March 2002


Past Issues

Contact Us

Next Article

A Slice of Campus Life

Commons Room

All that jazz

“Okay—this thing,” David Matthews says, moving in front of a keyboard, “I kind of know how to get some sound out of this.” The second-year graduate student in the music composition program taps a few keys, and the instrument lets out a long, sustained groan. More students start to trickle in, dropping their backpacks in a pile and assembling themselves around a drum set, two keyboards, and three pianos.

It’s Saturday, and most people are enjoying a long-awaited day off. But for eight students in Bellefield Hall, a three-hour introductory studio engineering class is about to begin. The students digitally record their own music, edit it, and then copy it onto CDs. And they do it all in this modest-looking room with low ceilings and burgundy-colored carpeted walls.

Dave Granati, the instructor, begins speaking before he’s through the door. “We’ll probably try to lay down about a four-minute piece of music,” he says, “because the assignment will be to put some overdubs on it.” The students start moving around the room, twisting microphones onto stands, and running cords across the floor.

Granati asks for a volunteer to do a sound check. Michael Foulk, a sophomore music major, pulls out a guitar, and says he can also sing. Perfect. Granati sets him up with microphones. Then, he and the rest of the students retreat to the adjoining mixing room where two speakers will enable them to hear Foulk’s music while they watch him through a sound-proof glass wall. The recording session has begun.

—Edward J. Humes

Native dancers in Mongolia perform for Pitt students outside the country’s capital, Ulaanbataar.
Bill’s excellent adventure

He had never been outside the United States. He didn’t think he’d ever travel. With about a year left until graduation from Pitt, Bill Laboon—a computer science and political science major in the Honors College—was ready to embrace life in a cubicle at some high- tech firm. But then he got an e-mail that offered him a temporary reprieve.

The e-mail noted a trip to Mongolia to participate in a research project. Four months later he and five other students, on their way to Mongolia, were having lunch in Moscow near Red Square.

Finding handy seating on a World War II monument, they dined on a very European lunch, freshly baked bread and cheese. Suddenly, a Russian police officer, toting a submachine gun, ran toward them screaming unintelligibly. The group was about to learn a valuable lesson. “The Russians take their war monuments seriously,” Laboon explains.

From Moscow they boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway. A little more than a week later, after a two-day stop in Siberia, they arrived in the capital of Mongolia.

Students in the Honors College program are exposed to the Mongolian culture, language, and its economic development. From this exposure they craft a research paper. The program is unlike other exchange programs because it includes undergraduate research.

Laboon’s research paper focused on the economic development of a Third World culture. He noted how Mongolia is isolated from the rest of the world.

There are few airports, many have dirt runways. Most roads aren’t paved. The Trans-Siberian, the nation’s lone railroad, offers direct service to Moscow, but a non-stop trip takes six days, and onboard amenities don’t include air conditioning or showers. In talking with government officials, Laboon discovered the country has been focusing its educational endeavors on improving the sciences, math, and computer science. Yet only the central part of the country has Internet access, and the system is archaic.

Not only did the students have an opportunity to learn more about the country, they also learned how to tackle diverse situations, like dealing with a translator, conducting research in a country with spotty records, and understanding cultural differences.

Even in these unsettled times, Laboon says his future travel plans include more than to a cubicle.

—Meghan Holohan

Touched by an angel

In the Old World paradise, the rain came in great sheets. The church was sweaty. The choir was told not to expect much of a turnout. Perhaps that was for the best.

Members of Pitt’s Heinz Chapel Choir on tour along the Dalmation coast in Croatia.
Weeks before that concert on the Croatian island of Hvar, the Heinz Chapel Choir’s Erin McPherson had struggled with her solo part in Ave Maris Stella. Singing in Latin, with a soft and distant voice, she couldn’t get it quite right, couldn’t touch the spirit of the ancient hymn.

David Turner—who was choir president during last year’s tour of Croatia and Italy—remembers his apprehension about the performance. To heighten his anxiety, the low turnout turned into an unexpected standing-room-only crowd at the ancient stone Cathedral of St. Stephen. In the crowd, an elderly man in the front row caught the eye of Turner. Others noticed him, too. Choir director John Goldsmith later learned the man was a retired fisherman who was in his 90s.

