Recent Graduate Highlights

Elle Sawyer

Philosophy Major, Class of 2020

When Elle Sawyer (Class of 2020) approached her senior year, she had encouragement from professors in each of her majors—Philosophy and Biology—to apply for graduate school. “I ended up applying to Ph.D. programs in both,” says Elle, reflecting on how each subject fed her intellect in different ways. “In my area of interest—conservation and ecology—you have to master a huge body of knowledge, but you also need to know how to think creatively and develop your own research designs. Philosophy gets me thinking outside the box and gives me the critical distance to question my own assumptions.” 
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Philosophy courses in animal ethics and the philosophy of science deepened Elle’s understanding of ecology, the scientific method, and the moral ramifications of environmental decisions. To Elle’s surprise, even the broader questions raised in philosophy helped her to thrive in her other major. “On the surface,” Elle reflects, “it may seem as though the philosophy of religion, philosophy of art, or metaphysics have little to do with being a biologist. But studying those questions shaped my skill set.” Elle found that because of the ability to think through the consequences of taking different philosophical positions, she was better able to develop more innovative and refined research questions. Philosophy also turned her into a stronger reader. “It’s funny because when you come to college you think you are good enough at reading. But studying philosophy, you learn how to read in a new way. You are actively making sense of a text for yourself, and you are annotating all the connections you find between one point and another. Once I could do this for Descartes’ Meditations, it was a breeze to do it for my biology textbook.” 

Pursuing a philosophy major gave Elle an education that will last her throughout her lifetime. "From my first class in philosophy, I had a lot of my beliefs unsettled and had to figure out how to think things through for myself. Not everyone is comfortable with uncertainty, but in philosophy I really found my people." Elle says that she has developed a strong bond with other students in the philosophy program and counts them among her closest friends. “The professors also care about making a genuine connection with us and push us to grow and learn.” Elle says one of the greatest gifts of philosophy is that she now knows how to continue this learning on her own and give balance to the different parts of herself. 

This Fall, Elle will go on to pursue her Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation at the University of Illinois. Philosophy, she says, will always be a part of her. “There is advice that I give to incoming students all the time,” says Elle, who has also served as a Resident Assistant at CMU. “Don’t come into college with a fixed idea of what you want to do with your life. I found both of my majors, not because I was looking for a career path, but because I got excited about a course I took for General Education. Come in with an open mind about what you are looking to gain, and you can gain a lot more.”

Brandon Hayes

Philosophy Major, Class of 2020

Philosophy is exercise for your brain, quips Brandon Hayes (Class of 2020). “Philosophy challenges me to think in ways I don’t usually think.” Brandon discovered his first philosophy class, an introductory course on logic and probability, in his sophomore year when he was still undecided about his major. He learned how to exercise his critical skills for thinking about evidence, cause and effect, and the consequences of decisions. He practiced recognizing common errors that people make in all the time in the way we reason. “I loved being challenged to pay close attention to the logical (or illogical) ways we think. That way of using my brain was unlike anything else I have done. I took another logic class the following semester, and I knew philosophy was for me.” 

Brandon also realized early on that philosophy would be good preparation for his career. “Right around the time I started taking philosophy courses, I was getting interested in pursuing a career in law. I learned that philosophy majors on average do better on the LSAT and other grad school admissions tests, and my classes showed me why.” In addition to his major in Philosophy, Brandon earned the program’s Certificate in Critical Reasoning, which helped him to develop important skills—building a solid argument, applying principles to specific cases, finding the flaws in someone else’s reasoning and anticipating the flaws in your own. “All of these skills,” Brandon realized, “are useful for being a lawyer or anything else you want to do.” 
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Studying philosophy helped Brandon to be successful in his other courses as well. “There’s a certain grind to philosophy,” says Brandon. “You have to sit down and really focus on one thing.” Once he was used applying that focus to philosophical questions about ethics, the basis of knowledge, or relationship between mind and body, he found that the habit of sustained focus paid off in his second major (law and economics) and other coursework. When it came time to study for the law school entrance exam (LSAT), Brandon felt well prepared. “I didn’t take those LSAT prep courses that many people do. It was my logic classes in philosophy that helped a lot, not just to prepare me but to know enough of how to study on my own through resources available online.” The logic section of the LSAT turned out to be Brandon’s highest score. 

