My Most Challenging Academic Pursuit

My journey to finishing my Babson Honors Thesis Project.

Without a doubt, writing my honors thesis at Babson was one of the most rewarding- and most challenging- experiences of my entire academic career. I applied for Babson’s Honors Program when I was a Sophomore in college by recommendation from my Business Law Professor, who encouraged me to apply, thinking that I would be a good fit for the program. Once I was selected to participate in the program, I knew the hard work was just beginning.

I remember sitting with my peers at the Honors Retreat later in the year, looking anxiously around at my talented and ambitious classmates. I had no idea what I wanted to write about and with every brainstorming session and idea-generating conversation, I fell deeper and deeper into a whirlwind of confusion. When I finally considered studying music for my project, I encountered yet another obstacle: who was going to be my advisor? To describe finding someone who has knowledge about music, musicians, and passion at a business school as merely challenging is a vast understatement. I spoke to upwards of ten professors from Olin and Babson with no avail. How I found my advisor at the end of my Junior year still remains to be a bit of a mystery to me. I distinctly remember walking into her office in the basement of Tomasso thinking:

“this is my last hope, if she says that she cannot advise me I am not sure what I am going to do,” as I crossed my fingers under the table.

To my relief, she was truly the most interesting, genuine, generous, and kind professors I had met at Babson. I knew that if she said no to advising my project I would not only have to continue looking for an advisor but, more importantly, I would be missing out on the chance to work with such an incredible scholar. 

I could not have been more overjoyed when my advisor agreed to work with me on my honors thesis during my Senior year. The fact that I would be her first advisee made the experience all the more special. It made me feel as though we were walking into uncharted territory together and that we could both make mistakes and laugh about them. We would always figure it out, but we had the joy of figuring it out together. 

When I returned from summer break, I was excited to revisit the project, yet, undeniably, apprehensive. I had spent the whole summer searching for inspiration. Whatever I read, watched, or experienced I thought about how I could generate a thesis idea from it. With no luck, I returned to school with a pit in my stomach. I was still so confused as to what to write about. This confusion soon turned into frustration, as I used this conflict to define other parts of my life. How come I do not know what I am passionate about? Maybe I don’t know myself? If I could not choose a research topic of interest, how was I going to choose a profession after college?

Who is Ursula?

Yet, I was always comforted by my advisor’s simple and warm words “your project does not have to be perfect and, in fact, no project is”. It was as though these words allowed me permission to make mistakes, knowing that floundering was part of the process. It was my advisor’s continued faith in me that convinced me that I was capable of moving forward and, without it, I would not have believed that I could finish. 

It was at the Honors Reception in October of 2019 that my confidence during the process was at an all-time low. At this point, I had limited faith in my project. I still had not developed a research question or methodology. I found that my thoughts were constantly spinning in circles, butterflies in my stomach as I entered the dining hall. I knew that, at the reception, I would be forced to talk about my ideas and how I would be accomplishing my goals, but I simply did not have any answers. I clearly recall, when we had to stand up and present our projects, my advisor leaning over to tell me to have confidence because my preliminary idea was inherently interesting, words which gave me enough encouragement to stumble along and explain my project to the room. 

Yet, despite my discouragement, that semester my advisor helped me to press on, motivating me to continue to make mistakes, discover, and ask questions. I think that some of the best advice she gave me was that if I kept circling back to the same idea it meant that this was the idea that I should pursue. Another piece of advice I found incredibly helpful was that I should just start talking to people- diving in even though I did not have all the answers. She helped me to realize that I did not have to have everything figured out before I began and that this project would be an iterative process of discovery, learning, and adaptation. 

Despite my progress’s interruption from my college having to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt certain of the completion of my thesis. I knew that my advisor and I would see our project to the end, knowing that if we had come this far there was no stopping us now. After many long nights in my house writing away, I finally finished my honors thesis at the end of April, just weeks before I was supposed to have my graduation.

Now that I had completed the thesis, my mind was drawn to the other aspects of the project that I would now be missing out on: the presentation of my work at the Honors Thesis showcase, my advisor and my weekly catch ups, and having my parents see me graduate with honors. What hurt the most? The fact that my advisor would not be seeing me, along with all of the other honors students, walk across the stage to receive my diploma. I would miss out on the moment where I would find my advisor and family in the crowd as I stood on stage with my honors degree in hand, thinking about how proud I was that we finally finished this long journey together. 

