Interview with Sharon Burks
Burks is the Associate Department Head of the Computer Science Department
(CSD) and Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs of the School of Computer
Science (SCS). This inspirational woman has been an integral part of Carnegie
Mellon for 30 years.
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?
I’m from the South. I lived in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas before I came to Pittsburgh.
Can you tell us a little about your educational and career background?
I have a BA in business education from David Lipscomb in Nashville, TN. I always thought that I was going to be a teacher, but when I got married I moved to Mississippi, and, well, I don’t even want you to know how poorly paid teachers were. I ended up making a lot more money as an administrator at a university. Several years later, I moved to Alabama. I had two children and didn’t work for ten years. Then I came to work at Carnegie Mellon, and I’ve been here for 30 years.
How did you decide to come to Carnegie Mellon?
When my younger son was finishing up kindergarten, I started thinking about going back to work. Around that time, my husband found a job posting for Carnegie Mellon in the newspaper and I decided to apply. I got the job and ended up here. After two years, I tried moving back to Alabama, but the person who took the job after me didn’t like the job and wanted to move to another position, so I agreed to come back and have been here ever since.
What were your expectations when you first came to Carnegie Mellon? Have those expectations been met?
I didn’t have any initial expectations—I just wanted to make
enough money to buy a house, a goal which we achieved. I’ve been
pleasantly surprised by how things turned out. Despite my position, I
tend to think of myself as an employee. I like to think I’m part
of a bigger group and do what it takes to get the job done.
How has your role changed over the years that you’ve spent at Carnegie Mellon?
When I first came here, there were only about 50 students and fewer faculty so our department felt like a little family. The class system was also different in the ‘80s. Students could go to whatever classes they wanted, then had qualifying exams. Then when we switched to a course-based system, my role changed from that of “den mother” to somewhat of a registration problem-solver. As enrollment continued to increase, students tended to bond more with their advisers and assistants, and I became more involved in management.
How have you seen the CS department change during your time at Carnegie Mellon?
For a long time, my office was next door to the main office and students
would go through my office whenever they went to check their mail. People
would just come by to chat.
Have you run into any “unexpected surprises”? What is the most unexpected, random, crazy thing that you’ve ever encountered in a day’s work?
I tend to not be too rattled or flustered, but there have been some unusual
things that happen to students. Once we had a PhD student who had a problem
with a rental agency. He had rented a truck planning to live in it, parked
in a parking lot. The student said the lease said $30 a day, plus $3 a
day thereafter, but it was really $33 for each day thereafter and the
agency came looking for him. It turns out the reason he’d decided
to live in a truck was because he’d been evicted from the ceiling
of the 7th floor of Wean!
Can you describe a “typical day in the life of an Assistant Dean”?
Every day is different. From the time I come in, I do about 2 hours of
email. My job is really about talking to people—I’m sort of
the “revolving door” of the department. I’ll get a question
from someone and send them on to someone else. People often ask me who
is going to do this when I’m not here, because the only reason I
can do it is because I’ve been here for so long! So, I can spend
hours just talking to people, answering questions, holding hands, and
We found some really gorgeous photos of your house on your website. Do you spend a lot of time working on it?
Actually, my husband and I spend a lot of time in the yard, but my husband really does all the work. He has a 3 move rule—I can’t ask him to move something more than 3 times! 8 years ago we sold our house and moved into a smaller one. It has a much smaller yard, but we still spend as much time outside as we can.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies?
I really have two hobbies. The first is quilting—buying them and making them. I like Amish quilts with patchwork and appliqué. 15 years ago, I made a couple of quilts a year and always gave them away. It’s a little harder now because of my eyesight, but I still think quilting is fun and really part of Pennsylvania culture. My second hobby is gardening. About 5 years ago, my husband and I decided we wanted a pond, so we dug a hole and put a plastic tub in the ground. Every year we get a little more ambitious, and we eventually took out the pond, dug a new one, and added a waterfall and 3 tons of rock. It’s still a work in progress. When we moved, we hadn’t expected to keep gardening and left all of our equipment behind, but within 6 months we’d gone out and bought all of that equipment again. There’s just something relaxing about pulling weeds and sitting in the grass.
What would you say is your personal inspiration, either for the job or life in general?
My goal is to be a good person. I think it’s important to do the best you can in whatever you do and treat people the best that you can. If you do that, it’s easy to sleep at night and you feel good about your life. You don’t have to wish you did something in a different way. I’m really at peace with my life because I feel like I’ve done that,
What’s one thing you’d like to try that you haven’t gotten around to?
I would love to drive a racecar really fast. I probably drive way too fast as it is, but I think it would be fun to get on racetrack and go around and around faster and faster.
What advice do you have for Carnegie Mellon students?
Remember to enjoy these years—they really are the best years of your life. Don’t get so caught up in your work that you forget to enjoy yourself. It only gets harder from here. We all have this feeling that once we get out into the world, life will be perfect, but it’s not really true; these are the years when you have the most opportunity to enjoy life for yourself.