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Alumni return to campus in various roles

Photo by Ryan Cox | The Rice Thresher
Dr. Neely Atkinson

By Tina Nazerian     10/28/14 4:56pm

For some Rice University students, being at Rice on an almost daily basis does not stop at graduation. Some, like Andrew Bowen, director of the Levant Program for the Baker Institute’s Center for the Middle East; Dylan McNally, research analyst for the Baker Institute’s Mexico Center; and Neely Atkinson, senior lecturer in statistics, come back to research or teach at Rice.


Andrew Bowen

Bowen (Martel ’08), who grew up in Arizona, said he chose Rice because he liked the faculty-student ratio, the quality of the residential college system, the buildings, the interaction with professors and being in a big city.

“I didn't choose Rice based on its Middle East studies reputation,” Bowen said. “I was more interested in Rice being a small community in a big city. I'd never thought initially I was going to come to Texas. I was trying to decide between Duke and Rice and really liked [Owl Days].”

Bowen, who received a bachelor’s degree in political science and was involved with the Leadership Rice program, the executive committee of the Student Association for two years and had a brief involvement with residential college life, said Rice’s small departments and more limited course selection pushed him to be more liberal arts-minded.

“The absence of many courses in different departments really kind of pushed me to look beyond my major and interest,” Bowen said. “Because I said, ‘oh, if there's only a set of, say three or four classes I really need to do or are offered,’ it really pushed me to be more liberal arts-minded. So I took classes in English, [and in] a range of [subjects].”

According to Bowen, Rice underwent a lot of changes during his undergraduate years.

“I entered Rice the same year and months that David Leebron entered as president,” Bowen said. “So I really saw [Leebron’s] wider vision for Rice, in terms of his Vision for the Second Century, his call to conversation. Really, the changes both in wanting to increase the student body, develop the infrastructure of the university, the expansion of the residential colleges and [the] degree of faculty changeover and staff administration.”

After getting a master’s degree in the history of international relations and a doctorate in international relations at the London School of Economics, Bowen came back to work at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy with its Founding Director and Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Edward Djerejian.

“It wasn't pre-planned,” Bowen said. “It just was an opportunity that arose from what was happening in Syria at the time.”

Bowen, who is teaching a political science course on the government and politics of the Middle East this semester, said he developed a deep interest in the Middle East particularly after 9/11, and wanted to better understand what drove American foreign policy decision making in the region.

“Seeing the impact that those events had on both Americans' perceptions with the region, and the regions' perceptions as well with the United States,” Bowen said. “I started Rice in Fall 2004, about a year into the Iraq War. [My] freshman or sophomore year of high school was when 9/11 happened. Of course, [I’m] not saying 9/11 is reflective of all of the Middle East. For the most part I found the understanding of the region was not really strong in a lot of American public opinion.”

Bowen said students should enjoy the many learning opportunities Rice has to offer, including studying abroad and learning a language.

"Take classes in subjects you normally wouldn't take, and get involved in different activities — but also keep in mind what life is after the hedges,” Bowen said.


Dylan McNally

McNally (Martel ’12), who grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, said he wanted to study architecture when he was in high school and was looking at architecture schools.

“As I was becoming more and more unsure about architecture, I came for a campus visit around that time, and I really liked the campus,” McNally said. “I decided to apply regardless of the fact that I wasn't applying for architecture.”

McNally, who received a bachelor’s degree in political science and Hispanic studies, was the vice president of Martel, a Martel Beer Bike coordinator, a Baker Institute intern and a Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees volunteer. He said his degree in Hispanic studies impacted him the most while at Rice.

“It really helped to lay the groundwork for doing proper policy analysis, knowing local context and customs and cultures,” McNally said.

McNally returned to Rice as a Baker Institute research analyst after completing a Zeff Fellowship in Costa Rica. He said he emailed Program Director of the Latin America Initiative Erika De La Garza asking if she had any contacts in Washington, D.C. or other think tanks that had an entry-level position opening.

“She [said], well actually, we have this thing called the Mexico Center that might be in the works,” McNally said. “We'll keep you updated. This was in March 2013. We talked a few times about it, and then things were set in stone and they made an offer.”

McNally said he was involved at Martel as an undergraduate and still is as an associate. He said, while he loves the college system, he would recommend that students try to break away from that social sphere a little bit by diving into other extracurricular activities offered on campus.

