Two swimmers look at a paper together, wearing UMBC t-shirts next to a pool

Scholar-athlete grads draw on resilience forged in challenging times

Kennedy Lamb and Jethro Ssengonzi are finishing their final semester with uncertainty about the world, but also a sense of hope. To cope with the challenges of graduating during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are drawing on resilience built through past challenges they’ve faced as UMBC scholar-athletes.

On the surface, Lamb ‘20, English, and Ssengonzi ‘20, mechanical engineering, didn’t have much in common when they arrived on campus. Lamb brought her academic and softball talents from the town of Mexico, New York, 35 miles north of Syracuse. Ssengonzi left Cary, North Carolina, to become a Meyerhoff Scholar and member of the Retriever swimming and diving team. Both connected early on with mentors who would support them in their most difficult moments.

Academics “kept me going”

In high school, Lamb was a Syracuse.com three-time First Team All-League softball player. She was also student council president and a student member of her local Board of Education. Her drive, leadership, and commitment to community fit with UMBC’s culture, but she struggled in her first year on campus. Lamb played in just nine games as a Retriever freshman and nearly did not return the next fall.

Softball player in white, black, and gold UMBC uniform throws the ball, with glove in right hand
Lamb at NCAA Regionals, May 2019. Photo by Joshua R. Gateley, courtesy of UMBC Athletics.

“Coming from upstate New York to Maryland with no connections, no family or friends, or really any form of support, was extremely difficult,” said Lamb. “I suffered from anxiety and depression that wasn’t diagnosed until my junior year of college. I truly almost pulled the plug and dropped out on numerous occasions, but I couldn’t give up on my dream of playing DI softball.”

Lamb credits two mentors in particular for helping her over the hump during that tumultuous freshman year. Assistant Athletic Director Abbie Day served as her first athletics’ academic advisor. Science writer Sarah Hansen, M.S. ‘15, biological sciences, a communications manager in UMBC’s Office of Institutional Advancement, helped guide her toward new opportunities for her writing. 

Kennedy Lamb enters a UMBC Transit bus for an assignment as a UMBC Magazine intern. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

“In a way, my grades are what kept me going—I always knew I had that to fall back on,” says Lamb. “I loved all of my classes at UMBC and I knew the professors wanted me to succeed.” 

“I took a great deal of pride in my GPA freshman year—and well, all of the years—because I knew if athletics was frustrating me, or something in my personal life wasn’t going quite right, I always had school to keep me motivated and focused,” she shares. That focus would pay off.

“I’ve had to adjust”

Ssengonzi came to UMBC after a distinguished swimming career at Green Hope High School. In addition to being a Meyerhoff Scholar, he quickly engaged with UMBC’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program. The program, which began just as he arrived at UMBC, gives students opportunities to work on multi-disciplinary teams to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing society today. 

Student in glasses, a tie, and a sweater vest smiles in a portrait
Ssengonzi during URCAD 2018 at UMBC. Photo by Leo Buoye ’19.

Ssengonzi’s sophomore year started off strong. Beyond swimming and coursework, he presented his summer research at the UMBC Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day in 2018.

Ssengonzi presents his research at URCAD in April 2018. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

But throughout that 2017-18 year, Ssengonzi struggled as his father, Robert, was diagnosed with cancer. Robert lost his battle with the disease in the fall of 2018. Dealing with day to day life at school while staying engaged with family was difficult.

“The last three years or so have been tough on my family,” Ssengonzi says. “I’ve had to adjust to many things. Fortunately, I’ve been able to forge ahead with the help of several people.”

He credits his massive swimming and diving family and his fellow Meyerhoff Scholars for their support throughout his UMBC journey. He also thanks mentors Maria Sanchez, professor of the practice in mechanical engineering and COEIT’s director of education and outreach, and adjunct professor Joseph Washington, Ph.D. ‘15, mechanical engineering.

“Most importantly, he cares about people”

Ssengonzi flourished over the past two years. The team selected him as one of their captains in 2019-20. And despite dealing with a troublesome quad injury, he posted lifetime bests in all of his swims. His last moments in the water as a Retriever were spent celebrating the team’s third consecutive America East championship.

Ssengonzi represents UMBC in competition. Photo by Zoe Pekins.

“Jethro is driven and focused, sensitive and hard-working, and most importantly, he cares about people,” said head swimming and diving coach Chad Cradock ‘97, psychology.

Ssengonzi celebrates a strong swim on the path to UMBC winning the 2019 men’s and women’s swimming and diving America East championships. Photo by Colleen Humel, courtesy of Ssengonzi.

