Staff Q&A: Amy Calhoun

STAFF Q&A/Call it luck or call it craft, but Amy Calhoun has managed to float into her perfect job

Amy Calhoun

“My students have actually taught me almost everything I know about this field.”

We asked Digital Media Design graduate Nathan Schreiber (C/EAS’02) to give us his impression of Calhoun.


Director, Digital Media Design Program

Length of service:
16 years

Other stuff:
She is working on a murder mystery set in a college admissions office.

“I actually have often thought that my career was sort of as if there’s a river and I’m standing on the bank, and various rafts come by, and people are on the raft and they wave and say ‘Hi! Jump on!’

“And I do, and I don’t know where it’s taking me, and I get further downstream, and I get off and another raft appears.”

And in this fashion Amy Calhoun (C’82) has floated from a political science major at Penn to a short career as an artist, a job pitching memberships to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, an admissions officer position in Undergraduate Admissions and two academic advising posts, first with the University Scholars Program and now as director of the Digital Media Design (DMD) program.

As she explained in our interview, the job she holds actually makes use of just about all the insights she picked up along the way.

Q. Why did you decide to go for this position?
When I first graduated from Penn, I worked as an artist for my first two years out of college. The interesting thing about that was, it’s also telling stories, but with pictures.
But the odd thing about being a painter was never communicating with people. You sat in a studio somewhere by yourself and you painted, and then you presented it as a finished product.
What’s really interesting about [DMD] is it’s interactive…it’s the kind of work that is usually done in teams, because the scope of making, let’s say, a five-minute animation can take months and months of work. It’s unbelievably difficult, because it’s math.

Q. Why did you major in political science given your post-college career and your current position?
Before I came to Penn, I went to Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland for two years. I went there because I knew I was interested in political science and in art, and I thought Switzerland and being in Europe was a good place to study both. I was particularly interested in European and Russian [politics] and I was very interested in painting.
When I came back and transferred to Penn, it was easier to become a political science major with the transfer credits that I had than to become a fine arts major.

Q. How did you go from a career in art to working in Undergraduate Admissions at Penn?
After I worked in art for two years, as I said, [I did not like] that idea of working in a vacuum, and also the art that sold well was art that I hated. Everything that I thought was hideous was what people wanted to buy.

...And I got paid a lot of money and I thought, Something’s gone terribly wrong. I don’t like the art that I do. I work completely in solitude, and yeah, I think I need to try something else.

So I went to work for the [Greater Philadelphia] Chamber of Commerce. I used to cold-call people to ask them if they would like to join the Chamber of Commerce. It’s very important to have a job at some point in your life that you hate so that you can figure out what you like.

At that time, they still interviewed people in Undergraduate Admissions, and because I had been a transfer student from an international perspective and I spoke two languages, they asked me if I would come and interview transfer students on campus. After a year interviewing and reading applications for transfer admissions I applied for an admission officer job.

Q. Has it been difficult to adapt to all the technology in your position with DMD?
It’s been really interesting. My students have actually taught me almost everything I know about this field and that’s been sort of an ideal situation for both of us. …They could see I was a complete novice and they would sort of shake their heads and say, “Sit down, we’ll explain it to you.”

When I first came to Engineering and I would go to meetings, it was just so interesting. Meetings started on time, they had agendas, and they ended on time. It was a fascinating and completely different world, and they used math analogies for everything. I never used a math analogy in my life.

After a year of being there, I made a math analogy in a meeting and I thought, Oh my gosh, it’s finally happened!

Q. Have you ever used political science analogies in this job?
All the time. And they do understand those, because they understand that in this program, operating between three different schools [Annenberg, Design and Engineering], trying to get your curriculum set and find the time for [your classes]…just the juggling between departments and getting people to let you do what you need to do in the time in which you need to do it is very political. And so I think they’ve learned a lot about political science. They think that’s part of a Penn education.

Q. What’s the greatest pleasure in this job?
Honestly, seeing it work. Seeing my students actually reach a level of success in getting their work out there and the pride that they have when they finish a project. Seeing when we make suggestions to the computer science faculty about curriculum, they take them.

Q. And the greatest challenge?
[long pause] Oh, I know what the greatest challenge is. Trying to build a budget for a brand-new program that only existed for a few years and that nobody was even sure would fly.

Originally published on September 18, 2003