By Allison Eck '12, Kristen Morgan-Davie '12 and Donald Challenger
Like countless other Hamilton and Kirkland alumni and alumnae, they're creative, resourceful and skilled. They prepared for their professional journey on the Hill and are now building successful careers. Unlike their classmates, however, what they actually do in the working world is, well, different. Really different. Meet eight Hamiltonians who have fascinating, demanding and distinctly ...
Justin Ginsberg '04, TelephoneOnHold.com
Don't accuse Justin Ginsberg of putting thousands of people on hold. He will immediately correct you. "I'm not the one putting you on hold," he says. "I'm the one keeping you on hold."
Ginsberg is the founder of Professional Audio Studios and TelephoneOnHold.com, a company that records custom phone messages for businesses. His interest in the audio industry stems in part from his father, who runs a professional audio laboratory that specializes in digital enhancement and forensic examination of tapes from civil and criminal trials. At Hamilton, Ginsberg became more familiar with voice recording through his work at WHCL; his friends at school knew him as "Justinio on the Radio."
After achieving campus popularity for his show, Ginsberg got a phone call from Patrick O'Connor's Alexander Hamilton Inn. The restaurant wanted him to record a hold message, and Ginsberg enthusiastically took the job. As an economics and math major, he wanted to be an entrepreneur — and he began to see that he could make a living by just talking.
His parents were not too pleased about his newfound enterprise, however, and did not consider his charismatic and lively voice worthy of a business. "My parents both asked me what I was going to do with my life," he recalls. "I told them, 'Give me a couple years. I promise you I'll get a real job if this doesn't work out.'"
It turned out that Ginsberg's company not only succeeded as a "real job," it became his passion as well. "I love Monday mornings!" he says. "Everyone else hates them but to me, it just means I get another week to do something I love."
By now, Ginsberg has mastered the art of hold messages, even if he is only one of many voice talents at his company. The tone he adopts when he turns into a message man can be robotic or spirited — or, occasionally, comedic. "I can turn it on like a switch," he says.
On the other hand, he has to tailor what he says and how he says it to the needs of the client. Ginsberg has dealt with funeral homes, for example, that ask him to keep his tone somber and comforting. A funeral home might sound like a strange company to be inquiring about hold messages, but there are many more where that came from.
"Who relies on our phone calls?" he asks. "Everyone!" From underwater SONAR to fruit bouquets, from dog resorts to exotic vets, almost any kind of company imaginable uses his service. The relationship between Ginsberg and his clients is symbiotic. With customers in all 50 states, TelephoneOnHold.com is thriving; similarly, companies that choose to invest in his services reap the benefits.
"Statistics show that our messages increase sales," Ginsberg says. "It works really well. We figure, if we're keeping them on hold, why not educate them about the new teeth-whitening service?"
A diary Constance Stellas had when she was only 9 kindled her interest in astrology. She had noticed the old signs on the inside cover and wondered about their significance. But it wasn't until after graduating from Kirkland College that she fully began to act on her love for all things celestial.
Sometime during her six years as an actress and producer, Stellas began to consider astrology as a vocation she could fall back on in case her burgeoning acting career fell short of expectations. She attended the New York School of Astrology, befriended an astrologer and apprenticed herself to him. "I found that I had an intuitive grasp of it," she says. "The planets made sense to me."
Publicity from a Working Woman magazine article helped her build a following, as did four books she has published, and success led to some unusual opportunities. Stellas once appeared on Fox's Money for Breakfast to make predictions about the stock market. Her forecast was optimistic, but despite her error in judgment — one she shared with a great many economists — she believes America is in the middle of what she calls an "evolutionary leap" that requires a restructuring of how we deal with the economy and life in general. Stellas was also paid to analyze music producer Phil Spector's chart during his trial for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson. She has been featured in The New York Times, Marie Claire and the Good Morning America radio show.
Stellas says that the position of the stars and planets at the time of birth can reveal a person's talents, personality and past lives. The most popular problems her clients have are issues of compatibility — and this is where a bit of counseling and psychology comes into play. Her book The Everything Sex Signs Book deals with relationships and how to best get along with others based on your planetary orientation. Stellas has even conducted a workshop at the Museum of Sex in New York on the topic. "A lot of people don't know much about astrology, but they know, 'Oh, I never get along with Geminis,'" she says.
Her Kirkland experience has shaped her life as an astrologer in multiple ways. "I think a general sense of the world in terms of a liberal arts perspective and a historical perspective gives me more ways to communicate with people," she says. "There was a wonderful combination of free flow and structure, and that gave me a very open-minded experience."
