Photo: James, Kim and Koleman Nix. Koleman is the son of Veritas’ Head of School, Keith Nix.
The “Portrait of an Alum” blog series gives a glimpse of life after graduation, with a particular emphasis on our students’ readiness for the transition to college and how their affections and outlook have been shaped through their experiences, teachers and Christian community at Veritas. For this portrait, Director of Communications Sara Kennedy interviewed Class of 2012 graduate Koleman Nix. This is a summary of their interview.
SK: Congratulations on your recent graduation from the University of Virginia! Can you tell us about your program of study and what’s next for you?
KN: I graduated May 21 with a Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science. During my time at UVA I had the opportunity to work on a number of exciting projects, to travel to conferences with my professors and to serve as a Teaching Assistant in my degree program. This summer, I will be moving to Arlington, Virginia to begin a new job as a software engineer with Live Safe.
SK: What is Live Safe and how did you choose this company?
KN: To be honest, I had some chosen constraints to consider … first, as I am getting married in September, I was looking for a position that would allow my wife and I to work near one another, and secondly, I really wanted to find a programming job that was core to the mission of the company – not simply a support to a distant mission that didn’t connect to the IT team. While I had a number of other good offers, I am thrilled to use my passion for problem-solving through technology on behalf of Live Safe.
In its most basic form, Live Safe is a mobile device app employed by many universities, corporations and event venues to communicate safety information. As a programmer, I am excited about the possibilities to expand this technology to solve real world problems as they arise.
SK: Talk a little bit about the intersection of your classical education and university level science, math and technology courses.
KN: Even though I did not attend a STEM based high school, I loved my classes at UVA and felt very prepared for them. Classical education trained me to approach my learning differently than many of my peers. Wholistic questions rather than the pursuit of a job inspired me – beginning with: Are we even asking the right questions? Can computer science instruction move beyond “here is how you apply what others have already learned” to a pedagogy that encourages personal curiosity and wonder? How do we solve profoundly complex problems with forced parameters and limited resources? Fundamentally, is there a more human approach to this science?
SK: Can you give me an example?
KN: Think about the complexity of light and color. How does a programmer – whether creating a digital world for virtual training programs, developing a 3D game, designing a website, or inventing tools for photographers to enhance their photos – translate light, intensity, hue, shadows into digital data (mere numbers) that can consistently represent something as rich as a landscape or an entire 3D world? Wouldn’t that programmer first have to understand the nature of color, physics, how light behaves, and how humans experience and react to light and color?
Computer Science is so much more than a practical trade (though it is both practical and an excellent career choice) – it is the intersection of math, logic and physics to solve complex problems with real-world application. I believe it can also be a very human endeavor – exploring one of the newest sciences – an exploration that is both abstract and highly concrete.
SK: Can you talk about how classical education prepared you to enter this field? Were you ready?
KN: In a number of ways that set me apart from my peers. I say “apart”, not “ahead”, for a reason. I want to emphasize that I was not “ahead” when I arrived at UVA, at least not in science and technology. Things have changed since then, and I think many more recent Veritas graduates may find themselves ahead in some of these subjects today, but I want to underscore how unimportant that is. Many of my peers at UVA had two years’ worth of “college credits” under their belts already when they arrived. I had none. I was, however, more than adequately prepared, or well-trained, for the job ahead of me. The job of learning and thinking. And that is something that I think is far more valuable. Because of this, I soon caught up and surpassed most of my peers.
My education had also primed me to see connections between subject areas, not to silo learning into disconnected fields. A broad liberal arts education in high school is actually pretty rare – as a leader in liberal arts education, UVA was a great next step for me after Veritas. Though I studied computer science, I did it from UVA’s Liberal Arts College, not their Engineering School. This allowed me to pursue a broad range of subjects apart from my major, including Philosophy, History, and Italian. This was deeply rewarding; I think the combination of literature and history we enjoy in Upper School at Veritas truly prepared me to think in terms of humanities – that is, to study and to think deeply about what it is to be human. It’s why I approached Computer Science (and my entire UVA education) differently, and why it is so exciting to think about a future in this growing field.
SK: Beyond a marketable degree, a great job in a field you love, and an upcoming marriage – what else do you take away from your four years at UVA?
KN: I learned very early on that the built-in community of my pre-university years was really unique. My experience at classical schools full of highly invested parents and teachers, supported by good churches and homes filled with great books is an incredible gift – and not one that I did anything to deserve. Arriving at UVA, I had to decide if I was going to tie myself to the Christian community, to build patterns in my life of accountability to people, to worship, and to personal growth in my spiritual walk. It wasn’t going to happen automatically, and no one could make this decision for me. Secularism holds the high ground on campus, not faith; it is a real question that students from Christian schools have to answer.
At first, I wasn’t sure I needed to commit to a college ministry – in so many ways, it is much easier to just avoid the hostility to Christianity that is pervasive on college campuses. The truth is that university life offers every possible temptation – you have to be brutally honest about who you are and what tempts you to move away from Christ. Looking back, I am so glad I committed early, and submitted to the accountability InterVarsity offered. I found my best friends – and my future wife through that community.
SK: A Dr. James KA Smith question is often asked at Veritas: “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” Now that you are at the end of your formal education and are about to begin your career in earnest, how would you answer?
KN: I’m incredibly thankful for my education – for what I know and the opportunities that have opened for me. But I agree with his premise … loving what is true, good and beautiful – and loving people made in God’s image is immeasurably more, and is a distinctive way of approaching life that I am grateful to have been trained to recognize and pursue. One of my most memorable early conversations with Heather, now my fiancé, was an argument about whether literature can hold objective value. I was, admittedly, far too aggressive in my argument, which is probably why she didn’t want to date me for at least a year after that. But I was successful in getting her to read C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man over the next summer, which, as anyone who has read it will confirm, was a big win!
SK: This leads me to my final question. Any must-read book recommendations?
KN: Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis – I can’t emphasize how relevant this is to a young Christian today. East of Eden by John Steinbeck – read the dedication at the beginning carefully, then read it again after you finish the book!
And finally, Computer Science – It’s Really Not about Computers, which is a book I hope to write some day.
Photo: Koleman with his fiance, Heather. She said yes!