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Generations of Impact Through Student Organizations, Part Two

Anna Szolwinski
Anna Szolowinski and her family posing with her diploma in front of the Engineering Fountain.

From Walkmans to TikTokers and the first moon landing to private citizens in space, the events and trends that define generations change, but there is one constant on Purdue University’s campus – a love for the university handed down from generation to generation, again and again.

Parents dress their children in the old gold and black and fly Purdue flags on game day, gather with lifelong friends and mentors to reminisce on defining memories, take trips to campus to visit their favorite haunts and more. Experiences like these characterize the childhood connections many current students have to Purdue.

In this two-part series, we introduce you to two Boilermakers who have followed in their parents’ footsteps while finding their own place on campus.

Click here to read part one of Generations of Impact Through Student Life.

Anna Szolwinski

Jenni (Birch) and Matt Szolwinski recall the first time their daughter, Anna, met two of their significant mentors – Jane Hamblin, then dean of students, and Betty Nelson, dean of students emerita. The Szolwinskis were in the midst of a long day traveling between Milwaukee and Cincinnati, and Anna, then only a toddler, was upset. Nelson, however, had the solution.

Photo of Anna Szolwinski

“Betty had a lollipop – and that took care of Anna!” Matt says.

Trips to campus, such as the one where she met Nelson and Hamblin, and watching Purdue games on TV were common parts of Anna’s childhood. However, despite her family’s strong connections to Purdue, Anna was originally determined to go to college elsewhere.

“Originally, I did not want to come to Purdue because it was all that I had ever really known and been surrounded with,” Szolwinski said. “It was actually the Exploratory Studies program that got me on campus and then, once I was here, I realized everything my mom and dad had been saying about Purdue was absolutely correct. I had already heard about the organizations they were a part of, the advisors they had and the connections they made. That’s what I really responded to and was able to be a part of once I was here.”

Both Jenni and Matt were student leaders as undergraduates and Anna followed suit. Jenni and Matt each served as residence hall counselors (resident assistants) and held leadership positions in numerous student organizations, while Anna began to pursue pathways to leadership on campus when she participated in University Residences’ Women’s Leadership Series during her first year at Purdue. She went on to serve in leadership positions with Rising Professionals, Purdue Foundation Student Board and Mortar Board. Each member of the Szolwinski family was selected for the Barbara Cook Chapter of Mortar Board.

As a result of her participation in these organizations, Anna says that she developed friendships that were foundational during her four years – and will continue well beyond graduation.

“I have a core group of people that will be lifelong friends because we have such a strong foundation and history together,” Anna says. “I know, even if I’m not seeing them every day, that they’ll always be there and we’ll always have that bond and relationship. That’s something that’s really special about the experiences I’ve had and the organizations that I’ve gotten involved with.”

Jenni and Matt say more than 30 years of connection to Purdue has resulted in similar relationships, many of which are rooted in their pursuit of leadership experiences beyond the classroom.

“I think that the Student Life experiences were really one of the first opportunities I had to meet students from across the whole depth of campus – every major, every activity – and getting to work with student leaders from all these difference spectrums,” Jenni says.

“Being challenged by and learning from those high achieving leaders was really special. Those are folks that we still keep in contact with today and that was all formed through those leadership experiences and organizations.”

It was through their involvement in such activities that Jenni and Matt first met and, later, began dating.

“The first time Jenni had to spell ‘Szolwinski’ was actually on an award plaque that I got while she was incharge of Cavalier Club in Harrison Hall,” Matt says. “We started dating shortly after serving on the University Athletic Affairs Committee together and over 30 years later, we’re still together.”

While each member of the Szolwinski family each had experiences with organizations that reflected their own unique interests, Anna, Jenni and Matt all found value in a common experience as members of the Barbara Cook Chapter of Mortar Board. Members of the organization are selected based on their commitment to the organization’s pillars – scholarship, service to the university community and leadership. Mortar Board unites top student leaders to host a leadership conference, award scholarships, honor staff members and present fellowships and awards to Purdue students, staff and student organizations.

Jenni and Matt each cited the concept of learning to “lead among leaders” as being valuable to their experiences in Mortar Board.

“The notion of diversity, perspective and experience and then having that humility and the ability to listen, compromise and bring those diverse backgrounds together really makes it a unique organization,” Matt says.

Anna adds that she cemented some of her best friendships through Mortar Board while allowing her to celebrate the best parts of being a Boilermaker.

“It’s the place where I found some of the most outstanding students who are dedicated to getting involved outside of their majors and are passionate about Purdue,” Anna says. “A lot of the organizations I’ve been involved in are connected to Purdue traditions and celebrate being a Boilermaker.

“People that go to Purdue have something about them that makes them a Boilermaker,” Anna continues. “I think it just makes the community so much stronger and allows those ties to continue across generations.”

Mortar Board has also provided ongoing opportunities for Jenni to remain connected as an alumna. She has been involved in the organization at the national level for more than 10 years and currently volunteers as an alumni representative. Her ongoing work with Mortar Board has even allowed her to reconnect with Hamblin, one of her former mentors when she worked in the Office of the Dean of Students. Jenni and Matt say that their ongoing involvement with organizations such as Mortar Board and the Student Life Advisory Council give them another lens through which they can connect with Anna and Purdue.

“We feel grateful because her being there has given us the opportunity to reconnect with our alma mater in a different way as parents,” Jenni says.

Anna Szolwinski and her mentors at the Women's Leadership Series

Through her involvement, Anna has also been able to connect with some of the same people her parents counted as mentors, including Nelson – though there’s more to their friendship than lollipops now.

“It’s really full circle now that she’s had the opportunity to develop relationships with the same people and others who were influenced by the same people that we were,” Jenni says.

Through her involvement in leadership, Anna says she’s realized that it’s these relationships with fellow Boilermakers, past and present, that matter the most.

“For me, it was figuring out that it was less about getting tasks done and more about the impact you have and the relationships you form,” Anna says. “When I think back to leading Rising Professionals as a sophomore or being in leadership with Mortar Board, the foundation of those programs lends itself to being less about the campus programming and more about the relationships you’re forming. The biggest growth I’ve seen within myself is shifting that focus – still getting things done but, at the end of the day, forming those friendships and core memories.”

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Business/Corporate Communications, Anna has begun her career as a consultant for 84.51°, a retail data science, insights and media company that works with Kroger and other packaged goods companies. She says she expects to use Purdue connections through alumni clubs, Purdue-owned companies and more in the Cincinnati area, where she will be living. She also says she will lean on the relationships and lessons learned from her Purdue experiences as she begins her career.

“I know Purdue is going to continue to have an impact on everything that I do,” Anna says.

“Whether it’s pulling in leadership skills in a job, being a friend or leading a team, all of these things I’ve learned at Purdue have become foundational to who I am as a person. The dedication, commitment, drive, intent to listen to others, implement and receive feedback - all the skills I’ve learned inside the classroom as well as outside of it have made me into the person I am now.”

The Szolwinski family

Meanwhile, another member of the Szolwinski family will begin his Purdue journey this fall when the youngest member of the family, Adam, begins his studies in cybersecurity. As with Anna, Adam will pursue his own path – but Matt says that the same pillars his family has experienced at Purdue will remain.

“It really is tradition, but it’s rooted in culture,” Matt says. “When we come back to campus, the same core tenets and values are still very evident from the very first visit I took with my parents back in the fall of 1988.”

Be sure to read part one of Generations of Impact Through Student Life here.