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Commons Room

A Slice of Campus Life

Border Crossing

Chords from Quejas de Bandoneon draw guests into the William Pitt Union Assembly Room.

There, they are met by a couple performing a seductive tango. Although a crowd quickly gathers around the dance floor, the couple dance as though they are the only two in the room. They suavely execute each move—a kick, a pause, a dip, while slowly moving across the dance floor. Their only focus is on each other. A gentleman in the crowd follows the energy of the dancers with his eyes, smiling, caught up in the rhythm of the dance. Another couple in the audience cuddles, feeling the intimacy of the performance.

In the adjoining room, the scene is even more appetizing. Scents of peppers, garlic, and cumin lure the hungry into the ballroom, tempting visitors of the annual Latin American and Caribbean Festival to feast on empañadas, tamales, Spanish rice, and arroz con pollo. Salsa music seems to intertwine with the aromas.

On this day, it’s like visiting each of the countries that comprise Latin America—all without leaving the student union. The festival, sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies, has been held for 23 years, bringing the Latin American and Carribean communities together, in addition to providing Pitt students exposure to Latin American culture, music, and history. Guests spend the day feasting on delicacies from places such as Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean Islands.

Situated at one table is 3-year-old Anthony Muñoz, who is busy munching on a ham croquette. His father, Oscar, a professor at Kent State, drove from Ohio to attend the festival. He learned about the event from an e-mail he received from his friend, Maurilia Silva (EDU ’83), who is originally from Venezuela. Muñoz brought Anthony to expose him to Latin American culture and to have some fun, too. He also brought his parents and two nieces who are emigrating to the United States. Muñoz hoped the festival would help quell their homesickness. “And they were hungry,” he adds.

After little Anthony finishes his meal, his cousins take him to the assembly room to watch the dancers. Wanting to be more than just a spectator, Anthony takes to the dance floor and does his best impression of the tango. He shows that the tango can indeed be performed solo.

—Janet Frank Atkinson

Smells Like Team Spirit

The smell hits us first. They warned us about it in the courtroom, but I didn’t believe them. I’ve been in jails before—I spent a lot of my time as a legal intern last summer in a York County prison, interviewing immigration detainees—but they must use a different kind of cleaner in the visiting rooms.

There are about 20 of us, plus our class instructor, Tara Bradley-Steck, and Pittsburgh City Court Magistrate Moira Harrington. The judge leads my News Writing 1310 class around the Allegheny County Jail, where we are to collect information for our crime and courts articles.

For the night, Harrington says, you’re all inmates. She “books” us in the courtroom, where Pittsburgh police detectives Edward Green and Terry Holland explain the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony, the best way to conduct a drug bust, and how to dilute one ounce of crack into eight and turn a $7,000 profit.

Then they take us into the jail itself. It smells like formaldehyde, fungus, or bologna; we can’t decide. We wince as we walk past mostly occupied holding cells and try not to look in. I fail, accidentally staring into the eyes of a man on his way to the screened-in window. His eyes are faded, gone flat, exhausted. I look away and try to make out the judge in the crowd, though I can’t get my mind off the smell. I’m thinking mayonnaise and Pine-Sol.

Harrington shows us the search room, the ID room, the chair that they use when someone comes in hysterical. In the ID room, one of the agents explains his method for dealing with people who won’t give their names. “We just let them sit there,” he says. “After about eight hours, they’re ready to go.” It helps that the standard meal for those still waiting to be identified is a bologna sandwich, a packaged cookie, and orange drink, he says. “How many times a day can you eat that?”

After being arraigned in one courtroom, tried in another, and found guilty, we’re steered back to the jailhouse, where we meet two trusty inmates. These are the lucky ones—the guys who get to go outside and pick up trash or do yard work. When you spend more than 20 hours in a cell, it doesn’t take much to seem like a privilege, I guess. One of them is in for a DUI, the other for failing to pay child support, and both, unsurprisingly, hate jail. Most of our questions get answers that quickly shift to an explanation of why they hate jail.

The soliloquy on the poor-quality library is interrupted by Robert Jones, a Correctional Emergency Response Team officer, who informs us that an inmate upstairs is throwing a fit. “He ran into someone else’s cell,” Jones tells us. “He had a razor and a pen.” The team, unable to reach the 4-foot, 3-inch inmate under the bunk, had to pepper spray the cell. He’s been taken to the mental health unit.

