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Life After College: Alumni open up to students in Honors 496

Mar 6, 2015

"One thing I love about being a librarian is that I legitimately get to be interested in everything." Mary Whisner '77, spoke to a room of curious Honors students from an alumni panel on the topic "Life After College."

Alumni and Honors 496, Winter 2015

Mary was one of eight Honors Program alumni to visit last month with students of Honors 496, the capstone course wherein seniors finish and present an online portfolio reflecting their undergraduate experience in Honors and beyond. Students of 496 are prompted to synthesize four years of experiences both in and outside of the classroom with questions like "what do you now know about yourself as a learner that will guide you in the future?" and "what surprises steered you in new directions?" In the midst of this reflective thinking, soon-to-be-graduates also sought a different perspective and some advice from those who have gone before them into careers, families, and lives of purpose.

The alumni panelists came to share life lessons and did some reflecting of their own in the process. Students of 496A met Mary Whisner '77, Lianna Wood '08, Ben Janicki '14, and Marlana Kohn '02 (née Evans). While the panelists came from different majors (including Philosophy, Economics, Biochemistry, History, and Mechanical Engineering), all of them went on to pursue graduate degrees — sometimes in fields quite different from what they’d imagined as they completed their undergraduate degrees.

The next day, a panel of different alumni (Chad Alan Blanchard, '98, Nicole Gustine '02, Christine Chan Anderson '07, and Jessica Frederick '08) joined students of 496B in Odegaard Library, presenting their own stories and answering heartfelt questions like: "How do you balance your professional life with your passions?" and "How did you decide when it was time to go to grad school?" Occasionally, a student would ask the alumni for advice on how to make their own hard choices. Variations on the same answer came back to them: "Keep following your curiosity and don't let other people tell you who to be. Learn about your options but don't let fear guide the decision-making process. Be yourself and expect to never know what would happen if you had made the other choice."

The alumni had questions for the students, too. What were students taking away from the reflective process and what would they do with the portfolios after graduation? Online portfolios are a new concept to most graduates of UW Honors, added as a requirement in 2007 to help students authentically deepen the meaning of their interdisciplinary coursework and carefully examine their own goals and values as they prepare for the next phase of life. Students begin their portfolios during a first-year seminar (Honors 100) and ultimately present the portfolios to classmates and other members of the UW community in the final week of 496.

Although Honors portfolios are a far cry from marketing objects (often filled with highly personal stories of challenge and, sometimes, failure), many students have discovered that building and presenting the portfolio gives them an edge as they are interviewing for jobs and graduate programs, where potential employers ask tough questions to gauge the critical thinking skills and reaction to setbacks of freshly graduating candidates. As alumni panelist Nicole Gustine '02 remarked, "When you’re hiring, you're not just looking for experience — you're looking for someone who is good at learning from mistakes and applying what they've learned. If you can demonstrate that you are one of those people, you will stand head and shoulders above the rest."

As the alumni shared their histories with current students and with each other, one thing became clear. Graduates of the UW Honors Program really are lifelong learners with a desire to engage in authentic dialog and critical inquiry, and they are ready to lend a hand or a sympathetic ear to those who follow in their footsteps. All of the alumni who visited 496 have offered to be a resource to current students, even those not actively working on portfolios.

The panelists agreed that you probably don't know where you will end up as you move through life, but the important thing is to keep moving in a direction that inspires you. "It’s never too late to follow your passions," says Blanchard '98. "That’s something I got from the Honors Program."


Honors will continue to invite alumni speakers into sessions of Honors 496. If you are interested in being a guest presenter or you are a student hoping to connect with our alumni, contact Alumni Relations & Communications Specialist Carey Christie at forcarey@uw.edu. For more info and to see samples of student portfolios online, click HERE