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EDI Alumni and Students Go Back to Camp(us)

A collaborative event brought more than 60 EDI students and alumni together to start the school year, learn from one another, and experience the program's vibrant design innovation community.

Fall marks the start of the academic year for schools across the country, but for Northwestern's Master of Science in Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) program, the new year meant "Welcome Back" as much as it meant "Welcome." 

This month, EDI hosted its inaugural Back to Camp(us) event, a student and alumni-led convening. More than 30 students — including the entire EDI ‘25 cohort — met with more than 35 program alumni to learn about their experiences and to hear how EDI prepared them for their current roles in design innovation. 

"EDI in many ways changed my life," said Akshay Thakker (EDI '10), a program manager at Google. "For that reason, EDI will always have a special place in my heart. I've been meaning to visit for a long time, and this was the perfect opportunity. When I heard about the event I booked my tickets immediately." 

That excitement was the response EDI director Amy O'Keefe hoped to hear from alumni. 

"We are grateful for the enthusiastic engagement from such a wide range of alumni, from those who graduated just a few months ago to some who have been out of the program for 14 years," O'Keefe said. "The positive energy and sense of community were energizing for everyone. The alumni gave the new students a real sense of what’s possible."  

The two-day event began with a welcome from O'Keefe, who shared program updates and new initiatives. Christopher Rudd, founder and CEO of ChiByDesign, gave the day’s keynote talk on designing a just world.  

"The biggest lesson I took away from Chris Rudd’s talk is that design can go beyond aesthetics and functionality," first-year student Audey Shen said. "It can be a force for bigger change. When done right, design has the potential to tackle systemic issues, influence policy, and drive social and political shifts."  

The rest of the day’s programming was collaboratively designed and delivered by students and alumni to encourage connections across cohorts and among graduates working in related design disciplines.   

Lightning talks, or three-minute musings by the alumni, was a fan-favorite. Topics included: 

"I loved the three-minute dialogues with the alumni," first-year student Maria Victoria Brito said. "It was a very nice surprise to see that people from very past classes still have their connection to EDI. I’m very glad to be here and I’m ready to live the present and make this experience extraordinary.  

First-year student Erik Chappell also said the alumni were the highlight of the experience.  

"Listening to their experiences during the EDI program left me energized and inspired to do all that I can to make the most of my EDI journey," he said. "I have yet to meet an alum that doesn't exude pure joy as they talk about their EDI experience." 

One of the most important lessons Chappell took away from the event was understanding how important it is to be flexible and have a varied skill set in order to become a successful designer.  

Brad Gill (EDI '14), who is a front-end innovation lead at Milwaukee Tool, said that was exactly what he hoped students took away from the experience. 

"I hope that the new EDI students got a sense of how versatile the degree can be for them and that it can really be a springboard into whatever area of design they want to pursue," said Gill, who is one of five EDI alumni who work at Milwaukee Tool. "The work they're about to embark on will be extremely challenging, but equally fulfilling and rewarding.  

"I also hope they got a sense of how much ‘EDIers’ really enjoy what they're doing, and that it can give them hope and excitement about their own futures." 

Part of that enjoyment comes from being part of the larger EDI family. 

"I hope they learned that they are now part of a larger community for longer than 18 months," said Annie Thomas (EDI '23), a user experience researcher and designer at Whirlpool. "So much of my EDI experience has been learning from other EDI folks who were so generous with their time and advice, whether it was alumni, the cohort above or below me, or my own cohort. I hope the current students feel the same support that I received."  

Chappell said that feeling has come through loud and clear. 

"The thing that has surprised me the most about the EDI program is how caring and interested the program staff and professors are toward the cohort," he said. Even though there are 24 of us in the new cohort, I genuinely feel that the EDI team really cares about me as an individual and about my personal success in the program and my future career.  

"It is hard not to be in a good mood when I interact with the EDI team and I am excited to continue working with them throughout the program."  

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