Ultimately, she wants people to know that astrologers are not infallible. "Fate is a very elastic construct, and we have some control over how we do things," she says. "So if you put yourself in the rhythm of the planets, then you have a better chance of succeeding. You may not be able to avoid difficult times, but at least you will know how to deal with them."
Visit www.constancestellas.com for more information.
Nils Kulleseid '90, Stonecarver
Nils Kulleseid has a way of disarming the curious who ask about his job. "I call myself Fred Flintstone sometimes," he says. But his work as a stonecarver and letter cutter is no cartoon. It's a calling. Kulleseid talks with an artist's vision and a lover's passion about the vocation and its history: the importance of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 19th century, which emphasized the hand-crafted over the mass-produced; his love of cathedrals, encouraged by a course with Professor of Art History Rand Carter; the intricacies of different fonts and the play of sun and shadow across lettered stone. "When you get that beautiful raking light across a v-cut letter," he says, "it makes the subtleties stand out."
Kulleseid took his art history major into the Northwest woods to work for the Forestry Service for several years before being drawn to carving. He didn't qualify for an apprenticeship at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, "but they said their master carvers were from England, and that's where the schools were." At the library he turned up information about Weymouth College in England, applied and was accepted in 1993. "It was truly vocational," he says. "The stonecarvers and masons were at one end of the building, and the hairdressers and the bakers were at the other."
An apprenticeship in Cambridge — "kind of the Mecca of letter carving in stone" — followed. There Kulleseid worked at the David Kindersley Workshop, a prestigious shop that did a lot of carving for Cambridge University and Westminster Abbey. "Every time Prince Charles opened up a building, they had work," he laughs. After five years in England and stints in Egypt and Scotland, Kulleseid had built substantial skills. "I was kind of looking for perfection all the time," he says. "I'm a little bit anal."
A decade after returning to the United States, Kulleseid lives with his family in New Paltz, N.Y., and carves at his own workshop in nearby Rosendale. His career has turned out to be reasonably recession-proof so far, he says; "I do enough memorials to keep me busy." He's also done projects for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, St. Lawrence University and many private commissions as well as historic presentations. And if you happen to see a certain promotional video for The Johns Hopkins University, you'll see the Hamilton grad's hands wielding mallet and chisel. While he was working on a JHU project recently, "they took me aside one day and filmed me all day carving the name 'Johns Hopkins' in a piece of marble."
"People like to see it done by hand," he says. "A lot of that has been lost in the modern age. It's a shame."
Visit the Kulleseid Stone Carving website for more information.
Rebecca Hamm Just '00, Supervisory Research Technologist, Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory
Some young forensic scientists grew up on a diet of CSI-style television shows or were inspired to enter the field by the dramatic recovery efforts in the wake of 9/11. Rebecca Hamm Just wasn't one of them. She had a pretty good idea of what she wanted to do as far back as middle school — "long before forensics was a 'cool' thing," she says. "I can remember my sister not understanding what forensics was, because it wasn't very popular yet, so she would tell her friends that I wanted to be a mortician."
Her interest was further focused on mitochondrial DNA as she pursued her senior thesis with Professor of Biology Patrick Reynolds, and after earning a 2002 master's degree in forensic science from George Washington University, she went to work at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md. She now balances her career there with Ph.D. study at the University of Maryland.
Mitochondrial DNA is crucial to the work of identifying human remains because there's a lot of it. "You might have hundreds or thousands of mitochondrial DNA in every cell, in contrast to the nuclear genome, where you have just two copies," Just says. That means that when remains are old or damaged by traumatic force or the environment, "you can often get mitochondrial DNA data even when the nuclear DNA is too degraded to get any information. Mitochondrial DNA sticks around a lot longer."
Life in an actual DNA identification lab doesn't bear much resemblance to CSI, she says, "just like life in a prosecutor's office isn't as exciting as it is on Law and Order." But it has its occasional drama. While much of Just's work is in project management and "on the research side of things, developing new techniques and tools for identification," she also spent two weeks working in temporary morgues in Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina — "12 hours a day, seven days a week," she recalls. "It was pretty overwhelming." More recently, she had an opportunity to accompany military personnel on a notification visit to a family who had lost a loved one in the Vietnam War. The case had been a stubborn one, with bone samples on hand for a decade that would not yield enough DNA sequence data for a positive identification. "But one of my co-workers developed a new DNA extraction protocol" that enabled the lab to put a name to the remains. "It was very emotional and powerful," she says. "The family was so grateful." She later attended the burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
While the work can take an emotional toll, she says, "doing identifications for the military at this lab gives people an awful lot of pride. Those who do that work recognize how important it is for families to have that kind of closure — to have remains to bury, and to be able to mourn properly. And that makes it all bearable."
