June 2001


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Written by
David Eltz

Flaming Passions

Meet the Campus Fools—and members of the more than 200 clubs, organizations, and honorary societies where Pitt students can meet to explore their interests and learn to, well, juggle the other side of the college experience

Numbing rain spatters on the cobblestone courtyard between Hillman Library and Posvar Hall. Even so, Justin Georgi and Josh Hilbert, though not wearing jackets, are probably the warmest people in Pittsburgh right now.

Well…perhaps they have the toastiest hands. Members of Pitt’s juggling club, the Campus Fools, Georgi and Hilbert fling flaming clubs in the air as deftly as politicians cast aspersions at opponents. With seven pins between them, Georgi and Hilbert are playing a trick called “popcorn,” each student facing the other and launching torches with both hands. Every third toss from the right hand is a throw at your partner. (Too bad Georgi forgot to bring the knives this time.) The rhythm goes something like one…and…two…and…three…and…four…and — toss: A torch spins from Hilbert’s hand at Georgi, who grabs the slim neck and flips it back into the air. It is like watching fireflies waltz. Except these lights are fueled by kerosene.

“As soon as I found out the clubs had fire, I was more than willing to learn,” Hilbert, a junior chemical engineering major, says, with a devilish grin, flames reflecting in his eyes.

Though not as dangerous, similar flaming passions burn anywhere on campus on any given day at any number of Pitt’s 200-plus student organizations and clubs. In these groups, both large and small, their focus ranging from student government to African dance, young men and women learn about themselves, their interests, and one another, in an environment every bit as important to their college—and life—experiences as the classroom.

Of course, the Fools have permission from the University to play with fire. Georgi, Hilbert, and company can “juice up” and light their juggling pins any time they desire, so long as the jugglers separate themselves from spectators with red warning tape. Besides, the trick is not as dangerous as it appears; Georgi, the club president, claims he has never burned his ample red beard, just some arm hair now and then.

What’s important, he says, is that no one can play with flaming pins until he or she becomes proficient at juggling normal clubs. Georgi, 22, is as proficient a juggler as you’ll find at Pitt. Tall and brawny with long red hair gathered in a ponytail, Georgi has juggled for 11 years. Once, while sitting around his home in Massachusetts, Georgi looked curiously at a few of his dog’s tennis balls, understood their potential beyond being chew toys, and decided to teach himself to juggle. Now, you’d be lucky to find him sitting around at all, let alone sans objects flying about his head. “I juggle anything I can get my hands on,” the senior biology and theater major says, standing near the base of the escalator in Posvar Hall, where the Fools can be found most Monday and Friday evenings. “I tape homework to the walls and read while I’m juggling. It’s wonderfully relaxing.”

Juggling requires no special athleticism or wit. There is no prerequisite to arrive in this world double-jointed, the offspring of circus clowns, the descendent of a court jester. Juggling is the repetition of a pattern of hand-to-hand tosses, with a little air to spare. It is rhythm and grace and fluidity that arise from the juggler’s comfort with himself, rather than from ability. It is an exercise in deliberateness. It is an exercise in patience.

The key, says Hilbert, a juggler for a dozen years now, is to stop thinking about your throws. “It’s not something you have to concentrate on,” he adds. The sooner you learn that lesson, the sooner you relax, and the sooner that which you juggle remains in the air.

“Anyone can juggle,” Georgi says. Therefore, anyone can be a Campus Fool. On their regular evenings during the academic year, you might find a dozen Fools in or around Posvar. Most are students, but some are professional jugglers who just want a place to have fun with other jugglers. Even Rachel Steigerwalt (Arts and Sciences ’99), who co-founded the Fools in 1996, will drop in now and then. Probably, she admits, more for the social atmosphere than anything else. The same goes for Missy Barrell, club vice president, a senior bioengineering and history and philosophy of science major, and Georgi’s wife. “By the end of the day, I’m so toasted from school, I’d really rather not do anything. So, I sit and distract other people with juggling,” she says, tossing three beanbag balls in the air.

