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Old Masters: 70 Years of Tradition in a New Format

Purdue Old Masters, an annual event that connects distinguished Purdue alumni with the student body, adapted with an innovative twist this year in response to challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new, virtual format allowed the event to continue its 70-year tradition of enriching traditions, uniting generations and empowering Boilermakers. Rather than traditional, in-person events, Old Masters engaged in interactive online platforms including personal host calls, virtual classroom talks and meetings with student organizations, concluding with a hybrid version of a discussion panel known as An Evening with Old Masters. The development of the Old Masters Podcast has created additional opportunities for enrichment beginning before and continuing beyond the event.

The Old Masters program dates to 1950, when a shared definition of success among students, business representatives and university officials sparked the idea to invite a group of 10 successful and outstanding individuals to campus to share ideas with the student body. This group became the first Old Masters. Over the past 70 years, more than 600 Old Masters have helped grow and enrich this Purdue tradition.

This year’s Old Masters were:

  • Ken Armstrong, BA 1984, political science and government.
  • Melody Birmingham, BS 1994, organizational leadership.
  • Stacey Baitinger Burr, BS 1984, MS 1991, industrial engineering.
  • Julie Dussliere, BA, 1994, Russian.
  • Stephen McKinley Henderson, MA 1977, theatre.
  • Luke Marklin, BS 2007, construction engineering and management.
  • Ted McKinney , BS 1981, agricultural economics.
  • Reini Wirahadikusumah, MS 1996, PhD 1999, civil engineering.

Wirahadikusumah has the distinction of being one of only a few international Old Masters in the program’s rich history. She joined the events from Indonesia, where she serves as the first woman president in the 100-year history of Institut Teknologi Bandung, a university located in Bandung, West Java. To learn more about the Old Masters, visit this page.

Old Masters is executed by the Central Committee, made up of 12 Purdue students and three advisors. During their stay on campus, each Old Master is typically escorted by a group of hosts and hostesses chosen by the Central Committee. This year’s hosts took on these responsibilities virtually, introducing Old Masters during events and completing additional projects such as creating introduction videos and gifts, and working to make each Old Master’s time run smoothly.

One aspect of hosting an Old Master is creating a “hype box,” which serves as a gift for the Old Master. Elise Boessler, a third-year student majoring in brain and behavioral science and political science, was part of the host team for Armstrong, an award-winning journalist who served as editor-in-chief of the Purdue Exponent while in school. Boessler’s group created a box wrapped in the Exponent’s masthead and added practical gifts with Purdue ties. They additionally created a magazine to introduce themselves to Armstrong, as well as a welcome video for use in the opening ceremonies.

“These projects are the deliverables that help connect us, as the hosts, to our Old Master so we can best tailor their experience and celebrate them in ways they would personally appreciate,” says Boessler. “The projects really bonded our host group because it forced us to critically think about connecting in meaningful ways despite the challenge COVID-19 hurdled at us. Even though the Old Masters couldn’t physically meet their hosts, the online platform really pushed us all to be creative for tasks that might seem menial, like introducing ourselves.”

The projects really bonded our host group because it forced us to critically think about connecting in meaningful ways

One of the hallmarks of the Old Masters program is that it produces small group and one-on-one interactions between the Old Masters and current students. Matthew Brazil, a fourth-year student studying industrial engineering, served on the host team for Burr. He says one-on-one and small group interactions with Burr and the rest of the Old Masters were his favorite parts of the experience.

“Easily the best experience was interacting with all the Old Masters,” says Brazil. “It was incredible to speak to and learn from people who left Purdue and made lasting impacts on the world in incredible ways. Listening and getting to know Stacey profoundly affected me and opened my eyes to career paths and incredible knowledge which I couldn’t have found anywhere else.”

Boessler says she found similar value in her interactions with Armstrong.

“I can remember feeling extremely nervous to meet him because here I was sitting at my apartment table, full business professional suit, talking with one of the mast awarded journalists in American history,” says Boessler. “My nervous excitement quickly turned to inspiring admiration for a person who is truly one of the most humble and genuine people I have ever met.”

Over the course of the program, each Old Master had the opportunity to share their experiences and perspectives in their own, unique ways. The culmination of the events was An Evening with Old Masters, a public discussion panel. This year’s hybrid format was anchored by student hosts Marisabel Segovia and Humza Syed, and livestreamed via YouTube. Segovia and Syed directed prepared questions to each of the Old Masters, who also answered questions from student leaders representing various student organizations. A recording of the livestream can be viewed here.

Of the messages shared by the Old Masters, those of persistence resonated with Brazil.

“The most important thing I learned in the Old Masters program was to never give up and always be open to growth – not only professionally, but in one’s personal life,” says Brazil. “Growth comes from failure and this growth should never be feared, but welcomed with open arms.

“Another takeaway from the program was that everyone has something to teach you,” continues Brazil. “Regardless of age or any demographic, people – especially Boilermakers – are incredible and all people’s knowledge should be respected and admired.”

Growth comes from failure and this growth should never be feared, but welcomed with open arms.

Hearing about the different paths the Old Masters have taken to their respective fields of success struck a chord with Boessler.

“I feel like nowadays there is this ominous pressure to have a super clear-cut future planned out, almost as if this straight-lined path necessitates whether one will truly make a difference,” says Boessler. “In college especially, the unknown future can spark the revolving door of doubt and existential crises. Listening to the Old Masters’ stories, I felt peace in the fact that I haven’t had a straight path so far at Purdue. Ultimately, I learned that it’s okay to have challenges and to pivot."

While the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the viability of numerous events around the world, the Central Committee, hosts, advisors and Old Masters persisted to continue Old Masters’ mission to enrich traditions, unite generations and empower Boilermakers. To learn more about Old Masters, visit