"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek with Carissa Pekny during the 2016 College Championships.
Photo courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
Montessori School of Greater Lafayette (MSGL) alumna Carissa Pekny appeared this week on the “Jeopardy! 2016 College Championship.” A senior studying environmental science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Carissa was one of 15 contestants competing this week on the TV game show for a chance at a $100,000 prize. Carissa graduated from second grade at MSGL in 2002.
You can watch the contestant preview video here: https://www.jeopardy.com/tournaments/2016/college-championship
Carissa almost didn’t take the call the day an unknown number from Culver City, California showed up on her phone. She gets a lot of phone solicitations and was going to ignore it, but she answered and heard, “Hi, this is Amy from ‘Jeopardy!’” That call was the end of a two-month process that started with an online test in November. Approximately 3,000 students took the online test and Carissa was one of the few who moved on to the regional audition.
“They tell you (at the regional audition) that if you get a call in a few weeks, you will be on the show. If you don’t get a call and you don’t see yourself on the “Jeopardy! College Championship” episode in February, you’ll know you didn’t make it,” she said.
Carissa did make it to the show and she took her parents Joe and Chris, her sister Chelsea, and a West Point friend along to Universal Studios when the show was filmed over two days in January. There were fourteen other contestants and they filmed five tournament episodes each day. She described the “Jeopardy!” studio as being much different than she expected.
“You watch them on TV and think the studio is massive, but the studio is actually really small. There is room for maybe 100 people in the audience,” she said.
Carissa has always liked trivia and she and her mom would compete against each other while watching the TV show at home.
“Jeopardy has been my mom’s dream, too,” she said.
In fact, Carissa was surprised to hear just how excited her mom really was. When she told her parents she was accepted into medical school in November, her mom was happy. But Carissa wasn’t prepared for her response to the spot on “Jeopardy! College Championship.”
“When I called to tell her, I said, ‘Wow, you didn’t even act this happy when I called you a month ago!’” she said.
Carissa started out strong in the first round of the quarterfinals on Monday answering questions about science, history, and popular music, but ultimately it was Emily Sun, a freshman from Columbia University, who advanced to the semi-finals. Carissa said she was a little nervous at first, but her experience as an athlete helped her concentrate on the task at hand.
"Just like any sports game, I was able to focus my nervous energy into focusing on answering the questions and buzzing in on the buzzer," she said.
Carissa’s natural curiosity might be at the heart of her love for trivia. She discovered an affinity for research when she was in Marshall Overley’s chemistry class at West Lafayette High School. After graduating in 2012, she moved on to West Point where she started doing malaria research in her sophomore year. That interest led her to spend 3 ½ weeks in Australia working at the Australian Army Malaria Institute.
“This was a way to do things that I liked doing that had implications for medical research,” Carissa said.
Carissa Pekny, second from left, during Ring Weekend at West Point.
She plans to continue in the field of medical research next year as she begins medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
In high school, Carissa was an accomplished athlete who played on the WLHS soccer, basketball, and softball teams. When she arrived at West Point in July of 2012 for Beast Barracks, West Point’s Cadet Basic Training, she thought she was physically fit but discovered she wasn’t really prepared for that level of physical conditioning.
“I’m not much for quitting things so I decided to stick it out until the school year and not do anything too brash,” she said.
That decision paid off when it became clear that even though she may not have been physically prepared for basic training, she was academically prepared for a challenging course load. On top of becoming a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, every West Point graduate receives a Bachelors of Science degree, no matter what their major, because of the required core of math and science classes.
Carissa Pekny playing rugby for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Photo courtesy of West Point.
Once she made it through Beast Barracks, Carissa went out for the women’s rugby team. She had never played rugby before, but was selected for the West Point team in her freshman year and currently plays inside center. Carissa was named to the USA Rugby Academic Honor Roll in 2015 for being a consistent starter on the team and maintaining a 3.9 or greater cumulative grade point average. The team travels around the country for both a spring and a fall season. She expressed some ambivalence about ending her rugby career at West Point by saying,
“It is rough on the body. I think I’m gonna miss it a lot because my teammates are my best friends here,” she said.
Carissa Pekny pulls a friend on a sled at Morton Community Center in 2000.
When asked what she remembers about her five years at the Montessori School of Greater Lafayette, she recalled her kindergarten year, when the school was located in the Morton Community Center near Purdue’s campus.
“I remember Kindergarten with (teacher) Ginny Meyer pretty well. We used to do this Thanksgiving feast and all the parents used to come and have a feast with us. That was pretty cool,” she said.
Carissa said Meyer had another lasting impact on her life by always making time to listen to her read and making sure she understood what she was reading.
“I always really loved to read. Having teachers that cultivated that skill and made sure that I understood the words I was reading has benefited the rest of my academic career,” she said.
In 2000, she attended the Montessori Elementary I class with teachers Linda Bolam and Jeff All.