The Fools are as good as clubs get: You form friendships, you learn from one another, and you learn how far you’re willing to take yourself. Witness Kevin Dervarics, a junior electrical engineering major. He and Hilbert met one summer while working at an amusement park. The two became fast friends, and Dervarics soon became a juggler.

On this evening, Dervarics juggles four red balls (each filled with lead shot and weighing one pound). Next to Dervarics, Hilbert performs “chops.” That is, instead of raising his hands from belt level to toss clubs upward, Hilbert positions his arms at shoulder level and stabs downward across his body, catching the clubs and flipping them back in the air. It is an impressive sight, even to a fellow juggler. Dervarics, in awe, stops to watch. “When I can do that,” he says, “I’ll be a happy man.”

At the simplest level, clubs and organizations provide students with an escape from lectures and books and exams. They take the edge off a high-powered day of information overload. They allow students to have fun. They help them develop social and leadership skills—skills all too crucial to thriving in the rat race of post-college life.

But they also do something better.

“Participating in a club or organization is an application of many of the things students learn in the classroom,” says Joseph Cavalla, Pitt’s director of student activities. With more than 30 years in the business of ensuring that students receive a rounded higher-ed experience, Cavalla has seen clubs come and go. Each one, he says, teaches students an interesting lesson about university life: Growth outside the classroom is important, too.

Take, for instance, the Panther Amateur Radio Club. On the seventh floor of Benedum Hall, in a small cinder-block room looking suspiciously as if it had once been a storage closet, Mike Kowalchuk sits on a folding metal chair. He wears a gray T-shirt and khakis. He holds in one hand a silent palm-sized 5-watt radio that travels everywhere he does, like a best friend. “I listen more often than I talk,” Kowalchuk says, almost apologetically, noting that, as a busy electrical engineering and computer science major, he is “usually working on schoolwork.”

On the table before Kowalchuk, the speaker of a bulky 150-watt high-frequency (HF) ICOM America IC-781 radio emits the tortured wails of signals bouncing around the ionosphere, the region about 30 miles above the earth in which HF signals travel. The noises, sounding like seals screeching through crimped copper tubing, are probably the product of weather kicking the voices of ham radio operators about as if they were tin cans. The detritus from a half-dozen used Gateway 2000 computers surrounds Kowalchuk, their disemboweled shells, cherry-picked motherboards, and vacant monitors stacked haphazardly. The circuitry and gadgetry of computers, though a latecomer to wireless, have been worked into amateur radio in the form of packet radio. They are the items of magic for someone like Kowalchuk.

A senior, Kowalchuk, 20, has always gravitated toward things electric. He grew up in a small river town south of Pittsburgh and spent his free time prying open broken appliances and other electronics, to peer at, and operate on, their innards. “Anything I could get my hands on, I would twist the circuits and break them,” he says, with the air of someone who has since perfected his surgical techniques. Kowalchuk, president of Pitt’s radio club, is the guy who loves to push all the buttons on the remote. Amateur radio was a natural attraction for Kowalchuk as he grew older and refined his curiosities. “It definitely played a major role in me choosing electrical engineering as a major,” he says.

In a way, Kowalchuk is like Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi, who, between 1894 and 1901, invented the wireless telegraph and sent the first Morse code signals across the Atlantic, piquing the interest of thousands of Americans in experimenting with radio. (By the way, amateur radio buffs, or “hams,” use the code even today.) Kowalchuk tinkers with the mechanics of radio. “Ultimately I would love to build something that goes from the outlet to the microphone,” Kowalchuk says, meaning he would like to make his own radio from scratch—what hams call a “homebrew system.”

In another way, Kowalchuk, an extra class licensee (the highest of three license levels hams receive from the Federal Communications Commission in order to broadcast), is like American radio pioneer Reginald Aubrey Fessenden. A Pitt professor from 1893 to 1900, who is widely revered as “the father of modern radio,” Fessenden made the first transmission of voice and music, on Christmas Eve in 1906. A pursuer of knowledge rather than fame, Fessenden was a pure scientist, according to radio club advisor Alec Stewart, dean of the Honors College. And, like Fessenden, Kowalchuk is always in search of knowledge. “I’m almost always learning when I’m talking to someone on the radio,” says Kowalchuk, whose radio call sign, the identifier of all hams, is KF3CR.

