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A January Tradition: The [Virtual!] Alumni Panel 2022

Tutt Stapp-McKiernan

A tradition that always helps to dispel the post-holiday, back-to-school sighs of Wakefield’s Upper School students is the annual Alumni Panel. In this January event, Wakefield alumni from any graduation year and any walk of life volunteer an hour of their time to talk with current students about life after Wakefield and what their own experiences at college and beyond have been like so far. Though this year’s event was once again returned to a virtual platform, two outstanding panels of alumni in both undergraduate and graduate school as well as out in the workplace shared invaluable insights with the students.

The 9th and 10th grades met virtually with the following alumni:

Gracie Withers (2010) – B.A., Lynchburg College —small business owner

Julie Fortney (2012) – Christopher Newport University—working on Masters’ thesis

Jillian Wise (2015) – Virginia Tech and Shenandoah University—pursuing combined Masters’/Ph.D. program

Sean Miller (2020) – Shepherd University—studying computer science and cyber security

Cooper Graves (2021) – William and Mary—focusing on sciences

Josh Carey (2021) – UVA—studying kinesiology

Grayson Banning (2021) – JMU—studying business

A sampling of this panel’s observations:

  • The year between undergraduate and graduate studies is an excellent time to take a year off to travel! You always think you will do it later, but…
  • Take the time during college to find what you love. Explore!
  • Use at least some of your elective credits to learn some purely practical life skills. A basic economics course is especially useful if you ever plan on running your own business, or even just for your own benefit. Being able to do your own taxes will matter each year of your life!
  • Take time before choosing a college to consider whether a big school or a small school is right for you. Visit both! You might be surprised what you fall in love with.
  • Hands down, writing skills won the “What was the most valuable thing you learned at Wakefield?” award. Your Wakefield senior thesis is hard when you’re doing it, but SO WORTH IT [emphasis theirs!].
  • Have fun with your senior thesis! Choose something you really want to learn about, because it could be years before you have that kind of academic freedom again.
  • Realize that Wakefield is “an excellent stepping stone for growth and maturity…I developed skills that helped me grow as a human being.”

The 11th and 12th grades met virtually with these alumni:

Brenton Lewis (2009) – B.A., UVA—marketing executive at Google

Kat Huang (2010) – B.A., UVA; M.S., University of Geneva and Tsinghua University—working in sustainability

Gabby Castano (2014) – B.A., Penn State—marketing associate at the Kimmel Cultural Campus

Anya Parks (2017) – Duke—completing Ph.D. program

Joseph Maraska (2020) – Merchant Marine Academy

Michael Wei (2020) – UNC Chapel Hill—studying English and more

Jack Pieja (2021) – JMU—studying economics

Sophia Spytek (2021) – UVA—studying biology

And a sampling of this panel’s observations:

  • Join clubs! There are so many benefits--making friends, forming a network of people in your areas of interest, building a resume, and more.
  • Don’t forget the importance of taking advantage of the professors you have at your disposal. Take time to meet them, prepare for those meetings, research them and find out which ones have something to offer that is specific to your own pursuits.
  • Explore different professions, especially by seeking interviews with people in fields you think you might be interested in. Really focus on answering the question, “What am I interested in?” Panelists suggested that answering this question is THE essential task of higher education!
  • Raise your hand in class, for both questions and comments! Being engaged matters and will gain your professor’s notice.
  • The social aspect of school matters, too. Find the people and activities that will help you learn what kind of person you want to be.
  • It can be tough at first to build friendships, so get out there! Wakefield taught you how to manage your time, so use some of that time to engage in campus life and meet people. Even if you have to force yourself (because it’s easier to just stay in your room!), go out and meet people.
  • According to one observer, what stuck with him from college was the people. The two big takeaways: try new things, and build relationships. Eventually, you will forget what you were taught! But you will not forget the friends you make.
  • At Wakefield, it is a small school, and it is easy to get used to being good at things. But now you are in a bigger pond! You will not be the best at everything at your college or university, and that can be a wonderful thing to learn: how many talented people you are surrounded by that you can learn from and look up to!

Speaking for myself, I certainly wish I had had the benefit of such excellent peer advice when I was preparing for college!