Class photo raises questions about campus work culture

First-year students swarmed into four groups on the Cut, their energy zapped after a week of Orientation. “It had been a long day, so nobody was really thinking or worried about” the design, said fine arts first-year Kate Myers. When Carnegie Mellon’s official Instagram page posted the image on August 24, students were surprised to see they had spelled “work,” a heart replacing the “o.”

Myers thought it was funny. The designers thought it was powerful. Clarise Liu, a second-year computer science major, thought it was tone-deaf. Reactions to the post included perspectives from students enrolled, suspended, and on probation; recent alumni; and Carnegie Mellon parents. Most comments were negative, contrary to organizers’ expectations.

Michelle Zhang, a senior computer science major, saw the class photo as a timeless moment of community. Eesha Nagpal, a third-year architecture student, agreed. Zhang and Nagpal orchestrated much of the planning for the design, which alluded to the University’s motto. Orientation staff hoped the photo would encourage students to engage their passion “so it doesn’t feel like work, because you’re doing what you love,” Nagpal explained.

“I know they were trying to go for the slogan ‘My Heart is in the Work,’ but they literally just spelled out ‘work’ as if they’re, like, Britney Spears,” said sophomore mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering double-major Jillian Haguisan. “There’s already an internal pressure to work yourself until you can’t, so we don’t need any more external pressure,” she said of the photo design.

Debates about the post resembled a broader discussion of intent versus impact. Many of the students The Tartan spoke with identified two definitions of the motto. One encourages them to love their work; the other steals their hearts to work.

“As students who go here, we also get it,” Nagpal said of the negative connotations associated with the motto. “We as students can redefine that tradition.”

In principle, Reneé Nikolov interprets Carnegie Mellon’s maxim as a “drive to pursue what we want to do in life.” In practice, she remembers more work than heart during her undergraduate experience. “When I was studying in a space shared with other CMU students, there would be nights when I could clearly hear one of them sobbing and crying in distress,” Nikolov told The Tartan. On those nights, she knew the student did not want to talk about it. She also knew there would be nights when she was “the same way.” It was the price of putting her heart in the Carnegie Mellon “grind culture,” Nikolov said. She graduated last spring with degrees in Behavioral Economics and International Relations and Politics.

One comment that stood out to Nikolov read, “Work from your heart, don’t put your heart in the work.” It was written by Sulaiyman Fauzi, a junior studying information systems at the Qatar campus. Zhang and Nagpal also referenced that comment, and hope it is central to the way students redefine the motto.

“I wish that the heart meant empathy. I wish that the heart meant care for other people,” said Carnegie Mellon alum Darya Kharabi. “But the work that we’re proud of doesn’t mean anything if it’s hurting people. All of this brain power, these hard working students, it doesn’t create a net positive in the world if all of these incredible resources are being put toward creating better ways to kill and maim and oppress people,” they said of Carnegie Mellon’s pipeline to the Department of Defense.

Kharabi graduated in December 2020 with a history degree and “longstanding complexes around work,” they said in an interview with The Tartan. They arrived at the history department after stints with fine arts, STEM, and professors who made it difficult for them to access their disability accommodations. While Kharabi enjoyed their time majoring in social and political history, they felt that humanities were often left by the wayside at Carnegie Mellon. “Overachieving wasn’t enough unless it was a specific kind of overachieving” that advanced the computer science field, they said.

The departmental hierarchy at Carnegie Mellon does not go unnoticed by humanities students, Nikolov said. “The ‘split kingdoms’ metaphor is crucial to understanding why experiences are so varied across schools within the university as well as why coordinating policy efforts among schools is so difficult,” she explained.

In schools at the top of the food chain, some students find the academic pressures insurmountable. This is especially true when their course load is compounded by disabilities or work-study responsibilities.

After becoming fully financially responsible for herself last spring, Clarise Liu found it difficult to keep up with her schedule as a computer science major. Her grades reflected that she was working 50 hours a week on top of classes, but she felt that the message she received from the University was: “You’re not really worth our investment. There’s nothing we can do here,” she told The Tartan. Liu was put on academic probation for the fall, suspending her financial aid. Paying full-tuition was not an option for Liu, and as she worked with Orientation staff in August, she told her friends and coworkers there was a possibility she would not be enrolling this semester. Liu was awarded aid before classes started, but said she is “still dealing with the consequences” of the uncertainty about her enrollment.

“For a lot of students here, work-study isn’t … something they can drop,” Liu told The Tartan. “It’s a necessity to attend and to secure housing and prevent food insecurity.” She said she does not have the resources to be a “student first” and takes offense when people suggest she re-evaluate her priorities.

Myers said the Orientation team did a good job of introducing students to the resources available to them. “There was a whole day about stress, health, and academic help,” she said. “They addressed mental health well. It was a tiring week so I don't know if I absorbed everything,” but she said she feels comfortable asking someone if she wants to learn more about student resources.

Some students worry Carnegie Mellon does not invest enough into its student resources. “I took advantage of all of it: disabilities accommodations, academic development, the Course Center,” Kharabi recalled. “I did all the things. It didn’t make the academic rigor any less difficult.”

Chloe Cohen was put in touch with the Student Academic Success Center (SASC), which accommodated her with assistive technology for her disability. She now takes notes with an electronic pen that can record lectures, “so I don’t have to choose between taking notes and actively listening.” The pen was accompanied by access to bionic reading, which presents one word at a time. “You can’t convince yourself you didn’t pay attention and go back; it forces you to continue reading,” Cohen explained in an interview with The Tartan.

Both accommodations have made a striking difference for Cohen. But she has only been able to test them out at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC), where she is taking classes during her year of academic suspension. She was only connected with assistive technology when she got notice last spring that, if her Incompletes did not meet certain grade minimums by the end of the summer, she would be suspended for a year.

When she returns to campus next fall for her junior year, Cohen said she can tell the accommodations will have an even bigger impact than do now (“CCAC lectures are easy.”). Yet she also wishes the pen and bionic reading had been offered to her before her grades became irredeemable. The School of Drama is “too intense to work from your heart,” Cohen said. When she returns, though, she wants to live by Fauzi’s rewrite: “Work from your heart, don’t put your heart in the work.”

According to Zhang and Nagpal, Associate Dean for First-Year Orientation Julie Schulz introduced the class photo design years ago. “For me, the motto speaks to our passionate CMU community,” Schulz wrote in an email to The Tartan. “One of our most important goals in the First-Year Orientation program is to help new students explore and develop their passions” academically, professionally, and socially, Schulz explained.

Orientation staff hoped the generic design could be used broadly for promotional material, Zhang explained. She and Nagpal were proud of the design. As for the negative feedback: “I hope people take action about the things they want to change, instead of just [posting] performative comments,” Nagpal said. “Those are things I care about too.”