A Personal Journey
Chrystal Thomas (S'17) wasn't catching up on Zs during the final days of her winter break, nor was the biological sciences major conducting research in a lab. Instead, she was back at Carnegie Mellon with nearly 90 fellow sophomores — including six classmates from the university's campus in Qatar — focused on self-reflection through writing.
Odyssey, named after Homer's epic poem and now it its eighth year at CMU, is designed to help students chart their own paths through their remaining semesters at the university and beyond.
"I learned that it's okay to be ambitious. Yet, it's okay if I'm unsure about the future, and it's okay if I don't take the standard way of doing things. These ideas seem so simple, but it took a program like Odyssey and some introspection for me to really understand them," Thomas said.
Stephanie Wallach, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education, co-founded the program to engage students in writing workshops and panel discussions that underscore the importance of mentors, the value of intellect, and the benefits of taking chances and embracing some uncertainty.
Wallach tells participants that they were not selected because the program would help them get into graduate or medical school. Nor would they be evaluated.
"This is simply and honestly a volunteer activity with no promise of external rewards. It should be liberating. And, perhaps, even a little uncomfortable," Wallach said.
A Scholar Citizen panel gives students a chance to learn about their instructors in a new way. Faculty members tell stories about their personal and professional paths and share how they've used their expertise to address programs on local, national and global scales.
Mark Kamlet, University Professor of Economics and Public Policy, was among the 2015 panelists.
"It was a pleasure to talk a bit about my own career path with students and learn about the life paths of my colleagues," Kamlet said. "As I look back, I realize how important it was to get occasions to interact with faculty I had in school in ways beyond the specifics of a given class. Some of those connections had enormous impact on me and in how my professional career progressed."
Alumni also return to campus and share how experiences as students and recent graduates shaped or redefined their goals. This year's alumni panelists noted how taking a course in a different discipline, volunteering abroad or landing a competitive research fellowship led them to pursue careers as writers, health care providers and entrepreneurs.
Geoffrey Barbanell (TPR'01), who majored in business administration, shared how joining a filmmaking club and adding a minor in film and media studies shaped his career. He was a story editor for the popular Disney show "Kickin' It" and has since written and sold TV shows to Amazon, Nickelodeon, ABC Family and Fox.
"I forgot how scary it was being a sophomore in college and thinking you need to figure out every detail of the rest of your life. As each of us on the panel could and did attest, our lives have taken so many unexpected twists and turns. Often for the better. It was reassuring to be able to share that with the students," Barbanell said.