There was a time that I shielded Maddie’s identity while she was a minor, writing reflections on my blog about her experiences in my classroom. Today, however, there is little need to as many of you who follow the blog already know her story well. (Oh, and the fact that she is graduating college this semester with an aerospace engineering degree from Georgia Tech and is well on her way to full-fledged adulthood!) I asked Maddie to write one last reflection that would encompass her experiences from a freshman in my first ever project-based learning (PBL) classroom to her impending college graduation. What follows is a heartfelt reflection on her experiences and the advice she has to give to all of us–students, teachers, employers, parents, etc. I am truly honored she continues to be so willing to share her story here. For context and interest, I’m linking her other writings below. I hope you enjoy what Maddie has to say as much as I do.
by Maddie Sibilia
It’s been a whole two-and-a-half years since I last wrote a piece for this blog. At the time, I was in the midst of my second internship and had just finished my second full year as a student at Georgia Tech. To say a lot has changed since then would be an understatement.
I’m now in my last semester of my fifth and final year at Georgia Tech, and man, did time fly by. In the time between, I had the privilege of serving as a director for Wreck Camp, an extended orientation program at GT (which – side note – all incoming students should attend), as well as two Wreck Camp staffs and one FASET orientation staff; assisted in the founding of College Club Swimming as a new national governing body (NGB) under the U.S. Masters Swimming umbrella; added a minor in Engineering and Business to my plan of study; planned and ran not one but two College Club Swimming National Championship swim meets that boasted nearly 2100 and 2200 athletes, respectively; took my first solo trip abroad to London to visit one of my dearest friends who is now living there; got more involved with masters swimming becoming a member of the Georgia LMSC (local masters swimming committee) board of directors and later being elected to serve as the youngest-ever member of the U.S. Masters Swimming Board of Directors; and, most recently, accepted my first big girl job at the Boeing Company, specifically within Boeing Commercial Airplanes, in Everett, Washington.
Now, let’s keep in perspective that this is just a snapshot of highlights of the past two-and-a-half years. Don’t be fooled into thinking that there haven’t been more than a fair share of low points and tough times amidst these highs, because there have been plenty. What I want to accomplish here in the coming paragraphs is to talk through the motivations behind and learning lessons from such accomplishments, hopefully in the context of the PBL experience that so formatively shaped my high school years and provided a springboard to my college years and beyond.
After reflecting on all my experiences, there are a few key takeaways, or themes, that I found to be consistent not only in the two-and-a-half years since my last shared post, but throughout my nearly-five years of college. In an order that may or may not make sense later:
1. Importance of being comfortable with group work
2. Value of possessing and honing in on a breadth of skillsets
3. Willingness to try something new, even if the outcome isn’t known
4. On a similar note, being ok with uncertainty
Starting at the top, the importance of being comfortable with group work. I remember countless high school teachers and administrators telling us that we would encounter endless group projects in college. While a lot of my peers seemed to dread the idea, I welcomed it. PBL far and beyond prepared me to work with all types of group members, and though some experiences may have been frustrating due to certain group members’ lack of motivation or work ethic in comparison to my own, I genuinely enjoyed working in these groups for extended periods of time. At Tech, my Aerospace Engineering curriculum is not one that is littered with group projects. Sure, I had lab partners/groups, but only had maybe three or four group projects over the course of the 132-credit hour major. Oftentimes the projects were structured enough that they did not allow a ton of room for creativity, not to mention each group was made up of like-minded aerospace engineers. This came as a blessing to many, as they were more comfortable depending solely on themselves, but because of the positive experiences I had throughout high school with group projects, I was longing to work with people of different backgrounds, schools of thought, interests, and skillsets. PBL had instilled within me the value of interdisciplinary teams, and in my third year at Tech, I began to seek out an opportunity to work with one. Couple this desire with the uncertainty of wanting to be an engineer long-term, and I found what is now my minor program: the Steven A. Denning Technology & Management Program (T&M), within which I’ve pursued a minor in Engineering and Business while working on semester-long group projects with classmates from a variety of different majors and backgrounds.
That leads into the second takeaway, the value of possessing and honing in on a breadth of skillsets. From the beginning, my experience with PBL emphasized the importance of developing our soft skills outside of the academic curriculum we were also studying, and that is something I’m incredibly thankful to have done early on. It’s as simple as being able to have an intelligent, casual conversation with anyone. I don’t care how smart you think you are, how adept you are at one task; if I can’t have a five-minute, easy-flowing conversation with you, your smarts and skills won’t leave nearly as large of an impression on me if you fail to carry yourself well. PBL made me more comfortable and confident in presenting in both formal and informal settings, and because of that, college presentations have never stressed me out, unlike many of my peers. This increased comfort and confidence definitely translated into other areas of my life, which is good because it’s not just presentations where this matters. Increasingly, employers are looking to hire college students, whether for internships/co-ops or fulltime, who are well-rounded people. They need to know that you’re teachable, moldable, able to adapt, and above all enjoyable to work with. Would you hire someone you couldn’t have a five-minute conversation with at a career fair? I know I wouldn’t. That’s been another benefit of T&M – the program is sponsored by several companies, many of which are Fortune 500, and we regularly have opportunities to talk with company representatives without the suits and ties, which makes the times with the suits and ties less intimidating.
