Life Beyond Reed

Nicole Wiswell ’02 & Kostadin Kushlev ’08.

March 1, 2015

Our recurring series explores how the liberal arts shape the careers of Reed grads

Nicole Wiswell ’02

Engineer Officer/Platoon Leader, U.S. Army

Nicole always dreamed of serving her country, but the old policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. So she came to Reed and majored in religion. After graduation, she worked in a residential treatment center before switching gears and studying law at the University of Minnesota. Then she got a part-time gig at Apple showing people how to use their computers that turned into a full-time job training Apple employees. When “don’t ask, don’t tell” was finally repealed, she signed up for the National Guard, where she is now a lieutenant leading a platoon of vertical engineers.

Thesis: Recreation, Race, and Lynching: Toward a New Theory in the Study of Southern Religion. Advisor: Prof. Arthur McCalla [religion 1999-2005].

How would you describe yourself? I’m just your average liberal, queer, feminist Quaker who also happens to be an Army officer.

Why did you choose to major in religion? Having been exposed to math and physics—the immutable laws of nature—I was interested in the man-made laws, belief systems, and orders. Like law, religion is an ordering system in people’s lives.

What is a vertical engineer? Vertical engineers are the builders. My unit builds hospitals, schools, and helicopter pads. When the Dakotas have flooding, we help shore up the riverbanks. I spent six months in the Ozarks learning everything engineers do from demolition and route clearance to formulas for calculating how much tonnage a bridge can handle. It’s a lot of math, but it’s fun.

Isn’t military service an unusual choice for a Reedie? The U.S. has always had a weird relationship with its citizens who are in the military. On one hand they’re revered as heroes, the people who defend freedom—whatever that means—and yet they’re seen as apart. My dad was a doctor in the army for 25 years and as a kid I wanted to go to West Point and be a soldier, or maybe an astronaut. Some of our first conversations in Hum 110 were about civic responsibility and the citizen-soldier in Plato’s ideal city. Serving in the military is one way to protect the ideals you believe in.

What career advice do you have for Reedies? Be open to whatever is out there. Don’t worry if the first two—or seven—things you do after college aren’t what you thought you’d be doing. It doesn’t have to be your dream job—just find value in it and see how you develop as a person. That night job at a treatment center might give you the time to write the great American novel, apply to grad schools, or study for law exams.

Kostadin Kushlev ’08

Psychology researcher, University of Virginia

Kosta was born just prior to the end of communism in a small town in the southern mountains of Bulgaria. He recalls a hardscrabble childhood in which bananas were an extravagance and video games were beyond a young boy’s reach, if not his imagination. Yet he was happy. “We never thought of ourselves as deprived,” he says.

Today he studies happiness—more specifically, how factors like technology, money, and parenthood can influence personal well-being. (See his article about email on page 48.) He has authored or coauthored several scholarly articles on the subject and tweets using the Twitter handle “@HappyScholar.” 

Thesis: The More You Want, the Less You Get: The Effect of Maximizing, Number of Choices, and Mindfulness on Purchasing Decisions in Americans and Bulgarians. Adviser: Prof. Dan Reisberg [psychology 1986–]

What was your first impression of America? The tomatoes. Although we were poor in Bulgaria, we had some very good tomatoes, sweet and juicy. I was surprised that the tomatoes in Reed’s cafeteria were completely bland, with no flavor at all.

Was it a difficult transition? I experienced two culture shocks. First was just being in a new country. And then being in this bizarre place where people would go around chasing owls! But I’m a pretty gregarious person, so I made friends quickly. I was known as the crazy Bulgarian in Steele.

Why did you choose to major in psychology? I have always been someone people could talk to, even in high school. I wanted to do something that would ultimately help people. At first I wanted to be a therapist, but at Reed I realized I could be a researcher. My senior thesis was a wonderful experience!

What can you tell us about  the impact of technology on happiness? Our cell phones are meant to connect, but they can also disconnect. If a person is on a phone answering email or playing games, they’re not going to have a sense of connectedness with the people physically present with them. But there are many factors involved in the question—technology can also make us happy. Prof. Reisberg would always say to us, “The answer depends on…” When you really ask “Why?” there are no simple answers.

What's a specific example? We found, for example, that people today don’t need to ask directions so much because a cell phone can tell you how to get where you are going. So technology in that instance is obviating the need to interact with friendly strangers. We found that the people who actually stopped and asked another person for directions generally felt more socially connected and, ultimately, happier.

What’s next? I hope to stay in the academic community for a while—I like the independence. But companies like Google and Microsoft have research units, so that might be interesting some day. Ultimately I want my research to have a direct impact on the design of new technologies to maximize well-being and minimize the negative effects.

Tags: Life Beyond Reed, Alumni, Awards & Achievements