“Any comments on his way out?” asks Bradley-Steck.

“Well, he invoked the name of several religious figures,” Jones replies. “Mohammed, Jesus, God. The warden.”

The session ends back in the courtroom, where I breathe easier.

—Amanda Sammons

Amanda Sammons is a third-year CAS student at Pitt, majoring in English.


The moment Amanda Priebe laid eyes on the 4-year-old boy, she knew he was the one she wanted to mentor.

It was September 2001, and the first day of observations for new Jumpstart Pittsburgh workers. Priebe was standing in a corner at the Hilltop Community Children’s Center, trying to be inconspicuous, not wanting to disturb the teacher or class she was observing.

One little boy noticed her, though, and ran up to Priebe, pretending to be a monster, growling at her, making her laugh, then running away.

During his antics, Priebe thought back to her childhood and remembered her own creativity and imagination. Dinosaurs, space, math all interested her. She even begged her dad to teach her algebra in the third grade. She also spent time reading in the minilibrary her mom had painstakingly created for her, and she took up the trumpet in fifth grade. She had a thirst for learning it all, right away.

Even now, as a Pitt undergraduate, she is a psychology major, an administration of justice minor, and a global studies certificate candidate—her studies spanning many areas because she is interested in it all.

Priebe knew she wanted to develop that imagination and lifelong passion for learning in another child, which is what brought her to that classroom corner. When she saw that little boy, she thought to herself, “I want to work with him.”

She had no say in which child she was paired with; Jumpstart’s directors decide that. At the time, she didn’t even know the little boy’s name. A few weeks later, when she returned to the children’s center to meet her Jumpstart child for the first time and saw the same little boy waiting for her, she found out his name was Nicholas.

She and Nicholas worked together on everything from holding his pencil, to writing his name, to picking out his favorite storybook. That kind of nurturing is the goal of Jumpstart: to have college students help prepare preschoolers for success in kindergarten and beyond.

The White House recognized those community-oriented goals and honored Jumpstart Pittsburgh workers during a presidential visit to Pittsburgh in August 2002. Priebe was one of five Pitt students, all Jumpstart participants, chosen to meet George W. Bush and ride in his motorcade.

—Rebecca Prosser

Into Thin Air

I’m standing below a 28-foothigh rock face that is in the middle of Bigelow Boulevard. How did I get here?

To document a “slice of campus life,” my editor wanted to send me—a Pitt senior—on a University-sponsored weekend trip to the nation’s capital. I was thrilled at the prospect of being sent to Washington, D.C., “on assignment.” My elation lasted about five minutes. That’s when I learned the trip was canceled.

It was on to my alternative assignment—Pitt Program Council’s annual Fall Fest, geared to give Pitt students a break from midterm tension. Rock bands play at the fest while students take in mind-cleansing activities such as sumo- wrestling in fat suits and climbing 28-foot-high mountains.

I’ve spent the past 30 minutes of my Saturday afternoon walking bravely toward that mountain, reassessing its height and scurrying away, wishing someone else would climb it before me, just so I can be sure nothing tragic happens.

I finally decide to go for it, mostly because I have to get to my part-time job. I’m scared.

I flip off my sandals and roll up my jeans. The belayer, Dana, helps me into the harness. He explains the rules of climbing: Don’t use the rope to support my weight and don’t touch the clip that’s holding my harness to the climbing rope. In other words, if the clip opens and the harness separates from the rope, I’m
in trouble.

Barefoot, I begin my ascent. First my right foot secures a spot, then my left. My hands work in tandem with my feet, pulling my upper body as my feet push the rest of my 115 pounds. I continue to look above me and plan my climbing route before moving my feet. Just when I’ve become comfortable with the awkward motions and think I’m advancing quickly, my left foot slips out from under me. I fall five feet before my rope goes taut. I’m going to get my editor for this.

Soon, I’ve regained the lost space and surpassed my previous height. I feel so good about myself that I decide to take a break in the climb. I look around, first to the left, then to the right. I’m staring directly at the second floor of the Cathedral of Learning, about 20 feet in the air. My stomach lurches. I look down at Dana. “You’re doing well,” he says. “You’re three-quarters of the way up.”

