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KENOSHA — At the inaugural Aspire Conference, successful Carthage College alumni pulled back the curtain to reveal some of the secrets to professional and personal growth.

Prominent alumni, as well as faculty and staff members, imparted professional and life lessons to new and returning students during the two-day conference Sept. 26 and 27. Topics centered on career development, entrepreneurship, leadership and creativity — the four components in the Aspire program launched earlier this fall at Carthage.

Nationally touring illusionist Bill Blagg, a 2002 graduate, gave the opening night keynote presentation. Weaving together a little sleight of hand, some apparent mind-reading and reflections on his own experience at the college, Blagg delivered a timely message: Aspire to live the life of your dreams.

Although his fascination with magic blossomed in childhood, it took much more than the wave of a wand for success to appear. Blagg recounted an ill-fated decision he made as a Carthage sophomore to get an early start on his road show.

Taking out a $25,000 loan, he booked venues in Indiana and Michigan. And his tricks did wow the audience — or at least the smattering of people his shows managed to attract.

“I came back to Carthage a beaten man,” Blagg said, and he vowed to abandon his longtime dream.

His faculty adviser wouldn’t have it, instead urging the aspiring showman to learn all he could about the business side of a performance career. A class schedule that Blagg had assumed would skew heavily toward theatre and communication now stretched into accounting and marketing.

Ten years after the initial debacle, he returned to the site of that first debacle in Elkhart, Indiana — this time to a packed house, with his former adviser among the crowd.

“Sometimes it’s just gonna feel like another class, but I can promise you that it’s not,” Blagg assured Carthage students. “Eventually they will all add up, and they will make sense together.”

Speaking from experience

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Developed exclusively for Carthage students, the Aspire program empowers them to shape multifaceted career plans beginning from the first days on campus. It’s supported heavily by a $15 million donation from longtime benefactor Jan Tarble.

The Aspire Conference was the first major event in the initiative. Day two featured small group “fireside chats,” 11 activity hubs where students could drop in to learn about available programs and technology, and dozens of breakout sessions.

Matt Thome, a 2017 Carthage graduate, told attendees that discovering their “why” — in other words, what drives them — is the hidden key to job satisfaction. As a membership services account manager for the Sacramento Kings, he’s grown into a leader in nontraditional revenue streams.

Sketching out her career arc, 2009 alumna Christina Laur-Nuernberger sees a squiggly arrow rather than a straight, Point-A-to-Point-B one. While maintaining some clients from her formerly full-time speech pathology practice, she recently got hired as a consultant to the CEO of Level Agency marketing firm in Pittsburgh.

“Whatever you think you love now, 10 years from now you’ll unlock another door,” she said.

Tessa Rundle, a 2016 graduate of the college and spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, joined five other visiting alumni in a lunchtime panel discussion moderated by Carthage’s campus pastor, the Rev. Kara Baylor. Panelists shared some formative lessons from their college years.

“Having a diverse background is actually a good thing in life,” said Rundle, who transferred to Carthage as part of an academic shift from music to physics.

Fellow panelist Dominique Pritchett, a 2007 alumna who’s a licensed psychotherapist, reminded students to look beyond themselves and ask “Who’s watching?” as they make decisions.

“We don’t just live this mission for us,” she said. “We’re living for the next generation.”

Lisa Hinkley, associate vice president and executive director for career and professional development, closed the conference with a simple assignment to sustain the momentum. She asked participants to pledge at least one concrete step they would take toward their goals, with the option for a staff member from the Aspire Center to check in at the specified time.

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