As is Mike Delaney learning. A sophomore computer engineering major, Delaney has recently earned his first ham license, Technician Class. Holding to his mouth his tiny 1.5-watt handheld radio, he pushes the transmitter button: “KB3FTC, calling anyone.” He lets go of the transmitter. “I guess that was right,” he says, looking at Kowalchuk for confirmation that he used proper radio etiquette. “Yeah, it was,” Delaney says. Kowalchuk nods agreement.

Stewart, who says his interest in amateur radio likely helped him become a physicist, calls the hobby a “laboratory experiment” for students interested in electricity. The fusion of intellectual theory and practical application, ham radio flourishes, by no coincidence, in small university rooms across America. Amateur radio, says Stewart, is magic; one can trek to the top of a hill, hook a battery-powered box to a wire, and talk to someone in, say, Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. And there is romance: Morse code, in all its dot-and-dash simplicity, sometimes has the timbre of angels. For those reasons, and many more, amateur radio, says Stewart, is the “proper thing” to be associated with at an intellectual place such as Pitt. And for some 30 members of the Panther Amateur Radio Club, in existence now for more than 50 years, it is the doorway to the mind.

College throws down one challenge after another. Social, cultural, political, and philosophical convictions are held up for inspection, in the classroom and beyond. Some students will reassemble their beliefs with durable mortar; others may build them anew entirely. It is the time for examining who you are, thinking about what it means to be that human being, and seeking some of the answers in the company you keep.

Encouraging such exploration is an important role of Pitt’s Asian Students Association (ASA). With some 400 members, ASA promotes Asian and Asian-American culture through workshops on such subjects as racism, interracial dating, and religion and events meant to appeal to a variety of people. In April 2000, for example, ASA held its first cultural fair at the William Pitt Union, where passersby could watch traditional Filipino dance and eat Indian cuisine such as samosas, a fried, triangular dumpling stuffed with potato and peas—a sort of Indian pierogi.

While food is a part of any culture, it is the personal discoveries by individual members that make ASA a success. “You find relationships in ASA,” says Brandon Glova, a junior communications major. Of Filipino descent, Glova grew up tall in the suburbs of Philadelphia, with massive arms and shoulders and a quick mind. But he also grew up observing his classmates and noticing their physical appearances and calling into question his own identity. “You think, ‘I wish I was white because I’m the only Asian kid in class,’” he admits. When he began to attend Pitt, Glova discovered similar stories from other Filipino Americans such as Mia Tangco. “You find out you’re not alone in having felt that,” Glova says.

A senior communications and health information major, Tangco performed “Tinikling,” the Philippine national dance, with Glova at last year’s ASA Cultural Fair. In Tinikling, also known as the bamboo dance, the dancer hops in and out of the space between two bamboo poles, which are held on the floor and moved back and forth by two other people. It is often described as a dance of endurance, of foot movement and grace, as a battle between the dancer’s feet and the bamboo poles.

Tangco grew up attending an all-female school, so at Pitt she sought experiences in as many groups as possible. (For instance, she also is a member of the Black Dance Workshop student organization.) Eventually, through her friendships, Tangco became interested in ASA. Last year, she helped to form the Filipino Student Association, a 30-member organization of which she is president. Tangco had learned by watching the ASA board conduct work as friends first, ASA members second. She wanted the chance to bring that spirit to a group for Filipinos. “They enjoyed working together,” she says of the ASA board. “It wasn’t really work to them.”

ASA president Margarita Sarmiento leans forward, intent upon driving home a new point. “ASA is not only for Asians,” says the senior communications and business major born in the Philippines. The group’s goal, Sarmiento says, is to make members “feel comfortable” with their identity and where they belong within Pitt’s student population, American society, the world.

