World-Changers Reconnect With the University Through the Tower Fellows Program

The Blanton Museum of Art opened the doors of Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” early one morning for a group of Tower Fellows to experience the winter light in the space, February 2024.

Few UT students chance running into their children on campus. But for Stephanie Hamilton, BJ ’87, whose son Michael is a current McCombs student, that was but one unique feature of her return to the Forty Acres.

“I don’t think I would have wanted my mom at school with me,” Hamilton says, “but he’s been so nice about it!”

Hamilton is a Tower Fellow, a program established in 2018 for accomplished, later-career individuals to reengage with an academic environment through The University of Texas at Austin. Fellows take up to eight courses at the undergraduate or graduate level throughout one school year, though they can (and do) take breaks between semesters, or even return for multiple years of study. Similar programs have been established in recent years at Stanford, Harvard, Notre Dame, and other elite institutions.

Indeed, the Tower Fellows form a rarified cohort themselves, from Distinguished Alumnus Award winners to CEOs, to Emmy winners and board members of some of the most influential organizations in the city and state. Many Fellows have retired from these illustrious careers and are seeking a launch pad for the next chapter of their lives.

“We don’t yet have a good name for this life stage,” David Brooks wrote in The Atlantic about the emergence of such programs. “Some call it ‘Adulthood II’ or, the name I prefer, the ‘Encore Years.’ For many, it’s a delightful and rewarding phase, but the transition into it can be rocky.”

Program director Megan Frisque and operations director Janie Castillo-Flores, BA ’04, Life Member, as well as three student interns, are there to smooth this transition, putting on a slate of programming that includes speaker series, private tours of campus and city attractions, and cohort dinners with esteemed faculty.

“University education should not be limited to just young adults,” said Isabella Cunningham, Life Member, the former faculty director of the Tower Fellows Program and a professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations. “People are changing careers now more frequently and are still active much later in life. This place is a fertile environment for exploration and self-fulfillment, and this program will provide people with the platform for an exciting period of discovery and reinvention.”

John Murphy, PhD ’74, Life Member and professor emeritus in the School of Advertising, echoed the sentiment at the graduation celebration on April 30 for five outgoing Fellows. “It has been like a breath of fresh air,” he toasted the assembled crowd of Fellows and their families with a glass of champagne, “to learn about the resources of this University through the vehicle of this program. I can say without any exception, the faculty have embraced the program and have jumped in on everything.”

Besides the boutique nature of the program—including faculty advisors such as Murphy for every Fellow—many elect to join the Tower program instead of enrolling directly in a university to earn a degree because of the additional barriers the latter requires, such as taking the GRE or competing against recent college graduates in an application pool. As some Fellows are also raising children and otherwise active in their communities, they have the option not to take tests or finals, though many still opt to do so.

That evening, the graduating Fellows each spoke about their experiences in the program. Photographer Kevin Sweeney took several classes in the School of Information, learning how to properly catalog the ephemera left to him by his late father, also a lifelong photographer and amateur archivist. “I had started on some of this project, but my purpose in coming here [to UT] was to figure out how to do it right,” Sweeney had shared in a presentation to his cohort earlier in the semester.

Blanca Cummins, who participated in the Tower program alongside her husband, Manti, took on a similar project, which culminated in the dedication of her father Alberto Herrera Fernández’s photo archive to the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at UT Austin.

“Coming to the Tower Fellows Program, I could have never imagined the transformative power that we experienced and the ripple effects on family and other issues that we care about,” Cummins said. “This is one more testament to stepping out of your comfort zone and taking risks and going after a goal with faith and courage.”

Not every Fellow engages in a singular project: Hamilton’s schedule this semester ranged from “The Art and Science of Negotiation” (a class recommended by her son) to architecture, to Russian history.

“People ask me what my goal is, what I want to do with this, and I’m like, ‘To learn!’” says Hamilton, who commutes from Houston to campus every week. “And also to see if I could do this. And now that I know that I can, maybe there will be other opportunities for me that come along.”

Meanwhile, Ellen LeBlanc, BS ’80, Life Member, explored varied artistic mediums in her classes, exhibiting her work across Austin. Before taking the gathered celebrants through her process of crafting a porch swing in her woodworking class—which turned out beautifully—she opened her reflection with a picture from her first day of classes as a Fellow.

“I was really nervous,” LeBlanc said meekly. “I thought, Will I remember where all the buildings are? Will I remember where I’m supposed to go and what I’m supposed to do? And right after I took that picture, I started crying because my freshman year college roommate had just died, and I was thinking about her, and I thought, Why am I here and she’s not? … So I also said a little prayer of thanks and gratitude for being able to be here.”

Graduating Fellow ML Flynn was recruited by her good friend and a fierce advocate for the program, Janet Allen, BA ’88, MSW ’98, Life Member, when Flynn retired from NBC News after a 40-plus-year career in journalism. Frisque calls Flynn the “storyteller” of the group, serving as self-appointed historian for her cohort and helping put together a new promotional video for the program. The slideshow she played at the graduation celebration had more than one person in the room close to tears.

“The magic sauce of this program is community,” Flynn said as the pictures flickered by. “What really surprised me was not that you all were wicked smart or that you were risk takers and had a sense of adventure, but your kindness and your collegiality and your generosity of spirit … I feel like I’ve made lifelong friends, and I can’t imagine a better group to be on the next chapter of my life journey with.”

CREDIT: Courtesy of Megan Frisque (2)


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