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Student Stories

Senior Spotlight: Hannah Nowak

"Anyone who knew me in freshman year can attest that I'm an entirely different person now. I came from a regular public high school with traditional learning styles...I crashed and burned my freshman year because I was trying to apply my old study techniques and ways of learning to a completely organic and fluid learning style. It took everything I had to get into my groove and develop into who I am now.” Senior Hannah Nowak shares her story of then and now, the importance of family, magic, grit, and most importantly, going above and beyond to make things work. Read on...

Tell me a little bit about your journey to the Academy? What were you looking for in an undergraduate program?

It was sort of an accident that I happened upon the Academy. I was on campus for Expo Day for the engineering info session because I initially wanted to double major in engineering and creative writing. I accidentally went into the wrong room. Instead, I ended up in the room next door and watched the Academy introduction video and listened to Jessica Vernon, associate dean of admissions, explain what the Academy was about. I came out of the info session in tears because I knew I found the place where I belonged, and also because my mom was crying with excitement and I'm a sympathetic crier.

I have such a vast array of interests and trying to choose a major, let alone a college, was putting me over the edge. I felt a sense of relief knowing where I wanted to be. The Academy gave me a place where I didn't have to choose; I didn't have to label myself or fit into one area of learning.



How have you evolved over the years? Any unexpected twists or turns in your journey?

Anyone who knew me in freshman year can attest that I'm an entirely different person now. I came from a regular public high school with traditional learning styles. I had never coded, taken a design course, or even considered what it would be like to take classes that weren't history, math, science, etc. I didn't want to make my own business like the majority of the other kids in my cohort. So, in the most thought-diverse school in the world created for people who don’t fit the mold, I felt like I didn't fit in. I was crippled with self-doubt and confusion. I had spent so many years in school memorizing and building off what I already knew, rather than learning entirely new practices. I was unprepared for what I had gotten myself into and couldn't adapt.

I crashed and burned my freshman year because I was trying to apply my old study techniques and ways of learning to a completely organic and fluid learning style. It took everything I had to get into my groove and develop into who I am now. I found my niche, developed grit, and grinded until I could hold my own. It's an ever-present process, and I'm still growing. My goals and dreams haven't changed over the years, but my perspective and entire being shifted. I love where I'm at now and know that I'm always moving forward and evolving. I also learned how to do laundry in college so ultimately I think I've grown in a lot of ways and peaked.

What are some of your goals post-graduation?

I think in general, I want to be a self-sufficient, independent, career-oriented woman. I recently moved into my first house that wasn't a part of USC Housing and didn't realize that utilities were a thing that you had to set up and pay for on your own. I lived without power and water for three days, so my first and foremost goal is to be a full-functioning adult. Other than that, my dream since I was twelve was to become a Disney Imagineer and come up with the concepts for Disney rides and attractions. If that doesn't work out, I plan to become a children's book author. So clearly, I'm into the big money-making industries. Also, I am super passionate about mental health and visual storytelling so I want to work that in somehow.

Describe a passion project you're currently working on or interested in?

Every year, Disney has an Imagineering competition that calls for a team of students to create a concept for a themed entertainment experience based on a given prompt. I did it last year with Valentina Suarez in my cohort, and Mackenzie Cantor, an Academy minor. We made it to the semi-finals last year, and are back again to hopefully take home the win this year!

What inspired the project?

Storytelling has become my thing in the Academy. Finding ways to tell a story through stagnant objects, and bringing what seems intimate to life has become my passion. I draw inspiration from stories and memories that seem insignificant because there is so much more to the story than what's apparent. Each object, person, tree, etc. has a story to tell: an origin, a history, an evolution. I like to tap into those and innovate upon them.



Is there a leader or mentor who inspires you?

Jen Gotch, the founder of Ban.do, is one of my role models and inspirations. Not only does Ban.do embody who I am in a brand, but Jen has created a culture of acceptance and fun. Her goal is to remove the stigmas associated with mental illness by creating an environment of self-awareness, fun, and emotional intelligence.

Is there an inspirational quote you live by?

"Take no sh*t, and do no harm." It just embodies the idea of standing up for yourself and also the idea of exuding kindness to others. Everyone was made to be who they are unapologetically, but one should be careful of their ego and how it affects others.

What advice would you give to a freshman?

Don't take everything so seriously. There are situations when it's time to get down to business, but this is probably the last time in your life that you'll be in a place of such diverse thought and culture. You'll find that on occasions you'll learn more outside of class than you do in it. If you're so stuck up on the idea of greatness, you'll miss out on some of the spontaneity that creates the most valuable experience. It's okay to fail or to slip up. This is a time of growth, learning, and redemption. Challenge yourself, but also be kind to yourself; you have a long stretch of achievement, success, and life ahead of you.



Describe one thing most people don't know about you?

I was born in Fargo, North Dakota. Yes, I am one of three people that were ever born in Fargo, because literally no one is from there or wants to go there.

What the one thing your parents taught you that you'd like to share?

When I was little, my dad taught me how to read by using books about fairies and their magical stones. Every weekend, he would then take me on walks through our local park. On the path, I would find and collect these beautiful, sparkling stones and gems that looked like the ones in my reading book. Later on in life, I found out that my dad would go to the park an hour earlier to lay down those stones for me to find. It taught me the importance of family, magic, thoughtfulness, story, and most importantly; going above and beyond to make things work. This is also how I found out that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy weren't real, and that everything is a lie. BUT, it was worth it.



Fun Facts

What are the essential things you always keep in your backpack?
Sunglasses, headphones, Burt's Bees, notebook, pen, and agenda

Favorite app or website?
Designspiration.com because Pinterest gives me anxiety. I also love the app, Otter, because it transcribes your conversation as you speak.

Favorite class at USC and why?
CTIN 191: Survey of Themed Entertainment. It is one of the most fun, and informative classes about the Disney Imagineering process, and how it can be applied to everyday projects or things as mundane as LAX's TSA lines. You spend your time learning from industry professionals on how they use creativity to solve real world problems. You also go to Disneyland with some of the people that helped design everything in it!

Favorite way to de-stress:
Playing records with my diffuser on, reading, cooking, or painting! While at college, I've had to buy three new bookcases and filled them up with books; my wall has no more white space because it is covered with all of my art and my collection of records is getting out of control. This is my state of flow and I wouldn't want it any other way. I would honestly rather be spending my time reading, learning, or working to get things done and accomplished. It's really hard for me to unwind or relax.

Guilty pleasure?
Terrible Christmas romance movies. Trash acting combined with a cheesy romance is just so pure. You know going into it that it's going to be so awful that it's funny. It starts bad, and gets worse; that's their guarantee to you.

Which Disney character is most like you?
Honey Lemon from Big Hero 6. She's the perfect example of using creativity and science to solve problems. Spunky, nerdy, bubbly, and a lot of fun. Also, she's blonde with glasses and embodies the color yellow. So, basically, she's me.