This year we launch our new Alumni in Residence program designed to help our second year students navigate through their thesis year. We were lucky enough to talk with department chair Liz Danzico, and our very first Alumni in Residence Tina Ye to learn a little more.
So firstly, Liz, what is an "Alumni in Residence?"
Liz: Good question. We're very excited to share a bit about the new Alumni-in-Residence program. It’s a semester-long program designed to help empower current students to do the best thesis they can do through helping them understand the larger context of their this work.
We’ve learned that students working toward thesis truly benefit from having peer and alumni feedback. The chief aspect of this role’s responsibility will be to convene a weekly student/alumni feedback session. In addition to attending thesis class and coordinating with the thesis faculty, Eric Forman, the feedback session is the core responsibility. We believe that a seasoned alum is in the best position to lead that charge.
And Tina, what did you think when you first got this invitation?
Tina: Excited! It couldn't have come at a better time. Four years ago, I left full-time employment to pursue various independent projects, and in the process learned a great deal about what it's like to launch, iterate, and be totally engulfed by a creation of my own.
Doing independent projects shares a lot of similarities with thesis: it's daunting in the lack of a clear definition, it's driven by what matters to the individual creator, and it's a rare chance to put one's skills and worldview to the test. All this can be overwhelming, and the process requires a lot of soul searching as you struggle to balance your vision with resource constraints and user/audience expectations.
Because I've been there (several times), I feel well-equipped to support the class of 2017 in their endeavors. At the same time, I know I'll learn a lot from the current students that I can bring to bear in my own work. The magic, after all, is that teaching and supporting others is a great way to learn new things and support yourself too.
Liz: Every year, we hear from second-year students how alumni feedback on their thesis work is deeply meaningful. Having the perspective on thesis from someone who has done it before (and survived) makes the whole process come into focus.
Tina did such deep meaningful work on her own thesis that we think her perspective can add depth and her experience since graduating can add wisdom.
Tina, what do you remember about your own thesis?
Tina: The thing that most stood out to me was how different my process was from the rest of my class. I was chomping at the bit to learn to code, and couldn't wait to begin working on live prototypes as soon as possible. My classmates took time to explore concepts at a high level, but me, I was trigger-happy. In retrospect perhaps I should have taken more time to explore alternate concepts, but I did learn first-hand about the relative risks/rewards of a "dive in and get started" approach. (The blogpost to prove it)
Perhaps the most enduring lesson for me was that, in open-ended situations like thesis (or...you know, life), the only person who can be responsible for your decisions is you. Advisors and teachers can help guide the way, but ultimately you have to figure out what to do with the feedback, and how to square it with your own intentions.
What impressed me the most was that every single person in my class took ownership of their thesis in a way that was very individual, and as a result each of us learned what we needed to learn the most. Though we all had very polished artifacts, presentations, and exhibits at the end, I like to think the real goal of thesis was evolving into more resilient, adaptable, and responsible versions of our pre-thesis selves.
One week in! What are your observations so far?
Tina: Supporting 19 students is overwhelming, but in a good way! I'm so mentally invigorated by all the ideas colliding. Yesterday, after a three-hour thesis class, I got the chance to meet with students one-on-one to discuss their early hunches on possible areas of interest. We talked about everything from social experimentation to VR-enhanced journalism to the impact of data on parenting.
I quickly learned that, for many, thesis represents more than just a student project: it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve a big change in their life—whether it's launching a creative business or securing their dream job upon graduation. Upon hearing these sentiments, I instinctively felt my "Thesis Therapist" side kick in, and I got to work reassuring everyone that thesis will not be their last chance to work unfettered. Indeed, starting out with such a big expectations can be paralyzing—suddenly the risk of failure extends beyond mere graduation requirements, and encompasses all your hopes and dreams!
I remember sharing similar trepidations starting out, but I learned that thesis is not the end. It's the beginning of a lifetime of creative experimentation. My goal, I think, is to help people overcome their fears, balance their perspectives, and find the focus to do their best work in the here and now of their final year.
And to drink enough water in the process!
In what other ways do alumni return to the program?
Liz: In so many ways! We encourage alumni to continue to think of the studio as one of their places (their fourth place?), using it to continue to make connections, support their bolstering careers, and develop ideas. We hope it’s as much a part of their careers over the course of their professional life as it was at the start.
We have alumni teaching, guest lecturing, guest critiquing in class, leading workshops, and generally supporting current and former students in all the things they aim to do.
That said, many alumni never leave the program really, as this kind of program is a life-long pursuit. They're currently out there hiring one another, collaborating on projects, sharing apartments together, recommending each other for jobs, and generally supporting one another in life and work.