Nevertheless, this day will come at some point in the future, but if it doesn’t that would be O.K. too. I have realized walking across a stage or showcasing my work some place would have been nice, but it wouldn’t change the research already done and the experience already had.

Kate Sienko on Working in Publishing at Condé Nast

Even wonder what the day-to-day at Condé Nast looks like? Yeah, me too! Read all about Kate’s experience working for one of the biggest names in publishing.

When I tell you Kate and I got back, we go way back, having known each other for just over 8 years now! Kate is such an inspiration to me, having taken the working world by storm after graduating from Tufts University in 2017. She has worked on marketing campaigns for the magazines that we all know and love, including Vogue, GQ, and Glamour. Yes, you have 20/20 vision I wrote Vogue! An incredibly kind, driven, and hard-working, powerhouse woman, Kate has kindly offered to share with our blog community her experiences working at one of the biggest names in publishing. Take it away Kate!

Kate, tell us a little bit about yourself!

My name is Kate Sienko and I’m a twenty-something navigating the trials and tribulations that accompany adulthood in New York City. I work on the post-sale marketing team at Condé Nast, specifically producing branded content for brands such as Vogue, Glamour, Allure, GQ, Bon Appétit, and more. Prior to working at Condé Nast, I attended Tufts University and The Pingry School. 

When did you first start working in publishing and how did you end up at Condé Nast?

I graduated from Tufts in 2017 with degrees in English and Communications/Media Studies. Throughout my internships at Bustle and Time Inc. and college experiences, I connected with colleagues, mentors, and leaders alike, who shared insights and learnings about the media industry and continued to connect me with key contacts that would lay the foundation for my career at Condé Nast. 

Perhaps the most formative experience was a series of courses that I took at Tufts entitled “The Future of Magazines.” The instructor during my senior year was the most chic, sophisticated, and all-around brilliant woman who had worked at Condé Nast for many years (and was also an alumna of Tufts!) – as she spoke about the magic that transpired between the walls of Condé Nast and brought in guest speakers from the company that shared similar experiences, I knew that I needed to experience that for myself: to experience the power of storytelling so deeply with the brands I had loved my entire life.

I graduated without a job, as the media industry is different from other industries and often only hires within two (2) weeks of start date – but I worked diligently within my network of mentors, who connected me with the people I needed to know to interview and ultimately secure a job at Condé Nast during July of 2017.   

What was your first role at Condé and how does it differ from what you do now?

For the past three years, I have been on the marketing team at Condé Nast, specifically working with beauty clients such as L’Oreal, P&G, Johnson & Johnson, Estee Lauder, and many more. I was first hired as a pre-sale marketer and have since transitioned to a post-sale role. As a pre-sale marketer, I was the brains behind the idea, strategizing with teammates to craft stories across platforms: branded content, experiential, video, print, podcasts, and more. As a post-sale marketer, I am the quarterback working cross-collaboratively to bring campaigns to life. Internally, I partner with sales, talent, and creative counterparts to ensure that we produce the best content possible. Externally, I manage all communication with our agency and client partners to ensure that the creative vision is coming to life as it should. 

Although hard to pick a favorite between the two – I will say that I am tremendously fortunate to have learned about the campaign process from conception to completion so early on in my career. With this holistic experience, I feel well-prepared and poised to address anything that comes our way in the branded content production process. 

What is the most challenging part of your job?

No two days are the same – especially during quarantine. Every day brings a new insight, challenge, or ask and it’s my responsibility to keep everything going, no matter what. In post-sale, we are continuously problem solving (I often joke that I’m a firefighter), and no matter how difficult a situation may be, we always strive to be as positive and solution-oriented as we can in order to ensure the success of a campaign. From sourcing last minute product for a next-day shoot to learning back-end technical logistics for a virtual event to negotiating with edit and clients to achieve a balance of client + brand POVs, we do it all and apply our problem-solving skills to whatever is thrown our way.

What does a typical day look like for you?

