In Part 1, I matriculated to CMU thanks to a presentation by Randy Pausch, but the promise of CS was about to change drastically.

By the time my senior year at CMU rolled around, I had completed a successful internship at Pittsburgh area design firm MAYA Design, and they had expressed interest in offering me a full time position. Everything seemed to be coming up roses, and I was happy to plan on staying in Pittsburgh indefinitely.

That all changed on September 11, 2001, when the stock market crashed along with those ill-fated planes. MAYA’s financial sector clients vanished, and they laid off half their staff. Needless to say, my position did too (though they kept me on part time for a bit just in case.) The senior job fair at CMU was two weeks later, and all of the company reps stood there shellshocked, unable to say whether they’d even have jobs in a few months.

So no one was hiring – and faced with the prospect of being a broke unemployed college graduate, I decided that I’d rather be broke and pursuing my childhood dreams of things like working at Disney World. I ended up applying and being accepted to Randy’s recently-created Master’s program in Entertainment Technology during my final semester of undergraduate study. In the meantime, I was enrolled in Randy’s Building Virtual Worlds class during the spring semester as a 3D texture artist, and was doing rather well.

It was in March of my senior year, while I was waiting for a BVW class session to begin, that Randy approached me and asked, “Do you have any plans for work this summer?” That time was a very difficult one in my life, so I had not gotten that far and told him as much, starting to freak out quietly in my head about my lack of foresight. The next sentence out of his mouth changed my life: “Well, don’t make any plans – I think I have a job for you at Disney World.”

I nearly burst into tears right there, so overwhelming were the emotions as I tried to parse his statement. You couldn’t have gotten any closer to a fairy godfather coming down and granting me a wish if you tried. Of course, he couldn’t hand me the job – but he personally recommended me and got me the interview, and a few weeks later I received my acceptance letter and travel arrangements for a 4-month interaction design internship at Disney. Those 4 months were literally magical for me – an actual childhood dream come true – and I have Randy to thank for the opportunity. He put his reputation on the line for me to make that happen.

With my fellow “Destination Disney On-Site” intern Natalie on one of our first days working for Walt Disney World. Our manager asked us to go tour several of the resorts on property and take pictures documenting the television setups in-room, as one of our 3 projects that summer was to work on a pitch for an interactive in-room entertainment system (in 2002, way ahead of its time.) We are sitting in a Beach Club room in this photo.

There’s a lot more to my personal Randy Pausch story – he was a critical influence in my life, as a role model, teacher, boss, and mentor. But as many of you know, he was sadly taken too early; tons of students won’t get the chance I had. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away in 2008, but not before delivering the now-famous Last Lecture. (It was the sight of a billboard featuring a photo from the talk in an airport a few weeks ago that finally got me to put this story to paper.)

When I heard about the lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”, I knew I had to attend given his role in my own dream. I was thankful to be in the room for the Lecture, and in fact I’m in 2 of the slides in the Lecture… photos from BVW. The chance to speak with him afterwards was a great blessing and piece of closure for the end to this chapter of the story. (It also gave me another hilarious personal Randy story that I won’t share here.) None of us in the room ever expected it to blow up into the international phenomenon it became. I’ve already had the strange experience several times of having other people recommend I see the talk, unaware that I was there or how deeply it truly resonates in my life. His impact has been mind-blowing and inspiring.

Cheryl Platz with the late Randy Pausch during the reception immediately following his “Really Achieving your Childhood Dreams” talk at Carnegie Mellon in 2007, known to the world as “The Last Lecture”. Cheryl and her fellow Entertainment Technology Center alums are all wearing Building Virtual Worlds class T-shirts, which was a request from Randy for his former BVW students (Cheryl was both a BVW student in 2002 and a TA in 2003.)

Which is not to say that Randy was a saint, and I think he’d be the last person to tell you that he was anything like that. His students were just like any other students – some loved him, some hated him. But you never forgot him. One of his most unique characteristics was his honesty, and for some students that honesty was too bitter a pill to swallow. Regardless, he did always have the best interests of his students at heart, and was always passionate about his work and his dreams. And we all learned something from him.

Post-Lecture, I’ve taken away the additional inspiration that life does not end after one’s dreams are realized. Rather, you’re faced with the startling imperative to dream bigger, bolder, to push yourself even farther. There’s so much joy in my life that I would have missed had I stopped at Disney World, as tempting as it was to do so. (As it was, that was Randy’s doing too – Disney expressed interest in having me stay full time, but Randy asked that I return to CMU and begin grad school in his program. I felt that since he got me the job, I’d defer to his experience and mentoring.)

Have you ever asked yourself what comes after your own “happily ever after”? It’s frightening, because it exposes you again to potential disappointment or sadness. But the risk is often worth it. For me, the next dream became working at one of the game companies I had always admired – Maxis. Working on Will Wright’s creations was far bigger than I ever dared dream as a child. It wasn’t until after Disney that I could dare, and I’m extremely fortunate that life conspired to bring me to Maxis just one year after Disney. But after Maxis, the cycle began again – this time, with an acting avocation as my new “ever after”.

(Ironically, after we moved from the original Maxis offices to EA’s main campus – a very sad day, knowing that this place where my childhood was engineered was falling apart before my eyes – Randy took a sabbatical at EA, and we found ourselves in the same place again. We had a couple of lunches swapping war stories, and it felt so bizarre that we were both going on that same journey simultaneously.)

Randy changed the course of my life several times – first, at that college presentation, and one of many subsequent times when he handed me the keys to Disney World – and I will eternally try to pay that blessing forward in some way. I want to give other girls the confidence and means to pursue their own dreams, as Randy would have with the Alice software and his teaching work. That’s why I’m so passionate about working with IGNITE and speaking about the challenges facing young girls in school today. I may never impact as many people as Randy did, but I can sure try to keep the momentum alive.