“I think a big part of college and the experience you have here is learning about yourself and building off that,” says Sara Fusco, 21, a senior political science major. The blonde-haired Fusco is anything but Asian; rather she is of Italian ancestry, with a few other European bloodlines tossed in. Fusco says she joined ASA to spend time with friends, and it has turned out to be one of the best experiences of college. The group, she says, has allowed her to build a tremendous support system—and to stretch herself. “I think,” she says, her hands clasped together, “it’s really important for me to learn about people with diverse backgrounds. It helps me to grow and to understand different perspectives.”

Not long ago, ASA held a workshop that asked participants to define who they thought they were. What the group was really asking is this: What is Asian, and where do you fit within the definition? Of course, there was no right answer. “We just wanted to leave it up to people to make up their own minds,” Sarmiento says. “Being Asian is different for everyone.”

So is learning who you are.

High up in the southwestern Pennsylvanian Laurel Highlands, the snow kept falling. Twelve inches piled up. The drifts felt bottomless. Ten hikers from the Pitt Outdoors Club pushed on regardless. Dusk had come and gone, and the cold was burrowing through their clothing.

As a group of rugged hikers who, to paraphrase Jack London, were perfectly willing to light out after adventure with a club, there was no way the group would decide they’d be better off sipping cocoa around a hot fire. They had set out to hike 12 miles. They had to finish.

There was a price. Three hikers succumbed to exhaustion and were hauled out by a park ranger that night, more than a year ago. The next day, the ranger removed another, a hiker who had slipped on a rock at camp and wrenched his knee. Perhaps there is no more intense method of testing your mettle than to tempt Mother Nature; she is a magnificent instructor. In this case, she taught some club members that persistence sometimes does not pay dividends; preparation and a good start do. (As for knee injuries, sometimes they come with the territory.)

“Needless to say, the things we do aren’t inherently safe,” says a grinning Ryan Cieslak, a club member. At least the members of the Pitt Outdoors Club know the dangers going in. The club, around for 30 years now, is comprised of an active membership of 100 people who love climbing, caving, rafting, and hiking. It offers training, equipment, and a place for outdoors enthusiasts to express themselves. (The club is occasionally assisted by the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh, an organization of outdoors enthusiasts—several of them Pitt alumni—that provides students with access to experienced people and excellent training.)

Cieslak, a senior communications major whose specialty is rock climbing, joined the club his sophomore year, though he’d never had any previous interest in climbing. His first practice climbs on a rock gym, a man-made replica of a rock wall, were a disaster. He fell more than a few times. “Climbing in general is all in your legs. I had no concept of that,” Cieslak says, shaking his head. Club members Dave Csernak and Jamie Butler decided finally not to let him come down—until he learned to use his legs.

“You have to learn that way,” says Cieslak, the start of a blond goatee forming on his chin. Climbing a rock is like walking up a wall. It is moving your hands and feet up a rock face, finding a place to put them—and holding on. Often, you are terrified of falling, of following a rock seam that will run out of useful cracks, leaving you stuck in a place between nowhere and hell. At best, climbing is you against the elements. “Basically,” says Cieslak, “there’s nothing below you, to the right of you, to the left of you, above. It’s just you, the rock, and the wind.” Sitting at a table at the Second Plate, the snack bar in Posvar Hall, Cieslak sounds as though he remembers such a climb not long ago.

“That’s the reason we have such strong friendships,” says Butler, who sits across from Cieslak. “You work as a team. You’ve climbed the rock.” Wearing a tie and a purple shirt, Butler, a senior computer engineering major, looks nothing like someone who might put his life in the hands of people he has known for only a couple of years. But that is exactly what Butler, and everyone else in this club, does several times a year. “You put your life in their hands, and you say, ‘Here, don’t let me die,’” adds Joel Schmoyer, 21, a senior civil engineering major from Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Cieslak, Csernak, Butler, and Schmoyer are club co-presidents, and together they have formed a bond of trust earned through preparation, training, and teamwork, through venturing into the wild and pushing themselves to reach beyond their physical limits. Says Csernak, a senior environmental studies major: “When you’re dangling 900 feet off the ground, and there’s nothing you can do, it’s your team you’re relying on to help get you through.”

