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Lighting the Way: An IU Day Special

The College Luminaries Program affords students special access to prominent, returning alumni

From journalists and authors to scholars, policymakers, and captains of industry, some of the world's most accomplished graduates hail from Indiana University's College of Arts and Sciences. Such distinguished alumni are among the College's brightest lights, and since 2013, many of them have returned to campus as “Luminaries,” taking part in the College Luminaries Program.

A series of one-day programs and one annual, two-day event, the Luminaries program enables current College students to learn from notables who've come before them. It also provides students with real-world networking experiences and professional skills development. Some students become “Hoosier Hosts,” responsible for planning every detail of an assigned Luminary's visit. Others work on the Luminaries Program Council or one of its subcommittees.

Graduating next year, Sarah Gardner is pursuing a journalism degree and currently serves as associate director on the Luminaries Program Council. “We oversee the Hoosier Hosts co-chairs, Programming and Scheduling Committee, Communications and Marketing Committee, and the Treasurer,” Gardner says. “We're in charge of everything from choosing the Luminaries for the year to making sure they get everywhere on time. We coordinate their schedules, and we reach out to student organizations, faculty, and departments on campus to try to create schedules that are fulfilling for the Luminaries and meaningful for students.”

When selecting Luminaries, the students try to include a mix of alumni from each of the College’s academic divisions as well as the College’s School of Global and International Studies, The Media School, and the School of Art, Architecture, and Design. “We want students from all disciplines to feel engaged,” Gardner says. “We also look for [alumni] who are enthusiastic about coming back, who are relatable to students, and who offer relevant career advice for today's world.”

Launching Luminaries

Just how did the program start? When Vanessa Cloe became the College’s director of alumni relations director in 2011, the connection to graduates wasn't exactly robust.

“There was an engagement void amongst our alumni and our alumni board,” she admits. But, by 2012, that would change. “JT. Forbes, then the new CEO of the IU Alumni Association, gave the College a $20,000 grant for a project,” says Cloe.

The timing was perfect. “We'd been looking to expand our role,” says College Alumni Board President Sallie Jo Tardy Mitzell. For inspiration, the group considered Purdue University's “Old Masters” program. “That's been around for at least 50 years,” she says. “It's incredibly well-established.” Developed to connect current Purdue students with distinguished alumni visitors from multiple disciplines, Old Masters now operates via an endowment and dedicated staffers.

“We spoke to the students at Purdue. They couldn't speak highly enough of [Old Masters], and they gave us feedback on how to implement our own program,” Cloe says.

With a basic blueprint and newly available seed funding, IU's Luminaries program flickered to life.

Support the Luminaries Program this IU Day

Guidance and grace

Although visiting Luminaries come from myriad backgrounds, they share some common traits.

“The alumni have been incredibly generous, not only with their advice and their guidance, but also with their grace,” Cloe explains. “They allow these students a safe environment where they can grow. The alumni can be so forgiving. Thoughtfully, they help [students] understand, 'Actually, you might want to go in this direction' or 'You might not want to say that in this setting.'”

Molly Watson is an executive marketing consultant and the former chief operating officer of Tierney, a communications firm with clients including McDonald’s and QVC. As a 2017 visiting Luminary, she remembers, “The students were incredibly impressive, but there was a part of me that thought, 'I hope they don't burn out!' It was surprising how intensely focused they were on their success and their path forward. They wanted to figure it out right away.”

Besides entry-level pointers on resumes, interviews, and networking, Watson helped students — particularly those lacking internships — to reframe the way they thought about themselves.

“A lot of kids are working hard to put themselves through school. They don't have the luxury of taking summer internships,” she says. “One guy said, 'Well, how is it, if I work at GameStop, anyone is going to be interested in me?' I asked him what he does there. He said, 'I've been there four years, I'm now the supervisor, and I manage the schedule.' I said, 'That shows progression. That shows that you have leadership skills. That helps a prospective employer understand your dedication, tenacity, and drive.'”

