For 2011 chemical engineering graduate Aislinn McCloskey, Carnegie Mellon University wasn’t even on her list of schools, but a turn of events for her family opened the door to the Pittsburgh campus for the volleyball player from Louisiana.
As her father was being reassigned to work in Southeast Asia, McCloskey clung to familiarity and ignored her earlier inclination to do something different than her siblings and she was convinced to apply to CMU.
“My older brother graduated from the computer science program at CMU a year before I was applying for colleges,” said McCloskey. “As the fourth of six kids, I felt like I had to do something different. But when we found out my dad and mom would be moving halfway across the world, being near family shot up much higher on my priority list for colleges.”
McCloskey’s older sister lived in Pittsburgh at the time and a visit to her and campus provided all that was needed to know she found her future.
“As soon as I got on campus, I fell in love – and it was a slushy, dreary week in February so it wasn’t the campus aesthetics,” exclaimed McCloskey. “There was just this buzz of energy, an undercurrent of intensity, and a strong feeling of belonging.”
It was a feeling McCloskey didn’t sense on other campus visits and something she knew would make a difference in her academic endeavors.
“Nearly everyone on CMU's campus is passionate about at least one thing, usually many things and cross connected, and they are deeply and unabashedly nerdy about it. It's wonderful,” said McCloskey. “But the well-known phrase by Andrew Carnegie that ‘my heart is in the work’ is really very true on campus. The culture on campus was about challenging yourself, working hard, and making a difference. I had a strong gut reaction to it and knew that this would be an amazing place for me.”
A recruited player in the south who attended volleyball camps of interested colleges, McCloskey didn’t feel she’d have time for volleyball and engineering, even telling herself she’d play intramurals or she’d be too busy with classes. While volleyball took a back seat to academics in McCloskey’s mind, she yearned to be back in the competitive atmosphere as her freshman year turned to second semester.
“I had indeed played intramural volleyball and while fun, I missed the high intensity, competitiveness, and sheer rush of exhilaration that playing volleyball with a highly skilled team gave me,” said McCloskey. “I emailed Coach Kelly about how I could get involved with the team and joined the spring practices as my tryout (and immediately signed up for a swimming mini-unit to help get back into fitness shape), and that was it!”
Coach Kelly remembers well when McCloskey first entered her office as she was intrigued by the email from a “walk-on” who became the program’s first All-American since 2001 and only the second player to earn the honor twice.
“Aislinn introduced herself as a 6-foot-1 middle hitter,” said Kelly. “I asked her to come in and right away I could tell there was something there. Her first attack attempt in practice didn’t disappoint and she went on to be a difference-maker for us.”
Even after a full year off from volleyball training and getting re-acclimated with a tournament-type schedule of four or five matches in two days, McCloskey proved to be a player to be reckoned with as she hit the program’s sixth-best hitting percentage for a season at .335.
“I was playing a different position than the one I'd played in high school and I didn't really know if I was going to have playing time,” said the converted right side hitter. “I was just so happy to be back playing volleyball in a competitive setting that I didn't have any expectations.”
McCloskey’s first season was one for the books, as she helped lead the Tartans to their first NCAA postseason appearance under Coach Kelly and second ever for the program.
“The team came into the first match with such high energy and right off the bat, Sam (our setter at the time) and I nailed some really great timing on quick hits from the right side that took a lot of the other teams by surprise,” remembers McCloskey. “Quick back-sets take a very skilled setter, and the right side isn't usually known for being a powerhouse hitting position so we were able to sneak in a lot of points with that.”
Quick to deflect credit, McCloskey points out that the team deserves all the accolades that came that year.
“Volleyball more than many other sport though, truly is a team effort – you don't get any big hitting points scored without solid serving, blocking, passing, and setting from the rest of your team. Everyone knew and executed their positions and we had great support and depth on the roster. We started off the season on this great high and it just carried through – it gave us the confidence that we were capable of anything, and even when we made mistakes or faced off against teams that were better, we had that to keep us going.”
Now in her fourth year at Linde Group, a global-leading Industrial Gases company, McCloskey leans on her time as a student-athlete as she transitions to a manager role this summer.
“The leadership aspect of being a student-athlete is great and really gives you an experience that you don't get in too many other settings in undergrad,” said McCloskey. “Developing a specific kind of team culture, bringing new people into the fold, leading by example and walking the talk, overcoming defeat and morale issues – these are all things I've seen done well and not so well in the corporate world, and I know how important they are in any kind of team setting. Having those experiences to look back on has helped me a lot in my job and situations that have come up in working with diverse groups of people.”
McCloskey learned of Linde at the Technical Opportunities Conference (TOC) her senior year when CMU alumni at Linde attended the career fair.
“I had been looking for something hands on, technical, involving the core fundamentals of my chemical engineering degree, with a balance between doing engineering in the office and being in an operations setting,” said McCloskey. “Most of the people I met in the company had had varied and interesting career paths within Linde, and knowing that such lateral career moves were encouraged and common, along with the rotational program, was very appealing to me right out of school with no clear career destination in mind but a love of learning new things.”
Now McCloskey returns to campus for the TOC as a representative of Linde to help others in a similar situation experience what she was able to.
“I’ve had such great experiences at Carnegie Mellon and in the workforce, and because I had other people, other CMU alums, who helped make them such great experiences, I want to do the same for others coming up,” said McCloskey.
She also has some words of advice for current and future CMU student-athletes.
“Go for what you want. I know student-athletes who've studied abroad, started clubs, double or even triple majored, been involved in student theater and a capella groups, pretty much everything you can think of,” said McCloskey. “Take advantage of the experiences being a student-athlete gives you and translate them to the rest of your life – you have the confidence, determination, and will to succeed at anything you set your mind to.”