The one constant
Change. How do we make it happen—or cope with it when it happens to us?
Adam Markel ’87 had everything: a happy marriage, healthy kids, a great career. So why was he so anxious? “At the beginning of each day I’d feel dread,” he recalls. And then: “I’m supposed to be at my son’s baseball game, and instead I’m on a gurney at the local emergency room.” It was a panic attack—and a wake-up call. Markel knew it was time to make a big change. But how?
Answering that question led to Markel’s book, Pivot: The Art and Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life, which coaches readers who are facing major changes. Today, when Markel wakes up, he feels gratitude. “I put my feet on the floor and say, ‘I love my life.’” We asked other UMass alumni and students about pivotal moments that changed everything for them.
Laura Manley ’08 always knew she wanted to be an executive director for a mental health nonprofit. Right after she graduated, she got a job as (surprise!) the executive director of a mental health nonprofit. “It was my dream come true,” she recalls. Except it wasn’t. “I had had such a laser-like focus on that topic, I hadn’t taken time to think about what else I was interested in.” So, she left for Southeast Asia, volunteering with aid organizations that were using technology in ways that intrigued her. Today, Manley is the inaugural director of the Technology and Public Purpose Project at Harvard Kennedy School. “Students are frustrated because they don’t know exactly what they want to do. There’s nothing wrong with that!” she says. “It’s okay to switch course and change your mind.”
John Elder Robison learned he was autistic at the age of 40. Finally, Robison felt he could live his life “as a perfectly typical autistic person, rather than a second-rate human.” Back when he was a teen faculty brat, Robison flunked out of school and instead hung around the UMass engineering lab, receiving a de facto education. Then he went on to design special effects guitars for the rock band KISS, restore high-end European automobiles, and advocate for autism research. “How many thousands of other people like me are there,” he says, “who didn’t have the advantages I had?”
When former head of sport management Glenn Wong offered Anne Flannery ’89 a coveted internship with the Boston Celtics, Flannery surprised everyone by saying no. “My heart was set on a position with the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF). Glenn was like, ‘The who?’” Flannery stuck to her guns, turning away the brass ring of the Celtics in order to pursue something that, for her, felt much bigger. “And it changed my life.” She did get the job at the WSF, and many others followed, including leadership positions at Spaulding and the Boys & Girls Clubs.
For Ana Torres-Ocampo ’21, an entire career resulted from a casual chat. “I saw my friend sitting on a bench,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I’m going to lab.’ I was like, ‘Lab?’” Torres-Ocampo followed along and signed on as a volunteer. “I had envisioned really, really smart people working there,” she says. But knowing that her friend was part of the lab made it less intimidating. Now Torres-Ocampo is a PhD candidate digging into cutting-edge molecular and biochemical neuroscience, and the novelty has not worn off. “I get giddy like a little kid. It’s amazing to me that I get to do this.”
After years of climbing the corporate ladder, Bill Russell ’97MBA opted for a slower life. He opened a food truck—which turned into a café, and then turned into a full-fledged restaurant. Then he bought a cranberry bog. And started an… alpaca farm? (So much for slowing down.) “My father passed away when he was 60,” Russell says. “He worked until he retired and then passed away within a year. And I thought, well, that’s kind of silly.” And so, Russell remains mindfully open to the twists and turns that make life interesting.
For years, Anim Aweh ’11 imagined herself on a certain path. “I always knew I wanted to be helpful in some way. The message of being a physician was always pushed upon me, so I thought that was the only way.” Then, as a premed student at UMass, she received a dreaded C. “I thought I was done,” she says. Aweh stopped short and took a hard look at what it was she really wanted to do—and redeclared her major in public health. Now, as a clinical social worker, she works closely with doctors to address patients’ whole health. Looking back, she realizes that that C did not actually need to lead to the end of her premed career. “Now I know I could have made it,” she says. “But I’m not regretful. I am where I’m supposed to be.”
Back in school, Marty Sylvia studied in art history and biology, and she got her master’s in art history while also working on behavior entomology. But when an entirely unrelated job popped up in cranberries, Sylvia shrugged and said, “Yeah, I can do that.” Over the last three decades, Sylvia has become the most knowledgeable cranberry entomologist in the world, which is good timing, considering cranberries have exploded in popularity. “I had no interest in cranberries,” she muses. “Or insects.” But then, how many people are innately interested in cranberries? “You’ll never find someone who specializes in cranberries.” Being open to a major pivot to something she’d never really thought about has what led to a long and stable career that one might even describe as fruitful.