"Attend guest lectures or visiting lecturers, presentations,” McNally said. “Use the Baker Institute as a resource. We never have enough students coming. A lot of times students think it's a bit of a stuffy atmosphere; you have to RSVP and show up in a tie. That's really not the case. [Also], try not to think too much about what's next either. You've gotten this far, and it's hard as Rice students not to think about the future, but if you take care of yourself in the moment, the future will be kind of taken care of for you, I think, in a lot of respects. You only get to be in college once. Savor it.”


Neely Atkinson

Atkinson (Will Rice ’75) said Rice was a powerful contender because his parents did not want him and his siblings going up north for college.

“I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, deep South, very conservative,” Atkinson said. “My parents said I could go anywhere I could get into, but it had to be south of the Mason-Dixon line.  Also, my older brother was already here, as was my younger brother after me."

Atkinson, who received his bachelor’s degree in English, said he entered Rice thinking he wanted to be a mathematics major.

“I thought I really loved math,” Atkinson said. “I was taking English on the side, because I also really enjoyed studying literature. When I hit the junior-level courses, suddenly they got very abstract. It was hard, but worse than hard, it wasn't interesting to me anymore. So I said, ‘ok, I still love English’, so I switched over to English.”

Atkinson said, at the time, the Department of Mathematical Sciences, now the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics, was fairly new to Rice, and if he had know that it had existed, he would have been a mathematical sciences major instead.

“It turns out I just like applied mathematics, I don't like theoretical mathematics, but the English degree worked out very well and I'm glad I did it,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson, who was involved in debate at Rice, said colleges were just starting to become co-ed during his undergraduate years.

“Will Rice was not one of them yet,” Atkinson said. “It was all male — home of men and gods. Now I think it's home of gods and goddesses.”

Atkinson said, by the time he graduated, the atmosphere on campus was starting to get less political.

“In 1971, the Vietnam War was still a huge issue,” Atkinson said. “There was still an active draft. It was the first year that college students did not have deferral, so there were actually people being drafted out of school from Rice. The pressure of the war really had kept political awareness going. By 1975, the war had really wound down. It didn't have quite that sense of urgency. I doubt [the Vietnam War] was the beginning of [political activism], because I bet if you went back to 1960, it was not a political campus.”

Atkinson said there has always been awareness of gender issues and racial issues at Rice, but he never saw people putting up banners or organizing rallies in the quad.

“My guess would be that the Vietnam war created a surge of political awareness at Rice that then dropped back down,” Atkinson said.

After graduating from Rice, Atkinson worked at the MD Anderson Cancer Center as a computer programmer before returning to Rice to get a doctorate in statistics. In 1981, he officially became part of the faculty at MD Anderson.

“The first time I taught a course [at Rice] was in 1984, then I would teach a course at Rice every few years,” Atkinson said. “First I taught at Rice just for fun. Then they said, ‘Oh, why don't you become an adjunct at Rice,’ and I said, ‘Ok, I'll become an adjunct.’ I taught as an adjunct for a number of years. Then, when I was ready to retire, I called the department chair and said, ‘Could you use someone just to teach?’ ‘I don't want to be on committees, I don't' want to write any more papers, I don't want to write any more grants.’ They said ‘Yes,’ and I joined the faculty."

Atkinson said there is a real sense of openness and adventure to life during undergraduate years.

“There's just all of these possibilities,” Atkinson said. “And now I'm 61 — the odds of me having a new career or huge adventures is not as open. I miss that. I miss these friends, those college friendships are very very special, and we're all scattered to the wind now. We [kept in touch] for a while, but not so much anymore."

According to Atkinson, students should be kind to each other and explore academically.

“These are years when you have these wonderful opportunities to hear from leading experts on all sorts of interesting things,” Atkinson said. “Don't narrow yourself in what you're willing to study. You might love art history. You might love political science. You might love the classics. You don't know those things. And here is the one time in your life when you're at a place and you have the opportunity to study almost anything. You don't know what's going to ignite your passion.”

Atkinson said even if students do not change majors as a result of exploring, they may still develop a passion for something they will follow their whole life.

“You knew what math was like in high school –– that's not math,” Atkinson said. “You know what studying poetry was like in high school, but that's not studying poetry. All the things you thought you hated, you might really love when you approach them in the level you can study them at Rice. Take guitar lessons, study sculpture. Expose yourself to all the opportunities that Rice offers.”

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