“I remember singing with Jeff and his guitar in the circle all the time,” she said. “That was a lot of fun.”
She also appreciated being able to choose her activities from around the room.
“In Elementary there were certain things we had to learn, there were milestones we had to reach,” she explained. “But we had a lot of free activity time and we could just do whatever we wanted. Then the teachers would come around and make sure, first off, that we were being productive,” she laughed. “If we needed help with anything they would help us.”
Carissa Pekny, in blue, looks on as Jeff All and a friend play for the MSGL Kindergarten class in 2000.
One specific subject she remembers learning about at MSGL is the history of the U. S. Presidents.
“This is gonna sound totally crazy, but the reason I like to study the Presidents is because (the Elementary class) had this placemat and that’s how I memorized the Presidents,” she said. “I remember learning a little bit of Spanish, too. I don’t remember it now, but I remember trying to learn it. I think it was with Ana (Orizondo).”
Carissa’s parents were involved in the MSGL school board and helped with the transition from the Morton Center to the current campus on Soldiers Home Road. Her siblings were also MSGL alumni. Her brother, Andrew, now works for an accounting firm in Indianapolis and her sister, Chelsea, works as a pharmacist in Kenya. Carissa is open to where her life after West Point and medical school might take her.
“The great thing about the Army is, if you want to go somewhere you can pretty much go anywhere,” she said. “I’m just really excited to go out there and see what’s out there and serve our country wherever I’m needed.”
This is the first post in the series "I Am MSGL" featuring alumni of the Montessori School of Greater Lafayette. If you or someone you know would like to be featured in this series, please email me at email@example.com.
A recent photo of Shriya in 2016
As a preschooler, Shriya Samavai Manian appreciated spending her days surrounded by colorful, beautiful things in her classroom at MSGL. Now, twenty years later, she spends her days creating beautiful things for others.
The West Lafayette native works as a photographer, writer, fashion designer, and DJ on New York’s Upper West Side. And that’s just her freelance work. After graduating from Columbia University in 2015, Shriya was hired by designer Ellen Van Dusen to assist her at Dusen Dusen, a womenswear and homegoods studio in Brooklyn.
“The team is really small, just the designer, myself and a salesperson, but the output is really large,” Shriya said. “It’s nice to be working on a small team and learning about clothing design from the ground up.”
Being one-third of the team requires Shriya to participate in all aspects of the production of Dusen’s colorful and boldly-patterned fabric designs, which are manufactured in New York’s garment district.
“I picked up 100 yards of elastic yesterday and delivered it to a production house,” she said. “I have unloaded giant bolts of fabric into a factory. We just did a lookbook shoot last Saturday and I assisted the photographer, steamed the clothing, and helped the models get dressed.”
Shriya has always wanted to run her own business, which is evidenced by the number of entrepreneurship competitions in which she competed in high school and college. She placed in the top three at the Columbia Engineering Fast Pitch Contest, the Edens SmART Retail Challenge, and Purdue’s Entrepreneurship Academy. She understands that this wide variety of experience in New York’s fashion world is helping her organize her own design company.
“Every week I’m learning something completely different. I’m thinking, okay, when it gets to this point for me, how do I want to do this?”
That point looms just around the corner for Shriya and her friend, Lauren Field, a senior at Barnard College. The duo is collaborating on a clothing line right now that should be ready for launch in April, called Studio Lucien. They both have a deep interest in art history and want to make clothes inspired by works of art. Their first project is a rain jacket with Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s painting, “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa (Great Wave),” printed on the inside lining of the jacket.
“We’re working with a factory in the garment district that is currently in the process of sewing all the jackets,” she said. “We started with a sample, which was made by a pattern-maker in New York. We sketched out the idea of what we wanted and worked with her to create the initial jacket. We bought the fabric in New York and got it printed at a factory in New Jersey. Hopefully, the first round of jackets will be delivered to us in March.”
Studio Lucien's Hokusai Jacket coming out in April 2016.
Shriya didn’t set out to be a fashion designer. She always presumed she would be an engineer. She graduated from West Lafayette High School in 2011 and moved to New York to study engineering at Columbia. While studying subjects planted firmly in the STEM department, she spent her free time going to museums, galleries, and concerts and hanging out with friends who were studying art history.
“It wasn’t until college that I even learned that art history was a viable major,” she said. “I thought, what is this thing where you get to sit in class and look at paintings all day? I was friends with a bunch of artists but was going to class and studying engineering.”
When she began to visualize herself studying something besides engineering, she talked with her parents about changing her major to art history and business management.
“Everybody in my family has done engineering. My brother did engineering at Purdue, my father is a professor of chemical engineering, my mom has a masters in engineering,” she said.
But her parents could tell she wasn’t really happy or excited about what she was studying at Columbia and they encouraged her to follow her interests.