This Fall he will be starting law school at the University of Detroit, Mercy. What is Brandon’s advice for students just starting out at CMU? “Try things. I tried philosophy and ended up making it my second major. Don’t panic if your mind is not made up. Trust that following your interests will work out beautifully.”

Francesca Ferrara

Philosophy Major, Class of 2019

Francesca Ferrara (Class of 2019) realized during her first philosophy class, introduction to logic, that a philosophy major would give her the skills necessary to become a successful lawyer. She remembers, “what surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed working out the challenging puzzles, identifying logical relationships, and constructing proofs.” All of these skills are what add to making a philosophy major not only useful but also fun. As Ferrara puts it, “philosophy lets you exercise a different part of your brain.” 

In the Fall, Ferrara will be attending the University of Michigan School of Law. “During my visit, I met one of the law professors who prefaced his introduction by detailing how challenging law school would be,” Ferrara recalls. “Then he asked what my major was. As soon as I told him I majored in accounting and philosophy, he looked at me and replied: oh, you’ll be fine!” 

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Ferrara has taken full advantage of the opportunities CMU has to offer. She served as the president of Phi Alpha Delta, the pre-law academic fraternity. Additionally, in her junior year, she studied international law and human rights abroad in The Netherlands. The flexibility of the philosophy major has enabled Francesca to pursue her philosophy major alongside her accounting degree. “It really gave me the academic balance I needed to be successful,” says Ferrara. “I am good at technical problem solving, but philosophy let me develop my abilities to think creatively and analytically.”

Ferrara says that her philosophy courses have thoroughly prepared her mind for law school. The kind of disciplined thinking that is common to philosophers, lawyers, and judges became especially clear to Ferrara during course in ancient philosophy with Prof. Hope May. Philosophers interpret texts and evidence using standards of rationality and reasonableness. We consider objections and try to anticipate the strongest arguments on the other side. And we find ways to bring out new questions from old texts and traditions. “I think most of all, studying philosophy built my confidence for taking on law school,” says Ferrara. “Working through a long, complex argument like Plato’s Republic or a Supreme Court decision from the 19th century might seem overwhelming to a lot of people. However, I know I am prepared for law school because, thanks to the philosophy faculty, I already have experience doing this.”

Devin Brennan

Philosophy Major, Class of 2019

When Devin Brennan (Class of 2019) presented his research paper at the Great Lakes Philosophy Conference, he was surprised to see that the conference keynote speaker turned up in the audience for his session.  During the discussion, the distinguished scholar raised his hand to offer objections and quandaries about Brennan’s view.  “I was prepared to answer his questions,” says Brennan, “because Dr. Stecker had raised the same questions during Senior Seminar in Philosophy.”  Having anticipated the objections, Brennan found himself drawn into a deep philosophical exchange with the scholar that lasted fifteen minutes of his session.  “He called me steadfast,” remembers Brennan, with a smile. “I think it was a compliment.”

Brennan’s project, “Error Theory and Intrinsic Value,” won the prize for best undergraduate philosophy paper at that conference.  The project was an outgrowth of his work in the Senior Seminar (PHL 490) with Prof. Robert Stecker, and Brennan presented it at two other regional conferences during his final semester at CMU.  He will be pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy at Northern Illinois University, one of the top MA programs in the country, after graduation.  “The program builds a strong foundation for advanced study in philosophy,” says Brennan, “and will help me to explore and develop the philosophical interests and skills I gained at CMU.” 

