Graduate Education, Undergraduate Programs

A West Coast Student’s Perspective on Attending Clarkson

My name is Jackie Otala, Engineering Science MS ‘22 and Engineering and Management BS ‘20, and I am from the San Francisco Bay Area in California.

More specifically I was born and raised in Sunnyvale. I knew I wanted to be an engineer in high school because I had access to amazing engineering courses from Project Lead The Way. However, I really wanted to incorporate business into my higher education to balance a very technical degree with some softer skills. As much as I love math and science, I was craving a Public Speaking course or a Marketing and Branding course.

After asking around, I got a strangely specific response from my mom. Apparently this start-up in the Silicon Valley has a pocket of Clarkson engineers and my mom just happened to be working there at the time: Coupa Software. Those great Clarkson engineers told my mom about the Engineering and Management program and she and I were sold. I applied, got in, and was invited to Accepted Students Day on April 1st, 2017.

Jackie and her parents in the back of a Cessna plane on the way to Clarkson
Here we are (my family and I) in a tiny Cessna plane on our way to Clarkson!

I knew I had to make some sort of decision about school, so my mom and I flew 8 hours, including the final leg from Albany to Massena in a tiny Cessna. My mom and I had absolutely no idea what we were getting ourselves into at this point. We drove into Potsdam, settled in our hotel room, and promptly fell asleep.

The next day, Accepted Students Day, it snowed. On April 1st. My mom and I walked outside and had to assume this was some sort of prank. But no, it does snow in April in upstate New York. We rented a car and asked if the car came with snow chains (because that’s what we do in Lake Tahoe!). Can you tell it was both of our first times in the area?

Regardless of the journey and the weather, I quickly fell in love with Clarkson. The director of my program showcased exactly how personalized of a service they are willing to provide, which was honestly shocking in comparison to the huge California schools (the UC system, state schools) who I know do not have the resources to personally guide and advise each student. This was the defining moment that made me assess the university from my academic needs. It was no longer a matter of how close my family wishes I was (and trust me they wish I was closer!), or how prestigious the school is, or even if I have any friends at the school. I chose Clarkson because they are happy to provide me with the most personalized education possible along with a great support system of advisors, professors, faculty members, and staff, so it didn’t matter how far away I was. 

Jackie standing next to her mother, who is looking sad she is leaving
My mom and I before I moved across the country to Clarkson from Sunnyvale, California.

I often get asked what moving in and the first winter was like. Personally, I found moving in to be relatively easy. My family and I have moved before, so packing up my clothes and belongings wasn’t hard. We did make sure to buy college things like bedding, a shower caddy, etc. in New York as opposed to paying an arm and a leg to ship them over. I think the move was honestly harder on my mom than anyone else.

The first winter was definitely cold. I can tell you that. It was not my first time seeing snow, but it was my first time in temperatures below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The best advice I can give a Californian moving to upstate New York is to get a good pair of snow boots, a great jacket (ideally waterproof), and gloves. Once I had all of those things, I was all set to walk from the dorms to the academic halls at 8am in subzero temperatures. I must say it is really fun to be able to dress for actual seasons! I have absolutely taken the opportunity to participate in true fall and winter fashion. The hardest part about my first winter (and I am still not very good at it) is walking on ice. Clarkson is pretty good about salting walkways, but every now and then a small patch of ice will catch me off guard while my friends who are East Coast natives take it in stride. 

Jackie and Tony Collins, who is holding a Clarkson flag, at a Clarkson event in the San Francisco area
Here I am representing Clarkson with President Tony Collins during a Clarkson event in the San Francisco area.

I also get asked about traveling to and from the airport along with where to stay for shorter breaks. Luckily I have found amazing friends who can take me to the airport, but Clarkson also provides a bus before/after winter and summer break that goes to New York City and Syracuse to drop off/pick up students at the airports. And even sometimes Clarkson comes to you for winter break! Tony Collins and trustees held an event for current and prospective students in the San Francisco area (seen to the right) my first winter break in 2017.

Jackie and friends standing on the TKTS booth/Red Steps in NYC
Friends and I headed to New York City during a short school break instead of heading back to California!

For shorter breaks (Fall Break and Spring Break), I think they are a great opportunity to go explore the East Coast! I have now been to Boston, New York City, Montreal, and Maine with friends who have been gracious enough to let me stay with them or as get-away trips we planned. I also had the opportunity to go to Paris, France for my international experience and take some amazing classes over my last winter break. Clarkson does not kick you off campus for smaller breaks, so they are also a great time to relax. Phoebe Bloomfield (pictured in the middle), one of my best friends and also a (Southern) California native, and I spent one Fall Break watching old movies all break long.

View of mountains in Utah from a car window
The view of Utah from my car as I drove cross-country from California to Potsdam, New York.

Lastly, I highly suggest anyone with the opportunity to do a road trip to do it! Now having done the road trip from Potsdam to Sunnyvale (or vice versa) three times, I cannot recommend it enough. Moving from one coast to the other is a change of scenery, but driving the distance allowed me to fully realize how vast the country is and appreciate every bit of it, from a small gas station in Wyoming selling homemade beef jerky to taking the Maid of the Mist boat tour through Niagara Falls. These road trips not only served as a way to get home/to school, but also as adventures and memories I will hold onto forever.

Jackie standing next to a friend wearing rain ponchos after leaving the maid of the mist in Niagara Falls
I had a blast on the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls during one of my cross-country road trips.

With the amazing help of my support system at Clarkson (and at home), I graduated from my four-year program in 3 years with a 4.0 GPA and am now pursuing a research-based Masters at Clarkson while working to further help personalize each student’s academic and professional experience. 

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