MARCH 2013

Alumni Return To Help Students Build Their Futures
Dietrich College News, March 2013

Sophomore Convocation, Photo Credit: Amy TsienConsidering how many (more than 30) and how different (creative writing to cognitive science) the majors are within the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, it is not surprising that college’s alumni have gone onto successful careers in almost every industry and field imaginable.

What isn’t as clear is how they did it.

To help Dietrich College students explore all of the possibilities and create a network of alumni contacts, the Dietrich College Dean’s Office teamed up with the Office of Undergraduate Research, Student Affairs, the Career and Professional Development Center, and Alumni Relations to host the first annual “Under Construction: Building Your Future” event. Held February 23 at the Holiday Inn in Oakland, 60 alumni returned to share their experiences with more than 200 sophomores, juniors and seniors.

“These alumni are here to help you,” Dietrich College Dean John Lehoczky said in his opening remarks. “Having them here is a priceless gift. All Dietrich College graduates deeply understand the challenge you are facing.”

The program started with a keynote lecture by Joshua Knauer (DC’95). Knauer, who received his B.A. in environmental ethics and policy, is a social entrepreneur with 20 years of experience creating and leading successful non-profit and for-profit organizations. He is currently founder, president and CEO of Rhiza Labs, a company that creates software to help non-profit and government agencies share information, understand common needs, track community and environmental assets and collaborate around shared data sets.

Knauer began by noting several influential and successful individuals who actively speak about how their liberal arts background helped them, including Kate Spade, a journalism major; American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, a history major; PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, a philosophy major; and Hillary Clinton, a political science major.

“Your education is special,” Knauer told the students. “We [in humanities and social sciences] understand better how people live, think and behave.”

It’s for this reason, he said, that his company looks for job candidates with a broad education base.

Knauer also advised students that the most important thing they need to determine is not their major, career path, or what city to live in, but what they are passionate about.

“You can control your passion,” he said. “Let it be your Northstar, and that is what is going to lead you to success.”

Following the keynote, the students broke into small groups and attended two alumni panels of their choice. Topics ranged from legal careers and educational opportunities to technology, government and consulting tracks.

Senior Emily Feenstra, who was on the event’s planning committee, gave the inaugural “Under Construction” event high praise.

“The panels I attended were informative and inspirational, and it was incredible to meet alumni of different ages, pursuing such a wide range of careers,” she said. “I have often wondered what graduates from the Department of Social and Decision Sciences, including both of my majors of policy & management and international relations and politics, went on to do. Before ‘Under Construction,’ I knew two alumni – who graduated last year and are in entry-level positions. Now I know about 15.”

Manojit Nandi, a junior majoring in decision science, had thought that he was the only person in Dietrich College interested in combining decision science with computer science. “I met alumni who are doing the same thing,” he said. “It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone.”

The returning alumni were also encouraged to see the college create a career exploration and networking event.

“I had a weird self-defined major,” said Breanna Zwart (BHA’07, HNZ’09), who received a degree in drama and international relations and now works as special assistant to the executive secretary at the Department of the Treasury. “I understand the intentions of the event and hope to help out.”

Kamilah Woods (DC’02), an ethics, history and public policy major, echoed the need for “Under Construction” because even though there is no one “right way,” guidance does help.

“It’s important to have an alumni connection,” Woods said. “It’s easy to be in the CMU bubble, but it helps to take an alum’s perspective to see outside of the bubble and start building a network.”

Feenstra, who has already accepted a job offer for next year, said “it was difficult not to read all of the bios and not think, ‘Wait, I want to do that.’”

But, she was reassured because most of the alumni had held multiple jobs spanning different fields.

“[It] made me feel confident that circuitous paths and not knowing exactly what I want to do are okay.”

As for the future of “Under Construction,” it looks bright.

“I believe this event will lay the groundwork for a stronger relationship between current students and alumni which will not only help students think about potential career paths, but find jobs, secure internships, and take advantage of job shadowing opportunities,” Feenstra said.

Junior Jaclyn Stutz, a global studies major, agreed and said, “I would recommend for students to come next year – I will probably attend again myself.”

View photos from "Under Construction: Building Your Future."