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Brennan’s dedication and personal enthusiasm for philosophy has made him a leader and mentor for undergraduates studying philosophy at CMU.  He has served as president of the registered student organization, The Student Philosophers, which holds weekly meetings for students drawn to philosophical conversations.  Each week the group would choose a topic that Brennan would research and prepare to facilitate in the next meeting’s discussions.  “When I started trying to ‘teach’ these topics, I recognized how little I knew,” recalls Brennan. “It drove home the importance of taking your time to really work through philosophical questions.”

Brennan credits his professors in the philosophy program with nurturing his abilities to pursue a question rigorously.  “For every question that has caught my interest, there has been at least one faculty member who will take the time to guide me.”  Because of their focus on excellence in undergraduate education, Brennan observes, the philosophy faculty at CMU are very accessible and are excited to work closely with students.

“Before I studied philosophy, I took a lot of beliefs and values for granted without really thinking about them,” reflects Brennan.  “I knew that I had lots of questions, but it wasn’t until I got into a philosophy classroom that I realized that philosophy was the thing I had always been seeking.”  The study of philosophy gave Brennan not just new questions, but new ways to question: Why do I value getting an education? What will I do with my life, and why is that important?  “I have come to understand philosophy as a way of asking more precise questions.  It has helped me to figure out what questions I really want to ask.”
Image of drawing of Brennan, in the possible world where he is an omelette (from a discussion with The Student Philosophers)

Alumni Updates

Dominic Fracassa 

Philosophy Major, Class of 2010

Staff Writer, San Francisco Chronicle

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Studying philosophy taught me how to really interrogate ideas, contemplating and challenging them from every conceivable angle. Philosophy also taught me that life becomes much more agreeable when one can sit comfortably within the foggy, gray areas, accepting that you will never have "the answer." It's hard for me to think of a more important skill for me in my line of work.

As a newspaper reporter, I spend long stretches of my days trying to grope toward the most complete version of the truth that I can uncover before my deadline hits.

I am extremely lucky: I get to spend my time talking with (usually) interesting people, asking question after question. I sometimes have to leap headfirst into the deep end of topics I know nothing about, and hopefully I can write my way to the other side.

Every day, I rely on what I learned in my philosophy courses, even if the lessons are idling quietly in the back of my mind. It shaped the lenses through which I view the world.

Megan Blue

Philosophy Minor, Class of 2013

Health Policy Analyst, Beaumont Health

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Studying philosophy at CMU took me so far—literally abroad to study human rights in the Netherlands and back to Lansing to be a legislative staffer. Philosophy instilled a creative mindset that continues to push me in my professional and personal life. I learned how to apply ethics to my work in lobbying for policy changes. I am able to think critically from diverse viewpoints. People tell me that I can break down the pros and cons of legislation “with the best of them.”

My advice to students thinking about studying philosophy is: take the leap. You’ll thank yourself for it later. I know I do.

Are you a CMU philosophy alum?  
We would love to hear your updates!

2019 Fuller Endowed Scholarship Winner

Ryley Olson

Philosophy Major, Senior, Class of 2020

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Before taking courses in ethical, social, and political philosophy, I thought that I needed to have a role in government or policy-making in order to create change. Studying these questions from a philosophical point of view, I have come to realize that before any political or systemic change can take place, there needs to be social change. In order for society to change, there must be better education, especially philosophical education for young people. I would love to teach philosophy and see it become a core subject in primary and secondary education.

"I'm am so grateful for the philosophy and religion faculty at CMU for creating the environment and giving me the tools to develop my writing and thinking. Of all the majors I could have chosen, and all the schools I could have gone to, I am the happiest that I chose to be a Philosophy (and Religion) major at CMU. I am looking forward to my last year at CMU. I wish I could stay longer because this department is so full of wisdom and talented, dedicated, compassionate professors."

About the Fuller Endowed Scholarship...