During the pandemic, keeping to a routine has been key. My day-in-the-life goes like this: 

7:30 AM Wake up 

8:00 AM Work out with my mom (Monday & Wednesdays = Cardio, Tuesday = Arms, Thursday = Legs, Friday = Kickboxing) 

9:00 AM Start the work day while eating breakfast (eggs, Ezekiel cinnamon raisin toast, and fruit) and having coffee: read emails, write out the daily to-do list (I’m old fashioned), prep for meetings

10:00 AM – 5:30 PM Zoom Client and internal meetings to review status of current campaigns. (Some days we’ll have shoots – these are a full-day occasion!). Review rounds of creative and route for approvals. Although I do miss the serendipitous nature of the office and seeing familiar faces in the halls and elevator, I will say that my team and I have managed to be quite productive. (Note: As great as Zoom is, I am actively campaigning to bring the phone call back).

5:30 PM – 6:30 PM Walk around the neighborhood to get some fresh air  

6:30 PM Help my parents cook dinner. I’m extraordinarily lucky that both my mom and my dad are excellent cooks and we’ve been eating quite well these past few months. 

7:00 PM – 8:00 PM Dinner with my parents and my younger brother who is also home for the time being. Although I do sometimes feel like I’m 18 again living under my parents’ roof, I will say that I am cherishing this extra time we all have together as a family. 

8:30 PM – 10:00 PM Read or watch TV to wind down from the day. Recently finished reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and watching Love on the Spectrum on Netflix – both excellent!

What is the most compelling project that you have worked on in your career?

The times that I have felt most alive during my time at Condé Nast have been at our tentpole events, such as Glamour Women of the Year and Teen Vogue Summit. They are a celebration of each of the brand’s ethos – who we are, what we stand for, and what we believe in. 

At Glamour Women of the Year, we honor the game changers, the rule breakers, and the trailblazers who have paved the way for women across the country and around the world in their respective fields. Over the past three years, we’ve honored: 

  • Megan Rapinoe
  • Margaret Atwood 
  • Greta Thunberg 
  • Emma Gonzalez and the women activists from the March for Our Lives movement
  • Tory Burch
  • Chanel Miller 
  • Yara Shahidi 
  • Kamala Harris (Fun Fact: I was her seat filler when she went up to accept her award!)
  • Viola Davis
  • The Women’s March Organizers

One of the most special moments from WOTY 2019 was when Chanel Miller accepted her award on stage. Glamour had named Emily Doe, the anonymous sexual assault victim a WOTY honoree in 2016, and unbeknownst to the team, she had been sitting in the audience all along, listening to every word. For Chanel to come forward to the world, and then later on the stage at Glamour Women of the Year to publicly accept her award was awe-inspiring. As she emerged on stage in her golden gown, she immediately received a standing ovation – and when she proceeded to recite her acceptance poem: “I Don’t Give A Damn” and there was not a dry eye in the house. I still get goosebumps thinking about that very moment and thinking this is what it’s all about.

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At Teen Vogue Summit, we engage in conversations and live workshops with leaders from fashion, politics, beauty, wellness, and activism for the next generation. I love being on the ground with these young people and hear firsthand what they’re doing in their own communities to change the future. At Teen Vogue Summit 2019, Demi Lovato made her first public appearance post–break and the energy in the room shook when she made her way to the stage. 

WOTY and Teen Vogue Summit are two of my favorite events of the year because the spirit of empowerment is absolutely tangible and awakens everyone sitting in the room to go out and do good for themselves, for others, and ultimately the world.

How has your role needed to adapt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The names of the game in media are speed, creativity, and agility – and this is true now more than ever. So much of what we do is people-driven – be it photoshoots, video shoots, events, traveling, or client dinners where we’re interacting, collaborating, and partnering with producers, directors, videographers, clients, talent, and more. And although things may look a little different now, the show must go on. And if there’s a will, there is always a way. 

In May, we worked with a client for Teen Vogue Prom and we filmed three videos with teenaged talent. Since this was the beginning of the pandemic, the shoot was entirely remote. We shipped product and equipment to the talent across the country and the director, producers, program managers, and clients all sat on a Zoom directing each talent as they captured their getting ready looks. The casting was incredibly important for this particular program because we needed to enlist talent that were skilled in capturing their own content – and they did beautifully! 

