Walking the Wire: New IC Students Learn to Overcome Struggles at Leadership Challenge Course

The expressions on the faces of the 14 new School of Interactive Computing Ph.D. students were varied.

On one, a bright grin spread wide across the face. On others, expressions of concentration. A few faces bore eyes glancing timidly toward the ground, as if afraid it would bite should they take a moment to look away.

There were 14 separate thought processes as the incoming students took part in Georgia Tech’s Leadership Challenge Course on Aug. 15 prior to their official orientation, but one similar goal: Work together to find a way to traverse wire-thin cables, unsteady wood platforms, and other assorted barriers – not unlike the many challenges they will face in pursuit of their common goal of earning a Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

It’s a program current IC Professor and former Chair Annie Antón developed to achieve a handful of goals for her students.

One, she wanted to challenge them. Like the intense challenges they face over the course of their five or six years in the Ph.D. program, she wanted to force them into an uncomfortable situation that takes patience to overcome.

Two, she wanted to build a sense of community with other participants. There is no such thing as a graduating class when it comes to a graduate degree, so the idea was to create an environment where members of the same cohort could meet each other, develop friendships, and feel a sense of belonging during their time in school.

And three, the most important of Antón’s goals was to give students an opportunity to share their excitement and concern about the challenge they were embarking on.

“After the challenge course, we get together and discuss what they are most excited about working on their Ph.D.,” Antón explained. “You get all kinds of answers: I’m excited to solve this problem; I’m excited to work with this advisor; I’m excited to become a professor when I finish. Then we ask what they’re scared of. That’s when you crack the nut open.”

Students express concerns over things like not getting along with advisors or peers, fears of presenting papers at conferences or that their work won’t even be accepted in the first place, worries about passing qualifying exams, and more.

“But at the end of the day, when we’ve gone through that circle, they realize that everyone else has the same concerns,” Antón said. “More than that, they have strategies and resources to go to within their new community to help them through.”

Click HERE for photos of IC's day at the Leadership Challenge Course.

Christopher Banks, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in robotics, was one incoming student who said there was some trepidation in climbing onto the wires on the course.

“I am afraid of heights, so I was very wary of the parts of the challenge course that required harnesses,” he said. “Luckily, with the support of my teammates, I was able to complete the course, something I would have never done under normal circumstances. I was definitely pushed out of my comfort zone.”

He conceded that he likely wouldn’t be tightrope walking anytime soon, but enjoyed the camaraderie that was built during the day.

There were also those who had experience in challenging climbing courses, like Nathan Hatch, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in computer science. Hatch said he enjoys rock climbing, and so the course was not a real challenge for him. But it was an opportunity to learn how to lead and share knowledge with others.

“Hopefully, I was able to use my experience to encourage some of the others in my group,” he said. “In any case, these activities certainly built a rapport very quickly. I think they made it much easier to express our worries and hopes during the following group discussion. Everyone felt comfortable being honest in front of each other, which made the discussion very helpful.”

In addition to the 14 incoming Ph.D. students, the MS HCI program also took a sizeable group – around 50-60 – to participate in the course the following Saturday.

The Leadership Challenge Course is located off of Ferst Drive and is run by the Campus Recreation Center.