Mandy Best is the Housefellow for Donner House, a first-year residence hall affectionately known as “Big Blue.” In addition to her role as Housefellow, she also coordinates leadership programming for first-year students, including the Emerging Leaders initiative — a leadership and service program which occurs in the spring semester of students’ first year at Carnegie Mellon University. She also serves as staff support for the Council of Religious Advisors (CORA), a group of religious and lay leaders organized around supporting and encouraging religious and spiritual life within the campus community.
How did you come to join Carnegie Mellon?
When I finished my master’s degree, I was doing mental health counseling with children in their homes. Though it was incredibly important and meaningful work, I really wanted to find a job in education. For years a friend had been telling me that I would be a good fit for the Housefellow position at CMU. When there was finally an opening, she called me and said, “it’s time!” I applied, interviewed, and got the job, which happened to start two days after my wedding. So I cancelled my honeymoon, packed up my house, and here I am! (And we were fortunately able to reschedule our trip for the following summer!)
What makes the Donner House community so awesome?
During orientation, Donner residents learn this simple truth: “Donner is blue. Blue is nice. Therefore, Donner is nice!” Donner is a community full of history, folklore, pride, and its residents bleed blue! There’s something about Donner that’s infectious.
The building itself is set up in a way that encourages its residents to get to know others throughout the entire building — not just their roommates or floormates — so it really does feel like a big blue family. This means residents have many, many opportunities to form connections with others.
Also, Donner is situated in an ideal location on campus. Because of its close proximity to the design, architecture, and art studios, and to Skibo gym, Donner often draws large groups of both art students and athletes. (And, occasionally, art students who are athletes!) We are truly a diverse community that embraces and celebrates different and unique interests, passions, and personalities.
The residents of Donner House also run a completely student-managed website about the Donner community: http://cmudonner.weebly.com/. There’s bios about the residential staff, information about events, and frequently asked questions. Check it out!
What kinds of special first-year programs take place in Donner?
Donner has a few events that are unique to our community. Most notably are Pohlees and Donner Pride Week. Pohlees is an annual variety fair hosted in Donner which features a coffee-house talent show, food, games, crafts, and other activities throughout the house. The week leading up to Pohlees is Donner Pride Week, where we jam-pack the house full of things that are blue: tie-dye, blue food, blue crafts, and if we’re lucky, painting the Fence blue! It’s a big celebration of all things blue … and, of course, by extension, nice!
What is an important life lesson you have learned from a student or students?
Our students have taught me that if you really believe in an idea, you shouldn’t delay in finding a way to make it come to life.
Outside of work, what are your hobbies/interests? What are you passionate about?
I can’t seem to stop making things. My main creative interest is quilting, but I also dabble in knitting, crocheting, baking, and folding tiny origami stars. I’ve recently learned how to make jewelry out of precious metal clay. It has been a really fun process to learn and gives me an excuse to own a torch and light things on fire in my kitchen, which of course is endlessly amusing.
I also love being outside in nature. I’m passionate about the work that’s being done at Camp Lutherlyn, a summer camp where I spent several years working with the summer-time and year-round staff. I now serve on the board of directors and try to find any excuse possible to spend some time at camp.
All-time favorite book?
This is a hard question, because I read a lot but I never read the same book more than once. I love anything and everything by Anne Lamott, and I was fascinated by Katniss and the Hunger Games world. I recently read Neil Patrick Harris’s autobiography which was written as a choose your own adventure. I highly recommend it if you want a good laugh. I think maybe my all-time favorite book is still out there waiting for me to pick it up. I guess I need to keep reading!
Tell us at least one thing that’s on your bucket list.
Well, I’ll be hitting a major age milestone shortly. Several years ago, I made a list of a number of things that I wanted to learn or do before that birthday. Some items that I’ve managed to accomplish are: visit five new states, join a choir, and run a half-marathon. I still have a long way to go to finish my list (and not a lot of time). There are more incomplete items than completed ones! I still need to own the Beatles discography on vinyl, try paddle boarding, go to New York City with my husband, and find my favorite Pad Thai in Pittsburgh. (So far, the winner is Curry on Murray in Squirrel Hill.)
If you could give first-year students one single piece of advice as they start their journey here at Carnegie Mellon, what would it be?
Be intentional with and protective of your time. Don’t just do things because you think you “should” or because it seems like that’s what everyone else is doing. Reflect on what’s important to you, what you love, and what you value, and craft your life in a way that is consistent with that and nothing else.