Teen Vogue Prom was the following week and we had the time of our lives. Teen Vogue was the first brand to publicly announce that we would host a “virtual prom” for high schoolers and we had exactly one month to pour all of our passion into the program to bring it to life. We curated an evening with hybrid programming, allowing time for attendees to hang out with other classmates from their schools within individual Zoom rooms – and then we would broadcast the national livestream that featured drop-ins from celebrity guests like Charli & Dixie D’Amelio, CNCO, Emma Chamberlain, Lily Collins, Madelaine Petsch, Chloe x Halle, Becky G and more. Nearly fifty members from the Teen Vogue team volunteered their Saturday evenings to “chaperone” the prom, work the back-end technical logistics, and create a night to remember for thousands of high schoolers across the country – all while dressed to impress. I even squeezed into an old prom dress!

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Most recently, we had a branded Vogue video shoot. Although finally able to get back on set, our video team had mandated strict guidelines to ensure the health and safety of both talent and crew. We were only able to have three people TOTAL on set – talent, director, and cameraman – (when there are usually 20+!) and thus took an incredible amount of preparation and coordination both before the shoot and during the shoot. On shoot day, the rest of the crew and clients dialed in from across the country, providing feedback while viewing the livestream link. 

As the mantra goes, teamwork makes the dream work –– and as we continue onwards in this new normal, it is as important as ever to have a team that is both conscientious and committed to bringing a vision to life, no matter the circumstances – and I couldn’t be more grateful to have just that.

If you could choose anyone or any company to work with, who would it be and why?

My dream client would have to be Nike. I grew up playing pretty much every sport – basketball, swimming, soccer, water polo – and the values of hard work, competition, perseverance, teamwork, and leadership have served as a foundation for all that I do, both personally and professionally. I grew up with a pinboard in my room with pages of old Nike advertisements from magazines and even today, they never cease to inspire, invigorate, and empower me to be the best version of myself. 

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone interested in working in publishing?

Change is inevitable. The media landscape is evolving every single day – and even over the past three years, I’ve experienced those shifts firsthand. Although countless headlines declare that “Print is Dead,” I’d argue that perhaps the more accurate way to position this is “Print is Changing.” The golden age of traditional publishing was marked by plentiful paging across books – particularly in September issues. I still have an archive of old issues of Glamour, Teen Vogue, Bon Appétit, Vogue and more – and some of them are as thick as phone books. While print issues may look a bit different now, especially with several titles shuttering their print editions (i.e. Glamour and Teen Vogue) – it’s important to understand that print is only one component of a brand. With the introduction of technology advancements across digital and social media, print is no longer the sole star of the show; each brand that we work on within the Condé Nast portfolio consists of print, video, articles, social, podcasts, events, and so much more. 

So yes, print is changing, but the tactile and immersive experience of print is so unique that print will never fully “die” in my opinion. As audiences and consumers alike continue to change how they consume content, we have a responsibility to continuously adapt and evolve to not only reach them, but perhaps more importantly, to resonate with them, too. 

What do you think the future of publishing looks like?

Mark my words: the future of media is bright. Print may be “changing,” but media and publishing are not going anywhere. The media industry is fueled by the power of storytelling – and as human beings, we crave stories that tell the experiences of ourselves and each other. My hope is that the media industry continues to work to be more inclusive, sharing real and raw journalism from people of diverse backgrounds – across race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, identity – and that technology helps us tell these stories in the most innovative and creative ways possible.

If I Got to Re-Write My College Essay, It Would Look Something Like This…

How taking “The Wired Ensemble” at Olin College changed my perspective on music and life.

When I was a senior in high school I struggled with writing my personal essay for the college common application. And when I say “struggled” that is even a vast understatement. I went through many drafts of different concepts, themes, and analogies to communicate who I was to an unknown entity. I specifically remember wanting to answer the given prompt:

“The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

At this point in my high school career, my most impactful failures revolved around performing. I had taken singing lessons since I was in the third grade, having a love for performing both on stage for an audience and for myself in the comfort of my own shower. The one thing that always inhibited me from performing for others, however, was my crippling perfectionism and stage fright. Nevertheless, despite how powerful these forces were, nothing could keep me from doing what I love: singing. On paper, the articulation of my passion for singing overriding my fear of an on stage failure was a jumbled mess, becoming an analogy about a chrysalis and an emerging butterfly.