“I just had to convince them that it (art history) was a real thing to study and a real thing to pursue after school,” she said. “Now, they are so supportive. Really supportive of my photography and writing and my design. I think they just had to come around to it because it was so new to them. Studying art isn’t common in India, and honestly it’s not a big field in the midwest, either,” she said.
Shriya and her dad celebrate her 3rd birthday in the Toddler Room in 1996.
In April, 2015, her parents’ doubt was erased for good when Shriya and Lauren won first place in Columbia Venture Competition’s Undergraduate Challenge with their idea of taking art history and translating it into clothing. They competed against six other teams in the final round and every other team’s project was based on science, medicine, or engineering.
“We were stressed out because we thought nobody probably cared about this idea besides us,” she said.
Winning first prize was a big confidence booster for the team and for Shriya personally. “It’s good to have that validation when you’re working with an idea and you’re not sure how other people will respond to it,” she said.
The validation included a $25,000 prize that Shriya and Lauren tapped into to make Studio Lucien a reality.
“We’ve spent very little of the money so far,” she said. “It’s only gone into the jacket.”
In most start-up business ventures, inexperience is considered a liability, but Shriya credits her lack of design experience with keeping her mind open to creative - and now successful - ideas.
“It’s nice when you don’t know what you’re doing because you’re willing to try anything,” she said.
Shriya attended MSGL toddler and preprimary classes in the late 1990’s. Although she left before her Kindergarten year, she has memories of the time she spent here.
Shriya celebrates her 4th birthday in Maureen Northacker's class at MSGL in 1997.
“I have great memories of playing in the gym with those little scooters. I recall having a very long scroll of paper and writing every number. I loved counting beads. I remember learning how to wash my hands,” she said, laughing. “There were lots of practical things I learned at Montessori. I loved that building (Morton Community Center.) I thought it was so beautiful. I remember Maureen, I remember Zainab, I remember Suman, I remember Durga. Honestly, I wasn’t there for very long, maybe 3 or 4 years max, but I have really good memories of being there. And I loved how hands-on everything was. I remember you could learn how to zip a zipper, braid, button stuff up, and tie your shoes. I think that really is the best way to learn. It’s not boring and it shouldn’t be.”
Accurately self-described as “having more than one thing happening,” Shriya is simultaneously working on a separate clothing line set to launch in late 2016 or 2017. It is a line of unisex outerwear that she describes as “really nice jackets that are made for anyone of any gender.” Shriya enjoys the many creative directions her life is spinning off into right now, and she plans to continue her design work in the foreseeable future.
Alyeesha Puri, Shriya, and Sejal Sheth on the MSGL
playground at Morton Community Center in approx. 1997.
“Ideally, I would love to be living in some metropolitan area, whether it’s New York or a different part of the world, and making clothes or being somehow involved with art,” she said. “I think that’s what really drives me the most. Being able to create something that evokes some kind of visceral reaction. And I like to collaborate with people.”
Best wishes from all of your old friends at MSGL, Shriya! We can’t wait to see what you do next.
Photos courtesy of Shriya.
This post is part of a series "I Am MSGL" featuring alumni of the Montessori School of Greater Lafayette. If you or someone you know would like to be featured in this series, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We Love Our Teachers!
The lovely ladies of MSGL, August 2014
It's Teacher Appreciation Week and it's the perfect time to give a shout out to the Montessori School of Greater Lafayette's amazing teaching staff. Our teachers come from all over the world and from many different backgrounds, bringing their experiences, understanding, and love of children to share with our Montessori families. Did you know that West Lafayette is the most culturally diverse city in the Midwest? This is largely due to the population of Purdue University which is ranked 2nd in the nation for total international student enrollment. Since over 60% of our families have a connection to Purdue either as staff or students, it's not surprising that MSGL's teaching staff is also diverse.
One way we measure this diversity is with a tally of languages spoken by the staff. Over 26% of the staff speaks English and a second language fluently. And 10% of staff members are trilingual, allowing MSGL to offer students daily exposure to Spanish, Russian, and Korean language and culture. Here is a breakdown of staff languages.
The teachers' love for their work shows in the number of years they have been with the school and their eagerness to enroll their own children here. Over half of our staff members have been with the school for over 10 years. And 61% of the staff currently have children enrolled at MSGL, are parents of MSGL alumni, or are MSGL alumni themselves.
Some of our teachers came to Montessori after studying education. Many others followed their children here before deciding to become a teacher with backgrounds including art history, biology, interior design, psychology, anthropology, nursing, journalism, medieval studies, philosophy, history, and chemistry. However they discovered Montessori, we are grateful they found us and chose to stay. Here is a look at these hard-working ladies over the past year.
Mary Dyrenfurth and Cathy Stier
Somdatta Datta Roy
We salute you, beautiful ladies of MSGL! Thank you for bringing your dedication, your love of children, and your sense of humor with you each and every day.