Clump of pink flowers growing out of sold rock

Graduating Honors Students Overcome Adversity to Thrive at Buffalo State


Barriers that have hindered many young people from earning their undergraduate degree—financial struggles, illness, the coronavirus pandemic, and family obligations—did not deter three remarkable students who are graduating with honors from Buffalo State University on Saturday, May 20.

LeeAnne and Alex Dutkiewicz at the 2023 Bengala

LeeAnne and Alex Dutkiewicz

Seniors Alex Dutkiewicz, LeeAnne Dutkiewicz, and Emily Ersing not only overcame challenges; they thrived at Buffalo State and excelled in its Muriel A. Howard Honors Program.

“We see so many impressive students every year who overcome challenges to find inordinate success,” said Honors Program director Amy McMillan.

To qualify for the Honors Program, students must have a high school grade point average (GPA) of 90 or above and strong extracurricular activities. Currently, almost 500 students are enrolled in the program, 86 of whom are graduating this year.

“Incoming honors students share a first-year seminar that helps them become acclimated to Buffalo State and the surrounding community while interacting with peer leaders and program activities,” McMillan said. “Students such as Alex give back to honors by becoming a peer leader or an honors ambassador. And student interns such as Emily and LeeAnne use their talents to improve the honors experience.”

Alex Dutkiewicz, a history major with minors in political science and criminal justice, maintained a 3.7 GPA while working full time as the manager of a dairy plant.

“Dr. McMillan made me feel like I belong here,” said Dutkiewicz, who enrolled at Buffalo State in fall 2018 as a 25-year-old student with a wife and a mortgage. “From the get-go, anything I struggled with, she was able to help me or point me in the right direction.”

His Buffalo State experience helped him discover his ultimate career goal: to practice law. He plans to spend the next year working, studying for the LSAT, and applying to law schools. His high school sweetheart now wife, LeeAnne Dutkiewicz, said she is the first in her family to attend college.

LeeAnne Dutkiewicz said she found her footing at Buffalo State as a transfer student in fall 2020. A graphic design major with a 3.88 GPA, she interned in the Honors Program Office and redesigned the Honors Newsletter, which won an award at the Northeast Regional Honors Council annual meeting in March.

“I originally didn’t think I was good enough to be a graphic designer, but I really fell in love with it,” she said. “The personal attention I got from my professors at Buffalo State helped me hone my talent.”

LeeAnne Dutkiewicz recently won the 2023 Bengal Internship Award and has already been hired as a graphic designer at 26 Shirts in Buffalo.

Head shot of Emily Ersing in her mortarbord with 2023 tassel

Emily Ersing

Ersing, a business administration major with a minor in leadership, is graduating after only three years, thanks to AP credits she brought from high school and winter and summer courses she enrolled in at Buffalo State. Ersing also interned in the Honors Program Office and participated in a mentorship program with M&T Bank, all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.

This is all especially impressive considering that Ersing has cared for her parents, each struggling with a significant illness, during most of her college career. Although her parents are only 53 years old, they both rely on walkers to get around and cannot drive.

“I take them to their doctors’ appointments, pick up medications, and help with cooking and chores around the house,” said Ersing, who was adopted as an infant from China. She is their only child and is also dealing with health challenges of her own.

At age 11, she was diagnosed with Behcets, an autoimmune disease that causes joint pain, inflammation in blood vessels, and constant fatigue. She receives monthly infusions of immunosuppressants and chemotherapy, and the resulting fatigue made going to class every day almost impossible.

“I took 50 percent of my classes online,” she said. “My professors worked with me. I was still able to thrive in the classroom, even though I could only physically make it there half of the time.”

Her strong grades and her experience with the mentorship program helped Ersing land a coveted management development program trainee position at M&T. She will start working in the bank’s marketing and advertising division in August.

Ersing admitted that starting college in fall 2020, when the pandemic created isolation and so many unknowns, was difficult.

“It has gotten increasingly better,” Ersing said. “This last year has been memorable. Dr. McMillan has offered me more opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise. The Honors Program staff as a whole has been more than supportive.”

LeeAnne Dutkiewicz noted definite financial hurdles to attending college. The first apartment she lived in with Alex had no heat or running water.

“We had to build everything from the ground up,” she said. “Buffalo State and its small-community feeling helped me find confidence and do more than I ever thought I could.” 

Alex Dutkiewicz said he was hoping to complete his degree in four years, but because he had to work as many as 60 hours a week during the pandemic, he needed to expand his studies over an extra year.

“It was actually a blessing because I get to graduate with LeeAnne,” he said.

Being on campus a little longer also gave him the opportunity to try extracurricular experiences, such as serving as an ambassador to the Honors Program.

“I wanted to be the student resource I wish I’d had when I was feeling lost in school,” he said. “The Honors Program and the people I met through it gave me the motivation to achieve everything I have at Buffalo State.”

Top photo by K. Mitch Hodge.

Other photos courtesy of Alex and LeeAnne Dutkiewicz and Emily Ersing.