Homecoming special: Students who stay beyond school

Higher education. The purpose of any academic institution is to prepare its students for life outside its walls. Casting off caps and gowns, graduates are expected to break out of their four-year learning environment in the pursuit of a livelihood. But what if they return? Below are the stories of three Carnegie Mellon alumni who have found employment — and nostalgia — right here on campus.

Life in plaid

Class of ’71 alumna Mary Burcin, who returned to campus in 1997, enjoys the campus environment, inside and out. Burcin currently works as the serials processing associate in the acquisitions department of the University Libraries.
“It has a diverse population,” she said, speaking of the student body. Burcin also noted that Carnegie Mellon has a way of introducing you to students you never would have met: from across the globe or from Squirrel Hill. She also admires the layout of Carnegie Mellon: “Our campus is unified,” said Burcin.
Burcin has the honor of being the first female Carnegie Mellon student to enroll in the ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) program. Inspired by the tension over Vietnam, Burcin’s participation laid the groundwork for a female presence. “I wanted to know what my friends who were soldiers were going through,” she said. “Anybody wearing a uniform was not appreciated on campus.”
Another success story from students who return here to work can be found with Conrad Zapanta. Zapanta, a ’91 graduate, took advantage of the varied academic offerings at Carnegie Mellon. Now a professor, he graduated from CIT with a dual degree in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering under his belt, not to mention quite a few music courses. “Music was just a fun part of being here,” said Zapanta, who admits that he was often the “token engineer” during his days in the choir.
Zapanta was heavily involved in extracurricular activities during his time at Carnegie Mellon. “Your education’s not just in the classroom,” he said. Zapanta was a Head Orientation Counselor, a member of the Asian Student Association, and part of a church fellowship, to name a few of his activities. Perhaps most importantly, he pushed buggy. It was during the preparation for this sacred Carnegie Mellon competition that Zapanta met his wife, the driver whom he pushed.
Susan Cribbs, another alum-na, now works in internal communications and news services on campus. Cribbs received a B.A. in English and professional writing in 2000, followed by an M.A. in professional writing in 2006. Though she grew up about 35 miles outside of the ’Burgh, Cribbs knew little of the city when she arrived as a first-year in the fall of ’96. “We had been to Pirate games and things like that,” she said, but Squirrel Hill and Oakland were largely new environments. So was Carnegie Mellon: “I was pleasantly surprised,” said Cribbs. “It looked like a campus.”
One of Cribbs’ most memorable experiences throughout her time as a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate was the shooting of Wonderboys, a 2000 film starring Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., and Tobey Maguire. “That was a really exciting experience,” said Cribbs. Though the movie was shot in April, its script called for a winter climate, and so the necessary measures were taken around campus: Fake snow was dispersed and trees were stripped of their leaves. Donner and Baker Hall served as the main two locations for filming. Cribbs recalls waiting in the UC for three hours in order to reserve tickets to the premiere at Carnegie Mellon.

Coming home to Carnegie

When Burcin graduated, she was already married and thinking about starting a family. “Life came at me right away,” she said. Burcin, whose youngest son is college-aged, added that she feels “proud” of every Carnegie Mellon student. Burcin said, “I know what it took to go here.” Originally a member of the Class of ’70, Burcin had to delay her graduation a year so that she could work and take classes at the same time.
During her time away from Carnegie Mellon, Burcin taught art within the Pittsburgh public school system and preschool classes. “I knew that I always wanted to come back and work,” she said. Working as a part of the University Libraries turned out to be the perfect opportunity. “I can be myself,” said Burcin of her job. “I can offer ideas and feel comfortable about them.”
Returning to Carnegie Mellon has taught Burcin as much about the institution itself as it has about its students. “It gives you a different perspective of what goes on in the university when you’re staff,” she said. Burcin is learning the work that goes into services that many students are likely to take for granted, particularly those provided by her workplace at the library.
Before starting work this year at Carnegie Mellon, Zapanta taught at several other institutions, taking a break in Texas for a non-academic occupation developing heart valves. Of professors, Zapanta pointed out, “Not a lot of us have had jobs on the other side.” His job in Texas helped to put his work in the classroom into perspective. Zapanta added that professors often see their students as “Mini-Mes,” though in reality most of them are not destined for academia.
Zapanta is passionate about teaching, but loathes writing grants, a process central in the workdays of many college professors. It was during what he calls a “bad grant-writing day” at Penn State that Zapanta first decided to apply to work at Carnegie Mellon.
“My only redeeming quality was that I went there,” he joked, but nevertheless he was hired. Zapanta now has a teaching position with research opportunities and absolutely no grants required.
Having been one himself, Zapanta feels he can relate well to the students. “They’re used to doing the impossible within a finite amount of time,” he explained. Though he never expected it, Zapanta is embracing his return to the university. “It’s good to be back,” he said. “The novelty hasn’t worn off.”