Carnegie Mellon University
August 10, 2020

Outside the Classroom

Engineering student finds fulfillment in extracurriculars

By Felicia Lucot

Jason Maderer
  • Marketing and Communications
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The engineering schools Tahlia Altgold visited as a high school senior all emphasized academic rigor, but didn't talk about student activities or life on campus.

"In engineering, a lot of the rhetoric is, 'You'll have to survive this place, and if you survive you're going to be a great engineer, but you're going to have to suffer through it,'" she said. "I didn't want that to be my college experience."

Looking for more than long days in the library and late nights studying in her dorm, the rising junior chose Carnegie Mellon University after a campus visit that offered a perspective on college life she hadn't heard before.

"I was in a biomedical engineering info session with Dr. Conrad Zapanta," Altgold recalled. "He was cracking jokes and talking about what life was like holistically at CMU, not just trying to scare us with how difficult the program would be. Ultimately, that's why I came here."

The promise of a fulfilling experience beyond the classroom has held true. While at CMU, Altgold has served in a leadership role with Partners Allied for Civic Engagement (PACE), worked as a resident assistant and has been a member of the Fencing Club. However, her most rewarding student experience has been founding a Jewish sisterhood on campus.

Tahlia Altgold, bottom right, poses for a photo with fellow members of Achayot Shel Carnegie Mellon.

Achayot Shel Carnegie Mellon, translated from Hebrew as Sisters of Carnegie Mellon, is the first Jewish organization to serve only women at CMU since the '70s. The name is representative of the close-knit Jewish women's community on campus.

When Achayot was formed, several other co-ed Jewish student groups already existed, including Hillel Jewish Student Union, the CMU Jewish Student Association and the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. While these groups serve as a hub of Jewish life on campus, Altgold and the founding members of Achayot saw a void for an organization that would serve the unique needs Jewish women.

Achayot strives to be inclusive, and the group is flexible with the term, "woman." Anyone identifying as transgender, non-binary or an ally to the community who considers themselves to be in a conversation with Jewish womanhood is welcome.

Founding Achayot has helped Altgold learn to network, a skill she says is undervalued and not naturally fostered in STEM majors, but developed through extracurricular activities.

"To sustain the group, you have to have to build cohesiveness, recruit new members and seek out people who will be good leaders," she explained. "Those skills will be important in any professional career."

Altgold explained that although extracurriculars are almost always viewed as secondary, especially non-professional activities because they're not considered resume-builders or connection-builders, the act of building community is one of the most important life skills to develop.

A holistic campus life experience was the differentiator for Altgold in choosing CMU, and she encourages incoming students to branch out and try things that seem intimidating, whether that's fencing or ballroom dancing.

"This, more than any other point in your life, is the time to not be held back by nerves or fear," she said. "CMU has so many opportunities. You're missing out and holding yourself back if you don't just go for it."