The grandmother of Kritika Pandey ’20 was an outlier in society. “She was opinionated and loud—and also suffered from multiple mental illnesses, which is taboo in Indian society,” she explains. “That shaped my world view. Writing fiction is like having a conversation with ourselves, and that’s what she did. It continues to be my normal.” Pandey says it was when she began her MFA at UMass that she began thinking not only about what to write, but how. “That’s when I realized that I’m extremely different when I’m writing. My writing personality is very different from the way I present myself. Writing allows me to reveal aspects of my personality that, moving around in the real world—what we believe to be the real world—does not.”
Poet Betsy Wheeler, Managing Director of the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at UMass, has known massive, life-altering change in her time, but sometimes it’s the incremental, barely-there shifts that matter. “During a Q&A with an amazing writer and MFA candidate at UMass, Alex Tourell, she was asked, how do you keep writing if you’re trying to finish a story or a poem? She had the best answer: Get someone who will gas you up. Find an accountability buddy, someone who is going to help you stay on task—but because you want to do it, not because it’s a deadline or your job.” Wheeler took the advice to heart. She has a full-time job and is a mother of a preschooler, but in order to encourage herself to keep creative, she chose an accountability buddy and the two of them check in once a week. “Each week we send each other a photo of the quantity of creative work that we have completed.” It can be a photo of some embroidery, or a watercolor in progress, or even just a shot of a computer screen. “The idea is that I take care of the quantity and the universe takes care of the quality,” Wheeler laughs. “I’m of better service to other writers when I’m feeding myself and my own creativity at the same time.”
In spring 2020, Taylor Cassidy ’20 was named a Rising Researcher in her senior year at UMass. She was all set to continue her work to make Latin more accessible to kids at the Center for Hellenic Studies. “Classics is a field that can be very white, inaccessible, and elitist,” she explains. “How do we engage people who aren’t normally engaged with this? What’s the point of studying this if it can’t be enjoyed by everyone?” She was looking specifically at marginalized communities in classical civilization. But during the pandemic she finds herself making ends meet as a pharmaceutical tech, which gives her a front-and-center view of marginalized communities. The things that gets us through a period of change and instability looks much the same as it did two millennia ago. “It’s about being connected to your community and finding meaning in small things. You know, the power’s on, you have a place to live and food on your table. You made it through the day, you did pretty good! We have to be open to the way the world might force change upon us.”
Some changes are subtle and internal. Others take you halfway around the globe. Born and raised in Vietnam, Thao Trinh ’21 learned she had won a scholarship to study in the U.S. via text from a study-abroad agency. “I was like—I was shocked.” Then she faced the profound culture clash. “Everything’s different. I had to start my life again, basically,” she explains. Not that she’s complaining. Trinh’s dream was to study computer science, and the prevailing sentiment back at home was that that wasn’t for girls. Even so, Trinh managed to find an internship in Vietnam just last summer—with a cybersecurity company. But for now, the U.S. is homebase. “There was a time when I was so homesick. But I got through it. I entered UMass after high school, and kept pushing myself forward. Now, when I visit Vietnam, I feel like we’re not on the same page anymore. I changed.”
Sometimes we don’t realize how much we need a change until it’s foisted upon us. “The pandemic has been a huge curveball,” says Taylor Mickens ’21, who studied theater, jazz, and African-American music. “In different ways. Of course, it’s terrible, all the loss and the grieving and the fact that we can’t go to a store without fearing for our lives.” On the other hand, Mickens can’t help but notice that her life was careening a little bit out of control. “In high school, I was in so many extra curriculars and took so many AP classes and never had time to sleep. Pre-pandemic, I was taking 21 credits, and was also in a play, and was also preparing for these concerts that I was featured in. I was on an unstoppable train, and I’m glad the train stopped, because I’ve been in such kinetic motion for so long. Anything that anyone asked of me I’d say yes, even when not in my best interest.” Once the pandemic is in her rearview, she’s hoping not to rev the motor back up to quite the same speed. “I have to start slow, do one thing at a time, and remind myself that that that is how it should be right now,” she says. “I need to remind myself that I can still have this go-getter fire inside of me but also listen to my body and my brain when they’re telling me that I need to take a break.”