During spring break, Ssengonzi returned to North Carolina. He has not been back to campus since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. But he feels fortunate to stay connected with Retriever Nation remotely, and is already looking forward to his next steps. 

Ssengonzi will pursue a Ph.D. in civil engineering at nearby North Carolina State University this fall. There, he will focus on the restoration and improvement of urban infrastructure. It’s a topic fueled by his involvement with UMBC’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program.

Path to the championship

Lamb has also enjoyed tremendous growth and success since connecting with mentors and building her community of support. She was one of nine students selected to participate in the first UMBC Interdisciplinary CoLab in summer 2018. Her three-member team worked closely with the UMBC Sustainability Office and Climate Action Steering Committee. They created four engaging informational videos on the importance of environmental sustainability at UMBC. 

Under the direction of CoLab founder Carole McCann, professor and chair of gender, women’s and sexuality studies, Lamb also launched an independent project. She produced, directed, and filmed the video that UMBC now uses to publicize the CoLab program.

Lamb running near the Albin O. Kunh Library during a video shoot. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

On the field, Lamb played in a career-high 27 games in 2019. But it was her steady, veteran leadership that helped the Retrievers to an improbable run to capture the 2019 America East Championship and compete in the NCAA Tournament. 

There, she also received the America East Elite 18 award. This honor recognizes the student-athlete with the highest GPA in each America East championship game.

Lamb (center, in visor) celebrates the 2019 America East Championship win with her teammates. Photo by Stephen McLaughlin, America East.

“Kennedy Lamb is one of the hardest working, most caring, dedicated student-athletes I have had the privilege to work with over the years,” said head coach Chris Kuhlmeyer. “She is a prime example to all student-athletes at UMBC and across the nation of what it takes to live an exemplary life academically, athletically, and personally.”

Student athlete wears championship t-shirt and holds award, while standing next to her coach
Lamb receives America East Elite 18 award. Photo by Stephen McLaughlin, America East.

Like many seniors, the COVID-19 outbreak has delayed Kennedy’s post-graduation plans. She awaits news about graduate school and internship opportunities in science writing at leading institutes.

High achievement with strong support

Athletic Director Brian Barrio sees Lamb and Ssengonzi’s experiences as reflecting something essential about the values of UMBC and UMBC Athletics. “The magnificent performance of Retriever student-athletes in the classroom speaks volumes about the values of this department and of UMBC as a whole,” he says. “I could not be more proud of the young men and women who put the work in to achieve these GPAs while also competing for championships on the playing fields.”

This fall, UMBC’s seventeen teams combined for a school-record grade-point average of 3.19 and 46 student-athletes earned President’s List honors (4.00 GPA). In addition to Lamb and Ssengonzi, two other UMBC scholar-athletes were valedictorian candidates for the Class of 2020. 

Abbey Farmer. Photo by UMBC Athletics.

Abigail “Abbey” Farmer, who hails from nearby Crofton, Maryland, is a dual major in health administration and policy and psychology. Before college, she swam with the Retriever Aquatics Club. Now, she is graduating in just three years with a 4.0 and as an active swimmer. She will begin a master’s degree in public policy at UMBC in the fall. And she’ll continue her swimming career.

Ilia Rattsev is completing his B.S. degree in bioinformatics and computational biology, along with a minor in computer science and a certificate of language studies in German. Rattsev came to UMBC from Moscow, Russia. He recently earned Eastern College Athletic Conference Swimmer of the Meet honors and the America East Elite 18 Award as the top student athlete at the championships, with a 3.97 GPA.

Rattsev has completed research in the lab of Maricel Kann, associate professor of biological sciences, where he developed a passion for cancer research. After graduation, he plans to continue his career in cancer research. He’s currently weighing graduate school and lab research options.

Four male swimmers wearing matching warm-up gear stand in front of an America East sign holding an America East trophy.
UMBC’s Ilia Rattsev, Jeremy Gates, Jack Carlisle, and Jethro Ssengonzi (l-r) accept the trophy for the 2020 America East Championship on behalf of UMBC men’s swimming and diving; Feb. 16, 2020. Photo by Brian Foley for America East.

Barrio’s mind is always on how to support UMBC’s student-athletes in reaching their goals, whether that’s in the lab, on the field, or in their communities. For now, that support reaches students from a distance, but he’s already thinking ahead to when competition resumes post-pandemic. 

“The next time you come watch our teams compete,” Barrio says, “take a minute to reflect on how hard these Retrievers are working in all phases of their lives.”

Featured image: Jethro Ssengonzi (r) with fellow swimmer Diego Morales ’23 (l) at a home meet. Photo by Ian Feldmann ’20, courtesy of UMBC Athletics.

Article written by Steve Levy, associate athletic director for athletic communications.