by Christopher Reinhart (2009 Byron Fellow)

The Byron experience happens in the context of one’s own life story, so it will naturally be different for each person. For me, I was on the cusp of finishing an Associates Degree in Design Technology as a non-traditional student. I was co-parenting my young son with my ex-wife. I was living in a small home that I had built myself of earth, straw bales, and salvaged materials, and I had begun transitioning professions from driving nails to drawing floor plans. I was on the fence about what to do after finishing my Associates Degree. Sometimes, I wanted to continue on in academia, study architecture “for real”, and pursue obtaining my architectural license. Other times, I thought about returning to former employers and work that did not really satisfy me but was safe.

My first house design clients recommended me to the Byron Fellowship. I was intrigued by what I read about it and decided to go for it. Before the week started, I told myself I wanted to answer the question of whether or not I would go on to architecture school after finishing my two-year design degree. The decision was complicated for me, not least because I was still getting over a lingering cynicism that I held towards academia. It was a remnant of my rebellious, intellectual, rock ‘n roll mindset that had developed in my late teens and early 20s.

I was not convinced at the time that I could be a positive change-maker from inside existing institutions. Returning to Ivy Tech Community College after a decade’s hiatus from academia was like dipping my toes in the water, and I was not yet sure that I wanted to get all the way in. Despite my overall feelings of uncertainty, I was excited for Byron and the opportunity for a week to contemplate the decision in a different environment.

Meeting and getting to know all the other Byron fellows and mentors was the best part of the experience for me. Everyone’s story inspired me in one way or another. The group was very diverse in age, gender, background, academic level and field, and at the same time we all had much in common, especially in terms of various forms of leadership, innovation, sustainability and community work. This allowed us to dialogue with each other in productive ways. For me, some of the practical results of this conversation had to do with refining ideas about the Ivy Tech Ecology Club that I was leading at the time. Having so many other bright minds with relevant knowledge and expertise to bounce ideas off of was productive… and highly enjoyable, too!

But beyond feeling the camaraderie of being around so many other people doing work that I resonated with, the week also offered a different kind of experience. Many of my own assumptions about the world were challenged. I was able to better understand the viewpoint of other professions and personalities. My perspective at the time was that of a natural builder, and several conversations helped me to better understand a different perspective, that of the developer In the “classroom” too, the depth of expertise that was presented from various points of view was exciting and sometimes challenging, and it all helped me see beyond the points of view from which I was used to contemplating.

From an academic perspective, the diversity of fields represented sparked many eye-opening conversations at meal times about other types of research and how they related to sustainability. I also remember many similar conversations that raised my awareness about all the positive action being undertaken by my peers. Throughout the week, conversation by conversation, some assumptions that I had held were shifting. All these wonderful people were helping dissolve my limiting beliefs about the ivory towers of academia. I met and got to know so many good people who were working within “the system” that my cynicism faded, and I saw how limiting my rebellious viewpoint could be.

I realized that if I wanted to help my community and the world become more sustainable that I could learn to work from within the existing structures rather than having to be a “rebel”. This was game-changing for me. By the end of the week, this dawning understanding of the immense amount of sustainability work engaged in by so many others had settled in, and I no longer had doubts about what to do after my two-year degree was complete. I would study architecture formally, and I knew I could help make a better world by doing so.

Byron rekindled in me a sense of optimism about the future that I had lost. This rediscovered inner smile was not innocent or naive. My optimism was and continues to be based on the awareness of the sheer volume of good work related to sustainability that is done every day, by so many brilliant people, and in so many diverse fields. Previously, I had given too much attention to the negative messages that one can encounter in the sustainability movement. However, at Byron, I encountered a different world – one filled with people that focus on creating the world that they want to see instead of focusing on the challenges of the current one. I decided that I had given enough of my life to feeling jaded and pessimistic about the world.

After the Byron experience and the shift in perspective that occurred for me, I launched myself on a successful and adventurous undergraduate architecture journey. The confidence-building that occurred from being around so many other exceptional students and professionals gave me the gusto to go after the best opportunities I could find. Near the end of my undergrad at Ball State, I was chosen as an Udall Scholar, another great academic get-together that reminded me of Byron in many ways. After graduation, I took a chance and had an exciting and illuminating experience working for a quirky non-profit that made open source industrial equipment, Open Source Ecology. Both of these outlying experiences were what I consider to be spin-offs from the Byron experience, and they have both helped further shape the work that I do every day related to sustainable design.

I’m sure that the Byron Fellowship has been many things to many people. I know that I arrived at some very deep conclusions about the world and my own personal trajectory. Upon leaving, I casually remarked “Byron transformed me in ways that can never be undone.” More than half a decade later, it holds true. I still feel optimistic because of all the amazing work I see taking place around me every day. To know that in a short while another group of Byron Fellows will gather together again makes me smile, because I can imagine the possibilities for personal transformation, the great ideas that will be hatched, the assumptions that will be challenged, and the connections that will be made. All of us and our communities will be strengthened by it. Cheers to the Byron Fellowship!