Sally Sedgwick Peabody K'71, Your Great Days in Paris
Oddly, Sally Sedgwick Peabody never took that junior year in France during her time at Kirkland College. She's been making up for it as the owner and operator of Your Great Days in Paris — providing custom tours, trip planning, coaching and guidance for visitors to the City of Light and other regions. It's a career that gives her up to half a dozen working "vacations" every year in a place she loves. In addition to working directly with tours and itineraries, she's written several books and e-guides, including a recent fourth edition of Take Paris Personally: Your Guide to Discovering Quintessential Paris. "In a sense," the Boston Herald said in a profile of Peabody last year, "she has turned her knowledge of the city into a commodity, which allows her to serve travelers on a wide range of budgets."
Typical trips she leads include week-long culinary tours of Paris in the spring and fall — an intense immersion into the city's food and wine culture — as well as a spring tea-and-chocolate tour, a fall culinary tour of the French Southwest, and — coming in October — a Basque culinary tour. Also new is an "Off the Beaten Path in Paris" tour that explores the emerging quarters the guidebooks often overlook, from the bohemian to the edgy — Batignolles, So-Pi and several more. If these don't cover a client's interests exactly, Peabody provides itinerary coaching to help create (or, often, trim down) a vacation plan that can be followed independently. Her tour groups are small — typically six to eight people — and many clients "have been to Paris more than once, so they see the value of digging a little deeper."
Although she's always had a deep love for and fascination with the city, Sally spent a lot of time on other career tracks before realizing her Paris dream. She holds a master's degree in social work from Fordham and one in public administration from Harvard. She spent several years in New England running a large Meals-on-Wheels program and later a social service agency, among other things, before serving as president of Associated Grant Makers of Massachusetts. She "brought the organization into the tech age," then left after 10 years, thinking, "OK, either I stay for another five years and we look at a whole other phase of growth, or ... we get a new leader in here who might be able to take the organization in some different directions." At the crossroads, she "jumped completely into trying to develop this Paris business, which was this passion that just kept sort of nudging at me."
Peabody credits Kirkland with setting the foundations for her to pursue an unconventional idea like Great Days in Paris. There she learned to take informed risks — "to understand what you wanted to do, and to understand what it was going to take to make that happen." She concedes that it may seem corny, but "Kirkland really encouraged us to be fearless, and to ... try things that mattered deeply."
Visit Your Great Days in Paris website for more information.
Scott Malouf '92 and Steve Weed '92, You-Woo.com
No, they don't run a dating site, and no, they don't peddle canned speeches. But if you have great ideas for your proposal or wedding speech but few clues about how to make it work — or if you just need a kick-start to get the whole marriage thing under way — these guys are your men. Scott Malouf and Steve Weed have created you-woo.com, a Web-based service that employs the writing and creativity skills honed on the Hill to assist fiancés and wedding speakers-to-be in crafting the perfect speech. The ideas still have to be yours; Malouf and Weed won't do your homework for you. Rather, they'll coach you, offer guidance and provide a sounding board as you arrange your thoughts and sentiments into a coherent and poignant soliloquy.
As students at Hamilton, the friends already worked well together, bouncing ideas off each other for speeches and projects. From those experiences, an idea for a business based on such services began to emerge. "After Steve had helped me with my own marriage proposal with my wife," Malouf says, "we both independently came to the same conclusion that, hey, there are a lot of people who may benefit from this type of service." They created You-Woo as a way to bring out the "unique voice" in every client's speech; the aim is to "give people a skill set that they can use to go forward" — to the Big Moment and even beyond.
Weed and Malouf have found that their different strengths allow them to focus on separate aspects of the Web site, although they tend to collaborate on the creative end. Malouf "was really good at giving speeches" (he won the Clark Prize for Public Speaking his senior year), Weed says, and "his expertise and his background as a lawyer" — Malouf practices in Massachusetts — "mean that he's much better suited to handle the business end of things." Weed, in turn, is a writer and editor, directing community-based writing workshops, doing freelance editing for Prestwick House publishers and writing occasional newspaper columns in Ithaca, N.Y. At Hamilton, Weed "was on the creative side," Malouf says, doing some theatre, writing plays (he won the Wallace Bradley Johnson Prize for playwriting) and working as a DJ. For both, "Hamilton had such an interest in rewriting, in clarity of expression, as well as in speaking," Weed says. "I showed up knowing that I had to be prepared and have my thoughts organized."
