When Emily Fesnak came to Syracuse University four years ago, she wasn’t entirely sure what to think about her intended dual major at the School of Information Studies (iSchool) and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication.

“In high school, I was much more writing focused, and at 18, didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do in college,” Fesnak recalled. “My parents encouraged me to look into communications, and when I applied, I looked at the programs and thought, ‘why get one degree when you can get two?’”

Although Fesnak didn’t know what to expect with the Information Management and Technology portion of her dual degree, she flung herself headlong into the challenges of an unfamiliar major and quickly transformed her attitude towards the technology field, finding a passion that excited her and drove her eventual career aspirations.

iSchool’s Labs Provide Direction

Early in her freshman year, Fesnak applied and was accepted for a student job at the iSchool’s instructional computer lab (iLab). The iLab student workers tend to iSchool computer labs, ensuring that the hardware is functional, performing troubleshooting tasks, and helping users with the systems.

“I figured that if I had a technology-focused job, that it would be a way for me to keep learning outside of the classroom,” Fesnak said. “I ended up becoming extremely motivated by all of the intelligent people I was working with. My supervisor, the graduate assistants who worked in the lab, the iSchool seniors who had worked their way up – these were all people who took me under their wing and helped me learn.”

Fesnak worked under the direction of Instructional Technology Analyst James Powell. Powell is responsible for the development and management of physical and virtual lab and classroom environments at the iSchool.

“Working in James’ office influenced my studies quite a bit,” said Fesnak. “I had initially felt a little behind as a freshman, I thought that many of my peers knew more than I did, so working for the iLab not only gave me the confidence I needed, it also gave me some direction, too.” 

In her sophomore year, Fesnak added a minor in Computer Science from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, and applied for a position at the iSchool’s Information Technology Experiential Learning Laboratory (iTELL).

“iTELL is an upper level lab, it manages all of the virtual machines used in iSchool coursework and works with faculty members as they build their instructional computing environments,” Fesnak explained. “Working in iTELL also gave me a chance to explore working on an individual project that would benefit the iSchool.”

“Emily asked if I had a project or an idea that she could take on,” Powell recalled. “That turned into her learning some new technology skills, PowerShell scripting and PostgreSQL databases, to update a workflow we have in place currently, but that is leveraging much older, and less flexible, technologies.”

Powell hopes that iTELL will soon be able to take Fesnak’s proof of concept and update their solution with her work to provide a new foundation to build on in the future.

“She stood out as a capable student employee primarily because she asked quality questions, always trying to understand how the technologies we leverage were managed and maintained.” Powell said. “It didn’t take much to identify her as an individual capable of, and interested in, taking on a greater responsibility.”

“Working with the virtual machines in the lab gave me a greater understanding in every course I took subsequently that involved them,” Fesnak noted. “I also went on to become a teaching assistant for IST 346, Information Technology Management and Administration. The lab and the TA position provided the best opportunities to apply what I learned back into the classroom and keep growing.”

Becoming a Software Engineer

Outside of the iSchool, Fesnak spent a summer in Washington, D.C., as an intern in IBM’s technology sales division.

“By the time I took the internship with IBM, I had picked up my Computer Science minor and had a better idea of what I wanted to do for a career,” said Fesnak. “My internship manager asked me what type of job I was looking to do, and I told him that I wanted to be a software engineer, so he set me up with a summer-long development project.”

That project, developing a custom data visualization solution for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, allowed Fesnak to be a part of a large project from start to finish.

“It was so rewarding to be involved in that project from start to finish,” said Fesnak, “and it was the first time where I proved to myself that I could do this on a professional level – it paved a path for me.”

Fesnak will soon be headed to Phoenix, Arizona where she’ll begin her career at a software engineer at Intel.

“In the same week that I found out that Syracuse had named me a University Scholar, I heard from Intel,” Fesnak said. “They called and offered me my dream job.”

Fesnak, originally from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, a suburb north of Philadelphia, has spent most of her time on the East Coast.

“I decided that when I got a job, I wanted to be somewhere completely new,” Fesnak said, noting that Intel gave her a choice between Phoenix and Portland, Oregon. “I want to embrace the change and make a new adventure out of everything.”

Parting Thoughts

When Fesnak walks across the stages at the iSchool’s Convocation ceremony and the University’s Commencement this weekend, she’ll be wearing the University Scholar medallion, the highest academic honor at Syracuse University. 

Scholars are selected using criteria that includes coursework and academic achievement, independent research and creative work, a personal statement and faculty letters of recommendation.

“I always believed that everyone needs to find their family at the University,” Fesnak said, recalling her time at Syracuse. “I’m lucky in that I found my family in the iSchool. I’ve spent more time with my co-workers here at the school than with my roommates!” 

“What I’ve seen over 4 years is that the people who try to find their place here are the ones who succeed,” Fesnak explained, when asked for advice for incoming students. “If you don’t get involved, you’re not going to be happy.”

“That, and going with your gut,” Fesnak added. “I realized that you’ve got to trust your gut reaction. I doubted myself a lot, and struggled to find direction at first, but in the end, it’s worth the risks you take if you go with your gut.”