Christiana Lackner is the 2006 Harvard College Recipient.
When I was awarded a Fitzie Prize my Senior year at Harvard, I was ecstatic. Fitzie was clearly a very special woman to many people. To receive a prize in her name from the people who knew and loved her best is an honor. Soon after the initial excitement settled, I became overwhelmed by all the ideas I had for using this incredible resource to “engage in activities which are unique, enriching, and perhaps otherwise unattainable.” In my Fitzie application, I spoke about my interest in environmental sustainability, specifically in the built environment, and a host of other interests in various fields of art and design. At first I felt badly that I was so scatterbrained about the use of my prize; I thought I needed to develop a grand plan of how to leverage the prize either to give back in some way, or to reach an epiphany of what to do with my life, or ideally both.
It turns out, epiphanies usually don’t actually happen in an instant. Luckily, the flexibility of the kind and very patient Fitzie trustees allowed me to develop my epiphany slowly. I first used some prize money for an oil painting class in Belgium. It was fantastic and made me realize I need to do something visual and creative for my life’s work. However I still very much wanted to work on issues of environmental sustainability in some way. For a couple of years I was paralyzed, thinking about what to do next. What was my grand plan? While working in New York, I was learning a lot about urban planning, architecture and related public policy, but not exactly from the creative standpoint I yearned for. Again, I needed to scratch this creativity itch. Thankfully, the Fitzie prize enabled me to take a product design class. This rekindled my love for thinking visually and for solving problems through smart design. Though product design was really “just for fun,” this class led me to see the connection between design and its ability to encourage sustainability, not just in terms of the natural environment, but socially and economically as well.
Six months later I enrolled in another series of design courses, again thanks to my Fitzie prize. These intensive classes in the field of Interaction Design hit a nerve with me. This is it! This is the kind of creative problem-solving-with-a-mission that I had been dancing around with my interests in design and sustainability.
Epiphany in hand, I still had some Fitzie funds remaining. Travel had also been on my overwhelming list of possibilities, so I decided to explore Japan for a couple of months (blog of my travels is here). I had studied Japanese architecture as an undergraduate, and appreciated the country’s acute attention to how things are designed. Experiencing Japanese culture and observing how things are done there was full of wonderful little epiphanies for me. From the beautiful arrangement of food on a dinner table to the amazing efficiency of their train system, I soaked up the very non-Western way of approaching things. It’s amazing what a different viewpoint on the world does for one’s own thinking. Thanks to my Japan experience I have learned to value a sometimes-excruciating attention to detail, but also to really appreciate the amazing flexibility and big-picture thinking one finds in the United States.
After returning from Japan, I formalized my design education by completing a Master’s degree in Interaction Design at Carnegie Mellon University in 2014. Now I work in “experience design,” helping to create digital applications and services that make life less frustrating and more pleasant. All of my Fitzie prize experiences, from oil painting to traveling through Japan brought me to the decision to become a design professional, and still shape the way I approach my work. Ten years after receiving the award, as I search for the opportunity to apply my new-found design skill set to create a positive and lasting impact on the world, I think often of Fitzie and am ever grateful for the support I received through the foundation.