The performance would be without accompaniment. Goldsmith struggles to explain the appeal of singing a cappella, the choir’s forte. He compares it to something he says non-singers might understand: it’s like being wrapped in a blanket fresh from a clothes dryer. A warmth that washes over you. Turner says the music touches your heart.

That’s what happened in Hvar.

McPherson remembers singing her solo as never before. Touched by the choir’s performance, the old man in the front row began sobbing. Great tears slid down his ruddy cheeks. Others in the audience began crying, too. Then, members of the choir cried. It was hearing the voice of your very soul, says McPherson. Someone told her she had the voice of an angel. This church has never heard music like this, the parish priest said. Ever.

When the concert ended, the applause went on and on. Finally, the crowd drifted out of the church. The experience left some of the choir stunned. One member swears he left part of himself in the cathedral.

McPherson found herself lingering after the performance. The rain had stopped. Eventually, she ventured into the warm night, opting to walk back to the hotel instead of taking the shuttle.

—Kris B. Mamula

One night stand

“I wanted to be naked for this reading.”

Poet Gail Giewont speaks these words into the microphone at Fuel and Fuddle, a restaurant a few blocks from the Cathedral of Learning. She’s not naked. Instead, the 23-year-old graduate student wears a colorless frock buttoned to the neck.

She recounts for a tittering crowd of primarily Pitt graduate students from the English department how she struggled to reconcile her want of public nudity with the prospect of potential arrest for indecent exposure. “I thought of standing behind a screen,” she says, “or wearing a flesh colored body suit.”

Then, she starts to unbutton the dress. The spectators—most of them regulars who attend every week to listen to their classmates—shift in their seats, nervous as children anticipating a racy scene in a movie they’re watching with their parents. Glasses cease clinking. Forks pause midway from plate to mouth.

“But then . . .” The last button freed, Giewont yanks off the dress with a flourish. She stands akimbo in a speck of red dress. A black bra and stockings peek out from underneath. “. . . I realized I don’t have to be naked.”

The restaurant seems to erupt.

“People were actually complimenting me on that [discarded] dress,” she says to the rowdy crowd as she points to the puddle of cheap fabric behind her. “My God, people, my mother would wear that!”

Giewont’s mother might blush at her daughter’s verse, all sweaty nuns, hot palms, and odes to a God who is “without His pants.” In breathy, seductive rhythms, she reads a chronicle of her Catholic girlhood. But this is no candlelight vigil.

Readers at Fuel and Fuddle compete with circling waiters and pints of beer for attention. Less formal than its parent series at Hemingway’s Café—which hosts more published writers than fledgling authors—the Thursday night reading series is sort of the black sheep of the MFA program. Virgin readers welcome the renegade vibe.

“We bond at these nights,” says co-organizer Erin Teegarden, who is in her second year of the program. The camaraderie of the crowd certainly helps ease the nerves of green students. But the writers here are seldom mooning wallflowers.

Teegarden closes the night with the only poem of hers that she knows by heart.

“You had me like a snake in a stapler,” she hisses, narrowing her eyes to slits. The crowd roars in recognition, responding as if she were a rock star, not a student poet. Teegarden describes a brief affair gone bad, lapsing into the musical rhythm of a hip-hop MC. The audience moves with her, freed from the headiness of their daily routines, anticipating the coming weekend, and cheering poetry that is relevant, funny, accessible, alive.

—Jessica Mesman

WPTS-FM radio sports director Matt Schliesman

When Notre Dame played Pitt last fall, Pittsburgh residents had their pick of radio coverage. They could listen to the Panthers broadcast team over classic rock station WRRK. They could listen to Notre Dame’s version of the broadcast (boo, hiss!) over all-news KQV.