And then it is over. That moment of danger—when you have battled the fear and the rock and your slim hold on that crack—has passed. You’ve struggled, and, through the help of your team, you’ve conquered the rock, and yourself. You stand atop a mountain and a curious feeling sets in. You cannot describe it or understand it. Yet it feels comfortable, like a warm fire, and you let the sensation overwhelm you.

That sensation is euphoria, that special knowledge of having learned and changed and developed. It happens to the rock climbers and the Asian students, to the hams and the jugglers, to the students in all the many other clubs. They become more than just students of the classroom; they become students of experience, students of life. Most important of all, they become students of themselves.

Honorary Societies

If Melissa Barrell has one soapbox issue it is that Pitt has too many smart students who are dumb. Her point, says the multitasking Golden Key National Honor Society president and Campus Fools juggler, is that so often students work their tails off for good grades only to forsake the benefits of honorary organizations to which they have earned the right to belong. Huge mistake.

“I truly believe,” she says, “that students don’t take enough advantage of the opportunities they have. School is definitely not just about school. If you don’t get involved, you’re missing out on something that could be special.”

Take the Golden Key Society, one of 27 honorary fraternities and organizations at the University. Grades get a member in the door. (Junior and seniors in the top 15 percent of their class are invited to join.) The payoff, however, comes with what members do once they enter the room. As with most honorary organizations, the Golden Key Society is service oriented. Recently for one charity Barrell helped sort a thousand intravenous needles donated by local hospitals, repackaging them for shipment to places such as Honduras and Cuba. Last fall, the organization put together hundreds of “goodie baskets” for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, stuffing them with candy and crayons—and whistles. “I’m sure the hospital loved that,” she says, laughing.

But more than encouraging a volunteering spirit, what an organization like the Golden Key Society does, says Barrell, is help members explore worlds, theirs and those they’re just beginning to glimpse. Members, for instance, might find themselves traveling to national and international conferences to develop leadership skills. Or networking with national businesses and tapping into a career. Closer to home, someone might develop the concept of hosting a forum for discussion and find in an honorary group the support to make the idea become reality.

“It’s being part of an organization that is geared entirely to opening doors,” says Barrell. “The more people who come, the more who participate, the more you get from the whole thing.”


The Greek Edge

When Mike Kugler boasts his fraternity has a “crew” that hits the library and studies “all night,” he’s taken aback at skepticism. “A lot of people don’t really realize all the positive aspects of fraternity life,” he says, his voice pained.

Of course, the sophomore business and finance major is right. Fraternity life has been, shall we say, unfairly stereotyped. Consider this: Pitt’s 19 fraternities and 14 sororities (17 and 11, respectively, affiliated with the national Greek system) monitor their members’ library time and grades. Each chapter has a policy that sets specific study times. One in particular exacts even more study time from members whose GPA falls below 3.5. As Kugler, president of Pitt’s Gamma Sigma chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha, puts it: You can’t be in a fraternity if you fail out of school. Life for today’s Greeks is an entire pendulum swing away from Animal House.

Fraternity and sorority life is still decidedly social. Kugler calls his fraternity brothers “71 of my closest friends.” But social events are often driven by a philanthropic purpose. Each of the fraternities and sororities is competing this year in events such as singing shows and talent contests to earn money for cystic fibrosis. (This year, they raised a whopping $75,000.) Some also have side projects to benefit women’s shelters or the prevention of child abuse. Every blood drive on campus would leave a few hundred pints shy if it weren’t for Greeks, says Tara Mancuso, president of Pitt’s Gamma Epsilon chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Mancuso, by the way, knows firsthand another of the positives of Greek life: leadership. Last December Mancuso found her sisters telling her she’d make “a great president.” A sophomore, she was smart enough to take that flattery as respect. Mancuso went into the job admittedly overwhelmed. She’s since learned it requires patience to maintain balance and organization over 60 sorority sisters. Now she has discovered a sense of fulfillment—an understanding that she is exactly where she’s supposed to be. “I’ll be a Kappa forever,” Mancuso says. She’s taking that knowledge seriously. —DRE

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