While they'd be thrilled if the Web business were to grow, they agree that "if we can do this and make it a really fun side project, we'll be happy with that." So far, though, they haven't quite been able to honor one repeated request: "Do you get men to actually propose?"
"If we could figure that out," Malouf says, "we could endow a chair at Hamilton."
Amanda Daflos '00, Nepal Trek and Trail
Amanda Daflos says Nepal is a very poor country — and a very rich one. She studied there during her time at Hamilton and notes that Nepal remains a "beautiful, untouched part of the world." During her stay, Daflos participated in a language-intensive program that gave her fluency in Nepali as well as an appreciation for the country's exotic cultures and lifestyles.
After graduation, Daflos worked for a nonprofit organization in Colorado that had ties to Nepal. She and her colleague, John Oliva, decided to channel their common interest into an annual tour of Nepal that they launched in 2007. Nepal Trek and Trail takes place in November and includes a tour of Kathmandu, the ancient city lodged in the Himalayan mountains. Tour participants also visit Pokhara, where they tour a Buddhist monastery, among other attractions. The journey through bamboo forests, waterfalls, jungles, valleys and "endless" stone staircases offers many interactions with Nepalese.
The two-week trip also includes a half-marathon that benefits the Himalayan Cataract Project, based at the Tilanganga Eye Care Center. Daflos says that this nonprofit group is particularly important because it provides health care to citizens that live in remote areas.
"We're hoping to help them see how health care is delivered in the Third World," she says. This aspect of the tour is especially revealing given President Obama's current efforts at health care reform: "They're doing it in a really effective and efficient way — and the money really does do what it says it's going to do."
That efficiency, Daflos says, reflects a larger sense of grace she finds in Nepalese life and culture. "It's definitely one of the most impoverished places I've seen, but to most of the people that I've met, it's just kind of the way life is," she says. "I think it's the norm, so maybe it's easier to deal with, or maybe it's just a different way of looking at life. But it's always struck me the way they can find a lot of kindness, in spite of all the challenges they face."
While she and Oliva are unsure of how long they will continue this adventure, Daflos says they will probably run it for three or four more years. Their last trip drew a diverse group of people ranging in age from their early 20s to 60. The fact that she is able to pass on her love for Nepal is something that Daflos finds rewarding.
"Hopefully we'll help them make the same connection that we've made to a place that we both really believe in," she says.
Visit the Nepal Trek and Trail website for more information.
Mike Zesk '08, Host of Mongolian Game Show
Michael Zesk Flipped a coin. Tails was Ethiopia, heads was Mongolia. He was trying to decide where to apply for an international job opportunity. As he sat in the office of the Washington lobbying firm where he worked in 2007, he realized that he was beginning to dread his job.
"I saw Mongolia on goabroad.com and thought, 'That's about as far away as I could ever imagine going from sitting at this desk, doing a job that I don't like,'" he says. The coin came up heads, so Zesk applied for a program that would place him in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, as a teacher of American and English literature. He was offered a position, and allocated much of his time outside the classroom to writing and co-hosting a nationally broadcast Mongolian game show.
The show's contestants were the children at the Hobby School in Ulaanbaatar, where Zesk taught. Magic Tour, the name of the program, covered general trivia, word meanings and spelling. Zesk says the experience influenced his view of education. It also reminded him of some of the lessons he learned at Hamilton.
"I think the thing that was most interesting to me while doing this show was trying to understand where you could draw cultural connections," he says. "I did a lot of that with my religious studies major, [analyzing] groups of people and the way they think." A discipline like religious studies often traces individual behaviors back to social legacies. Zesk was able to apply what he learned from his major to the game show. "You'd be surprised what these kids would know and wouldn't know," he notes. "It was interesting to see what common ground they had based on where they came from."
Zesk says that there are fewer than four million Mongolian speakers in the world, which is why one of the Mongolian government's top priorities is making English the official language. Because English-language television programs are in demand, Zesk found no difficulty in getting his quiz show on the air.
As his visibility increased, strangers sometimes recognized him on street. He recalled that one late night, he was walking home from a club when a man approached him. "It's a dangerous city. So naturally, I thought, 'Am I about to be mugged?' But he came up to me and said, "Michael! Michael! Magic Tour!"
Despite his newfound Mongolian stardom, Zesk returned to the United States in June. He plans on applying to master's programs in international relations and foreign service in both Boston and Washington. But perhaps he will go back to Mongolia for Round Two in the future.