufts' Mitchell Black, Tulsa's Katherine Riojas awarded $24,000 grants

An NCAA committee has selected two college athletes majoring in mechanical engineering as recipients of the 2016 Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship. Mitchell Black, who is also majoring in astrophysics, runs track and field and cross country at Tufts University, and Katherine Riojas is a four-year soccer player at The University of Tulsa.

Established in 1988, the Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship Program each year awards one male and one female recipient a $24,000 grant, which can be renewed for a second year. Recipients are recognized as combining the best elements of mind and body to achieve national distinction for their achievements and to be future leaders in their chosen field of career service.

Mitchell Black

Black said it was actually his failure to make the soccer team at Tufts that led him to a successful college running career and put him on the path to chase what he had once considered an unrealistic dream: becoming an astronaut. After the soccer coach gave Black the crushing news, his father shared a message he took to heart, “When God closes a door, he always opens a window.”

“The opening of that window liberated me from the track I felt I had to follow, and gave me the freedom to form my own,” he wrote in his application essay.

Black walked onto the track and field team. He is now a two-time Division III indoor champion in the 800-meter run and also won the national outdoor title in the 800 last spring. After the indoor season in 2015, he was named a Division III Track Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

“Among a tremendous group of men’s finalists, Mitchell’s quiet confidence and sense of direction really stood out to the committee,” said Northeast Conference Associate Commissioner Andrew Alia, chair of the NCAA Walter Byers Scholarship Committee, which chose the scholarship recipients. “Mitchell's accomplishments in the classroom, on the track and in the community have set him up to reach for the stars as he pursues his goal of becoming an astronaut.”

Black, who has a 3.72 GPA and will graduate in May, has applied to several graduate programs in aeronautics and astronautics, space engineering and aerospace engineering. He hopes seeking a master’s and doctorate will take him closer to his dream job.

“Exhilarating, beautiful, and scientifically profound, I can imagine no career more fun and fulfilling,” he wrote.

Katherine Riojas

As a freshman in a male-dominated major, Riojas said she had doubts about pursuing mechanical engineering. The summer after her freshman year, however, Riojas began to volunteer at the Little Light House, a preschool for children with disabilities in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The experience working with children like Charles, a little boy she saw take his first steps, has changed her life.

“I realized I have a passion to create the kinds of devices that will help transform and improve the lives of individuals like Charles,” she wrote in her application essay.

Riojas, who hopes to make a career developing innovative medical device solutions, already has taken many steps toward that goal. With two classmates, she founded Make a Difference Engineering, a student-run organization dedicated to the design and fabrication of devices to improve the lives of people with disabilities. As a summer researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, she designed and fabricated hardware and software for a user-centered robotic wheelchair interface. Last summer, Riojas and a professor created Magpie Products LLC, a startup company focused on designing and fabricating affordable devices for people with disabilities.

“At Magpie, I am challenged to create devices that not only function well, but can be manufactured quickly and affordably,” she wrote.

Alia said Riojas’ 4.0 GPA at Tulsa and her work at Magpie impressed the committee. “In particular, Katie’s initiative to help launch a business startup geared toward designing and fabricating affordable devices for persons with disabilities as an undergraduate just blew us away, on top of her outstanding community service work and serving as captain of the Tulsa women’s soccer team,” he noted.  

After her graduation in May, Riojas hopes to earn a master’s degree in engineering at the Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design.