Senior Profile: Amanda Wilson Fine Tunes the Art of Connections

Issue Date: 
April 28, 2013

Graduating senior Amanda Wilson has perfected the art of making connections, both on and off Pitt’s campus. She has spent her college career connecting with her Pitt peers, her Jewish faith and heritage, the Israeli people and the Hebrew language, and Ethiopian refugees, as well as with youngsters at a Jewish summer camp near Philadelphia—and this is just a partial list.

“I like to be involved in meaningful experiences and things that will encourage growth and help other people,” said Wilson, “and I’ve tried to figure out as many ways to do that as possible.”

Not only has she succeeded in doing just that, but she’s done it all while excelling academically, earning a 3.8 GPA in her dual Urban Studies and Communication and Rhetoric majors (along with a certificate in Jewish Studies). She also earned membership in the Lambda Pi Eta Communication Honor Society and the Lambda Sigma Sophomore Honor Society.

“She’s pretty amazing,” said Carolyn Carson, program advisor for the Urban Studies Program in Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, who has advised Wilson during the last three years. “She’s just incredibly insightful as to her own needs and highly motivated and self-directed.” 

During the summer before her freshman year at Pitt, Wilson began work as a cabin counselor at Camp Harlam, a Union for Reform Judaism summer camp in Kunkletown, Pa., about 90 minutes north of Philadelphia. For Wilson, it was her introduction to counseling after growing up attending other summer camps near her home in Havertown, Pa.

In December of that year, over Pitt’s winter break, Wilson participated in the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, which sponsors cultural trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. A10-day introductory visit to Israel marked her first experience with the land and culture that had been a focal point in her religious upbringing.

“It wasn’t until I went there that I understood,” Wilson said. “I felt not just a love and an appreciation that comes blindly, but one that comes from really spending time there and really understanding the history, what it looks like today, and why.”

Wilson would return to Israel several times over the next four years, first for classes and then for service learning during the spring breaks of her freshman and sophomore years, respectively. During the spring semester of her junior year, Wilson studied at the University of Haifa, taking such courses as Jewish art history and the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict; she also took intensive classes in the Hebrew language and volunteered in Haifa’s community of Ethiopian immigrants.

“I wanted to know what it was like to build a life there,” Wilson said of studying in Haifa. “I learned a lot about the people and the place and what it’s like to be a part of that society and culture.” Away from Israel’s larger cities, where many speak English, Wilson found her Hebrew improving. She has worked to maintain her language skills at Pitt, conversing with her roommates and reading short stories and Facebook updates in Hebrew.

Meanwhile, each summer Wilson rose up through the ranks at Camp Harlam, promoted first to assistant unit head, then to assistant supervisor. Her curiosity and drive for meaningful experiences led Wilson to intern with camp staff over the winter break of 2012. This summer, Wilson will return for her fifth consecutive summer at the camp, in the role of unit head—a “counselor’s counselor.”

Her camp experiences have bolstered Wilson’s collegiate career. “The skills I’ve learned at camp have definitely made me successful throughout my years at Pitt,” Wilson said. “I’ve learned about taking care of others and being concerned about the well-being of others. These have been hugely formative experiences for me.”

Next year, Wilson will take the skills she’s acquired at Camp Harlam to a position at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school in Washington, D.C., with a legal emphasis. The position is a one-year opportunity through Avodah, a Jewish service corps dedicated to fighting poverty in the United States. Wilson will serve as program associate, tutoring students, facilitating the school’s extracurricular activities, and overseeing student trips into the Washington community to shadow working lawyers.

The position’s similarities to working at summer camp are not lost on Wilson. “I’m very interested in what goes on outside the classroom,” Wilson said, considering her broader career aspirations. “I’m interested in extracurricular activities, summer programs. Whether my career will ultimately be in guidance counseling or camping, I’m not sure.”

The connections made at camp and in Israel have equipped Wilson to experience a fuller Jewish life, she said, one that exists “outside the doors of the synagogue.” Coming to college, Wilson said, “You have to figure out what a Jewish life looks like on your own. The past four years have been an opportunity for me to explore what that looks like.”

Wilson has shared her insights into that process with the Pitt community as a campus engagement intern for Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, where she helps fellow students maintain connections to their religious and cultural beliefs. Wilson reaches out to approximately 60 Pitt students, inviting them for coffee and asking about what they might be missing in terms of building a Jewish life on campus. It’s a position, she said, that didn’t exist when she first came to Pitt.

Wilson said that, along with her experiences at camp and in Israel, her coursework has had a profound influence on her life. She credits her communication and rhetoric major with benefiting her work outside the classroom. “The major provided a good foundation of resources and skills,” Wilson said, making special note of her classes in public speaking and nonverbal communication. “You’re communicating constantly, and if you can understand that, it will help you in everything you do.”

That understanding is just one of many skills Wilson has acquired during her time at Pitt and already put to use. “I think the things I’ve studied over the past four years I’ll be using for the rest of my life,” she said, “as I work with kids, or in any capacity, really.”