Interview with Catharine Fichtner

Catharine Fichtner, Undergraduate Student Administrator, (yes, this is the wonderful lady who sends us all the helpful emails) tells all about who she is, what she does, and what she'd like to do.

Most CS students are curious to know who the person behind all the emails is. Your name is common and well know amongst everyone. But only a few people really know you and what you do. Can you tell me a little about what exactly you do and what your position is?

My title is ‘Undergraduate Program Administrator’ for the School of Computer Science. I took this job 3 years ago, in August of 1999, and my job is essentially to help Mark Stehlik run the undergraduate program. My job involves many different things—but basically I’m a problem solver for students, faculty and parents…anything that will help keep the program running smoothly. Some of my responsibilities include enrollment issues for courses 15-211 and up, certifying double majors and minors, processing all departmental forms, organizing Sleeping Bag Weekend events, answering phone and email questions about the program, publishing the networkingSCS newsletter twice a year, and making certain seniors receive their diplomas.

Students come into the undergraduate offices all day with general problems, ranging from course problems to cuts and bruises and everything in between. I think that in many ways, they feel that they have a home here, and sometimes it’s just nice to sit down and talk.

What’s a day in your life like?

I always say to people that I never know what to expect on a day-to-day basis—because something new always happens. One of the more difficult aspects about the job is that there are often very real problems with the students—car accidents, health problems, family problems—so we always have to be prepared to take care of the big issues when they come up. My work day often includes unusual requests from students like: asking me to put drops in their eyes, find homes for their cats, drive them somewhere, pick out fabric for the lounge sofa. So the day is ‘routine’ in many ways but then there’s always something unexpected that comes up.

I also produce a recruiting CD-ROM for the undergraduate program—this has been an ongoing project and has been a real learning experience. This project has placed me in all sorts of unusual situations from interviewing faculty to being an extra in the video footage.

What do you like best about your job?

I was an adjunct teacher at CMU and the University of Pittsburgh for four years [she has a Master’s Degree in fine arts from the College of Fine Arts at CMU], so I really have a love for teaching, but I wasn’t fortunate enough to find a full time teaching position. When this job became available I knew that it would be ideal for me since I would still be mentoring and advising students. That’s the thing I love the most.

What do you like least about your job?

I really don’t dislike anything about my job.

Sometimes people have an experience or success which makes them feel, ‘I love this job!’—have you ever felt like this?

I think the thing that really made me like this job from the beginning is that Peter Lee and Mark Stehlik both allow me to work from my strengths—I volunteered to do the CD-ROM, and they were very encouraging. I also publish a newsletter twice a year, which gives me a lot of flexibility to do some more creative things with my time. Other situations that are rewarding for me are times when students tell me that I helped them in some way. I like mentoring students and making their undergraduate experience a positive one

What do you think about the SCS students?

Another reason I wanted to take this job is that I really feel that I’m working with artists as well as scientists—and coming from an art background, that was very exciting to me. I also have some background in computer graphics, so there’s also that part of me that is slightly technical. I really like their passion and creativity. I think that’s what impresses me the most

Do you ever feel you would like to go back to teaching?

Sometimes I do miss teaching. I don’t think I miss it as much as I thought I would because I’ve been very happy with my position here but I’ve felt some interest in teaching the computer science students how to draw, simply because I think that it would be a fun thing to do and because a lot of them are going into graphics and they need to have some drawing skills.

Would you say that you would like to know the students better, or are you happy working behind the scenes?

I’m happy working behind the scenes but I still would like to know the students better. I care deeply about this undergraduate program and the well-being of the students. I hope they know that. That’s one of the reasons I love working with Mark—I’ve never known a more caring person than he is. I know that he can seem a little gruff, but underneath it all it’s because he wants everything to be right and he cares for everybody.

Are you married and do you have children?

I’m divorced, and I don’t have any children. I have two Golden Retrievers, and I have a boyfriend, Patrick.

What’s your favorite color?

Green…[pause, laughs]…shades of green!

What’s your favorite vacation spot?

I don’t usually go to any place in particular, but I would probably say the coast of Maine. When I was in high school, my boyfriend’s parents had a cottage up in Maine, and so I use to spend summers there. I’ve been back to that area about three different times. I think it’s absolutely gorgeous.

If you didn’t go into academics or administration, what would you have done in another life?

I think it would still be something to do with art making. I’ve always had this vision of myself living in a dirty loft in Manhattan and making paintings, and in some ways I still have that dream inside of me…the bohemian artist!

Do you still paint?

“I haven’t painted since I took this job. This job takes up forty hours a week—and I knew when I took it that my art would have to wait. I still think about it and hope that someday I’ll be able to get back to it. I’ve pursued art my entire life as a serious profession— to do it as a hobby doesn’t interest me.

What’s your favorite holiday and why?

Christmas. It’s not because of religious reasons, it’s because I get a week off and have lots of time to spend with my family and friends.

What hobbies or passions do you have outside of work?

Reading, hiking with the dogs, and going to junk yards and thrift stores. My boyfriend and I love to go down to the Allegheny River and collect glass and ceramic shards and make things out of them—like mirrors.

What motto/philosophy do you live life by?

I think that I’ve always been very independent, and think that people should live their life according to their passions, because that is the only way that they will ultimately succeed.

Check out Catharine's great Art Work