“It’s too high,” I call out, wondering where the little girl’s voice I used came from. “I’m ready to come down.”

Once on the ground, my legs shake from muscle strain, and I repeatedly lose my balance when I try to stand up. Despite that, I feel triumphant.

Pitt Program Council also sponsors the springtime equivalent of Fall Fest, the Bigelow Bash. Rumor has it that an inflatable mechanical bull will make an appearance. Should I tell my editor?



It had been more than a decade since Janice Markowitz attended Pitt as an undergraduate majoring in neuroscience. When a good job offer came along in her field of study, she couldn’t say no. At the time, it didn’t bother her not to have a four-year degree.

However, she hadn’t counted on having health problems, which she blamed on the chemicals she worked with in the laboratory. She quit her job and spent more and more time going from doctor to doctor in hopes of figuring out why she didn’t feel well. Eventually, she diagnosed herself as having chronic fatigue syndrome. Her energy eventually returned, and she started a nonprofit organization called the Pennsylvania Chronic Fatigue Association. Her new career involved public relations with the media and patient advocacy groups. Her new role also exposed one of her perceived shortcomings—the lack of a four-year degree. “I think it’s very important for credibility’s sake to have a degree,” she says.

She returned to Pitt two years ago as a nontraditional student. This time around she is pursuing a degree in media communications. As a nontraditional student, she sometimes felt out of place in a world of Palm Pilots and reality television.

Now she has a place—the McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success in the College of General Studies. The center was officially dedicated last November.

Most evenings before her classes, she pushes the fourth-floor button on one of the Cathedral elevators, which takes her to the center. She checks her e-mail at the computer stations for students, says “hi” to Sherry Miller Brown, the center’s director, and often settles in the student lounge, engaging in conversation with other nontraditional students who have found a home there, too.

The center’s crowds night after night are no surprise to Brown. “Adults are returning to school in record numbers because of changes in the workplace,” she says. “Besides being a beautiful piece of real estate, the center represents an idea whose time has come—the development of full-scale services for nontraditional students.”

Markowitz has taken advantage of the services. Along with Internet surfing on the computers, she uses the career library, works with financial aid advisors, and attends seminars in the conference room that address note-taking, time management, and study methods.

More than anything else, the center is a place where Markowitz feels she fits in.


A Way with Wood

It was the kind of day that brings lots of May flowers, the kind of day that makes you want to curl up on your sofa with a good book and a warm cup of tea, listening to fat raindrops hit your windowsill.

It was not an ideal day to move a six-and-a-half-foot-by-thirteen-and-a-half-foot sculpture made of exotic woods 25 miles. But that’s exactly what John Poulakos and his students were doing.

Poulakos, an associate professor in the Department of Communication, was behind the wheel of a rented U-Haul, making the drive from Marshall Township, the birthplace of the sculpture, to the Cathedral of Learning, where it would make its new home, welcoming visitors into the 11th-floor lobby of the communication department. The sculpture, disassembled for the trip, was in three pieces in the back of the truck. And Poulakos’ nerves were definitely on edge. After all, they were transporting his baby.

He had conceptualized the work eight months earlier. At the time, changes were under way in the communication department, and newly appointed chair John Lyne wanted something in the lobby to reflect the revitalization. He approached Poulakos, who had been creating wood sculptures for years.

Poulakos envisioned a sculpture that would reflect the most basic unit of communication—two people conversing. He spent four months refining and expanding that vision to include not just two people conversing, but also the histories they bring to the conversation. The piece captures one moment in the conversation when the elements, the speakers, and their histories seem to be stable but may actually be changing, when the speakers may be transforming each other simply through the act of communicating.

Poulakos drew his complex vision to scale on architectural paper and presented it to Lyne, who thought it an excellent representation of his department. “When studying communication, we always come back to moments of interaction like the one in the sculpture,” says Lyne.

From the scaled drawings, Poulakos worked with Frank Umenhofer, a custom woodworker, to build Interlocutors in Umenhofer’s suburban woodshop. To see whether Interlocutors survived the journey, please turn to page 48.

— RP

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