Amy Carroll Balcius, a 2016 Luminary, shared similarly pragmatic advice. “There were questions around working through career path situations,” she says.

Balcius earned her B.A. in English and journalism from IU in 1994, served in the Peace Corps, and now works as the U.S. markets and regions program director for Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Eyeing a future in Doctors without Borders, College student Lucy Brown felt a special connection with Balcius. Brown will graduate this May with degrees in biology, international studies, and Spanish.

“Students wanted to know how they go from college to a service experience or a not-for-profit but then connect back into a corporate career later,” Balcius adds.

Post-Luminaries, Brown and Balcius have stayed connected, and Brown says, “She's a very involved alumna. That makes me want to continue to be involved with IU after I have a stable career.”

Nurturing courage

Transcending nuts-and-bolts practicalities, the Luminaries program veers into philosophical territory, too. A 2016 IU graduate with a B.S. in human biology and a B.A. in French, Maeve Bartiss is now a third-year medical student at East Carolina University. She was involved with the Luminaries program for the duration of her undergraduate career.

“All of the Luminaries climbed tooth-and-nail from the bottom to get to where they were,” Bartiss says. “They all had great, general job-hunting tips, when it came to that, but the big message that I got from almost all of them was that they all seemed to forge their own path based on their passion.”

“I had a very clear idea of what kind of job I wanted from very early on, but I was not a stickler about how I got to that kind of job,” says Eric Deggans, a 2015 Luminary and National Public Radio's first, full-time TV critic.

Deggans graduated from IU in 1990 with a B.A. in political science and journalism. As a student, he'd imagined he might work as a music critic for a national print publication. “But, as my career progressed and the newspaper industry changed and different kinds of opportunities came my way or didn't come my way, I wound up working in radio which I never expected,” he notes. In part, actively networking and being open-minded helped Deggans find his way.

Exposure to such success stories affords students like Bartiss real hope.

“To hear, 'Hey, you don't always have to be a finance major to do well in business' or 'You don't always have to follow the cookie-cutter path that so many non-liberal arts schools are encouraging' means you can follow your passions, and they'll take you where you want to be,” she says.

Also a 2015 Luminary, Anthony DeCurtis shared a similar point-of-view: “My own career trajectory has proved to me that you can try to do things that you never even thought would be possible, and it works out.”

DeCurtis is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and a Distinguished Lecturer in the University of Pennsylvania's creative writing program. He earned his Ph.D. in American literature from IU.

“When I was in graduate school, I wanted to be an English professor,” he says. “Everybody told me it was a terrible job market, and I knew it was. But nothing anybody said to me was going to discourage me from doing what I wanted to do. I think that when you're young, you can do stuff like that — and you should do stuff like that.”

Alexis Jenkins credits significant professional — and personal — growth to her experience with the Luminaries program. The December 2017 graduate earned degrees in theatre and drama and communication and culture and now works as a reporter for Ideas in Motion Media. Jenkins was a Hoosier Host in 2016 and served as communications and marketing co-chair in 2017.

“I am much less nervous about taking risks,” she says. “I am much more aware that success takes on many forms. The [Luminaries] program is about leading not just a successful career, but leading a successful life. A fulfilling life.”

Help us beat our IU Day goal

This IU Day, the College of Arts and Sciences is crowdfunding for the Luminaries Program. Your donation — of any amount — will make a real difference to the program, providing the funding to bring future Luminaries back to campus to meet with current students.

Support the Luminaries Program

Article by Susan M. Brackney

Susan M. Brackney holds a B.A. in English from Indiana University. A professional writer since 1995, she has written for Boy Scouts, stoners, interventional radiologists, would-be beekeepers, depressives, the one percent, and many other walks of life. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Discover, Organic Gardening, Hobby Farms, and Indianapolis Monthly Magazine, among others. Brackney is also a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and has published four nonfiction books, including Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet. Reach her at