Alumni Kate McKenzie, Fred Tye Lead Colorado Retreat for SESP Seniors

Alumni Kate McKenzie, Fred Tye Lead Colorado Retreat for SESP Seniors

Project Pause 2015

About a year after graduation, Kate McKenzie (BS13) and Fred Tye (BS13), who both have jobs in management consulting, began talking about the impact of the Northwestern experience and what it meant to have a career. They came up with an inventive idea to help rising SESP seniors think about these issues and opportunities alongside young alumni.

The two learning and organizational change (LOC) graduates think seniors need to take time out from their fast-paced lives to reflect before they start a career. “As wonderful as Northwestern is in setting up for a career, we didn’t have as much of an opportunity to think about the true value of the Northwestern experience and our real career and personal goals,” says Tye.

With sponsorship by SESP, they planned a weeklong retreat in September for rising seniors to Mission: Wolf, a Colorado wolf sanctuary and not-for-profit educational organization. They call the experience Project Pause because it offers a break before senior year for students to think about where they are and where they’re heading. “Before senior year is a great time to sit back and reflect,” McKenzie says.

Tye and McKenzie thought it would be valuable for students to talk with alumni and get their perspectives. “We thought about what kind of impact we could have and came up with the idea of a weeklong retreat away from Northwestern where students could have constructive dialog and think about personal goals and career development. … Also, we’re extremely passionate about the SESP community and wanted to give back. We knew it would have a positive impact on students,” says Tye.

Different outlooks
After an information session, Project Pause attracted many applicants, and five students were selected. Tye and McKenzie wanted a small, diverse group of people with different professional goals and life experiences. Students represented all four of the SESP majors.

“One of the goals was to expose students to different ways of thinking,” says Tye. “Meeting people with different outlooks on a career showed them there isn’t any one way to think about it.” The staff at Mission: Wolf, who live on-site without pay, gave students the perspective of shaping their careers around something they were passionate about. “Stay true to what you’re passionate about and find that in what you do,” Tye advises.

Tye and McKenzie chose Mission: Wolf because they wanted to have the retreat at a place that was “outside of the students’ comfort zone so they would be forced to think about things in a different way.”

“Slowing down to focus on what’s important to you was our main goal,” says McKenzie. Students pondered questions such as these: What is my current point of view, where am I now, where do I want to go and how do I get there? What do I want to get out of life? What makes me happy?

Tye and McKenzie facilitated self-awareness experiences, including journaling and daily reflections. They provided prompts such as asking about common experiences at Northwestern and how they influence student outlooks on career and life. In a key exercise called “the five whys,” participants worked together to challenge their assumptions and beliefs about career development and personal fulfillment.

“We found they either learned something new or confirmed what they already felt. Either way, they gained self-awareness,” says McKenzie, who maintains that high levels of self-awareness lead to happiness.

SESP influence
“Personal development is something we focus on as a result of SESP and LOC — also being a lifelong learner,” says McKenzie, who saw the retreat as a natural outgrowth of her education at SESP. “It was an awesome experience to give back to a school that gave so much to us.”

“At SESP, lifelong learning is paramount. We wanted to set up students to be able to think about these things continually — to see value of personal reflection and then apply it throughout their lives,” says Tye. “It’s really important at every stage of life.”

“SESP taught us if you see something that could be better, you have the tools to improve it. We saw an opportunity to help,” says McKenzie. “Our SESP brains couldn’t let us not do it. We felt compelled to do something. It was the right thing at the right time for the right people.”

Plans for the retreat took shape around the grounding they received at SESP. Alternative Student Breaks, which is how they discovered Mission Wolf, also gave Tye and McKenzie a good framework for planning the retreat. “SESP is all about experiential learning — it rings true to SESP in everything that the School does,” says Tye. “Of course SESP would want us to provide a learning environment that’s experiential.”

Dedicated young alumni
Tye and McKenzie, who had the support of Dean Penelope Peterson, took the initiative to plan an information session to interest students and consulted with faculty to plan activities. They took a week off from their jobs to lead the retreat, and they continue to communicate with the students through messages, a Facebook thread, sending articles and formal calls.

Associate dean of student affairs Susan Olson commented on Tye’s and McKenzie’s dedication if giving their time to provide this experience. “It says a lot about them that they want to give back,” says Olson. From the students’ point of view, “Students crave these alumni relationships. … Answers come from having real, authentic experiences.”

Excellent response
Student participants saw great value in the experience of reflection before senior year. “Hearing other people's stories and ways of thinking made me reexamine my mindset, values and way of thinking about the future,” said one participant. Another added, “My key takeaway was that it doesn't matter if I don't know what I want to do with my life, as long as I focus on what makes me happy and what is important to me.”

Senior Spring Sanders said, "I didn't know what to expect going into the program. but I got more than I could ever ask for. I made lifelong friends, I gained a new refreshing burst of energy propelling me into my passions for my senior year at Northwestern, but most importantly, the trip was a simple reminder to never ever be afraid to be you, and to be the absolute best you that you can be."

Photo: Kate McKenzie (BS13, far left) and Fred Tye (BS13, center) initiated and led the Project Pause retreat for rising seniors to reflect on their goals.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 11/10/15