For the hardcore Pitt fan, however, there was only one real choice—student-run WPTS-FM. Broadcasting 17 watts from the top of the cathedral, ’PTS can be a tough catch outside Oakland, though the station is also available on the Internet at

While WPTS provides a uniquely student perspective on athletics, the station’s sports director, Matt Schliesman points out that listeners shouldn’t expect mistake-free broadcasts. “You have to look at it as a lab,” he says. All WPTS hosts are volunteers, most carrying a full load of classes. Schliesman—a senior majoring in journalism and history—credits a hard-working crew of sports buffs for shouldering the load.

Besides nearly all Pitt football games, ’PTS is making a special effort to spotlight sports that don’t get much coverage from commercial radio, including women’s basketball and Pitt baseball. “We like being part of the scene,” Schliesman says. The station also offers a sports call-in show weekday afternoons.

At most games, two WPTS sportscasters work together, with one providing play-by-play, and the other offering color commentary. WPTS is definitely “pro-Pitt,” Schliesman says, but at the same time, broadcasters try to be objective. “We have some people who take things very seriously,” he says.

While WPTS doesn’t get any special treatment from the University or from Heinz Field personnel, they aren’t given second-class status, either, and receive the same privileges accorded other members of the media. That includes a seat in the press box, where student volunteers rub elbows with nationally-known sportscasters. One Pittsburgh broadcaster even grumbled that the students had a better view than his station. “At Three Rivers Stadium, we were on the fourth-level in the end zone,” Schliesman says. “When we walked into Heinz Field for that East Tennessee State game, it was like going from the outhouse to the penthouse.”

—Jason Togyer


From the cheap seats at Heinz Field, Dave McKenzie listened to the marching band thumping out Hail to Pitt. And he had a problem. Some people would describe it as a ge-nagging problem.

Since 1910, during the “bump-bumpety-bump-bump-bump” in the fight song, folks in the bleachers have called out, “Alleghenee, genac, genac, genac.” Last season, many students weren’t cheering, McKenzie says.

It wasn’t a life-and-death issue, he knows, but it was nettlesome, nevertheless. McKenzie, a senior history major, and his friends have been genacking since freshman year.

Hail to Pitt
(RealAudio clip, courtesy of

In October, McKenzie, the opinion page editor at the Pitt News, took his crusade public in a column. “Let’s remind people that they’re at the home of one of the most storied programs in college football history,” he wrote. “Pitt football has a glorious past, and we should remember that.”

McKenzie and his roommate—both the sons of two alumni—are steeped in University history, and they tried hard last season to lead their neighbors in the cheer. “He and I are always big on Pitt traditions,” McKenzie says.

Ironically, Dave McKenzie grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and had never attended a Panthers game before college. He learned Hail to Pitt from his father, George (CAS ’69).

“I just remembered him singing the song when I was little,” Dave McKenzie says.

Now, he’s teaching people to genac, but results are mixed. “We have had cases where people looked at us really funny,” McKenzie says, sitting in his cubicle at the newspaper.

Alas, pockets of resistance remain. “You won’t hear me yelling out words that don’t make sense,” sniffs a copy editor sitting nearby.

—Jason Togyer

Peer review

It’s a Saturday in August so this isn’t the regular crowd shuffling into Benedum Hall. Angie Ribera steps hesitantly into one of the classrooms located on the top floor. Among those already there are two young men, new students like Ribera, who sit awkwardly at their desks.

“Is that all Pitt?” a young man, nodding toward the big glass windows, asks of no one in particular.

Meanwhile, Ribera eyes a seat at the back of the room, sits down and crosses her arms. Carrie Melly, a Freshman Peer Counselor (FPC), leans forward, tucks a strand of blonde hair behind her ear, and asks Ribera where she’s from.

“Hershey,” she replies. Someone asks if it smells like chocolate there. She laughs, says yes, and uncrosses her arms.

Along with 150 new students, Ribera is visiting Pitt’s campus for three days of advising, testing, and registration. She’ll take placement exams, meet with an academic advisor, and schedule classes. Another important part of her trip is talking with FPCs—sophomores, juniors, and seniors like Melly—who serve as mentors for new students. While the counselors must undergo training in preparation for these sessions, they are experts on college life simply by being students themselves. As Melly says, “We know what we’re doing, but we can still relate.”