This area is also where leadership experience, interests and hobbies come in handy. Part of having that five-minute, easy-flowing conversation is about being a person, not just being your field of study or skills or GPA. Interests, hobbies and passions are all good things. They make you relatable, even memorable. And forget employability, these things make you a happier person. If I had to give one piece of advice to any college-bound high school seniors, it would be to get involved in organizations that you join purely for fun. If you spend all your time in class, studying, and doing other academic things without giving your mind a break to enjoy life, you’re going to be miserable. As a nice bonus, you never know what opportunities could arise from engaging in your interests, hobbies and passions. My love for swimming has blossomed into a desire to continually serve that community, especially after meeting people from all walks of life who balance work and family with that same passion and desire to serve. I would never have guessed I would have the opportunity to run National Championships, co-found a new NGB for swimming, and be elected to a Board of Directors while in college, so when I say, “you never know what opportunities could arise from engaging in your interests, hobbies, and passions,” I speak from experience. These were and are new adventures, and I’ve loved seeing where they go, which carries us to my third takeaway.
Willingness to try something new, even if the outcome isn’t known, can be a powerful quality. At the end of my second year at Tech, I was charged with putting on the 2017 College Club Swimming National Championship the following April. Never in my life had I planned a swim meet from top to bottom, much less a championship meet, much less a championship meet with over 2000 people in attendance. But I am fiercely passionate about the sport, had experience working at swim meets, and had a plethora of people to turn to for advice and assistance. High school me could not have imagined being in the position I was in with such a daunting task ahead, having no idea what I was in for, how the year would go, or how the meet would turn out. That being said, there was no choice but to run (or swim) with it. I learned a lot along the way, including that I loved the process enough to do it all over again the next year. Now thinking back, both meets were essentially real-world versions of PBL projects in so many ways. They required a team to work together cohesively, they meant diving headfirst into a new idea or task with the hope it would turn out ok, they had many moving parts that required attention simultaneously, and at times they presented challenges and caused stress. While a giant project like this might scare someone away, I think ultimately, PBL taught me to be comfortable with putting myself out there and trying new things because if anything, you learn from the experience even if it goes south.
My final takeaway, being ok with uncertainty, is perhaps the most difficult of all four. While I still cannot say I’ve mastered this one, I can say that this concept was introduced to me earlier in my education because of PBL. In a normal grade school classroom, you know exactly what to expect year to year: math, science, history, English, maybe a foreign language and some electives. You learn in lecture-style environments, take notes, turn in homework, and your level of understanding is measured with exams that may or may not accurately do what they’re supposed to do. PBL introduced uncertainty into that normal routine. Who would you work with? What topic would your group be interested in? What direction would you take the project? How would you get to that end goal? When would each milestone happen? All these questions were unknowns until they happened, and even then, there was uncertainty about what would happen next. I was forced to become comfortable with the uncertainty of how a project would transpire, and looking back now, that was a beautiful thing. College holds more uncertainty than high school, as you have the power to design your plan of study, and the real world holds even more than that. I’ve always been your stereotypical type-A planner. For that reason, the job search process was one of the most nightmare things to go through because you’re at the mercy of a company’s plan for hiring. I struggled with the amount of uncertainty present, and often had to be reminded (thanks, Mom) that this next step was not a forever step, just the next step in what would be a tall staircase to follow. Though I ended up with a couple different offers, one of the big reasons I chose Boeing was because they did a great job of putting decision power in the hands of the students they interviewed through their Engineering Accelerated Hiring Initiative (EAHI) Program. The type-A planner in me loved that, because I felt like I had more of a say in where I could start my professional career.
Writing this has been an amazing chance to slow down and reflect on the experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have during college, as well as that which prepared me for them. I fully took advantage of PBL in high school, and hopefully now you can see how those experiences lent themselves to shaping some important parts of my college career and beyond. I certainly realize it more now than ever after having narrowed the learning lessons down to these four. Endless thanks to Coach Jones (yes, you’ll always be “Coach” Jones to me) for the encouragement he provided as my teacher in high school, and the opportunities he’s given to share my thoughts since then!
If you read this and would like to talk more about PBL from a student’s perspective, about Georgia Tech, or anything else contained in this write-up, feel free to contact me directly!