It was not until I took a class my senior year called The Wired Ensemble, a freshman elective being taught at Olin College of Engineering- a neighboring college that Babson students are allowed to cross-register at- that my understanding of music and myself changed altogether. The Wired Ensemble is a course where students learn how to compose and perform original works for instruments and voices, develop a “Composer’s Tool Chest,” and learn how to analyze and reflect upon music pieces. I was one of two seniors that took this class and the only student from Babson College.

The pre-requisite for taking this class was a basic knowledge of music and music theory, however this was a massive understatement. I had been in an acapella group and performed in numerous musicals and performances of my own, which I thought was enough to qualify my music knowledge. Creating, writing, and performing music myself would be a completely different story. I remember walking out of many classes close to tears, not being able to understand some of the most basic concepts and consistently receiving far too many edits on my pieces. Every day in that class I felt like a complete embarrassment. Yet, despite the frustrations I felt, there was something incredibly liberating about starting from zero. I could try, make mistakes, learn from them, and slowly improve. If I made a mistake, it would not be the first one I would make nor the last. Failure became normalized for me in this class, it became no big deal. With this revelation, along with a lot of personal growth since that senior year of high school, I was able to write my final paper for this class, a rewrite of my college essay, one that I had dreamed of rewriting for a long time.

Screen Shot 2020-08-17 at 8.51.02 PMIt had been my first big failure. I was an enthusiastic third-grader, ready to take the stage to sing in my church’s talent show. I had been a bit nervous, but felt the anxiety melt away as soon as I stepped into the spotlight; this is where I love to be. My eyes were glued to the lyric prompter on the back wall, a welcome distraction. I had almost made it halfway through my song when the prompter glitched and, in a panic, I forgot the words. I stood in silence for what felt like forever. Once the prompter righted itself, I finished the song and quickly ran off stage. I sat silently crying in my seat until the show was over, embarrassed for how poorly my performance had been. When the lights came up, I rushed into my mother’s arms as she consoled me and insisted that she didn’t even notice the blunder- but that is never our impression as performers, we notice everything that goes wrong, while the audience remains oblivious. But, I knew my mistake and that was enough to make me afraid of another failure.

From that point on, whenever I got onstage, I had debilitating stage fright. I would write lyrics on my hands, have nightmares of standing on stage in silence, and needed to be pushed on stage before every show. I wanted my singing to showcase my talent, preparation, and excellence and every performance seemed like a disappointment if it did not go to plan. The pressure for perfection overwhelmed and began to cripple me. The only reason I was able to pull myself back on stage was for the thrill of performing, my excitement for taking on challenges, and my true passion for music.

In reality, music sets you up for failure, inevitably, every performance will not turn out how you practiced it. Paradoxically, in this way, music sets you free from failure, it should be expected. This became evident with every show I watched following my talent show disaster. Once on opening night, I saw the musical “Hairspray” and was shocked when the actors began laughing hysterically during one of the comical scenes. The laughter became so uncontrollable that after 10 minutes the entire theatre was giggling and clapping along, a genuine moment exhibiting the joy of the unexpected. One performance after another, I began to witness singers forget their lyrics, sing the wrong harmonies, and have their voices crack and they were always O.K.; they walked off stage, they survived failure. Observing this helped me to remember that if I made a mistake on stage again, I would be O.K. too. My performances could have mess-ups and were inevitably going to turn out differently than I had practiced, and that would be alright. Despite the challenge, every performance gradually became easier. There were still doubts, discomfort, and bumps along the way, but I used my reactions to these mistakes to gauge my maturity in accepting these errors.

The unexpected nature of live performances is what makes them worth watching. There’s a certain authenticity and vulnerability in our failures that make our work truly personal, it makes them ours. I realized that it is not really about the product of the performance itself, it’s about sharing what you love with others and the medium just happens to be the music. This idea fully crystallized when I performed at Babson’s Aman show, my first performance in 3 years. I was so worried to have all my peers and close friends see a different, deeply personal side of me for the first time. However, before I entered the stage, I felt an unusual calmness I hadn’t felt since before that horrible day of the talent show. I had practiced and knew my music- I would be singing in both English and Hindi. There was no prompter, just me and the stage. Stepping into the light, I knew that this performance wasn’t for anyone else, it was for the little third grader inside of me and if I was singing for me, everything would be O.K. regardless of the outcome. And it was.