The counselors answer questions about the dorm food, the new football stadium, Pitt’s late-night shuttle service.

After the meeting, everyone walks toward William Pitt Union, where a rousing game of Singled Out is about to begin. On the way, FPC Penny Samaia, a Pitt football player, tells Ribera about the time he pulled a muscle playing ball. To show where, he gently taps her on the shoulder. They are no longer strangers.

—Jennifer Lee


The sun slowly sets, bathing the room in a warm orange glow. Students trickle in from Forbes Avenue, two or three at a time. Inside, they kibitz. Is he your fiancé? one woman gushes to a young couple. Oh, I’ve heard so much about you. I haven’t seen you in such a long time, how have you been? another woman asks a late arrival.

Over the quiet rumble of conversation, a lanky young man tries to get everyone’s attention. Hey, we’re going to start now. If everyone could just be quiet, I’ll tell you where to go. Okay, Orthodox on the first floor, Reforms on the second, and Conservatives on the third.

This isn’t the average college Friday night gathering.

It’s Sabbath services, which the University’s Hillel Foundation holds every Friday night in the new Jewish University Center.

This year is the first time all three Jewish branches can conduct services in the same building. The old facility, also on Forbes Avenue, was a tiny walk-up. Many of the Jewish students at Pitt didn’t know where the offices were, or that Hillel even existed.

The $2.5 million, three-story building doesn’t just provide room for religious services, it also centralizes Hillel and its activities for both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University. Students can socialize in the lobby or the lounge, complete with a pool table, television, and vending machines.

The new facility will be the home for new Jewish organizations and students alike. The Jewish Outdoors Group already meets there, and more and more students who pass by have wandered in.

This pleases Aaron Juda, Pitt’s president of Hillel, who says the center will be a success if people simply hang out there and be Jewish together.


Lights! Camera! Action!

W ho thinks Tombstone is a great movie?

The question from the prof rouses the students out of a late Tuesday afternoon daze, and about half of the intro to film class raise their hands.

It’s interesting that your generation thinks that’s a great movie. I thought the characters were totally self-obsessed. It’s the best I’ve seen Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell. Did you see My Darling Clementine and you don’t think that’s good?

The class just stares at him. Finally, a student shouts back, Did you see Unforgiven? The prof has.

Everybody says it’s a great movie. It was okay.

Next, it’s showtime. Carl Kurlander say he has chosen Stagecoach, not because he particularly enjoys the movie, but because in 1939 that movie was the first ensemble Western that wasn’t a B-movie; it uses music to describe scenes, and included many complex cinematography techniques for the time. Orson Welles watched it 38 times so he could mimic some of the shots and compositions for the famed Citizen Kane.

The students react to Kurlander like he’s any other professor; a few bow their heads on their desks when the lights go out, getting comfortable for the movie. Others take notes. But Kurlander isn’t just any other professor. He spent the past two decades working in Hollywood as a screenwriter; most notably he penned St. Elmo’s Fire, a successful Hollywood motion picture. Kurlander also worked as a writer and producer for the teen sitcom, Saved by the Bell. A Pittsburgh native who drools over the thought of Mineo’s pizza, he decided to come here as a visiting professor for a year when the threat of a writer’s strike loomed last summer. Having a bona fide Hollywood screenwriter teach the film class “is cool,” says Yonas Redae.

As a young, black-and-white John Wayne broods on the oversized screen behind Kurlander, the prof gives a kind of a running play-by-play. He tells the class that one of the main characters in the movie is actor John Carradine, whose son Robert starred in Revenge of the Nerds.

Ooh, which [nerd] was he? asks a guy in class.

Oh, he’s like the lead nerd, Kurlander says.

Perhaps it’s the generation gap, but the class doesn’t seem to appreciate the cinematic techniques employed in Stagecoach. Kurlander seems to realize this so throughout the movie he sprinkles interesting bits of information.

While a massive stagecoach rambles across the desert, he points out, This is one of those movies where 20 people aren’t killed [in the first half-hour]. Don’t worry, there’s violence later.


Pitt Magazine Home | Past Issues | Contact Us | Top of Page